Strategic Marketing for Utility Companies and Municipalities

For marketing teams whose job is to promote public utilities or city services, poorly targeted messaging not only fails to resonate, it can also be a harmful to your purpose.

Marketing wisdom can be found everywhere. You just have to pay attention. Take for instance, my latest visit to one of our team member’s elderly mother. An overstuffed mailbox at an assisted-living facility can reveal a whole lot about awful marketing. Advertising flyers promoting dentists for children, schemes to lower interest rates or coupons for dry cleaning all become birdcage lining for 95-year-olds who couldn’t care less about ads that have nothing to do with their daily lives.

Blanket messaging without the research to support it confirms what a lot of your customers might already think: Government and quasi-government entities that provide fundamental services have no idea what matters to the people they serve.

Much like my mother and her friends, utility and municipality customers will not respond to information that is not pertinent to their lives.

Convincing the leadership team to make investments in marketing

Misdirecting a message can be laughable and even hurtful, but the result is always the same: Marketers using one-size-fits-all marketing will fail to reach their organization’s goals. This is often a problem for municipal and utility marketing and public information department heads. Because of failure to send messages that speak to the sensibilities of varying groups of individuals, municipal and utility marketers struggle to demonstrate to their bosses that the time and effort they’ve spent on the last marketing campaign netted a reasonable ROI.

When your specific campaigns to promote, say, solar panels, energy efficient appliances, water conservation, recycling drop-off points, or even ways to save money, do not have the ROI you hoped, it’s time to meet with staff and leadership and honestly assess past marketing experiences. You’ll be surprised at how much you didn’t know because you didn’t make the necessary investment into research. During your last campaign, can you identify the unique qualities of your varied audiences? Did you speak to their specific pain points? Did you correctly identify your organization’s marketing key performance indicators and gather the data to make a determination of what worked and what didn’t? Often when marketers do a postmortem on a campaign, they’ll find they haven’t the slightest clue on whether their campaign had an affect on their organization’s goals or not.

Conducting cost-effective customer research

If canvassing neighborhoods and ringing doorbells sounds daunting and expensive, you’re right. Fortunately, there are cost-effective ways to gather new customer information from resources you already have. Start with an audit of all your communication channels including bill Inserts, social media, email newsletters, websites, environmental (signs, tours, swag), flyers, events, radio, advertisements (print and digital) and even word-of-mouth through testimonial gathering.

  • Review previous surveys to gleam new information
  • Analyze website visits and practices for the last four years
  • Analyze on-site visits over the last four years
  • Analyze month-over-month newsletter opens and click-through rates
  • Audit current communications materials and channels
  • Audit communications and messaging from other entities you admire

Municipalities and utilities have the advantage of being in the customer-service business and often operate walk-in service centers, recycling centers, information booths and other places where people gather. But most importantly, you send bills. Customer insights are key to engaging your customers on their terms and are critical to the long-term success of your marketing strategy. Use bill inserts as a two-way marketing tool, and engage your customers’ buy-in by asking them to respond to questions you ask.

Understanding customers and not just where they live

Overcoming the juggernaut that is one utility overlapping many municipalities takes rethinking. Instead of grouping according to who lives where (zip codes), think in terms of where various groups of customers gather in their social and work lives.

Messages are pertinent only if they are received willingly, in authentic speak, and their call-to-action resonates as something doable and meaningful. One-to-one customer engagement leaves your customers feeling respected, understood, and well served. If your outreach goes well, your customers will become allies, willing to support your campaigns and even encourage others to do the same.

Are your messages crafted with clear, simple language and have a consistent look and feel across all channels? If not, it may be time to revisit that tired old logo and tagline.

Establishing a brand identity for the 21st century

If your logo is not optimized to work well on a website or on social media platforms,,than it is old and needs a refresh. Think about it this way: With the way people normally interact with municipalities and utilities, anything new —with proper follow through — is a win.

To create a cohesive experience across all channels, the look and tone of all communications materials should be consistent. For municipalities and utilities, projecting an attitude that is aspirational, fun, community driven, simple, easy, clean, and that communicates pride is the look you need. Your logo and messaging should stand for “trusted resource” and be synonymous with good information. A new look must represent the future and inspire change.

Educate the public and customers with a strategic marketing campaign

Once you have a modern, functional, professionally designed brand ready for rollout, make sure you rollout big. Consider traditional, digital, social and grassroots channels for the launch and have the new brand anchor a new program, concept, or service. Develop and use an editorial calendar with an engagement plan that involves the media, the community and community partners to synchronize the efforts of your owned communication channels (i.e. website, newsletter, social media and bill inserts). This calendar will ensure your target audiences are always top of mind.

But who are they? Surveys and focus groups are still valuable pursuits to understanding customer needs and behaviors, but what people say and do are not always consistent. Your owned-media KPIs will clarify what people do, and let you know who is a believer, who has potential to be a believer and how to form a lasting relationship with all of them.

Potential believers will be searching for your information, signing up for your newsletter and finding your Q & A landing page. True believers will be sharing your content to their networks. Being aware of where customers are in the believer-conversion process is extremely powerful when refining marketing campaigns and to note changes in behavior due to the latest message. Only properly installed and carefully analyzed analytics can provide the metrics you need to know who your friends are and who are just passing by.

When municipal and utility marketers use data for customer insights, are authentic in their messaging, and have a brand identity that is embracing and works across all channels, meeting with leadership will be a lot less stressful. This time the conversation will be about increase in revenue and/or strides toward a desired behavior change that is measurable. Your improved ROI will be convincing and will provide the momentum (and a leadership green light) for your next campaign.