Social media is a powerful tool that continues to be recognized for its ability to connect businesses with their customers like never before. While utilities and other regulated industries were initially slower to adopt this new channel of communication, and often faced internal barriers to launching and managing their social channels, they are now recognizing the power of social media and are working to navigate this vast and ever-changing landscape.
The most successful utilities in the social media space have positioned themselves as a resource to not only customers but to the news media and other stakeholders. By providing vital updates and information during mass outages. By using social channels to quickly spread warnings about scams and tools to help protect against them. By helping customers manage their monthly bills and providing them with the resources to save energy and money.
We’ve found that people respond and engage most with outage information as well as energy efficiency tips and program information. We also know that we are able to elicit even more engagement from consumers, and open the door to more two-way communication, when we provide tips, program information, as well as other crucially important information, in a T or F, fill in the blank or quiz question format. Rather than speaking at consumers, we encourage them to engage directly with us.
As the space constantly changes with the never-ending introduction of new channels, platforms and advertising options, what do utilities need to do to continue to remain relevant, reach and engage their target audiences and be seen as leaders in the social media space? We believe it’s about looking at the channels and overall space in a different way.
Beyond establishing a strong presence and strategic plan, utilities need to start taking more risks, particularly with the way they allow their employees to engage. According to a recent report, Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism, when given the opportunity, 50% of employees post messages, pictures or videos in social media about their employer; 20% of employees are estimated to be employee activists, and another 33% have high potential to be employee activists. So, utilities need to begin operating like social enterprises both internally and externally. They can do this by acting more like a big consumer brand when it comes to social media – opening up access to employees, identifying and training brand ambassadors and executives, and giving them a strong, relatable and real voice online to empower them to begin sharing.
When opening social media access to a larger group of employees, and encouraging them to engage, it is crucially important to set internal rules and regulations around that engagement. In addition, it’s crucial to stay in the know about the latest external regulations around social media like the recent FTC ruling against a big brand and its agency around deceptive marketing practices. After seeing this, we were able to quickly provide a POV to our clients about how to ensure they didn’t run into the same issues. Employing a simple hashtag for employees to use that helps to identify them as an employee of that brand is an easy and quick way to avoid issues.
Utilities also need to find ways to innovate quickly. The most successful social brands are moving quickly and companies need to try new channels and approaches without being afraid to fail. New channels like Pinterest and Instagram can be intimidating for utility companies because they are largely untested, especially in the utility category. However, more channels mean more cross-promotion and the highly visual nature of Pinterest and Instagram gives brands the ability to connect with consumers on a deeper and more humanized level. A few utilities have taken the leap and are doing a great job on channels like Instagram. By posting photos of their employees working in the field and using hashtags like #throwbackthursday, they are making their brand more relatable and engaging with a slightly different (younger, female) demographic than they may on a channel like Facebook.
Social media has long been regarded as an add-on to existing marketing plans and that can no longer be the case. Not only is it one of the most effective tools for two-way communication with consumers; it is truly the convergence of paid, owned and earned media. The most successful social strategies for utilities will focus on reaching internal and external audiences, advocates and detractors alike, and will be built through a true collaboration of all stakeholders with digital, social and paid media owners. And, no matter how utilities or other brands evolve in this space, a few things will always ring true. First, change is constant. Second, you won’t truly know how people will react, interact or engage until you try.