Written by Jonathan Levy

Funny thing electricity. It’s so fundamental to everything we do and yet as a product it’s a pretty complicated thing to communicate.

Like few other commodities on earth it’s almost completely abstract. It’s an invisible but pervasive product – a constant presence in the background. In fact, as anyone who’s ever experienced a power cut knows all too well, the only time most people become aware of electricity is when it isn’t there.

It makes communicating about it an interesting challenge, not least because of the way the industry is evolving.

Where people get their energy from and how they manage it is changing rapidly. This is not only affecting consumers’ relationships with the way energy is produced, but also their relationships with the companies that supply it.

Take energy storage for example. Tipped by many as the next big thing, energy storage could bring a whole new dimension to the way we generate and, of course, consume energy.

Firstly, there are practical implications. By storing energy, users can take greater control over when they draw power from the grid, or – if they have onsite generation – when they use what they’ve produced themselves or sell any surplus back to the system.

There’s a big upside to this – it reduces demand on the grid, and users can choose to buy energy when it’s cheapest and use stored energy when prices are higher. And crucially no energy is wasted.

Another beauty of storage is that it’s scalable, from large industrial users right down to ordinary homes and businesses. In fact, we’re already seeing big players moving into the domestic storage market.

And it’s this implementation at the domestic level that has the potential to create a fundamental shift in the way ordinary people access and use energy going forward. So how will the sector communicate this opportunity in a way that will engage the end user?

Today, most consumers of energy have a pretty transactional seller/buyer relationship with their energy providers, despite changes to the energy supply landscape over the past few years. Once the preserve of the big players, we now have more and more smaller players that consumers can buy their energy from.

But more choice in the market hasn’t necessarily improved consumers’ relationships with their energy suppliers. Actually, customer service remains a bit of a bugbear for the sector affecting incumbents and new players alike.

A Citizen’s Advice table released only this month showed a new supplier attracting the highest proportion of customer complaints ever recorded by a quarterly prepared league table. Whereas only one of the “Big Six” found itself in the bottom four complained about companies.

It’s an ongoing issue but notwithstanding that, we’ve seen big energy companies working to improve the way they reach out to their customers. Take social media for example. Here there are clear signs of engagement by utilities – collectively they had over 50 million people worldwide engaging with them via social media in 2011. That number is expected to rise to over 600 million by 2017.

But is it enough?

As the sector evolves, its messaging and the way it communicates those messages need to adapt with it.

Because if local, decentralised generation and storage extend down to domestic users on a large scale (as many hope it will), energy provision will cease to be an exclusively one-way street.

It means customers could become energy producers – managers of this commodity rather than passive consumers.

The rise of the “prosumer” has the potential to change customers’ relationships with energy companies – and that could mean a change in the exchanges we have with them.

And that’s the point. Communications should be a two-way conversation.

We live in an age when the opportunities for conversations, for dialogue, have never been greater. We have the internet, we have social media and we have mobile devices.

Communications between consumer facing organisations and their customers through these channels is normal and it is expected.

So, how can they elevate their communications strategy?

At Aspectus, we encourage our clients to think of the media as a connected world spanning social media, publications and their own website. To communicate effectively with their target audience, utilities must understand the value of top quality content, consistent messaging and interactivity.

Good communications – getting your message across in today’s world – is all about having a continuous and positive conversation. But it goes further than that. It’s crucial that content – whether it’s written or visual – is fully optimised around keywords that are built into organisations’ websites. This will have a direct impact on how companies are ranked under key terms by Google.

So, for instance, if as a utility one of your big messages is ‘flexible pricing options’ then you can optimise both your PR and your website around keywords that relate to that notion.

Start with messaging. In this connected world where Google searches and website traffic are crucial, you must be focused around a small number of key messages.

Next, think of the media in its broadest form. For us, the media now includes broadcast, traditional, social and individual websites. There is a dynamic relationship between all these elements when it comes to the treatment and sharing of content generated by you or relevant to you.

Then decide what you want to achieve. It’s important to establish precise KPIs for your communications programme. Be honest and be bold. If you want to transform your image, massively increase the number of people visiting your website, change people’s attitude towards you or understanding of a particular issue then there are ways and means of measuring the impact of your communications investment accurately.

Finally, embrace social media. It’s here. You cannot afford to simply broadcast your PR message through social media and hope it generates engagement. Get involved in the conversations.

Is this a shakeup in communications? Maybe, but really it’s about recognising that relationships with customers are set to change and alongside that, there’s an opportunity to change the way we all talk with one another – and that shouldn’t be missed.

We think the discussion needs to start now and we look forward to being part of it.

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