The Utility Sector Eyes Going Social

by Ogi Kavazovic, Opower

Professional basketball’s Atlanta Hawks, one-time presidential hopeful Herman Cain and local utility Georgia Power all have something in common—that is, besides a love of cheap pizza.

Each was a popular search term in Georgia during the past year. What may surprise you, however, is that of the three, Georgia Power had the most loyal Internet following.

As a provider of an energy efficiency platform designed to help utilities engage customers through multiple channels, Opower has a natural interest in what customers are searching online. In November, an Opower research team used Google’s Insights for Search product to look at results in Georgia.

The team discovered that Georgia Power remained a frequently searched term throughout the year. With the exception of spikes for a handful of sports and political events and the enduring frequency of pop culture icons such as Kim Kardashian, the company remained one of the most consistently sought-after search terms in the state.

Whether it’s to pay bills or check the status of outages, people look for their utilities online. For the utilities, the surprise is how often customers are looking. And the question is what to do once those people find them.

At one time, the answer might have been for utilities to offer customers a service department with a phone number and maybe a static website.

Today, however, the path to greater satisfaction through greater engagement involves actively supporting customers as they seek energy solutions.

Studies suggest that the average household spends roughly $2,200 per year on energy costs, yet the average consumer spends only about six minutes per year thinking about his or her energy bills. On the other hand, customer improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver more than $700 billion in cost savings in the U.S. alone, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Combined with the search insights, this represents a significant opportunity for utilities to engage their customer base to provide greater customer service and satisfaction.

Customers are coming to utilities looking for advice on decisions and investments to help improve efficiency. More pointedly, they’re clamoring for guidance.

Many current efforts at engaging customers take the form of efficiency programs, but efficiency is just one element of a broader movement toward engagement to satisfy rate-paying customers.

In the fall, Opower announced a joint effort with Facebook and the NRDC to help utilities better harness online activity. The app is designed to address the challenge of motivating curious, but low-engagement customers. The new tool will combine the broad reach of Facebook with Opower’s utility partner network. To date, the application will be available to customers of Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd), city of Palo Alto Utilities, Glendale Water & Power, Rochester Public Utilities, Austin Utilities, Owatonna Public Utilities and Loveland Water & Power. The NRDC will provide environmental expertise while engaging new partners and encouraging consumer participation.

The online platform, set to launch early this year, will allow participating customers to benchmark their homes’ energy usage against a national average of similar homes, compare their energy use with friends, enter energy-saving competitions, and share tips on how to become more energy efficient.

“Energy efficiency has enormous potential to save money,” said Brandi Colander, an energy attorney with the NRDC, “and of course that means saving kilowatt-hours and tons of CO2, as well.

“One problem, however, is that people don’t always have the tools they need to make big efficiency gains,” Colander said. “Access to personal energy use data can help overcome that problem, and this partnership between Facebook, Opower and the NRDC will provide millions of consumers the information needed to make more informed energy use choices.”

The application’s concept derives from extensive social science research on human behavior change and energy use. Dating back to the NRDC’s Hood River Conservation Project in the 1980s, word of mouth has proved to be an effective tool in encouraging people to use energy more efficiently. With Facebook’s emergence as a global platform for word-of-mouth information transmission, the application’s combination of energy information, behavioral science and advocacy with hundreds of millions of users has the potential to create a global dialogue about energy efficiency.

As it does with so many interactions, the evolution from search to social networking represents the next step in online customer engagement.

This might lead to more partnerships—among service providers, content platforms and advocacy organizations—that push the industry to evolve, as well, in new ways that serve customer and company interests alike.

If Georgia Power’s experience is any indication, utility communicators should order up a pizza, switch on a basketball game and continue looking for insights among the digital clues left by their customers.

Author

Ogi Kavazovic is vice president of strategy and marketing for Opower. Prior to joining the company, he was a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners where he advised Fortune 500 clients on corporate strategy development, with particular focus on the utility sector and smart grid industry. Kavazovic received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Harvard University. Reach him at ogi@opower.com.

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