Utilities, Do More Face-to-Face Public Engagement!

I’m not much for poetry — I know, my loss — but one poem that did make a lasting impression on me was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which I learned in Mr. Gagliardi’s 7th grade English class at St. Theresa’s School in Briarcliff Manor, New York. The poem ended this way:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Looking back, that poem helped awaken a character trait of going against the grain. Lots of people root for the underdog or cheer for the Cinderella team. But I went beyond that. I stopped listening to certain musical groups when they became too popular. I often don’t go to movies (such as animated flicks) that are wildly popular. And I delight in exploring the less-traveled path.

Over the last year, I have learned that some energy companies are exploring a less-well-traveled path when it comes to public engagement. Our just-released market research report, Juggling Chainsaws: 2017 Survey of Utility Communicators and Marketers, shows that many utilities are investing more and more of their money, effort and faith in using digital tools like social media, video, chat and text, to connect with customers.

Credit: iStock

But a few utilities are taking the less-well-traveled path: while they are becoming more digital, they also are cultivating something pre-digital, even pre-historic: direct, face-to-face (F2F) public engagement.

You remember F2F, right? That’s when one person actually spoke directly to another, face-to-face, without electronic intermediaries. So 20th century, right? Nope. And because it is effective as well as cost effective, some utilities are starting to pay attention.

I recently spoke on “the Power of People” at a conference hosted by EUCI and a web conference sponsored by the American Public Power Association (APPA). Both emphasized the power of F2F in public engagement, whether done by employees, retirees or third-party providers working on utilities’ behalf.

The key takeaway on F2F public engagement is pretty simple: Despite the proliferation of digital communications tools, and despite the well-documented preference that Millennials have for living digitally, there are times when you need to look someone in the eye to see if you can trust what they’re saying (or selling).

Why? Because communications is shaded with meaning, and most of the meaning of emotion-laden conversations is conveyed through non-verbal communications.

Verbal vs. Nonverbal Communications: A Study on Silent Messages

Source: Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages

Albert Mehrabian, an emeritus psychology professor at UCLA, conducted experiments that showed, in a F2F setting on an emotional issue, non-verbal communications accounts for more than half of the overall meaning conveyed during that interaction. Non-verbal communications includes eye contact, hand gestures, clothing, body language, facial gestures — basically any and every silent signal.

Using non-verbal communications, you can convey caring, sympathy, anger, interest, concern, boredom or love without having to open your mouth. Your body language can say one thing while your lips are saying another.

Then, when you do open your mouth, the vocal elements of a communication — tone of voice, volume, speed, pitch, pauses, etc. — account for another 33% of meaning in F2F interactions on a sensitive topic, Mehrabian’s research found.

The actual words used during that interaction came in a distant third, accounting for about 7% of the meaning in that interaction. For a wordsmith like me, Mehrabian’s findings dramatically broadened my understanding of communications.

OK, so maybe F2F is worth exploring, I hope you’re thinking. Perhaps Mehrabian has uncovered an insight that could be a useful tactic for energy companies considering F2F public engagement. But actually knocking on peoples’ doors? Didn’t that go out of style with AVON cosmetics, the Fuller Brush salesman and the Encyclopedia Britannica?

Not a chance. Door-to-door is how Girl Scouts sell billions of dollars of cookies today. Door-to-door canvassing and fundraising got Barrack Obama elected president twice. And door-to-door is the tactic the rooftop solar industry is using to become a burr under the utility industry’s saddle.

So no, F2F public engagement, including knocking on doors and having conversations with people, is not dead.

Communications Tip of the Month:The success of any type of communications depends on your message and your messenger. Delivering your message via a live person, rather than an email server or a TV ad blitz, makes a lot of sense at a time when consumers are overwhelmed with marketing noise and are seeking more authenticity and transparency from the companies they do business with.

The Power of Personal Connections

There are times when you need to look into someone’s eyes and ask them questions. During those moments of truth, you will win — or lose — converts based on showing up in person and authentically engaging with another person.

A select few utilities, including Georgia Power, Louisville Gas & Electric and a few public power utilities, as well as the Colorado oil & gas industry along with a company called 3Degrees, understand the power of personal connections. I expect more utilities will be using F2F tactics in their public outreach this year.

Garrett Downen, the national outreach director for 3Degrees, knows all about the power of F2F public engagement for energy companies. He estimated door knocks account for about 70% of the company’s current F2F outreach work for utilities.

Credit: 3Degrees

“Door-to-door is a compelling outreach tactic,” Garrett said in an interview. “It’s reliable, it’s scalable, and the results are predictable. We have demonstrated to our clients that door-knocks are one of the most effective uses of their marketing dollar. And the tactic scales well: Our larger engagements produce better results than our smaller engagements.”

The other 30% of 3Degrees’ F2F public engagement services include phone work and in-person staffing of booths at community events and storefronts. Garrett said 3Degrees does not consider digital- or paper-based tactics to be “outreach.”

Credit: 3Degrees

3Degrees operates in 17 states, working for utility clients like Tennessee Valley Authority, Silicon Valley Power, Ameren Missouri, Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy and PacifiCorp subsidiaries Rocky Mountain Power and Pacific Power.

“As a company, we didn’t start out with personal outreach as a core competency, but we’re doing it now because it can be the most cost effective tactic available, or the only tactic that’s cost effective at scale,” Garrett commented.

Credit: 3Degrees


Working for utilities, 3Degrees uses door-to-door public engagement to market green energy programs and enroll customers in energy-audit or energy-efficiency programs.

Garrett said the company’s outreach specialists knock on 17-18 doors per hour, on average, and about one-third of the time they actually have a doorstep conversation with someone. Of the 5 or 6 people they speak with every hour, 3Degrees secures about one new program enrollee.

Credit: 3Degrees

The conversion rate varies depending on what 3Degrees is asked to do by its utility clients. But he said the company has a multi-year track record of producing a stream of predictable results.

“Door knockers are a cost-effective, high-impact extension of the utility and its brand,” Garrett said. “Our door knockers are trained to put a good face on the utility. They’re outgoing, enthusiastic and professional, but not pushy. Customer service is in our DNA. Our three priorities, delivered in pre-campaign training, are Safety, Service and Sales, in that order. We want the sales, of course, but no sale is more important than exceptional customer service.”

So, whether you use retirees, employees or a third-party provider like 3Degreees, utilities that want to conduct cost-effective, high-impact, public engagement with their customers and other stakeholders should put that planned email blast on hold and look more carefully at public engagement tactics that give the utility a human face and voice.

Retirees – Your New Feet on the Street

Have you tried to mobilize your retired employees as an adjunct communications and marketing resource? Few utilities have. But one utility, Louisville Gas & Electric, has been mobilizing its retirees for over 20 years. Find out how LG&E is benefitting and what it learned along the way.

Download this article here.






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