CA #5: How to Navigate a Utility Company’s PR Nightmare | Energy Circle

Challenge Accepted #5: People Dislike Utilities — So Make Them Love You

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If you’ve followed the news coming out of Northern California this month, you probably already know that 738,000 PG&E customers in 38 counties were without power for as long as 48 to 72 hours. This may be the most recent utility PR calamity, but it is by no means the only one.

Here in Maine, electricity supplier Central Maine Power has been dealing with fraudulent billing issues that have all but obliterated the public’s trust in their electricity supplier. And just south of us in Massachusetts' Merrimack Valley, multiple in-home gas explosions, causing one death, have ended in an $80 million settlement.

Many of the businesses in our industry work directly or indirectly with electric, gas, and water utilities, and headlines like the ones we mentioned have a heavy influence on public opinion. In this week’s installment of our Challenge Accepted series, we are taking insights from Energy Circle CEO Peter Troast’s most recent webinar and examining some of the ways home performance contractors can navigate the murky waters of a PR disaster in your service area.

Today’s Challenge: Finding the appropriate opportunities to educate your customers and generate leads during a time of utility distrust.

The Ask

In Short: To convince customers that your HVAC, home performance, or solar company can be a resource in a time of utility-crisis.

In Long: To have marketing materials and tactics in place before disaster strikes, so that your business is ready to deploy carefully crafted and integrated messaging across every available digital channel.

The Challenge


You cannot predict when a disaster like exploding gas lines or dishonest billing will happen. Additionally, even some-what predictable events do not come with much warning. Like the weather, forecasts can change and alarms can sound without much consequence. 

Our Truth vs. Their Truth

Public opinion will turn to public truth. A customer’s belief about how a utility company operates can be at odds with reality. Take this Edison Electric Institute Internal Research data for example — the stated customer belief in this survey does not take into account the fact that providing 100% renewable energy does not make practical sense:

Customer belief can be at odds with the reality of what is feasible. Education is essential in preparing customers in your service area for the challenges they may face from utility companies.

The Reactive Nature of Homeowners

If we use power outages as an example, there are four categories of opportunity:

  1. Preventative (seasonal preparedness)

  2. Before an event (Public Safety Power Shutoffs, storms)

  3. During an event

  4. After an event

It goes without saying: The earlier you can capture a lead, the better. But when you look at the search data, homeowners are less than proactive about these kinds of emergencies. This data is from the week of the October 12th PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff:

Search volume for backup generator terms in California spiked as soon as PG&E began the first round of Public Safety Power Shutoffs in October 2019.

We took a look at 30 days of search data around four search terms: backup generators, battery backup, home generator, and Tesla Powerwall. The takeaway? Homeowners may already know the data around power outages, but are not likely to act until there is a direct threat — like a planned outage. In this case, the outage began on October 9th, where we first see the spike in search traffic.  

Avoid Fear Mongering

The optics of trying to “take advantage” of a potentially deadly utility disaster can be a little cringeworthy. There is a fine line between informing your customers and being a resource, and trying to cash in on someone else’s misfortune. The goal should be to stay prepared, upfront, and helpful without giving your customer base something they don’t need. 

Categorizing the Opportunities

We have already mentioned a couple of the common (and one not-so-common) issues that utility companies can face. Here are some additional issues that lead to the mistrust and general poor opinion of local utilities:

  • Power outages

  • Disasters (natural or human caused)

  • Billing & pricing issues

  • Dependency or monopoly

  • Renewable & efficiency resistance

Chances are, if you own a television, you have clicked past a Generac infomercial in the last year. Generac has done an exemplary job of walking the fine line we mentioned earlier by utilizing real data to bring attention to the fragility of the American power grid:

Generac has found marketing success around educating customers about the fragility of the American power grid.

By getting ahead of the game and showing real historical power outage data, Generac has been able to find success using a proprietary demand creation process (“proprietary” may be a little grandiose, but we will hold on the eye roll).

Though Generac calls this their “proprietary HSB demand creation process,” it reflects a common sales funnel within the HVAC, home performance, and solar industries.

Generac spends a large portion of its dollars in the lead generation portion, including its digital marketing and television ads. Generac pushes their leads to the In-Home Consultation in the middle of the process. Once the in-home portion is complete, the customer is separated into converting (in which case installation is the next step), or they are added to a follow-up list to maximize on any missed opportunity. These follow-ups can be systematized on a timeline, or triggered by an outage event so that the customer already has their in-home proposal in hand and is more likely to convert. 

Digital Marketing Tactics

The unpredictability of these events means you need digital marketing tactics that are quick and nimble to deploy. Plus, a little preparation now will pay off when the other shoe drops. 

Deep Website & Blog Content

Your website will be ground zero for any of your Facebook, Google My Business, or Google Paid Search tactics. Make sure your relevant landing pages and service pages reflect your “preparedness” messaging!

One of Energy Circle’s clients recently booked more backup generator and solar appointments in one day than in any other previous day in the company’s mature history. Why? Because they had laid a firm foundation of content on their site around outage preparedness. Consider some of these blog topics to get you started:

  • How Does Battery Storage Work?

  • The Difference Between Off-Grid and On-Grid Solar

  • Generators + Batteries

  • The Resilient Home

  • What Are Your Home’s Critical Energy Needs?

Google My Business Q&A & Posts

In addition to making sure your Google My Business profile is optimized and up to date, stay on top of answering any customer questions that come through. Don’t see the questions that you think need answering? Ask yourself! It is completely acceptable to ask and answer your own GMB profile, and we recommend it. Time your blog posts with your GMB posts as well, and further direct traffic to your relevant content using actionable messaging and copy snippets. 

Aggressive Google Paid Search Ad Strategies

An unexpected event like a power outage is the time to ramp up your paid search and display ad budget. Target relevant keywords  — even brand specific ones. Some cursory keyword research uncovered (not surprisingly) that “generac home generator” was getting triple the search volume as “home generator”:

Keywords with high search volume can include brand specific terms. Don’t be afraid to aim your paid search ads towards brand names.

Facebook Ads & Messaging

Boost previously-published-but-still-relevant Facebook posts using Facebook Ads, and create time sensitive CTA messaging to entice customers to act. Social media is an amplification channel — use it to boost the reach and impressions of your existing website content. 

Target the Sectors Most Vulnerable To Events

When it comes to targeting all of your available digital marketing channels, go for the sectors most at risk of being “left in the dark.” For a power outage, that could be retirement homes, hospitals, and the medically needy.

The Conclusion

In the end, when it comes to taking advantage of these hard to predict opportunities you need effective messaging that is quick to deploy. Include energy independence and utility bill savings to your overall preparedness messaging, and get aggressive about your short term reach with paid search and display ad channels.

You don’t need to be “anti-utility” — that is to say, you don’t need to pick a fight with a company you also work closely with through rebate, incentive, and referral programs. Take inventory of the potential utility risks in your area, determine what website content you can create to prepare your service area for an emergency, and be ready to deploy your amplification channel tactics when the time is right.

Want to be better prepared for the next utility-related event in your service area? Contact us for more information on how we can help your home performance, solar, or HVAC company’s website.


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