Energy Circle Year in Review 2014
It’s been a heckuva year for us at Energy Circle. Our team doubled in size. Our clients now span 49 states. We dramatically expanded our in-house development team and launched an amazing new platform that, in combination with a proven mix of marketing tactics, is crushing it for contractors. Through all of it, we had the honor and pleasure of working on many great projects with many great people, companies and organizations.
Our measure of success is still the impact we’re having on the built environment through our support of companies on the front line of energy efficiency: the contractors doing the work. (Buildings in the US are third only to the entire countries of the United States and China in their use of energy, and it’s Energy Circle’s mission to do something about that.) As 2014 comes to a close, we estimate that the network of companies we work with has accomplished over $560 million in home performance retrofit work.
That’s the stuff that matters to me.
Launch of Energy Circle Platinum
Over the years, we have worked with hundreds of contractors in all walks of the home performance industry--envelope, mechanical, consultant, rater, auditor, builder, remodeler, architect and more. Within the category of companies that have fully embraced the whole house concept, we have some of the most successful firms in the country as clients. A central challenge of the home performance business model is that the demand for what we sell is not direct. In other words, our “product” typically isn’t exactly what a home or building owner is looking for, at least initially. To overcome this, we’ve become very good at driving leads to whole house companies from a wide variety of triggers. I speak constantly about the marketing value of being a fully committed home performance company--it broadens the base from which you can capture customer interest, and lowers the cost of your marketing overall.
"Conversion Rate Optimization is what guided us in building the Energy Circle Platinum platform."
But driving traffic, no matter how good we’ve gotten at it, is only half the battle. Conversion of that traffic to a lead, known amongst us geeks as CRO--Conversion Rate Optimization--is what ultimately matters. And to accomplish fantastic conversion rates, your website has to have the flexibility to present the perfect information to each visitor to get them to act. Conversion Rate Optimization is what guided us in building the Energy Circle Platinum platform. In addition, however, we came to understand that some companies will want a fully standalone site, on its own server, that they can customize as they wish.
Even as standalone was one of our guides for building EC Platinum, we have still retained the advantage of a single platform. That means when we add a new feature--say the Review Management System we’re currently working on--all customers using Platinum will have one-button access to that feature. Our roadmap has always been guided by two things: customer requests and our constant research into most effective practices. That will always continue. But in 2015, we’re also launching Groups--self selecting small groups of non-competitive contractors that collaborate, guide feature development and, most importantly, share the expense of custom development. Spreading out costs means high ROI for contributors and faster development for us. With Groups as an accelerator, the roadmap of new advancements for 2015 is super exciting. The feature set we’re building, over the next year, should cross the line from very very good to truly breakthrough. Structured Case Studies, City Pages, Review Management, Homeowner Portal are just a few things on our roadmap.
"The feature set we’re building, over the next year, should cross the line from very very good to truly breakthrough."
Platinum works on the idea of a distribution (in Drupal speak)--a set of website features that are specifically built and grouped for the particular needs of your business model. This allows companies to purchase a higher quality product, created exactly for their niche, at non custom pricing. An HVAC contractor, for example, needs killer lead conversion and rapid emergency response as core features. A remodeling contractor doing deep energy efficiency work, in contrast, might be primarily concerned with telling the stories and data of past projects, and doing so with a high level of design sophistication.
Launch of Energy Circle Digital
In 2014, we launched EC Digital, our group that develops custom technology for the energy efficiency and renewable energy industry. We’re very proud of the projects we were honored to work on this year, including the new NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) BuildingEnergy site that unified this awesome organization’s conference, membership, and a vibrant new online community. We also got the nod to build the new Home Performance Coalition’s a new site and systems to unify ACI’s sophisticated conference management needs with the policy and research work of the National Home Performance Council.
Marketing Support for Contractors, Manufacturers and others in the Industry
It has always been our first priority to teach companies how to fish in the waters of internet marketing. Over the course of 2014, however, more companies asked that we take on the management of marketing execution on their behalf. I’m proud to say we’re delivering extraordinary results very cost effectively--better and less expensive leads than any marketing I’m aware of in our industry. By combining integrated content, email, social, and local marketing with aggressively managed paid search campaigns, we’re delivering quality opportunities to contractors, associations and manufacturers at a cost per lead that is unprecedented. For several clients, we have accomplished traffic to lead conversion rates north of 10% of all site visitors. That translates, in several cases, to more than 250 high quality leads per month. With the largest (and continually growing) dataset of what generates results across the full spectrum of the industry, we now possess concrete data about how home performance consumers/the outside world think about and purchase our products and services. This not only enables us to generate higher quality leads at a lower cost, but informs our strategies about how we should position our clients and the industry as a whole in the future.
The EC PRO Network Continues to Grow
The network of companies that use the Energy Circle PRO platform now covers 49 states (only that tough climate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean remains…) It’s a nice stat, but what is more important is the exposure it gives us to driving demand for home performance under so many distinct conditions: different climate zones, incentive programs (or not), red and blue states, wildly divergent homeowner demographics and more. It has been a challenge that has made us better, and in the end forces us to be good home performance marketers regardless of programs. We also stay sharp by working with such myriad business models--HVAC/HP, envelope, insulator, auditor, rater, remodeler, builder and more.
Training: More Coaching Less Preaching
Through our weekly webinar series for EC customers, my workshops at conferences, guest speaking for Efficiency First, and training supported by programs, we’ve had the pleasure of reaching thousands of people in the home performance community. While I love the interaction with folks both online and in person and my speaker ratings are high, I feel that my tangible impact is not as strong as it needs to be. One-way training, no matter how transparent and actionable the information, is inherently limited in its impact. Our industry is made up of small businesses, most without dedicated marketing staff, most accomplishing an incredible multitasking act of managing the business and people, growing it, while also crawling around in buildings fixing them. It was always our philosophy to teach people to fish first, because I believe strongly that much of marketing today is not some confusing black art promoted by marketing agencies that want your money. I believe that home performance contractors have the smarts and capability to do what needs to be done. But where I’ve missed the mark is in not recognizing when our training doesn’t get acted upon. It took a two by four upside my head from Skye Dunning of Building Performance Specialists (who incidentally is one of the most computer capable guys I’ve met in the industry) who said, “yes I can do this stuff, and your webinars get me pumped up, but then the reality of day-to-day business happens.”
Going forward, we are shifting our model. As mentioned above, we have developed affordable, effective ways to handle the lead generation role on behalf of clients. For training, we are aiming to shift the balance of how we support folks from one-way delivery of webinars and live workshops to a new approach and system where we coach more than preach. I am confident that we can have much greater impact on contractors and the industry with self-paced, online training that maps the way to marketing success, followed by a personal touch that assures completion and provides support. You won’t see me less at conferences, but our new goal is to train more companies with dramatically greater impact, and that means shifting to a new model.
Staff and Talent Growth
The Energy Circle team doubled over the course of 2014, not including dogs. More important than sheer numbers is that we’ve dramatically expanded our skill set in web development, digital marketing, data analytics, information architecture, content strategy and other key areas. Judging by the volume of applications we get for open positions, Energy Circle is apparently viewed as a good place to work: our mix of mission, culture and cutting edge digital marketing appears to be attractive. We’ll work hard to continue living up to that. I have the pleasure of going to work everyday with an incredibly talented and committed group of people, and we look forward to our culture continuing to grow and develop in the coming years.
Our Commitment to the Non-Profit Community
Non-profit organizations play a critical role in the energy efficiency industry--connecting us, training people, certifying companies and staff and advocating on our behalf. In 2014, we had the pleasure and privilege of delivering web and marketing projects for the institutional pillars of the industry: BPI, NESEA, ACI/Home Performance Coalition and Efficiency First . We’ve also helped support the Community Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP), and several state-based contractor associations. In 2015 we will continue to leverage open source software development for the benefit of non-profit organizations. And because I firmly believe that associations can be a source of credibility, education and lead generation for contractors, we will continue to put effort into an affordable, open source framework for membership organizations.
Service to the cause of the home performance industry has always been a priority for us, and we’ll continue to volunteer our time and resources to high impact projects for which our skills are uniquely suited.
How Our Commitment to Open Source Benefits the Industry
There’s an obvious benefit to our commitment to Open Source software in that clients save substantially on the cost of the development framework we’ve assembled from modules and contributed code in the Drupal community. The combination of open source and our exclusive commitment to the energy efficiency and renewables sector means that we can deliver features and functionality explicitly tied to the needs of our market at a fraction of the cost of building from scratch. We pass these savings along.
In a small way, we are giving back by contributing some of our custom code to the Drupal community. For example, we built the integration between Drupal and Zoho CRM this year. I hope our “contribs” to the Drupal community will grow in the coming year.
What Energy Circle’s Business Says About the Home Performance Market
While I have been questioned by my Board and Advisors about it, Energy Circle never directly took advantage of the ARRA wave. You could call me stupid for not seizing this, and you’d probably be right, but in the end we are a stronger company for not building a business on funny money. Our work is primarily for contractors, and from day one we’ve stood for helping companies be independently successful regardless of incentives and programs. To the chagrin of my board, we drank our own kool-aid. Yes, our skillset has evolved to the point that our services are in demand by programs, associations and even the government, but I believe our “market-based” perspective on the world has had some influence there as well. We’re proud to work for progressive program implementers like Build it Green (PG&E in CA) that are deploying their resources directly to make contractors better and more successful at marketing, selling and delivering home performance.
Phew. Long winded perhaps but a lot to say.
To all the clients that have made Energy Circle’s success possible, my deep deep appreciation. I am really looking forward to what we’ll accomplish in 2015.