Internet and mobile devices shape our daily lives and have an enormous influence on our communication and consumption behavior. Customers are better informed and more empowered than ever before thanks to the new media. The decision about which energy provider to choose not only depends on attractive products, but also good service and useful additional services. And to ensure that this information actually reaches the customers, many different communication channels have to be activated these days. Alexandra Radl, head of marketing at Austria’s largest energy supplier “Wien Energie”, for six years, explains to WINGAS why social networks are so important and how small municipal utilities can take advantage of cross-media opportunities too.
WINGAS: We live in an increasingly intertwined world. Digitalization is penetrating all areas of life and communication is becoming faster and more direct. What impact does this have on municipal utilities and what do the customers require from the utility companies?
Alexandra Radl: Customer needs have become more complex as a result of digitalization. These days customers demand transparency and fairness from their energy supplier and want added value on top of that. Increasingly, this is in response to individual lifestyles and the corresponding energy lifestyles. Municipal utilities must adapt to this. The challenge is to know your target groups precisely. The central questions that need to be asked are: “Who am I dealing with here?”, “What does the customer need?” and “How can I approach this target group?”. Utility companies will only keep their customers and grow long-term if they maintain close customer relationships and adopt a service-oriented approach.
How exactly can municipal utilities meet these challenges?
First of all the companies have to ask themselves what their goals are and what sort of customers they are serving. This is crucial because the marketing strategy is derived from this information. We have noticed that the focus must be on the customer relationship. You have to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Energy is a product that goes almost unnoticed. That makes it all the more important to give the brand an emotional appeal, to communicate it actively and keep it present in customers’ minds. Most people look for values like trust, reliability and security. An energy supplier that provides sustainable products and advises customers well gives the customer a good feeling. And that is what it’s all about: giving the customer the feeling that they are with the right energy provider. And cross-media communication is an essential tool in this process.
What form can cross-media communication take?
An energy supplier must be able to get their customers on board and engender enthusiasm among them. That can be achieved with interesting topics and convincing products that personally benefit the customers. When you spread these topics over as many channels as possible, the reach is enormous. But there is no one easy recipe for doing this. Which channels should be used varies from utility to utility .
Can this also be combined with sponsorship activities?
Yes, sponsorship is a good way of making the public aware of your brand. “Wien Energie”, for example, sponsors SK Rapid Wien, Austria’s largest football club. The advertising on football strips ensures the brand is always present in the spectators‘ minds and also promotes the image. Sponsorship also allows you to organize special activities, such as a photo shoot with the players, and thus give your own customers the chance to meet players in an exclusive meet & greet or to win tickets for the matches. These are also contents that can be used on channels like Twitter and facebook. It is very easy to build a bridge here between traditional marketing activities and social media – which delivers a great deal of added value for the customers and the company.
When did “Wien Energie” begin with its cross-media communication activities?
We started examining the energy needs of our customers from the marketing perspective more closely about five years ago. We also gradually brought the various marketing departments of our subsidiaries together under one roof in order to harness the potential for synergies more effectively and to find a uniform line of communication. In 2010 the starting signal was then given to integrate the social media into our marketing communication strategy. First we developed our profile on facebook and started our own blog, where we told interesting background stories, accompanied traditional campaigns with interactive tools and reported on events. Other channels such as Twitter and youtube were added afterwards.
What has your experience of social media been?
We now have a Social Media Manager with overall responsibility and a cross-departmental editing team to take care of our social media presence, whereby the content comes from many different departments. For example, our HR department uses the channels to position itself as an attractive employer. In addition, an agency supports us with these media activities. To ensure we present the same image to the outside world, we also coordinate our activities closely with the communications department. That is particularly advantageous when drawing up integrated campaigns. And we are successful with this strategy: we currently have more than 1,800 followers on Twitter and over 26,000 facebook fans of “Wien Energie”.
Why is the dialog via social networks so important and how can a municipal utility communicate successfully via these platforms?
Long-term customer loyalty is not possible without a dialog. As an energy supplier, we have to position ourselves broadly and with a diversified approach for the future. There is no escaping social networks because much of our lives these days takes place online. For successful communication you have to know the customers’ needs, otherwise you don’t tune in to the customers and your marketing activities are futile. For municipal utilities it is important to remain authentic and personable in social networks too, and to keep the brand promise. These platforms offer energy suppliers a good opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors and thus to highlight their added value.
It is difficult for smaller utilities in particular to use all these communication channels at the same time because they do not have the resources. What are the possibilities for these utilities and which channels are the most suitable for entering the field of cross-media communication?
Every municipal utility has to weigh up which opportunities best suit its needs. Generally speaking, it is possible to undertake cross-media communication even with limited resources. Initially it makes sense to bring on board an Internet-savvy colleague that enjoys working in this area to develop something together. This person can also come from another department. A good way to start, for example, is a regularly updated blog that explains how the energy market works or reports on campaigns. What is important is telling stories and revealing the people behind the products. This way you can bring even abstract themes on to a personal level. Even channels where there is less focus on dialog can be a good starting point. One or two posts per day on facebook are one possibility, or offering competitions with prizes. For those who are willing to invest a bit of money in this area you can communicate topics effectively via short video clips that can be posted on the homepage or on video portals. I recommend Twitter for media and public relations work because it reaches more journalists and experts.
Which communication channels will play a more important role in future for utility companies?
I think that youtube is an important one because with moving images you can convey more content and emotion that really reach the customers. The threshold to reading a written text is much higher than watching a short video. Videos will also play an increasingly important role when it comes to the use of mobile devices.