By Maureen Duffy
American Water shares its social media research and experience as a means to help other utilities enhance their own consumer outreach strategies.
As the utilities sector enters a new era, customer engagement is not just encouraged, but expected. Customers are more informed and engaged than ever before. Every 60 seconds across the globe, 175,000 Tweets and 700,000 Facebook messages are sent, and 2 million YouTube videos are viewed, according to social marketing consultant Social Jumpstart. Additionally, Pike Research released a report that estimates 624 million customers worldwide will use social media to engage with their utilities by the end of 2017.
We live in a communications era changing by the minute. Social media is about people and the voices behind it. It can be one of the most cost-effective, real-time communication tools in a utility’s toolkit. Customers go to all different sources to get information of interest to them. The key is to tailor how you connect with your customers, understanding what kind of information they want from you, and the context in which they want it.
With 98 percent of the U.S. online population using social media for one out of every five minutes spent online, there’s a tremendous opportunity for utilities to engage their customers in new ways. To put this in perspective, on average, research from Accenture has found that people spend only about six minutes interacting with their utility each year.
Whether keeping followers updated about environmental projects and infrastructure investments or linking to news stories regarding national water needs, many American Water subsidiaries are using social media as a means to communicate with customers.
Over the last four years, American Water has been conducting focus groups with customers in different parts of our service areas nationwide, with the goal of learning what their perceptions are of the value of the water and the value of the services we provide, as well as what information they want to know — what they find useful, and what sort of messages help them understand all we do to ensure reliable service. These discussions, combined with quarterly customer satisfaction and service quality surveys, give us a deeper understanding of what customers want and expect from their water services provider.
We learned that, beyond an understanding of what they pay for each month, customers also want us to provide tips and information they can use, and they want to know more about what we do for their communities. It’s not enough to say we care; they want to see the ways we care.
The learnings of these focus groups are then applied to the customer education materials we create — both the messaging and the vehicles we use to reach them. But a key component of our customer education efforts is the use of online and social media. The visual assets and videos we create are all developed for use on our websites and social media channels. Effective mass media placement is usually not a cost-effective option, but using websites and social media channels is a low- or no-cost way to engage customers on an ongoing basis.
One way that we’ve found success in increasing followers and engaging customers in our site is through social media contests and/or quizzes. It gives us a chance to engage with customers and support our communities. Sometimes there is a prize to a non-profit organization or a municipal fire department, thereby promoting community involvement.
We also find the use of social media to be very effective in communicating with customers during severe weather events or emergencies. For example, during Hurricane Sandy many of American Water's customers lost power and relied on these social platforms as a result. The customers help us, too. Some of our monitoring systems are not fully functional during emergencies and customers become the eyes and ears in some areas.
In addition to customers, we've received some good feedback from media outlets who find our social media presence to be responsive and robust compared to some other local utilities. It's become a good resource for them during emergency situations, same as with customers. We’re able to provide real-time information to a broad audience and dispel rumors that circulate.
One piece of information we continue to learn from our research is that there is no single, best way to reach our customers. We need to use every channel we can to try to reach them — on the outside and inside of their bill envelopes, on our websites, social media, on the side of the road where crews are working, on our vehicles — particularly the avenues that are cost-effective and directly target people in our service areas.
We want our customers to know we are working for them, helping to improve the systems and striving to earn and keep their trust as their water services provider.
Maureen Duffy is the vice president of corporate communications and external affairs for American Water, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company. In this role, Ms. Duffy is responsible for leading a strategic and integrated communications program for American Water, encompassing internal and external communications as well as corporate responsibility.
Image credit: "Twitter 2," Kooroshication © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/