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Today's electric utilities are using new tools

While the most obvious use case for social media in the utility industry is during power outages or other events that affect customer service, many electric utilities are finding other positive uses for social media, too.

Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn are finding their way into savvy utilities' communication toolboxes, and being used to positive effect in building new and better customer relationships.

Last year, E Source published its "Utility Social Media Survey," which included questions about social media business drivers, tools, staffing and governance. At the time of its release, Matthew Burks, senior manager of E Source Mass-Market Services, noted: "The most successful utilities see the long-term implications of this channel and are investing the time, staff and infrastructure to integrate it into their daily operations."

According to the utilities that participated in the survey, who were asked which utilities they considered to be social media leaders, Avista ranked at the top of the list of investor-owned utilities. Intelligent Utility magazine spoke to Avista's Dan Kolbet and Linda Jones about the utility's social media efforts, and how they began.

We also interviewed Nashville Electric Service, which ranked high on the list of public utility social media leaders. Laurie Parker, the utility's communications coordinator and and architect behind its social media strategy, told us about the series of storms and resultant flood in 2010 that put Nashville Electric's social media plan, launched in 2009, to the ultimate test.

Sharing in online communities is a big step for an industry that has, by nature, been used to one-way communication throughout its history, and dealing with customer issues in the call center. But as consumers, and the utility's consumers, use these online tools in greater numbers, the utility that chooses not to use them stands to get lost in the fog.

Studies have shown that it's not just the teens and 20-somethings using Facebook, Twitter and more. For example, the fastest-growing group on Facebook is between 25 and 45 years of age, and they're not just playing FarmVille. Instead, they are building online communities, and becoming influencers in those communities.

Scott Klososky, author of "Enterprise Social Technology: Helping Organizations Harness the Power of Social Media, Social Networking, Social Relevancy" and "The Velocity Manifesto", explains the social media phenomenon this way: "Technology is changing the world more than we understand. Social technology is just another part of the toolbox that people can reach into."

But beyond communication, social media tools also offer an excellent opportunity to gain valuable customer intelligence, beyond customer segmentation. Embracing "Social CRM," or social customer relationship management, means an opportunity for a new and better relationship with customers. Even dissatisfied customers, who may tweet something negative about the utility, offer an opportunity for the  utility to engage, and to make things right.

Klososky and other social media experts offer the following general advice for companies getting into the social communication space:

  • Determine your audience. Some say niche audiences are better (this is where customer segmentation can come into play), and others advocate broader messages to begin with, and then interacting one-on-one with specific consumers when needed to solve a problem they're having, or to thank them for a positive Tweet or Facebook message.
  • Monitor what is being said about you online. If you don't know what they're saying about you, you don't know how you're doing. If it's negative, don't get defensive. Fix the problem. If it's positive, build a relationship, because that person could become an influencer in your utility online community, or in others.
  • Think about establishing formal social media guidelines within your organization. For example, you don't want all your employees willy-nilly Tweeting about you. Social media isn't just a tool, it's a power tool, and it needs to be used carefully and safely.
  • Remember that this is a two-way interaction. The best relationships are built not simply by watching what is being said about you, but engaging in a positive, two-way discussion.

"Tomorrow is the battleground you must not lose. Today is just the warm-up," Klososky says of enterprise social technology. "You've got the tools to be creative and innovative. You just have to use them."

Kate Rowland
Intelligent Utility magazine

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