Social Media Best Practices for Utilities

Social media is the number one activity on the internet and has become a daily habit for many people’s lives around the world.  With social media becoming a habit for many consumers businesses are looking to use it as a way to engage their customers, build brand visibility and popularity, generate leads and new business, offer customer service, and sell products and services.  This shift in engaging the customer through social media is taking place in the utility industry as well.  In the utility industry blogs and forums account for the majority of social media interaction with 43 percent, followed by twitter at 39 percent, and the reaming 18 percent is done through newsfeeds and other channels (Chawla, 2014).

With blogs and forums being the number one way that utilities are communicating with their customers it is important for them to do so in a manner that maximizes their engagement and dialogue with them.  In Li and Bernoff’s (2011) book Groundswell the following best practices are given for successful blogging:

  1. Start by listening: It is important to listen to what is being said in your industry from competitors, pundits, and other influencers prior to diving into the conversation.
  2. Determine a goal for the blog: by setting a goal you know in what direction you need to go with the blog.
  3. Estimate the ROI: by determining the cost and payoff of the blog it will be easier to gain buy-in from other areas of the business.
  4. Develop a plan: you need to determine if your blog is going to have a single company blog or allow multiple contributors throughout your organization.
  5. Rehearse: write five to ten practice posts prior to posting you first blog, this will allow you to find your voice and decide on what topics you will focus on.
  6. Develop an editorial process: decide in advance who needs to review a blog prior to publishing it, but ensure that the process is fast enough to allow for quick posting if needed.
  7. Design the blog and its connection to your site: decide on the placement of the blog on your company’s website, “your design and the way you link the blog to your site will communicate just how official this point of view is” (Li & Bernhoff, 2011, p. 116).
  8. Develop a marketing plan so people can find the blog: Press releases, purchasing of words on search engines, leveraging traffic of blog sites identified in step 1, and using the name of your company or products in the title or text of the blog will allow it to be found easier through search engines.
  9. Remember, blogging is more than writing: you need to monitor and respond to blogs other than your own; in addition responding to comments on your blog is an important aspect of a successful blog.
  10. Finally, be honest: even when things go wrong, companies that respond honestly increases their credibility and ultimate chance for success.

For the utility industry it is important that their social media activity; whether it is through blogging, twitter, or newsfeeds that it finds ways to engage the customer, build awareness, educate the customer, and offer customer service.  This can be done by looking at what is currently being done by others in the industry:

  • Build connections with your consumer: The majority of utilities start their use of social media by notifying customers of outages. This was evident in 2012, during hurricane Sandy when a number of utility providers collectively used twitter to update customers and “20 million Tweets were posted during and after the calamity” (Chawla, 2014, p. 3).
 (Chawla, 2014)

(Chawla, 2014)

  • Create customer awareness: Some utilities are using YouTube videos and Facebook posts to educate customers on topics like energy efficiency, smart meters, and industry trends. Others are using social media to “generate user-specific awareness regarding changes in pricing, billing, or even allowing customers to design their bills” (Chawla, 2014, p. 3).
  • Create Brand Awareness: utilities are actively using social media to shape the way their customers think of them. In addition some utilities are calculating their brand’s Net Promoter Score (NPS), this provides them with a good view of customer loyalty (Chawla, 2014).
  • Offer energy advice and tips: Utilities are using social media as a cost effective way to educate customers on energy savings and good use of electric equipment in a manner that is much more cost effective than traditional audio-visual campaigns (Chawla, 2014).

What types of information would you like to receive from your utilities through social media?

(Chawla, 2014)

(Chawla, 2014)

 

References:

Chawla, R. (2014). The socail media manual for the utility industry-guidlines & best practices. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from WNS: http://www.wns.com/Resources/Articles/Article-Details/109/The-Social-Media-Manual-for-the-Utility-Industry—Guidelines-/-Best-Practices.aspx

Li, C., & Bernhoff, J. (2011). Groundswell winning in a world transformed by social technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

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Risks for Utilities Associated with Social Media

As utilities are becoming more and more active in the world of social media it is important that they understand the risks associated with it and the potential harm that it can have on their brand.  Utilities face the same risks and issues that companies in other industries face – employee abuse of social media, copyright, and IP protection; however they have additional risk related to affiliate codes of conduct, SEC regulations, and public utility commissions.  As regulated entities, utilities have to contend with numerous laws and regulations that may impact their participation on social media (Elefant, 2011).

These potential risks include:

Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) Issues: most utilities are publicly traded companies; therefore they are subject to security laws and SEC regulations.

SEC

  • Securities Fraud: as a publicly traded company a utility may face liability for security fraud for material misstatements made through company sponsored social media site, no matter if it is made by the CEO or the lowest level employee this is a serious issue

 

  • Selective Disclosure: if a utility chooses to disseminate material information through social media sites like Facebook or Twitter this may be viewed as selective disclosure since you have to be a “friend” or “follower” in order to have immediate access. This may be viewed as a violation of SEC Regulation FD (Elefant, 2011).

Utility Regulatory Issues

  • Rate Making: utilities recover cost associated with customer education and outreach programs through rates approved by the public utilities commission that are passed onto customers, but costs associated with building their brand, creating goodwill, or improve the reputation of the utility are not. Activities on social media fall can fall on both sides making it difficult to show which costs should be recovered and which ones shouldn’t. This leads to a risk of not being able to recover any of the costs if they are not able to adequately show what costs are related to what activities (Elefant, 2011).
  • Privacy of Customer Data: most states regulatory agencies have requirements regarding the protection of customer data and prohibit utilities from disclosing personal information or level of power consumption to third parties. Third party sites such as Facebook and YouTube may not have the level of disclosure restriction as the utility. Because of this, utilities need to make it clear to their customers that sign up on these sites to follow them that the privacy policies of the particular site will govern the use of any information posted on the site (Elefant, 2011).

 

In addition to risk associated with legal and regulatory issues, utilities also need to contend with potential damage to their brand through social media.  Below is an example of how social media can have a negative effect on a utilities brand if not monitored properly:

  • A large storm causes widespread outages for a utility causing it to initiate their storm restoration program which includes public relations and communication protocols.
  • As part of the utility communication protocol details of the restoration are pushed out through social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter, however they do not have process for monitoring and evaluating comments from customers who feel the restoration efforts are inadequate.
  • This negative reaction becomes the focus of tweets and Facebook posts of customers and begins to rapidly spread; possibly even to the media.
  • The storm restoration effort can quickly lead to negative public relation risks, which then increases political, regulatory, and other risks associated an erosion of trust in the brand (Enterprise Risk Management Symposium, 2013).

storm

As utilities expand their efforts and attention on social media strategies they need to be aware of all potential risks.  As a public company, governed by state and federal regulators they have greater risks than most companies.  Failure to control these risks can cause significant financial harm, as well as damage to a utility’s brand.  Are these risk similar to any other industry or is the utility industry unique?

References:

Elefant, C. (2011). The “Power” of social media: Legal issues & best practices for utilities engaging social media. Energy Law Journal, 32(1), 1-56. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from Energy Law Journal: http://felj.org/sites/default/files/docs/elj321/13_1_social_media.pdf

Enterprise Risk Management Symposium. (2013, April 22). Retrieved from ERM Symposium: http://www.ermsymposium.org/2013/pdf/erm-2013-paper-tooman.pdf

Smart Meters and Mobile Applications

One of the biggest changes taking place in the electric industry is the upgrading of the grid to smart meters.  Smart meters are advanced meters that provide greater detail on energy consumption than the traditional meter.  In addition these meters are able to communicate information back and forth between the customer’s home or business and the local utility (Smart Meters, 2014).

These smart meters provide a great opportunity for electric utilities develop mobile solutions that not only provide usage information to their customers but also as a means of direct communication.  ComEd has launched a free mobile app that customers can download to their IPhone or Android device that allows them to:

  • View their account info, balance, due date, and last payment made
  • Current bill summary, account history, and the ability to make a payment directly from their phone
  • Report outages immediately when it happens and see a map of outages in the customers area (Take ComEd wherever you go, 2014)
comed app

Source: ComEd

 

Mobile solutions like ComEd’s app help to improve customer satisfaction by giving them the opportunity to restore outages faster.  Success of apps like these can be measured through customer satisfaction and reduced call center costs.

Other features that utilities can use with mobile apps is the ability to send push alerts notifying customers that their power is out or has been restored and also payment reminders anytime, anywhere.  The advantages of push alerts through the mobile app are they are less disruptive than phone calls, quicker to open than emails, and overall they have better program participation (Energy Central, 2014).  Mobile apps can also be used to drive action by customers, letting them know that a peak energy day is taking place and the customer needs to curtail their usage.  By curtailing usage during peak times utilities are able to minimize the chance of blackouts and customers are able to save money on their bill.

mobile push app

Source: Energy Central

Another company that has moved forward with a mobile application is Pepco.  The Pepco mobile app was based on feedback from their customers and allows them to access their My Account features, open a new account, find information related to storm preparation, and get the latest updates on storm restorations. The other great feature about the Pepco app is that it allows customers to connect with Pepco’s various social media channels; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or blog (Pepco launches highly responsive customer friendly website, 2014).

As you can see from the video below, the future of a utilities interaction is through mobile applciations and information retrieved through smart meters:

Does your electric company have smart meters and do you use any apps through your local utilities?

References:

Energy Central (Director). (2014). Taking Utility Mobile Apps to the Next Level [Motion Picture].

Pepco launches highly responsive customer friendly website. (2014, May 28). Retrieved from Pepco.com: http://www.pepco.com/library/templates/Interior.aspx?Pageid=6442454157&id=6442454883

Smart Meters. (2014). Retrieved May 26, 2014, from BG&E: http://www.bge.com/smartenergy/smartgrid/smartmeters/pages/smart-meters.aspx

Take ComEd wherever you go. (2014). Retrieved May 26, 2014, from ComEd: https://www.comed.com/customer-service/mobile/Pages/mobile-application.aspx

 

Current and Future State of Social Media in the Utility Industry

The utility industry has finally started to come around and embrace social media as a way to interact with their customers, however in the not so distant past this has not always been the case.  As recently as 2012, 30 percent of utilities survey about social media felt that social media was a “cultural phenomenon that may have some merit”, while 6 percent responded that social media was a “trend that will have no impact on how they provide service” (Theilbar, 2013).  A year later these questions were asked again and the numbers dropped to 15 percent for those that felt that social media may have some merit and down to 2 percent for those who view social media as having no impact (Theilbar, 2013).

 

On a more positive note, in 2013 the number of companies who view social media as a real opportunity to connect with their customers had grown to 60 percent and 22 percent feel the social media is the new way to communicate with their customers and are enthusiastically embracing it (Theilbar, 2013).

socialmedia icons

This change in attitude toward social media by the utility industry is largely being driven by their customers.  In 2011 it was estimated that 57 million consumers globally were using social media as a means to engage the utility; that number is expected to increase to 624 million by the end of 2017 (Vyas & Strother, 2012).  With a growing number of customers looking to connect with their utility through social media companies that have already started using it are able to realize the following benefits:

  • Educating customers about new products and services, as well as industry updates
  • Proactively inform customers about changes in pricing and billing
  • Report outages and provide updates of when service will be restored
  • Answer questions and engage in a “virtual” conversation with your customers

As utility companies look to start using social media on a more proactive basis it is important for them to understand where their customers are most likely to interact with them.  Pike Research surveyed customers on the social media sites that they use to interact with their utility; Facebook was the most popular with 75.30 percent followed by Twitter at 27.4 percent (Vyas & Strother, 2012).

Other channels like YouTube and LinkedIn are also being used by utilities to connect with their customers.

Duke Energy is one company that has taken a very proactive approach to social media and has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, and a company Blog.  Duke has been able to use these channels to do everything from PR related to Superstorm Sandy, report outages and even as a sales tool for customers who are in deregulated stated and who have a choice on their electric supplier

Are there any other industries that have been slow to get involved in social media?  If so what have they done to move forward and make social media a greater part of their interaction with customers?

 

References:

Theilbar, B. (2013, September 4). The evolution of social media in the utility industry. Retrieved May 26, 2014, from Five Point: http://www.fivepoint.net/news/blog/394-the-evolution-of-social-media-in-the-utility-industry

Vyas, C., & Strother, N. (2012). Social media in the utility industry consumer survey. Retrieved May 26, 2014, from Pike Research: http://www.navigantresearch.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/SMUS-12-Pike-Research.pdf

Social Media Tools for Utilities

electric_pole_poles

Many utilities use the same technology that was available over 100 years ago to produce electricity and deliver natural gas, so it is not surprising that the utility industry has been very slow to embrace social media and the different channels that are available for utility companies to communicate with their customers.  This is starting to change and utilities are starting to use various social media tools to connect with their customers.  Utility companies that have entered the world of social media have done it primarily through Twitter and Facebook.  They are using these sites as a way to communicate power outages, share information energy efficiency programs, environmental facts, and industry news and trends (Edward, 2014).  A few have expanded further into the world of social media and have started to use YouTube and Flickr to post videos and pictures of crews working in the field, damage from storms, work in the community, or press conferences.

According to an August 2013 Chartwell Inc. survey of 47 utilities in North America, 51% believe that Twitter and Facebook are an important part of their customer contact strategy.  Below are the emerging trends for Twitter and Facebook in the utility industry:

  • Facebook: 85% of utilities are currently on this channel and the number is expected to continue to grow and will remain active for marketing and branding for utilities. Companies who find ways to interact with their customers through Facebook, like ComEd’s “Coolest Summer Ever” contest that encouraged followers to answer trivia questions to win prizes, will see more growth in followers than those that only use it as a one way communication channel (Hieb, 2013).
  • Twitter: 90% of utilities currently have Twitter accounts and their primary purpose it to provide outage information to customers. During Hurricane Sandy PSE&G saw a large increase their number of followers as they used their Twitter account as a way to provide constant outage updates and answers to customers questions (Hieb, 2013).

coolestsummer

Utility customers tend to be very vocal about their opinions for three main reasons:

  1. Service outages
  2. Prices go up
  3. Service complaint

Utilities can use social media tools like Twitter and Facebook as a way to connect with their customers and respond to these issues.  In addition they can use these sites to provide information regarding rate increases, planned outages, or when service will be returned ahead of time to avoid customer complaints.  Customers are going to talk about their utilities online with or without the utility having an online presence, so don’t you think you are better off if you have one?

References:

Edward, C. (2014). Social Media Usage in the Utility Industry. Retrieved May 26, 2014, from Calypso Communication: http://calypsocom.com/blog/2010/10/social-media-usage-in-the-utility-industry/

Hieb, A. (2013, December 10). Which social channel and when? Retrieved May 26, 2014, from Energy Central: http://www.energycentral.com/utilitybusiness/billingandcustomercare/articles/2788/Which-social-channel-and-when-/