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Blue sky social media: How to retain and engage followers after the storm

Construction worker and city lights

It’s three days after a hurricane first hit your region. The winds have finally calmed down, power has been restored to all customers, and your utility is returning to normal operations. You’re a communications manager settling into a normal day, when you check your utility’s social media channels and realize that your network grew exponentially during the storm. Your small community swelled seemingly overnight. First, you celebrate this social media success with a fresh cup of coffee. Then, you ask yourself, how do I retain these new audience members and keep them engaged outside of a major weather event?

Utilities typically gain the most social media growth during storms. Information-hungry customers turn to social media during emergencies for frequent updates on outages and restoration times. For example, Unitil, a provider of natural gas and electricity to customers in New England, experienced a 10% increase in total Twitter followers and a 60% increase in Facebook likes following a Thanksgiving storm in 2014.  The challenge that many utilities face is how to provide value and build relationships with social media users outside of these weather events.

Following, is a blueprint that Unitil uses to retain and engage social media users during the 360-plus days of the year when the sky is blue and major weather events do not occur.

Identify content themes and sources

The key to a successful blue-sky social media strategy is content, and to obtain a steady stream of content, you must identify the key messaging themes or content buckets that you will focus on, such as preparedness, safety and energy efficiency. Then, look inside your organization and determine who can provide you with information pertaining to those themes. For example, do you have a system arborist who can feed you information about vegetation management projects and spring tree planting advice? Do you have an energy efficiency expert who can provide seasonal tips for saving energy?

Remember, your content is only as good as the internal communications flow at your organization. You need strong lines of communication internally before you can communicate effectively externally. If you find it difficult to obtain information from in-house experts, consider joining already scheduled departmental meetings where they share updates, or host a bi-weekly interdepartmental call to hear the latest news, straight from the sources.

You should also build lists of external influencers, such as police and fire departments, municipalities, non-profits, and media outlets, who share information on social media that is in line with your key messaging themes. Unitil regularly shares content from non-profit partners such as the American Red Cross and the United Way, which adds variety to its social channels. Industry peers, including other utilities, can also offer content ideas and inspiration. The key is to provide value and share content that is relevant to your customers’ daily lives.

Build a content calendar

Once you have a steady stream of content flowing in, you should develop a system for organizing the information.  A content calendar that organizes messages by theme, date, time, and platform is a great place to start. Pre-scheduled content ensures that proactive messages are shared consistently, and allows you to focus on engaging with followers in real-time.

When you create your schedule, balance the type of content you are sharing (video, photo, etc.) so there is a variety in your posts, and match the content type to the platform. For example, short, text-based messages work best for Twitter. Photos and videos perform well on Facebook, and are also a growing trend on Twitter.

When building the calendar, put yourself in your followers’ shoes.  With each piece of content, ask yourself, “Is this a complicated message?” If the answer is yes, consider how you can communicate the message simply and maybe even visually. Is there a landing page on your website with a diagram explaining the process? Can you create an infographic to illustrate it? Do you have a video or animation that breaks the message down into easy-to-understand pieces? Develop visual content specifically for social media that not only tells, but also shows, your story. You can also create evergreen graphics that you can use multiple times, such as storm safety tips and seasonal preparedness messages.

Monitor and engage

Listening is a critical part of social media. Pay attention to what your followers are saying and seek out opportunities to engage them in conversation. By engaging with your followers, you reinforce the idea that a real person is behind the keyboard, thereby building trust in your organization. Look for opportunities to jump into conversations where you can provide value and offer solutions. Each conversation is an opportunity to convert a neutral follower --- or even a detractor --- into a loyal brand ambassador.

Listening is much easier if you use a social media management tool that allows you to monitor all your social channels in one place, such as Hootsuite or Sprout Social.  A social media management tool is especially important if you have multiple team members managing your channels, because it allows you to assign responses to team members, and track ongoing conversations, ensuring that no follower questions or comments are ignored.

Analyze and refine

Now that you have identified content sources, set up a content calendar, and developed a strategy for listening and engaging followers, you can rest easy, right? Not quite.

Pay attention to the trends of your social networks. Are you shedding followers weekly, or gaining them? What happened --- or didn’t happen --- the week they dropped off? Take a careful look at the engagement statistics for each post. By analyzing your best and worst performing posts, you can determine what type of content resonates with your network.  Analyzing data can help you determine if certain days or times are better for sharing content. Constantly review what’s working and what isn’t and make adjustments accordingly.

Of course, the key to success for any utility’s social media strategy is continuous flexibility. Create your content calendar, but keep in mind that a weather event or emergency might require you to quickly switch gears and change your messaging for a day or an extended period of time.  By developing a framework of quality content that is relevant and informative, you can ensure that your network will continue to turn to you long after the sky has cleared and the power has been restored.


Learn more about what your customers want in digital and mobile arenas at the Mobile Utility Summit in Dallas, Sept, 2015.

Stephanie Francoeur's picture

Thank Stephanie for the Post!

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