Celebrate energy efficiency, public power in October

Public Power Week
Oct. 2-8

Energy Efficiency Day
Oct. 5

It is fitting that as the days get noticeably colder and darker, we recognize the people who make sure we can light and warm our homes (and cook hearty meals and take hot baths) all year around. Public Power Week You are leaving WAPA.gov. is Oct. 2-8, and this year, Oct. 5, Energy Efficiency Day You are leaving WAPA.gov., is dedicated to the role wise energy use plays in keeping electricity reliable and affordable.

Public Power Week, Oct. 2-8, 2016 an American Tradition
(Artwork by American Public Power Association)

American Public Power Association (APPA) sponsors Public Power Week and provides plenty of resources to help utilities get their celebration off the ground. You can suggest your local municipality issue a proclamation, send messages on your social media platforms and provide local media with news releases and public service announcements. Post facts from APPA’s public power and energy-efficiency fact sheets on your website and make sure your member services representatives have copies handy to share.

Let your customers know Oct. 5 is Energy Efficiency Day.
Let your customers know Oct. 5 is Energy Efficiency Day. (Artwork by ResourceMedia)

Speaking of energy efficiency, do your customers know that this “power source” has prevented the need to build 313 large plants since 1990? According to American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy You are leaving WAPA.gov. (ACEEE), further ramping up energy efficiency could spare the country from having to build 487 large power plants over the next 14 years. The inaugural Energy Efficiency Day offers utilities the chance to educate consumers on the importance of saving energy.

Energy efficiency saves consumers and businesses money, creates jobs and stimulates the economy. It is also one of the lowest-cost ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The best part is that most utilities already have experience with energy-efficiency programs ranging from simple rebates for efficient appliances to sophisticated demand-response programs. Reminding your customers of the benefits of energy efficiency measures can help to encourage them to participate in existing programs and make them more receptive to future offerings.

The inaugural Energy Efficiency Day is a collaborative effort of regional and national organizations working to promote energy efficiency, including the ACEEE, Appliance Standards Awareness Project You are leaving WAPA.gov. and many others. APPA, colleges and universities, trade allies and investor- and publicly owned utilities are among the organizations supporting #EEDay2016.

If you would like to add National Energy Efficiency Day to your Public Power Week celebration, you can find a link to a toolkit You are leaving WAPA.gov. on the SWEEP blog, Livewire. Feel free to supplement the material with your own success stories, and don’t forget to share your plans with the Energy Services Bulletin, because every day is Energy Efficiency Day for WAPA Energy Services.

Source: American Public Power Association, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, 9/9/16

Storms attract new social media followers, engagement keeps them coming back

stormoptThere is nothing like an extreme weather event to build up your social media program. According to a recent story in Intelligent UtilityYou are leaving WAPA.gov. customers turn to their utility’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed during emergencies to get updates about power outages and restoration times. Once the lights are back on, however, you run the risk of losing your new followers if you do not figure out how to keep them engaged.

The article offers four steps for engaging social media users when the lights are on and the sky is blue—you know, most of the year. The best part is that these suggestions apply to any customer outreach program, high-tech or otherwise.

Choose your themes
Start by identifying message themes that are relevant to your customers’ daily lives—safety, energy efficiency and preparedness, for example. Then find experts inside your utility to provide information on those topics. Your communication with customers starts by keeping the lines open in your own organization. You should also reach out to partners in the community who do work related to your themes, such as police and fire departments, non-profits and the media. Cross promotion with their social media outlets will add variety to your message and strengthen your communications network in times of emergency.

Once you have a good flow of content, you need to organize it so that your followers get useful information in real time, in a way that makes sense to them. The article recommends building a content calendar that organizes messages by theme, date, time and platform. You can schedule “evergreen” items like seasonal efficiency tips and storm readiness in a regular rotation and reuse them with a little updating. A calendar will also give you the flexibility to respond to current events, such as accidents, with items that address your customers’ concerns.

Always look for the simplest way to communicate your message, especially in social media. Using pictures, videos, graphics and diagrams can help you break down your message to easy-to-understand pieces. And don’t think that “platform” refers only to electronic communications. Ask yourself if that newsletter story could be summed up in a few bullet points on a bill stuffer or in a well-written public service announcement on your local radio station.

Listen, listen some more
Because utility customers need electricity and can only get it from their utility—so far—it can be easy to forget that communication is a two-way street. Social media offers businesses a way to find out what their followers are saying and to engage them in dialogue. A customer may be more comfortable complaining on Facebook or tweeting his dissatisfaction than calling in a complaint. You can use that opening to start a conversation that ultimately resolves the issue and turns the follower into a loyal supporter.

The ability to engage with customers on a more personal level is a good argument for launching a social media program, but the old-fashioned way works, too. Place representatives at community events where they can meet customers face to face, and promote your annual customer meeting. Work with partner agencies to create fun, informative demonstrations to present at utility and partner events. Never pass up an opportunity to talk with your ratepayers and to look at your utility through their eyes.

Analyze, refine, repeat
A communicator’s work is never done, and every outreach plan is a work in progress. This is where social media makes its value known. You will be able to track trends, see which posts are getting attention and which are being ignored, and adjust your messaging accordingly.

In the pre-social media days, measuring the results of public outreach was notoriously difficult, but the old indicators can still tell you a thing or two. Train your representatives to pay attention to the questions customers ask at events or when they call your service desk, and to ask follow-up questions. What sounds like routine complaining about high utility bills may be a cry for more efficiency programs. Watch program participation figures—Do you get an uptick in interest in a particular program after promoting it? Without promoting it? Are customers dropping out of programs? Are they asking for something you are not offering?

Social media provides utilities with excellent new tools for improving customer communications, but the philosophy underlying the strategies is old-school. Figure out what the customer wants, deliver it to them in a timely and useful manner, follow up and use the feedback to improve the service. That is the proven formula for turning foul-weather followers into loyal and satisfied customers.

Source: Intelligent Utility, 3/25/15

New marketing assistant learns utility ropes at GCEA

A utility energy-efficiency program can only help customers save money and help control operation costs if customers participate. Getting the word out is a perpetual struggle for many power providers, and one that is even harder for small rural cooperatives. Gunnison County Electric Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (GCEA) in Colorado is meeting that challenge with new blood and a fresh perspective—and a crash course in energy-efficiency programming.

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)
GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Logann Peterson, who graduated last year from Western State Colorado University You are leaving WAPA.gov. with a degree in strategic communication, recently made the leap from marketing intern to marketing and communications assistant. In her new career as a utility professional, Peterson faces the double challenge of engaging younger customers while learning about her new field. “I didn’t really know anything about the utility business when I accepted the internship,” she admitted. “Working at GCEA has been an eye-opening experience. A cooperative is more like a big family than a corporation.”

Lots to learn
The opportunities available at a utility also surprised Peterson. “Alantha’s job is a whole new concept for me,” she added.

“Alantha” is GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison, who administers GCEA’s customer energy-efficiency programs. Part of Peterson’s internship included helping to market rebates on LED lighting and Energy Star appliances, and free energy audits for residential and commercial members. GCEA also offers rebates for electric thermal storage heaters and ground-source heat pumps, as well as discounts to members on Convectair room heaters You are leaving WAPA.gov..

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)
During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

To get up to speed on the topic of energy efficiency, Peterson immersed herself in literature Garrison recommended and did plenty of research on her own. She also accompanied Garrison on an energy audit. “I didn’t know there was so much equipment involved, like blower doors and infrared cameras,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the tools show what is going on in a building.”

Peterson assists with production of the newsletters, bill inserts, web content and radio ads, while Garrison provides technical expertise and direction for stories on energy-saving measures and related co-op programs. “We don’t expect Logann to learn all the details about our incentives and energy-efficiency programs, but she is very interested in learning about the technologies,” Garrison noted. “She went to the DOE site to research LED lights for an article on lighting.”

GCEA has relied on the traditional formats to promote its programs, and having someone trained in marketing to polish the material has been helpful, Garrison observed. However, “Those avenues are not really building the customer participation we have hoped for,” she said.

Updating strategy
Garrison’s goals for the coming year include improving member feedback and increasing outreach to younger members. That dovetails nicely with Peterson’s first-year goal of establishing a social media presence for GCEA. “Social media is the number-one way businesses communicate with customers today,” Peterson pointed out. “Up to now, the co-op’s online profile has been very low.”

GCEA recently gave its website a makeover and launched a Facebook page and Twitter account, which Peterson will maintain. In addition to announcing outages, Garrison hopes Facebook and Twitter can be used to share energy-efficiency tips, get the word out about energy audits promote co-op events.

Peterson has her work cut out for her, attracting visitors to GCEA’s social media sites and establishing metrics for that outreach effort. “Right now, most of our ‘likes’ are from GCEA employees,” she admitted.

Tale of two demographics
Part of the challenge in marketing GCEA programs is finding ways to reach two distinct groups of members.

Unlike many rural areas, Gunnison attracts young people because of the college, many of whom stay after graduation to enjoy the Western Slope lifestyle. Those residents are more likely to pay attention to social media, but less likely to own their homes. “Most students are renters, and it is tough to motivate them to change their energy use habits,” Peterson observed.

Outside of town is a decidedly older, more settled demographic of ranchers and farmers, which is changing too, but more slowly. “I’d classify them as the ‘over 30’ crowd,” said Peterson. “The internet doesn’t reach into some of the more remote corners of our service area, either, so we still have to communicate with those members in the ‘old-fashioned’ way,” she added.

Low-tech bridge-building
Partnering with organizations in the community is another old-fashioned way to engage members, and one that is proving effective for GCEA. A fellowship student for a master’s program at Western State has set up a few member events and is working with the local housing authority to promote weatherization. “He going door to door to identify members who are income-qualified for the program and telling homeowners what is available to them,” Garrison said. “The personal touch may be low-tech but it works—our goal is to upgrade 12 homes this year and we are on track to meet it.”

Garrison and other GCEA employees have also taught a class on utility business and science at the university. The class not only educates younger and future members about energy use, it serves to position GCEA staff as experts on the topic, another marketing goal.

Forward to the future
Times are changing for utilities—even in rural areas like Gunnison and power providers have to keep up. Fortunately, GCEA is preparing for the future by investing in young employees who are up to the challenge.

Crafting a modern marketing strategy to reach members with the programs that will keep the lights on and the economy strong is going to take a certain amount of trial and error, as Garrison and Peterson readily acknowledge. Energy Services Bulletin wishes Logann Peterson good luck in her new job. We look forward to covering GCEA’s marketing and energy-efficiency successes as they work out the formula.

Creating, executing and benefiting from social media

Utilities are still developing the case for social media. Panelists at this session discussed what metrics public power utilities are using to develop the business case for social media. WPPI Energy and Green Mountain Energy Company presented on their successful experiences using social media to build customer communication.

WPPI Energy joins Facebook

WPPI Energy in Wisconsin supplies power to 51 members, but has no retail customers. The utility has developed a strong portfolio of energy-efficiency programs for its member customers, which includes providing promotional support to reach consumers with the programs.

After promoting its voluntary green power purchase program through all the traditional avenues—newsletters, referrals, bill inserts, etc.—WPPI decided to try social media with the goal of increasing block sales by 5 percent. Social media was just another promotional tool, so why shouldn’t they use it.

WPPI chose to develop a Facebook page specifically to promote the green power program.  The page’s purpose is to increase awareness of the utility’s renewable energy programs, drive sales, build a sense of community and share information with consumers.  The page also gave WPPI an opportunity to test a communications platform that many of its members wanted to use.

The legal and administration departments helped to devise a strategy document. One issue was that Facebook owns records, but WPPI has a policy to retain records for seven years. That was solved by purchasing Social Sink software to back up posts. The WPPI records manager said to treat Facebook like a public hearing.

Coming up with a response plan turned out to be a bigger issue. Who responds? A formal, clearly defined process was needed. Some of the critical points of WPPI’s plan include:

  • Under no circumstances would insulting fans be tolerated.
  • Censorship is only for spam, profanity, personal attacks, libelous posts.
  •  Responses should be positive, proactive.

Other concerns involved how much time to devote to maintaining the page. Is it the right place to be putting communication energy? Engagement level was set at once per week at a minimum. Annoying people with trivial posts is a good way to lose friends.

WPPI launched its Facebook page at the same time APPA did, so the association’s experiences were very helpful.

The communications plan was similar to what it would be with any medium. The Facebook page would be trying to create a brand personality, it would be planned and have a purpose. The primary audience was customers already participating in the green power program. Secondarily, the page would address the media, government and other renewable energy fans. “Friends” would get energy-efficiency tips, learn about renewable energy projects, community events and WPPI partners. The page would not be a clearinghouse for all things green.

WPPI was able to get a “vanity URL,” so members could have something to put on their communication to consumers. This is highly recommended. Management and members got to review and comment on a mock-up of the page.

Initially, the page received a soft launch with one-way communication. Even though interactivity is the point, this step eased management’s fears.  In April, the page moved into two-way communication. So far, the response has been relatively uneventful. WPPI was hoping to get 250 friends in five months, but is only at 87.

The lessons WPPI learned include:

  • Support is key. Management has to believe social media is, or may be, worthwhile.
  • Strategy is a must. Facebook is no different than any other communications plan.
  • Focused content can be a struggle. Coming up with it is not as easy as you might think.
  • Facebook can be effective
  •                 Starting slow is ok
  •                 Don’t be too afraid
  •                 Capture enthusiasm

Next step for WPPI is to focus on increasing promotions, help members get on board and explore other platforms. Engaging and featuring other business participants may help to build traffic. After that, the utility will evaluate its Facebook presence.

Member customers have appreciated the direct marketing efforts.  Usually WPPI provides materials for its members to do their own promotion. The Facebook project represented a new approach to reaching end users.

How and why of social media

John Egan of Egan Energy Communications (EEC) surveyed about a dozen of the consulting firm’s large utility customers to find out what they were doing with social media. The answer is, experimenting.

There are two primary reasons we adopt technology: Because we have to or because we are curious. Utilities must ask themselves why customers adopt new technology. The surveyed utilities gave a few reasons for getting involved in social media. Some were concerned that customers were talking, and they wanted to be part of the conversation. Some communicators were being pushed by upper management. In some cases, the utilities just wanted to monitor what people were saying.  Memphis Utilities believes that social media was instrumental in helping to recover customers’ faith after a series of public relations problems and weather-related outages.

The way utilities wade into social media differs widely, too. Some jumped in right away, doing Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all at once. LinkedIn and Flicker photos are less popular venues. Whichever outlet you choose, at some point you have to jump in and learn by doing.

Trial by error produced advice utilities wish to pass on to other power providers who are considering social media.

  •  Spend time at the front end planning so you don’t have to spend it at the back end cleaning up.
  • Expect and deal with internal pushback from IT and communications. Get management’s buy-in. At the least, upper management should agree that experimenting is worth the company’s time.
  • Develop an editorial calendar before launching the Facebook page.
  • Manage your expectations. You will not get hundreds of followers in the first week. Or even the first month.

Because most social media experiments are still in the early stages, utilities have not collected enough data to measure value. Getting statistics is a multi-year process. The benefits are still largely conjecture. Facebook or Twitter may be reducing calls to the customer service center during outages, but it is hard to measure something that doesn’t happen.  This might be an easier one to track since customer service may keep stats on calls during outages that could be used to establish some kind of baseline.

Other potential benefits could be shortened customer wait time, greater customer satisfaction due to perception of transparency, timeliness and responsiveness. Human resources offices are already using social media to recruit new employees. Survey respondents suggested that social media has helped turn around negative sentiment, made the utility more aware of what consumers were saying and given them a way to reach consumers in their preferred channel without a media filter.

Metrics may not be appropriate in the experimental phase. Utilities still have to figure out what success on social media looks like. It is important to keep learning, however, and to continue sharing lessons with colleagues.

Join us at the Customer Connections Conference

The American Public Power Association’s annual Customer Connections Conference happens Oct. 24 through 27, in Anaheim, Calif. This event promises lots of valuable information and insight for utilities at a time when we must create a new definition of customer service.  That’s why Breaking News will be covering Customer Connections live.

Bookmark this site and check in frequently during the conference to learn what the experts are saying about designing and implementing programs that meet your customers’ needs and help your utility meet its goals. We will be reporting from these dual track sessions (Pacific Time):

Monday, Oct. 25

  • 10:30-noon:  Customer Service Roundtable
  • 1:30-2:45p.m.:  Can You Prove the Savings for Your Energy Efficiency Program?
  • 3-4:15p.m.:  Social Media: Building the Case, Executing the Strategy, Capturing the Learnings

Tuesday, Oct. 26

  • 8:30-10 a.m.:  Top Five Smart Grid Communications Challenges
  • 10:15-11:45 a.m.:  New Age Distributed Generation: Emerging On-site Generation Options for Your Customers
  • 1:15-2:45 p.m.:  Integrated Marketing Communications: What’s the Right Mix?
  • 3:00-4:15 p.m.:  Joint Action/State/Regional Organization Roundtable

Our coverage isn’t just for those who can’t make it to Anaheim. Attendees are free to add their views in the comments section, too. Or e-mail the editor, and you just might get yourself a guest contributor spot.

Xcel offers extensive energy-efficiency programs

Xcel Energy 2010/2011 Program Portfolio Overview
Shawn White, Business Energy Efficiency Marketing Manager, Xcel Energy

Shawn White, energy-efficiency manager for Xcel’s residential sector (not the “Flying Tomato” of snowboarding fame) described the programs available to the utility’s Colorado customers.

He opened the presentation by stating that it was a very exciting time for energy-efficiency—that things had never happened so fast, there has never been as much money in the market or as much  consumer enthusiasm. For the first time, Xcel’s Colorado division has a dedicated energy-efficiency team and DSM goals are part of the CEO’s scorecard, “Which can be a mixed blessing,” White admitted.

Where DSM was once seen as a bargaining chip to expand generation, it is now being valued for its own benefits. However, White noted, energy-efficiency managers must make sure they bring along the entire organization. “Do your internal communications. Talk about cost effectiveness, positive regulatory treatment and barriers that DSM can ease,” he advised.

Residential programs
Xcel’s 2010 residential portfolio on the electric side includes home lighting and CFL recycling, as well as refrigerator recycling. The Saver’s Switch summer program focused on demand response control of air conditioners. Customers could choose to get a rebate for evaporative cooling systems. 

Gas customers can get rebates for insulation, high-efficiency heating, water heaters and efficient showerheads. For gas/electric customers, combination programs included school education kits, home energy audits, Energy Star for New Homes (for shell and heating and cooling systems) and Home Performance with Energy Star whole-home makeovers.

Programs for business
Business customers, too, have an extensive menu of programs to choose from. White divided the offerings into three categories: Loss-leaders, small changes like CFLs that make people think about the opportunities; prescriptive programs that give customers rebates for measures that reduce energy use, and custom programs, “Where we don’t know how much energy the customer can save until we start investigating,” said White.

Hybrid programs, a fourth category, tailor prescriptive measures to customer needs. Industrial processes are a good target for these measures.

Lots to learn
With so many programs, the lessons Xcel learned were equally diverse. Among those was the discovery that getting customer buy-in on the programs took longer than they expected.  Recovery programs were also slow to roll out. The economy continues to affect the customers’ willingness to replace or upgrade equipment, but that was improving as systems reached the point where they had to be replaced. Energy Star for Homes, however, is popular in spite of the economy.

White recommended using incentives to attract trade allies, and said that having a staff member dedicated to working with contractors was very helpful.

Communicating with the customers
Marketing is an important piece that Susannah Pedigo, Xcel’s Community Energy-efficiency manager, promised would be addressed in future sessions.

While the utility does do consumer outreach and coaching, White acknowledged that so many programs could be confusing to the customer. And, of course, there is a gap between the energy leaders and the slow adopters. “Some customers are simply more aware than others and they are the ones who will demand more innovative programs,” said Pedigo. “Those utilities who want to be innovative must pay attention to social media.”

She added that the next generation of customers is more sophisticated about energy use.  However, White said that those customers are not yet 50 percent of the market.