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.