Are America’s Largest Utilities Adopting Social Media? Are You Listening?

By Shari Blalock

Shariblog3Every 60 seconds across the globe, 175,000 Tweets and 700,000 Facebook messages are sent and two million YouTube videos are viewed, according to social marketing consultant Social Jumpstart. How much of this torrent of communications have utilities channeled their way to engage their customers?

According to 2010 U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, the top 10 utilities in the U.S. (based on the number of total consumers) serve more than 32 million consumers, and most have accounts that span multiple facets of social media. Indeed, they’ve met the charge to establish a presence, but this is just scratching the surface. The culmination of Facebook "likes" among the leading investor owned and retail power marketer systems misses the mark at a dismal 49,000. The total number of Twitter followers for the Big 10 isn’t much higher at 54,200.

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Top Ten Utilities

If current engagement is in its infancy, it is poised to grow. Pike Research recently released a report that estimates 624 million people worldwide will use social media to engage with their utilities in five years.

So if they create blogs and join Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, Flicker, and the other niche social media channels, who will follow, friend and tweet about utilities? What can the typical utility hope to accomplish? Creating Facebook pages and participating in #FF won’t revitalize a weak customer communications strategy, but could social media be part of a comprehensive plan?

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“Likes vs. Followers” Based on Each Utility’s Total Number of Customers (Percentages)

Recently, the McDonnell Group ranked the top ten U.S. utilities according to their social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. The methodology began with an examination of the 2010 U.S. EIA data. We focused on the 10 utilities with the most customers and their varying social media networks. Although some of the utilities contribute to blogs, forums, video posts, etc., an overwhelming majority are actively participating on one or both of the leading social media sites Facebook and Twitter. The raw data may reflect a segment of non-customers, such as researchers, journalists, analysts, and stakeholders. Therefore, a culmination of Facebook likes and Twitter followers is not a perfect formula for social media excellence. However, a correlation can be determined between a heavy social media presence and then, subsequently, used as a tool to infer that utilities are steadily gaining traction in this evolving arena to engage customers.

When Electric Light & Power magazine asked “Do Utilities Need Social Media?” social media expert Amanda Vega contended, “Utilities should at least monitor what’s being said about them in digital circles. Even if you don’t see a way to monetize with social media, you need to have some level of engagement to protect your brand,” said Vega. “It’s important at the very least to watch your Google and Twitter and do a search to see if you’re even mentioned and if it was positive or negative.”

In 2011, E Source conducted its Utility Social Media Survey and used the findings to rank utilities according to their social media programs. Matthew Burks, senior manager of E Source Mass-Market Services, explained, “The most successful utilities see the long-term implications of [social media] and are investing the time, staff, and infrastructure to integrate it into their daily operations.”

Utilities have begun listening and engaging in new ways, yet the penetration of the audience is still not fully engaging the scope of their audiences. What content might help? Beyond conveying outage and restoration messages, utilities can proactively share their smart grid visions in small bites. Listen to and engage individuals to debunk the myths about smart meters or opt-out programs. Address the issues that matter to the customers and how they relate to incentives, consumption, conservation and costs.

Customers are becoming more selective as the social media net widens, filtering out the noise and only listening to what is compelling to them. If utilities want to engage the new, tech savvy customer, they will have to go from a monologue to a conversation with consumers individually.

If utilities can convey messages that are relatable, digestible and transparent, they could fortify a new foundation of customer loyalty, convenience and satisfaction. Ideally, with some good facts of interest and links to other information, customers will become supportive of initiatives to help get the most out of existing grid resources rather than holding their utility at arm’s length.

In the infancy of this new venture, utilities will need to forge their own way, adapting best practices for social media from other arenas. Brian Solis’ “14 Best Practices for Long-Term Social Media Success” has tips that may be transferrable for utilities as they define their social media strategies and begin to equate ROI to their program plans.

Reading resources to try:

Do Utilities Need Social Media?
PowerGrid International

Utilities finding new ways to use social media
Intelligent Utility

Smart Utilities are Embracing Social Media as a Key Part of their Customer Engagement Strategies
Green Economy

Social Media and Content Marketing for Utility Companies
Slide Share

Social Media in the Utility Industry
Pike Research

The Trend of Social Media in the Utility Industry – Is it Working?
InfoPrint Insights blog

Top Utilities Using Social Media – E Source Asked Utilities to Rate Their Peers
Energy Central

Potent Social Media Strategies for Brand and Customer Loyalty
Slide Share

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