Reaching out


Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine July/August 2009


SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS CONTINUE TO GAIN ACCEPTANCE as a viable way for utilities to reach customers for increased customer service and marketing efforts.


When Nashville Electric Service (NES) wanted to promote a recent energy conservation event in conjunction with the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team, the utility exercised many traditional public relations strategies. But NES also posted the event on Facebook, and turned to social media phenomenon Twitter to get the word out. So far, NES has been more successful on Twitter, with about 511 followers as of early June. NES had 123 friends on Facebook at that time.

The municipal utility, which services 355,000 customers in the Nashville area, started its Twitter campaign in March. While company officials recognize that only a fraction of its customers use social media sites, that number is growing steadily.

''Every day we have five or ten more people signed up,'' said NES spokesperson, Laurie Parker. ''It really started to take off once we had a couple people who have Twitter accounts getting the word out that Nashville Electric is on Twitter. That's when it started to spread like wildfire.''

Unlike some utilities, NES is not using social media to communicate about storm-related events and power outages. Instead, it is opting to promote special events and to message its online customer base about conservation efforts. Parker reports that several media outlets follow the company on Twitter to keep up with new developments. NES has yet to actively promote its social media presence, but plans to do so via utility bills in July.

NES' first foray into Facebook was a learning experience. The company initially called its Facebook site Edison's Conservation Corner, a branding effort named after its company logo. However, that name didn't fare well in search results, so the site was re-registered under the NES brand. NES plans to post how-to videos and other information on Facebook soon.


When the remnants of Hurricane Ike ripped through Cincinnati in September 2008, Duke Energy faced a huge challenge in restoring power to close to 900,000 homes and businesses left in the dark. But some of those customers weren't entirely in the

dark. Those with access to a laptop or cell phone were able to receive constant updates through Duke's Twitter profile.

It was the first time Duke communicated with customers by using the social media tool. In fact, anticipating wide power outages from the storm, the utility rushed to set up the Twitter profile the day before the storm hit. Duke has used Twitter to provide updates on power outages after three large storms, and has 532 followers—a number that continues to grow.

''It doesn't sound like a high number, but the power of the network is strong, and each of them has so many other followers,'' said Michelle Pearson, manager of eChannels at Duke. ''We had a really good response following the storms, specifically the Cincinnati storm. Customers thought it was a very helpful tool.''

The Twitter application allows users to have alerts sent to their mobile phones. Customers who signed up for Duke Energy Storm on Twitter receive tweets on their cell phones that include a message with a link back to Duke Energy's outage page. The message might be as simple as a prediction for when power will be restored.

''It's a wonderful tool and perfect for somebody who is out of power, but might still have a charged cell phone,'' said Pearson. ''We do not expect that this tool is for everyone. We are specifically targeting Web-savvy individuals who live on their phone. We have not actively promoted this, but we continue to gather followers. The whole grassroots effort behind social networking is working for us.''


Want to know exactly how much energy your new flat screen television is using? Try googling it. Later this year, customers of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) will actually have that option, as the utility has signed on with the giant search engine to allow customers to obtain daily energy usage information from Google's new PowerMeter gadget.

Google PowerMeter displays the prior day's energy usage. The data is detailed by the hour, so customers can see exactly when they have used the most energy. Alex Kim, director of customer innovations for SDG&E, says that studies show that once consumers know their exact energy usage, they usually embrace conservation efforts to save between 5 and 10 percent.

The Google PowerMeter option is available only to SDG&E customers who have smart meters installed. By the end of this year, the utility expects to have 200,000 digital meters installed.

Currently, it has installed about 15,000. About 30 customers have been chosen to participate in a pilot with PowerMeter to determine the program's effectiveness.

By the end of 2011, all 1.4 million customers will have smart meters. Once meters are installed, SDG&E spends about 90 days testing the customer's device. After that period, the online energy usage data will be available.

''This is about choice, control and convenience for our customers,'' said Hal D. Snyder, vice president of customer solutions for SDG&E. ''They have told us they prefer a variety of ways to receive this information to make it as easy as possible. Google is the first company to team with us in this effort, and we expect others will follow suit.''

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