How Broadband Speed Claims in Advertising Affect Choices
Consumers consider broadband to be an essential service: 8 in 10 adults in the UK have broadband, and they spend an average of over 30 hours a month browsing the internet on laptops or PCs. In addition, 6 in 10 people are using their mobile to access the internet and we are progressing towards a connected home environment – where appliances and devices are automatically controlled through a mobile or other networked device.
With rising use has come increasing consumer demand for “fast, reliable internet connections” for multiple devices. In our research, conducted in September 2016, we found that three-quarters (76%) of consumers reported that speed is important when making a decision about broadband deals. This was the second most important factor, after price.
Broadband providers focus on connection speeds in their advertising and, in their enthusiasm, sometimes fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). For example, BT was found to have misleadingly claimed they provided “fastest speeds as standard”  and Sky was found to have falsely asserted that they have the “fastest peak time speeds” .
However, there is a wider problem with broadband advertising of connection speeds – that of the “up to” statement. The “up to” statement is required on broadband advertising and refers to the maximum speed which consumers are able to receive, for example “up to 17mb”. In 2012 the Council for Advertising Practice issued a “Help Notice” stipulating that broadband providers should use the phrase to protect consumers from misleading claims. Since then broadband providers have continued to use speed as a selling point, using the “up to” phrase. Which? analysis of print adverts in the 12 month period up to mid-March 2016 found that 64% of print home broadband adverts mention “up to” speeds, and for several months in that period this increased to almost 80%.
When using the “up to” statement however, providers only have to ensure 10% of consumers receive the speed advertised. This means that the vast majority of consumers are locking themselves into contracts with an expectation of a broadband speed that the provider doesn’t have to deliver.
Given the increasing importance to consumers of fast internet speed and the low threshold for the use of “up to” in broadband advertising, Which? explored whether information on the likelihood of getting the “up to” speed would affect consumers’ choice of deal.
Using an online randomised controlled trial and conjoint analysis, Which? analysed the decision-making behaviour of consumers, to explore the extent to which different factors (brand, price and speed) influence them when choosing broadband deals.
A nationally representative sample of 2,101 participants were randomly divided into four groups and shown broadband deals, presented as if they were on a price comparison website. See figure 1 for an example.
A method called conjoint analysis was used, where the four attributes of the broadband deals were presented together as they would be seen in a real life situation, with attributes systematically varied to allow measurement of the independent influence of each one. Participants were asked to choose the best deal from a group of five, and this exercise was repeated showing different combinations of deals for each participant. By determining how participants’ choices vary according to the attributes displayed it is possible to calculate an “importance score” for each one, compared to the others. In this way we were able to analyse people’s choices based on their behaviour, a more robust method than asking them directly.
To understand whether information on the likelihood of receiving the broadband speed was important to an individual’s choice, each group were shown the same deals, with just the likelihood of getting the broadband speed systematically varied between the four experimental groups. For this, the four groups were shown either:
1) no additional information on speed;
2) that advertised speed must be achievable for 10% of customers;
3) that it must be achievable for 50% of customers;
4) that it must be achievable for 90% of customers.
As information on speed was the only difference between groups we can conclude that statistically significant differences in the outcome variable between the groups are due to on the likelihood levels of getting the advertised speed).
Price is always the most important factor for consumers choosing a broadband deal
There was no significant difference regarding the importance of price between the experimental conditions. Price is always the most important factor to consumers’ decision-making.
Likelihood of getting the advertised broadband speed affects whether consumers take speed into account when making a decision
The results of the experiment support the idea that, if consumers think they are likely to receive the advertised speed (those in 50% and 90% conditions), they are more likely to use speed as a factor when choosing a broadband deal relative to those who are told only 10% of people will receive the speed. The difference in relative score importance compared to the 10% group was 11% higher for those who saw the 50% clause and 6.2% higher on average for those who saw the 90% clause.
Although there was a slight difference between the ‘no information’ group and the 10% group it was not significant. Further research could be useful to see if this result is replicated and to understand more about how, or if, a low likelihood affects people’s choice, and to further understand what consumers’ base their speed expectations on, when there is no information on liklihood of getting a given speed.
Brand is more important to consumers’ choice if they are not given any information on speed
Currently consumers are not given any information on what the “up to” phrase means. When we analysed people’s choices in this condition we found that for consumers who are told no information, brand is relatively more important, compared to those who are told that 50% or 90% of customers would receive the advertised speeds. It was also found that brand was more important for those who were told that only 10% of customers would receive the advertised speeds. These findings suggest that when people are not given information on speed, or are told that they unlikely to receive the speed, they may use brand as a proxy for quality. Further research would be useful to test this hypothesis.
This research shows that information on likelihood of receiving broadband speed advertised can affect consumer’s choice of broadband supplier. This is reflected in the finding that speed becomes relatively more important as a factor when people are told that 50% or 90% receive it, compared to those who were told that only 10% receive it. For those in the 10% condition brand was relatively more important than for those in the 50% and 90% condition. Here brand may be being used as a proxy for quality.
Further research should be done on how would be best to communicate information on what speed consumers may receive. This could be percentage of consumers who receive the speed, or could be an alternative – for example the range of speed or an average speed.
 9 in 10 consumers consider broadband to be essential to their everyday life. Populus, on behalf of Which?, interviewed 2107 UK adults online between 13th and 14th September 2016. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK population.
 Bundled communication services-UK-March 2017. Market Size and Forecast. Mintel.