The power of Twitter and Facebook for utilities

Kate Rowland | Dec 16, 2009

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Back in October, I got together for a chat with E SOURCE's Matthew Burks about utilities and the social media space. Following our initial discussion, I called him again last week to dig deeper into what is, for many companies (the electric utility industry included), still a muddied morass they'd rather not broach unless they absolutely have to.

However, "absolutely have to" is rapidly become the rule, rather than the exception. No longer the sole purview of the young and extremely tech-savvy, social networking is quickly becoming a must-have for any company navigating the news and views of the day (including those of the man on the street), and electric utilities are not immune.

Too often, it's the bad news that hits the press, the blog waves, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and more. One perfect example: who hasn't heard about the YouTube sensation, "United Song #1", released earlier this year by songwriter and folk musician Dave Carroll? Its straightforward lyrics -- "United breaks guitars" and "You broke it you should fix it" -- caught the public's attention, with more than 150,000 hits in the music video's first day on the Internet site. It also caught the attention of United Airlines. The airline issued a statement shortly after Carroll posted the music video, saying, "This has struck a chord with us. We are in conversations with one another to make what happened right, and while we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave Carroll's excellent video provides United with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us."

Unfortunately, the airline was by then in extreme damage-control mode, taking a reactive stance rather than a proactive one. In the public's eye (remember, this video message "went viral" rather quickly), United's baggage-handling reputation had suffered major damage. Once done, damage like that is extremely difficult to repair.

Which brings me back to my latest social media discussion with Matthew Burks. Back in October, he pointed out that ignoring the social media space is no longer an option. The rise of "citizen media" means those with an opinion are no longer constrained by fairness, or by fact-checking what they write for accuracy before posting it. And once it's out there, no matter how inaccurate, it can do damage.

So, I asked him, what can an electric utility do to ensure it can be proactive, rather than reactive, in the social media arena?

The first step, Burks reiterated, is listening: What's going on out there? What's being said about you as a company? "A lot of utilities are doing passive listening -- how many people are talking about them, and what's being said," he told me.

The next step, active listening, is more proactive. "You get into the details, including sentiment analysis, and how influential the sources are....You're grabbing as much data as you can," he added. This includes analyzing the mainstream media, bloggers, tweeters and more. "Once you have a feel for what the battlefield looks like, this informs your larger strategy."

Burks said that, in social media, offense is the best defense. That being noted, it's also important to clearly define how you're going to step into the social media space without falling off a cliff.

There are many options, depending upon the human resources the utility has available to it to actively monitor and respond in this space. And it's vitally important, once you've developed a strategy and publicly launched it, to ensure that you continue to follow through with it.

"I am increasingly a believer in content marketing -- staying out there and being relevant and useful, in terms of providing information people need and can use," Burks told me.

Some utilities are already quite active in the social media space. Let's use Twitter as an example. Andre Francis is the lead on Pepco's Twitter feed, PepcoConnect, and he is rapidly building a strong relationship with customers via his posts and tweets. Pacific Gast & Electric's official Twitter page is located at PGE4Me, and the utility uses it not only to respond to customer questions, but also to post messages such as phone numbers to report outages or to phone in and check on outage status, and links to the utility's outage map. PGE4Me even discussed the recent smart meter issue in Bakersfield, in response to a customer inquiry. "Hi -- our meters are accurate, but we should have done a better job of communicating with our customers," the utility noted in a tweet to a customer query on Dec. 8, and also included a link to a recent news story on the subject.

A quick Google search -- with the Internet, everything's now at everyone's fingertips within moments -- shows other utilities with active Twitter accounts, as well, including Nashville Electric which, like Pepco and PG&E, uses the feed to share energy tips. But for every electric utility on Twitter, there are dozens more who have, at least for now, eschewed this and other social media outlets, preferring to focus on providing the information on their company Web site, and via customer service representatives available on the telephone to answer queries and deal with issues.

Is there a "right" answer? Perhaps. But it might be a different answer for each utility, as each looks to best manage its resources, and its customer needs.

"It's a really interesting and challenging time as utilities try to figure out what this means for their messages and their brand and their relationships with their customers," Burks said.

I look forward to discussing this and other issues with all the players in the emerging intelligent utility. If you'd like to let me know what you think of this article, I encourage you to use the Comment link below. I welcome your insights, whether or not you agree with me. It's all informed dialogue, and an important part of the discussion. If you have a story idea for me, please contact me by e-mail at krowland@energycentral.com, or by telephone at 720-331-3555.

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