Why virtual customer engagement strategies will persist beyond the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to utilities and energy efficiency portfolios across the country. The waves of COVID-19 disrupted in-person communication methods, modified our meetings and large events, and forced us to reinvent how we connect with each other. While the pandemic impacts vary for each utility energy efficiency program, there is one common thread: virtual engagement strategies have played and will continue to play a critical role in program goal attainment.
Instead of putting energy efficiency programs on hold, utilities shifted their program delivery models to focus on virtual platforms, online product marketplaces, do-it-yourself services, and enhanced educational opportunities. These platforms and approaches allowed utilities to continue to engage customers with relevant messaging while still helping them reduce costs during an uncertain and economically challenging time. This quick pivot to alternative delivery approaches and virtual engagement helped many portfolios still reach mandated energy savings goals and other key program objectives. In the following section, we highlight some of these approaches and how Leidos clients saw success with virtual engagement.
Virtual Customer Engagement Approaches
Increased investment in social media engagement and digital marketing
Throughout the pandemic, consumers adopted new online habits and intensified their use of digital behaviors such as online shopping, food delivery services, social media communication, streaming services, podcasts, and video chat services. To effectively reach customers, many utility programs reallocated their marketing budgets toward digital media and social media investments. These channels provide energy efficiency programs with opportunities for greater personalization, an enhanced ability to reach target audiences, and real-time feedback through advanced engagement metrics.
In particular, social media played a major part in effectively communicating COVID-19 policies and low and no-cost ways to reduce energy usage. By increasing their focus on social media, Ameren Illinois was recognized by E Source as a leader in customer engagement during the pandemic – ranking in the top 25 for social media engagement among more than 130 North American utility programs. And despite a recent CMO Survey indicating that non-digital marketing will soon return to its pre-pandemic levels, digital-focused approaches will continue to play a critical role for utilities with customer engagement.
Virtual events for customers and Trade Allies
Unable to meet in-person but still recognizing the importance of continued engagement, many energy efficiency programs pivoted to using online platforms to host virtual meetings and events with customers and Trade Allies. Utilities hosted a wide variety of virtual events – from Trade Ally trainings and kickoff meetings to educational customer events via organizations and associations. As an example of this adaptability, Ameren Illinois brought its annual Energy Efficiency Symposium to business customers virtually – using a platform that leveraged marketing automation, provided customized session tracks, and tracked attendance in order to provide incentive bonuses. The virtual event was even able to provide program-branded gifts and meals for all attendees through an online delivery service. Post-pandemic, energy efficiency programs are expected to return to in-person events and meetings to provide a higher level of personal service. However, a suite of more robust virtual event options will supplement the in-person outreach and better reach a segment of customers that prefer enhanced flexibility and convenience.
Virtual energy assessments and project inspections to safely connect with customers
In an effort to continue helping customers identify energy-saving opportunities and move projects to completion, utility programs started offering virtual energy assessments and project inspections during the pandemic. National Grid’s Treasure Hunt program had to quickly pivot from traditional in-person energy treasure hunts to a virtual engagement model in just a few short weeks – and with great success as they gained interest and participation from dozens of large customers. In Wisconsin, Focus on Energy incorporated virtual meetings, energy assessments, and post-project inspections into their Business and Industry offering using customers’ preferred video conferencing platforms (e.g. Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, and Skype).
Post pandemic, utility programs are expected to return to favoring in-person assessments and inspections as those allow for more energy-saving opportunities to be identified and more detailed project verification. However, virtual approaches may persist for customers that prefer the extra convenience it provides. In addition, virtual audits and assessments could enhance time efficiency and reduce program costs – helping to improve the program’s overall cost-effectiveness.
Providing support to impacted families and the small business community
For families spending more time at home during the pandemic, increased energy bills brought a renewed focus on how to better manage energy usage. In addition, remote learning turned many homes into classrooms and provided further energy education opportunities. Hawaii Energy provided local students with at-home educational packets to teach them about energy efficiency and motivate them to look for ways to save around their home. In addition, the Hawaii Energy team communicated energy-saving tips and low-cost energy-efficient products through their online marketplace via email, digital advertising, and segments on local television stations.
The business community has faced significant challenges as well – from shutdowns with in-person dining in restaurants to significant decreases in travel and tourism. According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Hawaii hotels were reporting occupancy rates under 23 percent in late 2020 – far below the typical 80 to 95 percent occupancy. These adverse impacts affected restaurants and tourism spots throughout the state as well. In response, Hawaii Energy has provided re-opening resources such as building system checklists and best practices for optimal building energy performance as well as increased financial incentives to help local restaurants, hotels, and small businesses. In Illinois, Ameren saw record participation from customers in their Small Business Direct Install initiative during 2020 – generating more than 100 million kWh in energy savings. Utility financial support for energy efficiency investments is more important now than ever before – and will continue to be needed long after the pandemic is over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of society – and energy efficiency programs are no exception. As we move forward to the “next normal,” it’s important to reflect on the new elements and approaches that have delivered greater value to customers and improved program implementation. For more than 30 years and especially during the pandemic, Leidos has brought our utility clients a depth of industry experience that has helped them adapt to the changing environment while still engaging customers and attaining goals. To learn more about how Leidos can help your utility program incorporate new implementation strategies, contact our team.