Energy in 30: Account-based marketing strategies for utilities


Tune in to Energy in 30, hosted by Joan Collins and David Meisegeier. In this episode, hear ICF experts Nancy Caplan and Kelly Zonderwyk talk about building utility customer connections with account-based marketing. Together, we discuss how the whole energy system is in the midst of a major transformation and how utilities are working to engage their customers during this transition.

Topics in today’s episode include:

  • Building an opportunity for connectedness from a customer engagement perspective.
  • The emotional side of customer decision-making.
  • How to deliver relevant, personalized experiences for today's digital savvy customers.
  • The data and customer insights needed to create targeted campaigns.

Full transcript below

David: Hi, all, and Happy New Year. Welcome to Energy in 30. We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities and the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals.

Joan: If you're a utility manager, consultant, technology provider, or just curious about energy, we hope to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry, and wow, are they a lot. With me, Joan Collins.

David: And me, David Meisegeier.

Joan: David, how are you? You're just back from Japan, with stories to tell, I'm sure.

David: I have lots of stories. And it was an amazing trip. We were fortunate to have dodged the earthquake...

Joan: Oh, I'm so glad.

David: ...and the plane crash. Who knew that Japan was such a dangerous place? But it was fabulous. But I am glad to be back. So, what's new with you?

Joan: Well, last night I got to see Pulitzer Prize-winning Lynsey Addario. She is an amazing photojournalist that covers all kinds of issues, mostly war zones around the world, but also women's natal issues, as well as, she was just asked to take on a grant with the National Geographic on climate change. She tells all her stories through the lens that she kind of uses as her weapon. And it was profound, and it was really uplifting because everything she's seen, she's been abducted, and she's just seen all kinds of atrocities.

But she still ended her speech with this whole idea about hope and resiliency, and at the end of the day, people are kind, and people are resilient, and she just expressed a lot of hope. So, it was really uplifting. I'm feeling so good today. She has a book coming out. It's called "It's What I Do," and I can't wait to get it. I pre-ordered it.

David: That's awesome.

Joan: Yeah. But speaking of game-changing women, we have two on with us, to celebrate our 20th episode.

David: That's right. We are thrilled to have Nancy Caplan and Kelly Zonderwyk join us today. Nancy is Senior Vice President, Energy Marketing, at ICF, and has more than 35 years of strategic communications and marketing experience in the energy industry. And Kelly is ICF's Director of Commercial Energy Marketing, with more than 20 years of experience designing and delivering award-winning energy efficiency programs, and marketing campaigns for utilities and local governments. So, Nancy and Kelly, welcome to both of you. We're thrilled to have you on.

Nancy: Thanks for having us.

Kelly: Thanks, David.

Joan: I've so been looking forward to this. I love talking to you both, always, but this is just gonna be so much fun, so... We're really excited to be starting the year off by talking with you both about marketing and the utility space. What's interesting? What do you have going on right now that you're working on?

Building an opportunity for connectedness from a customer engagement perspective

Nancy: Oh, gosh. So much. Thanks, Joan. As David just reminded me, I've been in this industry for almost four decades now. And I've had this front-row seat, seeing a lot of significant shifts that have been going on in our business. But right now, it's just at a real pinnacle, I think, that, you know, from decarbonization to electrification to customer engagement, the whole energy system is in the midst of a major transformation. And then you add to that the investments that are now available, through such things as the Inflation Reduction Act, they've been real game-changers for making sure that this transformation on the grid, in our communities, into a cleaner energy future really happens, because it's so critical.

So, for me as a marketer, what has been really exciting is how utilities are working to engage their customers these days. You know, when I started in this business, utilities didn't have customers. They called them ratepayers, and you were identified by your meter, and not by your name. And, you know, that's about as impersonal as you can get, right?

Joan: So true, Nancy.

Nancy: Yeah. So, from a customer engagement perspective, utilities have gone through this significant, you know, transformation, I guess, slow transformation, over the decades. But now, with smart meters in every home and business, there's so much more data at their fingertips, to really help customers manage their energy, and also to help the utility manage the grid so that it's more resilient, which is all the more critical now, and it's also more efficient. And that's important for all of us, just given the critical need to, you know, decarbonize.

You talked about climate change, Joan. You talked about earthquakes, David. You know, climate change doesn't get more real than that, what we've just seen happen, just this past week. We had massive snow up north, and flooding, tornadoes that moved across the East Coast. You know, for a utility, it means outages, and making sure every home and business knows exactly, you know, what happened, and when power's gonna be restored. And so, you know, customer engagement is, it's also customer livelihood that's impacted.

So, for me, what's exciting is just being a part of how utilities can engage better with their customers. We've called it, amongst ourselves, is, you know, building an opportunity for connectedness, from a customer engagement perspective. We've been focused on trying to help utilities reimagine their connectedness, and how they engage with their customers on a more personal level. And that includes business customers.

In the marketing world, we call it business-to-business, B2B. But, you know, the B2B buyer landscape has never been more complex or challenging, especially when you're talking to them from the perspective of a utility, and the changes in buyer preferences and lifecycle require a more orchestrated marketing strategy, where the customer needs have to be at the core of the action that you take. And so, that, in itself, has forced utilities to really rethink their marketing, and how they're able to do that with each customer. Joan: I love that word, connectedness. Can you share a little bit more about that, what it means?

Kelly: Sure. I can take that. I think connectedness is about being more customer-centric. And when you do that, you have to first really value the people at the businesses that you're trying to connect with, right? I think it's really about human relationships, which we all understand are grounded in empathy and in trust. I think it's also about building a sense of community, which is a sense of belonging, and really just being present, even when you don't have anything to ask of the other person, or they don't have a need from you. It's checking in, and being present. And I think as fast as Nancy just described, the business landscape, the marketing landscape, the energy industry, all are rapidly changing. But there's this one constant that we can all count on. Everyone, even in their work life, wants a sense of connection.

I would say, as a marketer, there's no greater training than being out in the field, and interacting, and witnessing interactions with your target audience. And I've had a lot of really great opportunity. I've been very fortunate to be able to get out into the field throughout my career. I've been in the back hallways of facilities, I've gone deep into the basements, into equipment rooms. I've climbed all the way up to the top of very tall buildings. And throughout it all, I've seen how each person that takes me on those tours, and takes meetings, whether it be business owners, or building owners, facility managers, property managers, whomever it is, everyone wants to share their stories, and they wanna showcase their efforts. They want to get some support, some assistance, some validation, maybe even they want some recognition for all of their hard work along the way. So, I think when we're talking about this, especially within the utility world, what we're really talking about is moving beyond acting like we're talking to a building, or to an account, or to a meter, or about a piece of equipment, and really starting to value who we're talking to, which is the people behind all those things, right?

Joan: Yes.

Kelly: So, at the end of the day, I think connectedness really is boiling down to your business customers being humans too. And there's an actual person, often more than one, behind every decision that a business is making.

The emotional side of customer decision-making

David: So true. But, on one hand, it's, like, the ideal state that you're talking about. I mean, utilities are juggling lots of priorities. I mean, we talk about keeping the power on during outages. How important is it really for utilities to be thinking about this today?

Nancy: Great question, David. You're not the only one that's asked that question. Traditionally, any marketing efforts in the B2B space have really been more transactional, you know, so, logical, and rational. But what we're talking about right now is just taking a page out of the consumer marketing, and focusing not just on the dollars and cents behind a decision, but also the emotional and personal side of what goes into making that decision. And then, even having some fun with it.

Because, as Kelly said, who doesn't wanna feel a deeper connection and valued for their efforts? So, if you're gonna go make a large investment in your building to electrify it, it's huge, right? And it's huge not just from the money that's invested, but operationally. And so, behind that, business customers are humans too. And many of these same customers are probably even your residential customers, and they're out in the community, engaging in all the different spaces that you serve. So, those business customers are coming with that consumer mindset, that digital-based experience. And they expect, in every interaction that they have with you, that it's the same way that they can interact with businesses as the consumer.

David: So, they're businesses, but they're customers?

Nancy: Exactly. Exactly. And what's even more fascinating... You know, we went through so much with COVID, and our world truly did change during that time. And now that we've somewhat come out of it, there's a whole new, what we call, like, cohort of business decision-makers. You know, like, more and more people are retiring, and their roles are being filled by a younger generation, by millennials. You know, they're now the ones that are truly in the driver's seat. And they grew up with this notion of a personalized, customized marketing, that values them, that knows them, and they expect their utility to know them too.

Kelly: Yeah. And I would also add, Nancy, that it's not just us saying this, right? Business customers have been telling us this over and over again in recent years, that they really want more personalized touch. I think, by nature of the fact that a majority of today's decision-makers are those millennials, that means they're the most digital-savvy generation of decision makers yet. They want to grow their own personal brands, they have deeper commitments to social responsibility, they want deeper content at their fingertips, when they try to find it, so they're looking for speed and immediacy. And they spend more time researching online, and arriving at decisions before they're even connecting with you. They also wanna really enjoy their jobs. Who doesn't wanna enjoy their job? But this generation wants to enjoy their job more than any before. They don't want stuffy and transactional anymore.

And I think we've been hearing that over and over again in different research and focus groups we've run. No matter who we're talking to, no matter the type of business or the job function that they fill, they're constantly saying the same things to us in these focus groups. "I wanna see myself in your materials. I want you to know my business, so I don't feel like I'm educating you when you're coming to meet with me." Or even, "I want you to remember the last thing we talked about, or the last project I did, so that I can trust you that you're going to help guide me to the next best action." And I think that that also tracks to, when we think about, for instance, customer satisfaction scores. When you can point to a dedicated account manager that's assigned to a particular business, you naturally see an overall increase in satisfaction. That just makes sense. But you can't have a dedicated account manager for every single account that you have. So, this is really all about how do you scale that level of personalized service, but in a more efficient and effective way?

Nancy: And that's what we call account-based marketing.

Kelly: ABM is definitely a strategic framework that gets you there. It's helping utilities deliver these more relevant and personalized experiences, and to do so in the digital space.

Account-based marketing (ABM): How to deliver relevant, personalized experiences for today's digital savvy customers

David: Huh. So, I've heard of account-based marketing before, but I never realized exactly what it was. So, that's a little interesting to hear. And, not sure that I realized it could be applied to utilities. So, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Nancy: Sure, sure. Actually, we joke amongst ourselves that it's a little misleading, if you're looking at it through a utility lens. It's really not about your large [inaudible 00:16:02] management teams that every utility has. Or at least it's not only about them. It's not even just owned by marketing, as the name implies. It's a framework, it's a strategy, that's probably the easiest way to look at it, for how to deliver relevant, personalized experiences for today's digital-savvy business decision makers. And it does it in a more coordinated way, between your marketing team and between your outreach teams. So, it builds upon something that you've probably heard a lot about. You know, in marketing, you always wanna, you know, be out there at the right time, at the right place, with the right message, so that you can get somebody to be interested in what you're trying to talk to them about.

And so, this ABM is, it's sort of a layer deeper from the traditional general awareness marketing that we would do, or the more hyper-targeted marketing that we do to build leads. It's layering that onto your general awareness and your lead generation, so that you make sure that the customers you're trying to reach are able to take advantage of the program that you're offering, and it helps them get to their goals. You still need to be marketing and advertising, building your brand, building your trust. You still need to do your program marketing, and providing level education and proof points, and then you need to pull people in, interested customers that really can benefit from your products. And that's where account-based marketing comes in.

Joan: You'd think with such a, kind of, profound framework of connectedness that more utilities would be adopting this. What's causing maybe the lag, or are they? I don't know, but my sense is that there's still a lot of room for adoption of this.

Kelly: Oh, boy. It's an easy answer. I think it's also a difficult one. I think it's because most utilities don't have the right data or the deeper customer insights on a majority of their commercial accounts. And so, it's not going to be easy to jump in and become more targeted and more personalized when utilities are still struggling with an old structure to their data management.

The data and customer insights needed to create targeted campaigns

Kelly: Yeah. The account data, I mean, it was always established to measure meters and to get bills paid, not to understand the types of businesses. And definitely not to capture multiple different decision maker contact information at the business. It was meant to capture accounts billable office contacts, so that they could get the bills paid. And now today, there's more and more data available, sure, and utilities are collecting it, but it's entering this data lake. And so, it's all about how do you take that data and get to real, actionable intelligence that's specific to a given business target you're trying to engage?

You need to be able to understand their needs, and to follow their customer journey, and know when they're ready to act. But at the end of the day, a data-driven approach is still all about the people. And the data is providing you with crucial guidance. You still need to be able to step into their shoes and relate to them. So, one of my favorite phrases is "features tell, but benefits sell." But how can you talk about benefits if you're not able to put a face to the business target that you're about to engage with?

David: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. I think it's becoming more clear to me, so I'm appreciating this conversation. Why is now the right time for utilities to be taking this on?

Kelly: It's definitely the right time for utilities to be taking this on. It's an investment. It's very much an involved, strategic framework. It's a walk-before-you-run, pilot, and then scale type of approach. But frankly, I would say, if you don't start today, you won't have it tomorrow. And with such a rapidly-changing landscape, like we've talked about, and these new demands, by new generations of decision makers, if you're not already starting to think about this and work towards this, you're just falling further and further behind.

Nancy: And Kelly, you know, to be honest, we have started, that there is a lot of interest out there, because...

Kelly: Absolutely.

Nancy: ...utilities know that this is the all the more critical time to be engaged with your customers because of the changes that are happening in the industry, and because of what the utilities need to accomplish, you know. And they need to accomplish it as a partner. So, you know, ABM's been around probably, gosh, what, Kelly? Since the early 2000s. And so, it was about seven years ago or so that we started to see an interest from utilities to learn more about account-based marketing approach. And then they also were saying, "Okay, we wanna do more than just drive awareness, and just educate about our programs. We want people to take advantage of our programs." And so, then it became our marketing efforts with utilities, especially around energy efficiency program adoption, has been to focus on lead generation. And this just fueled the need for better targeting. You know, program goals got harder for utilities to reach, the budgets got tighter. There's a saturation in the market around larger customers, and new focus on how to reach that missing middle, those small to midsize businesses that were untapped, and harder-to-reach segments of the customer base. And so, we began to stand up landing pages with lead gen forums, and we saw utilities begin to shift, you know, from just measure and sector-specific messaging, and even website designs, to, you know, more personalized, sector-specific web pages.

Outreach and marketing began to be more tightly-aligned and integrated, and we began to be held accountable. This was huge. We were held accountable for tracking the results of what we brought in. If they're investing their money in marketing, prove to us that it's working. And so, it's no longer marketing lobbing a lead over the wall to the outreach, and hoping somebody would catch it, or no longer is it acceptable for the outreach people just to always point the finger at marketing, saying, you know, "Why are you bringing me in that pizza shop on the corner when I really need the big guy?" And so, instead of pointing fingers, they really had to work together to close the deals. And thus was born this accelerated interest and need for ABM.

Joan: Oh, wow.

Nancy: And it's not just at the program level to meet savings goals, but it's also at the corporate level, for things like loyalty, and retention, and growth, and acquisition strategies.

Joan: So, it works?

Kelly: Absolutely. Yes. And I would say we have some case studies that we can walk anyone through, but all you have to do is simply search online for ABM, and you will find case study after case study, stat after stat, that tells you the significant lift in your return on investment when you're implementing an ABM approach.

And, you know, that greater ROI is because if you work the ABM framework, your teams, especially marketing and outreach, like Nancy just outlined, are going to be better aligned and more coordinated. And as a result of that alignment and coordination, and everyone working to target the same set of customers, knowing who's on first, collecting the right data points, you're getting a more accurate and manageable pipeline, you're netting the people who you need to bring in, because you're all focused on those customers, and you're staying in touch along their journey, so you're able to nudge and influence them.

Which also means, by the way, that they can participate at a faster rate, because you're there in the crucial moments, in those micro-moments of action. And all of that, I would say doesn't just help you efficiently get to your goals, but it also gets you happier and more satisfied customers, because now you're delivering your offers in a way in which they wanna be engaged with. So, it's this more seamless experience, and that leads to even greater opportunities for ongoing engagement with your business customers.

David: That all makes so much sense.

Joan: Well, this has been such a great discussion, and we always like to end the podcast with a question to each of you. And that's, if you could do one thing to change the industry, no limits, what would you do? Kelly, why don't we start with you?

Kelly: Well, I think everything I've said today probably makes my answer pretty apparent, but I'd say that I would make sure marketing and outreach teams all have access to the same cleaned-up, organized data at the same time, across the entire engagement funnel.

Nancy: Nice, Kelly. It's hard to top that one. So, the stakes have never been higher for all marketers, but especially B2B marketers. And what Kelly just said is to really deliver value. I want utilities to be able to deliver value at every top point that you're having with your customers, so that you can build a more satisfied, loyal customer base, and a stronger brand.

And I think that I want to help utilities, through marketing, make sure that their customers know that they are always there as their trusted partner, who can help customers make the important energy decisions when they need to make them, and why they need to make them. And together, I think that we can help achieve that cleaner energy future that is so critical for all of us.

David: I love that.

Joan: Me too.

David: So cool. Well, if you wanna delve more into ABM, you could check out a couple of articles that we have on our website. We'll link to them on the website for the podcast. One is on how utilities can forge stronger connections with their business customers. And another is how utilities can achieve connectedness with C&I customers through targeted marketing.

If you've enjoyed this conversation as much as I have, please let a colleague or a friend know about it. It is one of the best ways that people can come to know about our podcast, and we would sure appreciate you liking, sharing, and even subscribing to our podcast.

Joan: And we wish you a Happy New Year, especially as David and I celebrate this 20th episode with Nancy and Kelly. Thanks to you both so much for joining us. And we thank all of you listening for your continued interest in the podcast, and look forward to our next Energy in 30.

Meet the authors
  1. David Meisegeier, Vice President, Finance and Smart Homes Programs

    David helps innovate customer-centric energy programs that meet utilities’ current and future needs, with nearly 30 years of experience in the energy industry. View bio

  2. Nancy Caplan, Senior Vice President, Energy Marketing

    Nancy Caplan has more than 25 years of strategic communications and marketing experience in the energy industry with expertise in strategic planning and implementation, brand development and campaign management, executive consulting and writing; crisis communications and issues management, employee communications and media relations; event planning and production; and publication editing and design. View bio

  3. Kelly Zonderwyk, Director of Commercial Energy Marketing and Outreach

    With nearly 20 years of experience, Kelly designs and delivers award-winning energy efficiency programs and marketing campaigns for utility programs and local governments. View bio

The latest Energy news, explained.

Subscribe to get insights, commentary, and forecasts in your inbox.

File Under