By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online
The social media age has enveloped nearly everyone, with corporate brands honing friendly voices on Twitter, legacy media companies investing in Snapchat, and grandparents connecting on Facebook.
But the drinking water industry has remained resistant to the day’s favorite form of communication. It might be an inherent issue with a workforce that, for the most part, grew up before the digital era. Or it could be because those in the industry simply don’t have time to post about their work. Maybe it is because communication with ratepayers tends to prompt unfairly negative feedback. Whatever the reason, it is time for utilities to do a better job of reaching customers on the platforms they use.
Taking on this daunting task, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) launched the project “Social Media for Water Utilities,” laying out the business cases for social media investment and creating practical advice for drinking water treatment operations to best use these platforms to engage customers.
“Social media is a dominant form of communication today and thus offers an opportunity for utilities to reach their consumers,” said Alice Fulmer, senior research manager with WRF. “While the benefits of social media engagement appear substantial, they are difficult to quantify and social media can introduce new challenges, unintended consequences, and costs. Moreover, social media is evolving rapidly, making it challenging for utilities to keep up. Therefore, our subscribing utilities asked for a project that would identify the costs, opportunities, barriers, strategies, and tools for effective engagement in social media.”
To answer that call, WRF first quantified how active utilities were on social media. It commissioned Water Words That Work, a drinking water communication consultant, to take a look at 60 small, medium, and large drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities across the country to get a sense of how they were utilizing social media. It found that while 65 percent of large, metropolitan-area utilities were active, only 45 percent of mid-sized and less than 33 percent of small water utilities were likewise. It also found that only a small percentage of customers were connecting with these utilities.
These figures may not be a huge surprise, but they do demonstrate a certain lack of vision on the part of utilities, particularly small ones, which could otherwise reap worthwhile benefits from social media investment.
“Social media provides utilities an opportunity to communicate proactively with customers in a timely manner without relying on traditional media,” said Fulmer. “Compared to other communication methods, social media has the potential to reach a large number of people at relatively low cost.”
Some utilities dedicate as much as 80 staff hours per week to social media, but WRF found that even 10 hours per week can lead to tangible benefits. A minor marketing investment on social media platforms can also make a difference.
“Utilities that advertise on social media through sponsored posts or promoted tweets can run meaningful campaigns for only a few hundred dollars,” said Fulmer.
And while some utilities might be hesitant to open up a new channel for undue customer criticism, especially on a forum as vitriolic as the internet, they may be failing to meet ratepayer expectations by ignoring social media.
“While a survey conducted as part of the project found relatively few customers are connected with their water utilities through social media, it found that customers would like to see (and may expect to find) information about service updates, outages, and other potential issues on utilities’ social media accounts,” Fulmer said.
And beyond customer updates, there are a wealth of other communication initiatives that can and should take place on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
“Some of the utilities featured in the project’s case studies are using social media for crisis communications, to promote rebate programs, to crowd source field reports, and to make the case for overdue rate increases and infrastructure investments,” Fulmer said. “One participant was surprised to find that social media had helped them build brand ambassadors within the community that supported them if someone posted something negative.”
Addressing the likely concern that social media is an unnecessary time commitment for utility staff that is already stretched thin, WRF makes the case that with proper use, engagement with customers online can actually result in increased efficiency.
“As utilities build up their social media audiences over time, customers will lean on social media to report any issues they are having: problems with their bill, reporting a main break, etc.,” said Fulmer. “Social media presents utilities with the opportunity to hear and address their customers’ needs and concerns in real time.”
But perhaps the best argument for why utilities need to invest in social media use is the fact that, increasingly, this is how we are talking to each other.
“Social media isn’t just a temporary trend or fad — it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” Fulmer said. “We would predict that more and more conversations between customers and utilities will take place on social media as time passes.”