Keeping the lights on: Readying utility business marketing for the rebound

Keeping the lights on: Readying utility business marketing for the rebound
Apr 24, 2020

How should you market your energy efficiency programs to business customers in a way that’s appropriate and effective in today’s COVID-19 climate? Here are 7 tips to consider.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many marketing professionals have been following the crisis communication guidance of not going “dark” by staying engaged with consumers through tone-appropriate communications. Utility corporate communicators have similarly followed suit: disseminating thoughtful messaging that stays on brand and strikes the right tone around community, resiliency, support, and safety.

While utility corporate communications are staying front and center, what is happening to utility energy efficiency program marketing? The industry has fallen into two distinct camps: halting all efficiency program marketing, or continuing with marketing, albeit often at a significantly scaled back level.

Utilities that have halted program marketing might want to reconsider that decision of “going dark.” Yes, businesses may not be buying right now, but they are still monitoring, learning, planning, and adapting. During a period of significant revenue decline, measures like energy efficiency will play a vital role in helping businesses manage expenses. Staying engaged with business customers around energy efficiency is, therefore, more important than ever.

What are the right messages and to whom? Business decision makers—notoriously challenging to reach even in the best of economic times—will likely not be prioritizing utility energy efficiency communications when the name of the game will be business survival.

Whether you’ve paused or significantly ratcheted back your marketing efforts, it’s crucial to know when you should relaunch or scale marketing of these important offerings—in a way that puts your business customers first. Below are seven tips for connecting with your customers now and readying your program marketing for the rebound:

1. Keep calm and reset

When something jarring, unexpected, and sad happens it understandably throws us all for a loop. We’re in this together. Now is not the time for “business as usual.” Consider your marketing plans as living documents that must be flexed to adjust to continually changing landscapes.

As marketers, agility and empathy are fundamental to what we do. Now is the time to take the pulse of your target audiences and adjust your tactics accordingly. See the world through your audiences’ eyes and craft messages that build trust and inspire action. It’s not just our job to know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it—it’s our innate nature as marketers.

The lifecycle of most business energy efficiency programs is long. What you stop or shift in your marketing today will impact your programs much further down the road. Dust off what little dust has collected on your annual plans by now and see where you can reset.

2. Support your relationships

You’re likely checking in more regularly these days with your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. You show up for your relationships. Show up for your program participants, too.

Nurturing your existing pipeline and showing you genuinely care builds loyalty. You’ve invested significant time and resources in your program participants—now is the time to show up for them. Help them navigate these uncertain times by providing resources and information to build their confidence that they are doing the right thing. Tell them what they need to know, not what you want them to know.

Re-prioritize and focus on the middle of your sales funnel. Help customers continue their journey. Getting past participants to reengage provides you with a faster ROI than attracting and nurturing new leads—which requires significantly more time and investment. When Frederick Reichheld transformed the business industry with the creation of the Net Promoter Score, he found increasing retention rates by 5% increases profits by over 25%.

That’s not to say you should forget about lead generation altogether. If you don’t keep up some lead generation tactics, there will come a day when you have no one left in your funnel. But bear in mind that it’s not about the volume of leads right now, it’s about the quality of the leads.

3. Humanize, socialize, and be real

Utility commercial customers are more than accounts, meters, or buildings. Your commercial customers are humans with consumer-based mindsets and experiences. Put yourself in their shoes.

Facility managers have been focused on keeping their mostly empty building operational and safe. Support them with what they need to do their job today, not the job they were doing a few months ago. Share relevant messages to build trust so when they are ready, they will come to you.

Your audience is not in a position to make a decision today, so don’t ask. Shift your conversation and tone to be present but without asking for commitment. Be authentic, compassionate, and trustworthy. Because everyone is busy and distracted, it’s more important than ever to be clear and avoid over-messaging.

Practice social listening. Assign someone to monitor social media accounts of top customer targets. Or join a customer meeting with your sales team. It’s never been easier to “ride-along” than it is today by simply joining a phone call. What are your customers saying about their business? What are they saying to their own customers? Use this to frame your new messaging and talk their talk.

4. See it, hear it, revise it

If you haven’t already done so, audit your images and messaging and revise any that appear too sales- or profit-oriented. See your images through today’s lens. How many pictures of handshaking, hugs, smiling healthcare workers with masks, or bustling retail establishments with “open” signs are you using?

Hear your words through today’s speaker. There really have been “better times” to upgrade, grocery stores are not concerned with product shelf life, and you’re not asking customers to “stop in at a participating distributor location.”

As you adapt your imagery and message, aim to be clear, concise, and direct. Change your message but make sure you have a message.

5. Use data and empathy to help you recalibrate

Emotions are running high right now, but emotion alone cannot be the driver of business decisions. But on the other hand, data alone may be too volatile to drive marketing decisions. You need both—balance your “gut instincts” against the data, using it as a directional compass in the short term to steer your decision-making.

Now is a good time to build marketing dashboards if you don’t already have quality data visualization in place. This will allow you to monitor trends and performance of tactics including digital media, emails, and social media.

Has performance in any area taken a hit? Have other channels out-performed expectations? Your paid search results may be down, but your recorded ad on podcasts has likely grown rapidly in number of listeners. Should you be adding negative keywords to your media ads so as not to appear directly next to COVID-19 messaging? Or does your program have new resources that should be added to your keyword list? Work with your tools and teams to track engagement and optimize.

6. Don’t toss tactics that you could repurpose

All is not lost. There’s still plenty of opportunity to repurpose your plans and shift to new tactics and channels—or modify existing tactics to fit the moment. This might be the best time to (thoughtfully) pilot new B2B marketing tactic trends—like visual storytelling.

Channels, such as events, which are often a big lead generator have taken a significant hit that will likely continue even as the economy re-opens. Were you planning a panel presentation at a cancelled event? Turn your presentation into a webinar, video, or blog post.

Perhaps you had planned an outbound calling campaign to new contacts but are suddenly worried you don’t have the right phone numbers or that the planned message isn’t appropriate. Consider shifting your budget to a live chat function on your website and let customers come to you.

Regarding messaging: You will need to retool your hard-sell CTA to be softer and less salesy, but you can and should still be out there. With some extra time these days, you can finally write the content you’ve always dreamed of having to promote. Build your collection for when you’re ready to use it and then make it easy for your customers to find and access. Now is not the time for clicks and gated content.

7. It’s not over when it’s over; plan for a lengthy rebound

Finally, revisit your revised plan and do so often. The pivoting you’re doing now will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s a fluid situation and marketing, too, must be fluid. New trends will continue to emerge.

While there may be pent-up demand to get energy projects going as soon as businesses reopen, many businesses will be impacted for a long time to come. It will be a new normal. You will not be able to go back to your original plan.

If you take the thoughtful time to remain in market and not go dark, your program’s rebound will be better for it. You’ll have an easier, quicker time scaling back up in the market—because you will have been there all along.


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Meet the author
  1. 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

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