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Google Fiberhoods: Better Than Tupperware Parties

Google's strategy for rolling out fiber-optic Internet in Kansas City is part Avon, part Amway, and hyperlocal marketing gold.

A little peer pressure. A little neighborly competition. And a lot of hyperlocal. That’s Google’s plan for rolling out Google Fiber in Kansas City this year. And so far, it’s working splendidly.

Google announced last week that it would be granting Kansas City—one of 1,100 cities that applied for the honor—with the fastest broadband Internet in the country.

This bestowal, however, has a small catch. Neighborhoods that have the highest percent of pre-registrations by September 9 will be the first to have Google Fiber, which includes options to add TV channels and a terabyte of cloud storage, installed in their homes. Neighborhoods that meet goals set by Google will win free Internet for public buildings such as libraries and schools.

The marketing maneuver has individuals and home associations alike working to collect Google Fiber sign-ups in their neighborhoods, and six days in, 39 of the 202 eligible "fiberhoods" in Kansas City have already met their goals.

"It’s kind of bragging rights," explains Clem Helmstetter, the president of the Greenway Fields Housing Association, who has used his neighborhood’s newsletters and Facebook page to rally neighbors' pre-registrations. "Especially for a housing association, whichever fiberhood gets it first. It’s a way to say, 'hey, we’re Greenway Fields.'"

Creating fiberhoods was in some ways a practical move. Google is installing an entirely new fiber infrastructure in Kansas City, and it can’t drag fiber optic cables across every street in the city at once. The company says that 5% to 25% of a neighborhood needs to sign on to Google Fiber in order for it to be cost effective.

Google is not the first telecom company to require a minimum demand in an area before rolling out service there. Its version of the "service by demand" system, however, gamifies the process.

Neighborhoods can keep track of their pre-registration ranking in the city with a dashboard on the Google Fiber website, which also shows how many sign-ups are required in each neighborhood in order to meet its goal. Google is encouraging neighbors to persuade their friends to sign up with 95 suggestion such as "shar[ing] a picture of a neighborhood you want Google Fiber for" or "Get[ting] a celebrity to tweet 'let's do this for KC'" that read like a PR company's wish list. It’s also sending an ice cream truck through Kansas City that will hand out both treats and information about Google Fiber.

In Mark Forsythe’s case, meeting the goal in his neighborhood, Wornall Homestead, means free Google Fiber for an elementary school. He made an announcement about Google Fiber through the housing association listerv that quickly turned into an inbox full of questions from neighbors.

"I guess I’ve kind of become the de facto Google Fiber guy," he tells Fast Company. "There hasn’t been direct competition, but I’ve seen emails to me that say 'I just signed up and put us ahead of Countryside.'"

Part of what makes the leaderboard effective, say Kansas City residents, is this visible shift in a rankings that a handful of signups creates.

Bo Fishback, the CEO of mobile marketplace Zaarly, noticed his impact after hiring a student last weekend to solicit Google Fiber pre-registrations from his neighbors in Countryside. In addition to paying the student $100 for every 10 sign-ups, he offered to pay anyone’s $10 pre-registration fee. About 40 of his neighbors signed up after the door-to-door visits, accounting for 30% of the signups in his fiberhoood—which now ranks third in Kansas City, Missouri.

"If you’re going to have it, you might as well have it first," Fishback says.

He won’t be first, however, because he lives on the Missouri side of Kansas City. Google announced the service for the Kansas side of the city first, and it will be starting its rollout with those neighborhoods. But just five neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas—which has a lower median household income than Kansas City, Missouri—have met their goals.

Most of Google Fiber's early local advocates, including Forsythe and Helmstetter, like Fishback live in Missouri. Google says it plans to roll out the service to that side of the city in early 2013.

"In the worst case, you're just going to have to wait a year. Honestly, how upset can you get about waiting for something you haven't had?" says Forsythe, who describes the competition as "kind of silly."

But when he noticed Wornall Homestead slipping from first to third place on the Missouri Google Fiber leaderboard, he couldn't help but send an email to the housing association listserv. It quickly solicited about a dozen sign-ups, which knocked the neighborhood back to first place.

"I guess it’s just a natural competitive thing," he says.

[Image: Flickr user Claire Wiseman]