Everything You Need to Know About AI and Solar Marketing in 2024
A modified version of this article was recently published by Solar Today under the title "AI in Solar Marketing: A Balance Between Tech and Touch." We're cross-publishing it on our blog page in case you missed it!
Over-reliance on artificial intelligence tools and chatbots like ChatGPT, Bard, Dall-E, and others is a losing game. But that doesn't mean solar companies should turn their backs on this new technology. Solar companies are all about embracing emerging tech, right?
We've always operated under the guiding principle that great marketing requires real-world expertise and a human touch. Adding AI into our toolbox doesn't change that, and any solar company curious about artificial intelligence should know that there are plenty of ways to benefit, but only if you strike the right balance between human and robot.
The Benefits of Using AI in Solar Marketing
AI Tools Save Time
It's a common scenario for solar contractors: already strapped for time, knowing that you should be out on a job site or helping solve business problems, but also trying to carve out time for the marketing that you know you'll wish you'd done 6 months from now.
AI can do a lot of different tasks, and it can do them quickly. Think about what it would be like to do all your marketing 15% faster. It might only save 10 or 15 minutes with each task, but those things add up quickly, and a 15% improvement is a conservative estimate.
If you wanted to, there are AI tools out there that could help you design a new website, write all of the content for the site, and plan out a marketing strategy for the next 12 months. You could do all of this in an afternoon.
Here are some examples of actual marketing work that AI could help a solar contractor do:
1. Making the Sales Cycle More Efficient
AI can help your existing sales team do more, creating efficiencies within the sales process, supporting design, helping to draft proposals, and responding to customer reviews. AI apps like Fathom can even record your sales meetings, creating transcripts and summarizing key points for future reference.
2. Creating Content
AI can write copy for blogs or webpages, draft emails, create custom images and videos, design infographics, write up social media posts, and generally help you brainstorm and draft all different kinds of solar content.
3. Analyzing Sales and Marketing Data
AI is really good at analyzing lots of data. It can help forecast sales, take audience lists and segment them into different groups for marketing or outreach campaigns, and much, much more.
This all sounds pretty technical, so let's give a few actual examples of how this could work in action.
Example #1: Segmenting historical customer data to build new marketing campaigns
Let's say your sales team has the idea to create a new marketing campaign targeting past customers who installed solar panels but not a solar battery. You want to reach out to only those customers via email and a physical mailer, but you don't have a sophisticated CRM platform like Salesforce—all you have is a spreadsheet with columns of customer data.
Having to manually parse through that spreadsheet could take a long time. But AI tools like ChatGPT can make data analysis surprisingly fast. Through the use of their Code Interpreter plug-in (or third party plug-ins like Noteable, which are designed to do similar types of data analysis), you can upload that spreadsheet and quickly get segmented lists of email and mailing addresses to start your campaigns.
Example #2: Forecasting month-by-month sales for 2024
Or, maybe you're sitting down to review your company's performance for 2023. Again, you have lots of data detailing sales that go back years, but how can you use this data to better prepare for next year?
Using the same data analysis tools that we mentioned in Example #1, you can input your historical sales data and ask ChatGPT to quickly help you find sales trends or make predictions about sales in 2024. ChatGPT can not only analyze, but it can also take that raw data from your spreadsheets and create customizable charts and graphs to use in future sales presentations to the company. And It can do all of this in the fraction of the time that it would take a human.
AI Gives Solar Companies a Competitive Edge
Smaller solar companies have often struggled to stay competitive with the solar giants that have more resources and larger marketing budgets that they use to stay ahead of their competitors. AI can level that playing field for smaller, local installers and up and coming contractors.
But the benefits aren't just for underdogs. If you're a bigger company that already has a healthy marketing budget, AI tools can help you do even more with it.
The Risks of Using AI in Solar Marketing
We've been painting a pretty rosy picture so far. But before you drop everything and convert 100% to AI, there's a less enticing side to this technology as well.
AI Is Good—But Not Great—at What It Does
Remember when I told you just how much AI tools could do in a single afternoon? Well if you noticed, I didn't say anything about the quality of that work. ChatGPT might give you a starting point, but it's not going to provide the kind of unique and emotionally intelligent content you need to connect with homeowners and differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Solar is a big-budget purchase and homeowners don't choose a contractor lightly when making that kind of investment. Your content needs to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about and you understand your customers' pain points. As consumers are increasingly exposed to AI-generated content, they're going to start noticing—and disregarding—content that lacks a human touch.
AI can confidently give you completely false information—in the industry, they're called hallucinations. And it does so in a way that makes you think it knows what it's talking about, so unless you already know the information is wrong or you fact check, it's easy to be fooled. AI tools have a surprisingly hard time telling you, "Sorry, I don't know".
The AI Revolution Is Going to Usher In a New Era of Content Marketing (and Raise the Bar)
Using AI, just about anyone can flood the Internet with as much content as they want. And there are probably a few solar companies doing exactly that right now, thinking they've hacked the system. But as more and more AI writing is published, the bar for "standout" content will be raised. To rank, the copy on your website will always need to be useful to readers and contain high-quality and accurate information.
Google uses E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) guidelines to refine its ranking algorithms. Essentially, the more your content meets these guidelines, the more visible it is likely to be in search results.
Google has gone on the record to say that the ("appropriate") use of AI-generated content is not against their guidelines. But that doesn't mean AI-generated content is automatically going to rank. AI tools don't always follow SEO best practices and, given the rate at which SEO best practices change, may not be able to keep up with them.
Plus, AI content itself often falls somewhere between "okay" and "good", not "great," and that type of content is unlikely to rank well regardless of who has written it. This is a good reminder that it doesn't matter how much content you can produce (or how quickly) if it doesn't show up when your customers are doing their research.
Striking a Balance: Making AI Work Better with Human Elements
1. Start with AI, Don't End There
It's a good analogy to think of AI like a competent personal assistant. There are many tasks that you might use an assistant to help with, but odds are you aren't entrusting them with important work without signing off on it or giving notes first. AI is the same way.
- If you use AI to generate copy, edit and revise it to make sure it meets the same standards you would hold your own writing to.
- If you use AI to analyze data, make sure you don't stop all analysis yourself. AI might come up with something that wouldn't have occurred to you (or arrive at the analysis more quickly), but that doesn't mean you don't have takeaways that AI couldn't arrive at.
- If you use AI to brainstorm ideas or marketing strategies, see what you can add or change to the results that take it from passable to exceptional.
2. Fact Check, Fact Check, Fact Check
If you don't know enough to verify the accuracy of a piece of writing from AI, you need to fact check it, no matter how big or small a claim.
This is especially true in the solar industry, where regionality and policy play a huge role.
For example, ChatGPT often touts the benefits of net metering when asked to write about the benefits of solar. But, as any solar contractor knows, net metering isn't available everywhere and it works differently in different places. If you don't edit your content to include specific information about your region, you're not providing information that's relevant to your customer base (or true).
3. Make Sure You're Telling YOUR Story About YOUR Business, Speaking to YOUR Customers
AI tools know a LOT, but here are just a handful of things we've seen through experience that AI is not always good at talking about:
- Any kind of writing that depends largely on current information*, including:
- Incentives (like tax credits, SRECs, MACRS tax depreciation, and other local rebates and incentive programs that may be subject to changes)
- The latest products and tech specifications from specific manufacturers you work with
- Solar policies (like updates to net metering in your state; for example, ChatGPT doesn't know about Net Metering 3.0 in California as of the writing of this article)
*Technology changes quickly! Between the original writing of this article and when it was published, ChatGPT has gotten much better at researching current information! But still, it's always better to double check...
- Your brand voice (Are you the solar tech experts? Are you the go-to company for solar + storage? Are you a veteran-owned business? Are you a B-corp with clear mission and value statements? It's difficult for AI to authentically capture the way your company "speaks" online without extensive training and prompting.)
- Your company's history (Have you completed more installations than any other local solar company? Do you have lots of specific experience with off-grid solar or solar carports? Solar Installer Steve has become something of a local celebrity! Again, without lots of training, AI tools have no way of knowing what sets you apart from any other solar installer.)
- The unique characteristics of your customers and your service area (How does the seasonal weather and geography in your service area affect the types of solar arrays you install or how you install them? Your marketing messaging will likely be very different if homeowners in your area tend to be more environmentally motivated than energy savings focused, or vice versa.)
We use the output of ChatGPT and other AI tools as a framework to build on. Then we make revisions—lots of them—as we think of additional ideas. The final product is always dramatically different (and better). We save some time in the early stages of the process, but never sacrifice our voice or cut corners on quality.
In our experience, this is the best way you can integrate artificial intelligence into your marketing work and create results that are customized to your business and, most importantly, effective.
Unlike the sharp rises (and equally sharp falls) of NFTs (non-fungible tokens—basically digital representations of asset ownership) or the trendy, invite-only social audio app Clubhouse app (remember all the buzz around that??), AI technology is here to stay, and it's only going to become more and more essential to any future solar marketing work.
That doesn't mean that every solar company that embraces AI will see success. But the contractors and organizations that find the right mix of human and machine, leaning into the strengths of each component, will be the ones to truly capitalize on this rapidly-advancing new technology.