Cleantech Market Intelligence
Utilities Enter a Brave New World of Customer Engagement
Utility Dive’s State of the Electric Utility 2015, released last month, aptly states that “The greatest challenge for the utility industry may be its greatest opportunity.” The report is referring to distributed energy resources (DERs). The survey of utility executives across the United States revealed that no less than 70% ofinterviewees see strong opportunities in exploiting the growing DERs market, despite regulatory structures and traditional utility business models that present obstacles. For now, the major legwork is focused on reforming those two critical inhibitors, but once that’s done, will utilities be prepared to navigate the competitive environment through effective marketing strategies for their products and services?
While many utilities still have to maneuver through operational, regulatory, and business plan challenges before they can wrap their heads around marketing strategy, the fact of the matter is that the private market for DER products and services is already very mature across the United States—and strong competition requires equally strong marketing.
To be clear, I do not consider utilities to be marketing laggards; pretty much every investor-owned utility (IOU) that I know of (and many municipal and cooperative utilities as well) has a marketing team that can shape, execute, and evaluate successful customer-facing programs. The problem is that all of their future competitors also have skilled, innovative, and highly resourced teams that are experienced in conducting business in markets undergoing disruption.
One challenge is that marketing and branding have gone through enormous changes with the rise of the internet. Consumers have an increasing number of outlets to research and review products. Unfortunately, the Internet is also unruly by nature, and it’s easy to be misinformed and end up misdirected. Marketers are held responsible for creating pathways for online users to obtain accurate information and get to the best purchasing point—no simple task, given that this requires a highly developed understanding of consumers and the obstacles they face online. For an example of how this might pertain to a utility that wants to, say, participate in the solar leasing market, just google “solar lease”; the results will speak for themselves.
Getting to Know You
Something that I’ve heard about a lot when I read about the so-called utility “death spiral,” is that utilities do not know enough about their consumers or how to interact with them, because they’ve never really had to. I actually disagree with this, but even if it were the case, utilities are still better prepared to get to know their customer than many think—just see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Grid Data Analytics for Customer Engagement.
Unlike the vast majority of the private sector, utilities already have access to many different types of information for their entire target consumer base. Customer information and billing systems are a starting point, but with advanced metering infrastructure and other forms of intelligent grid monitoring becoming commonplace, there is additional relevant data being collected across the grid. Navigating data privacy correctly, utilities will be able to consolidate information on many different levels to track customers’ energy usage and pinpoint their needs–the first step to effective marketing. This is something that competitors with limited data may perpetually be stuck guessing about, and might be the edge that utilities will be looking for.