Engaging utility customers through social media

By the end of 2017, more than 624 million utility customers worldwide will use some form of social media to engage with their electricity providers, according to a report by PikeResearch.  

The number seems staggering, but I believe it.

I've seen a lot of this communication firsthand, particularly on Twitter, and even communicated with my own utility company during a power outage after a tornado last April. 

This poses an opportunity and a threat for utility providers. On one hand, the ability to communicate with customers through social media opens new doors and can help bolster a company's image. I was definitely impressed with my providers availability and level of personalization  during that tornado. So much so that I posted several complimentary tweets about my experience and have spoken about it many times since. 

A rapid response can turn disgruntled customers into ambassadors, and because it happens on social media, it's there for everyone to see, which enhances the utilities' overall reputation in the social media space.

As with most industries, when it comes to social media, there are some who are leading the pack. According to PikeResearch, they include: Duke Energy, Avista, Southern California Edison, Pepco, Puget Sound Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric, Salt River Project and Ameren.  Green Mountain Power, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Public Service Company of New Hampshire, and Dominion are also included in the Case Studies section of its report. Below is a proactive tweet posted by Pepco on Saturday, urging customers to report power outages. 

But on the other hand, active communication and high levels of personalization aren't necessarily sustainable if you don't plan to grow a social media team or incorporate social media communications into PR, marketing or customer service, overall. 

The projection of 624 million customers using social media to engage with their utility providers by 2017 is exponentially higher than the 57 million who did the same in 2011. So, it would behoove providers to start developing strategies to communicate with these customers if they haven't already. And those strategies must scale. Listening is a key strategy, and if there is one person charged with communicating through social media, it most certainly will not scale. Listening and understanding on behalf of a utility requires a dedicated team.

Another important element of the report is the best practices section, of which I agree wholeheartedly. The best practices include:

  • Embrace social media
  • Know your customers' social media preferences or profiles
  • Finalize your social media objectives
  • Establish a strategy for your social media efforts
  • Select and deploy the appropriate technologies
  • Integrate social media with existing channels
  • Commit to using social media for the long term
  • Measure social media customer engagements
  • Stay flexible and creative

This is a great list, but it's important to remember that for utility companies struggling to find their way in social media, best practices probably aren't top of mind. Not all utilities have embraced social media and there is great fear that comes with open dialogue, particularly in regulated industries.

But that doesn't change the fact that customers expect to see their utilities engaging on social sites. And quite honestly, I don't see a way around it. In 2012, energy utility companies have to determine their approach to social media, and get in the game fast. You have to communicate with your customers where they are congregating online because the conversation will happen with or without you.

Passing up an opportunity to steer that conversation is a big mistake.