Transparent and timely communication is imperative for companies wishing to build lasting relationships with their consumers. With social media on the rise, marketing managers have a vast array of tools at their fingertips to reach their audiences. In the following article, Melissa Brothers, director of Marketing at CEU Plan, analyzes the use of social media in the wastewater and drinking water industries, citing the use of social media as a valuable marketing tool.
KISS AND TELL – Does Social Media Play a Role in Utility Operations?
Water and wastewater professionals know all too well that their operations are typically the last thing the general public thinks about. Of course, service disruptions, rate increases, or other problems quickly change that story. Utilities spend a great deal of time and money attempting to educate, notify and ensure that their communities are receiving the best possible service at the most affordable price. The majority of utilities are embracing the need for an Internet presence and utilizing web pages to reach customers. As technology evolves, the question becomes is that enough or are additional tools available that are underutilized to enhance communication with those you serve?
Welcome to the world of social media! A number of water and wastewater utilities have already recognized the benefits associated with the use of social media, such as Facebook®, Twitter® and YouTube®, but many are still leery of venturing into somewhat uncharted territory. To understand why and how social media can play a tremendous role in the water and wastewater utility world, you must first understand how varying demographics view technology in general and how prepared different age groups are to accept this somewhat new trend.
The largest segment of your community’s population is likely to be what is commonly referred to as “baby boomers.” “Boomers” are typically people born between the years 1946–64 and are currently the largest percentage of our population. This particular group grew up in a very limited technological era. The Internet did not exist, therefore, this group was, initially, the most hesitant to embrace new technology. That trend is now reversing and “boomers” are rapidly becoming the largest growing sector of users for social media sites.
Generation X is considered to be individuals born from 1965-80. This group grew up at the beginning of the Internet age and is completely comfortable operating in the digital world. They expect interaction with those in the service industry and feel comfortable utilizing tools made available in the social networking world.
Generation Y, sometimes referred to as the “Millennials,” is the group born after 1980. This group operates at an extremely high level of ability with regard to technological advances. Cell phones, text, e-learning, digital books, Facebook®, YouTube®, Twitter® and other applications are common, everyday tools. Gen Ys not only expect those in the service industry to interact with them, they demand it. They have never known a time without the Internet or when a stream of two-way communication was unavailable. Gen Y prefers information provided in short, concise formats, such as Twitter®, which is limited to 140 characters per “tweet.”
Each of these generations has a slightly different view of the use of social media, but cross-generationally, one thing is very clear. Social media is here to stay and should be utilized to its utmost potential. The question remains, what does this mean for water and/or wastewater utilities? Examples of social media applications for utilities include notification of service interruption, rate increase information, water and energy conservation tips, educational information regarding how a system works, video to assist in recruitment of new operators to your area, boil-water advisory information, safety reminders for construction areas and road closures due to system construction and repair, to name a few. With projections of more than 36 states potentially facing water shortage issues by 2013, it is more important than ever for utilities to educate their customers regarding water conservation measures.
Remember that social media is a two-way communications network with your customers. They can and will comment on or post issues utilizing your social media site. With that option available, utilities must be willing to accept and respond to the negative comments, along with those that are positive. Investment of time and the talent of someone within your organization to monitor the site(s) and respond to complaints are imperative to the efficiency of social media tools. In other words, you get out of it what you put into it. Imagine how you could improve your customer service image by utilizing a social networking site where a complaint is posted and an immediate response is provided to the complaint. Systems may find that a complaint common to multiple customers can be answered with a few simple keystrokes. The utilization of social media in a public forum requires transparency in nearly every aspect of a utility’s operations. This level of communication and trust are extremely beneficial to the goals of any water and/or wastewater system. This transparency should not extend to providing any information that could impact the security of the utility.
At the least, you may wish to encourage management to consider creating a blog. A blog is similar to an e-newsletter but allows for comments regarding the information posted. Blogs provide opportunity for your system to communicate on a large scale to subscribers and a forum that allows for comments regarding your posts. Systems located in rural areas may find this type of communication to be even more important. Many citizens no longer receive local newspapers (the paper boy may very soon join the unemployment line). Reports indicate that 24 of the top 25 newspapers in the United States have reported a steady decline in circulation over the last few years. At the same time, social media has taken the world by storm. Statistics for these sites are staggering. For instance, if Facebook® were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. This is even more mindboggling when you consider that Facebook® didn’t exist seven years ago. YouTube® recently reported more than two billion video views per day. Google® is no longer just the name of an Internet search engine. It is now actually designated as a verb in the dictionary (with a lowercase g). People don’t search for information on the Internet. They google information.
If social media is a networking tool of interest to your system, it will be critical to provide training to your employees on its use. Employees must understand that posts to social media have an extensive reach and a high level of permanency. As the employer, you must establish clear guidelines, such as who can represent your organization via social media and your expectations of that representation. Issues regarding authority to establish an account, maintaining log-in passwords and prompt response to negative comments in a positive manner, are examples of topics to review in employee social media training.
The ultimate decision regarding the use of social media is entirely in the hands of the individual system. The purpose of this article is simply to promote outside-the-box thinking regarding views of this new form of communication for the utility world. These tools are no longer limited strictly to personal use. Every Fortune 500 company utilizes a Facebook® page, most have Twitter® accounts and many utilize multiple social media avenues. During the decision-making process, do your research. Talk to other systems who utilize social media to find out what works for them and how you can avoid pitfalls of using this media. Start with one of the available tools, if it works for your utility, and add additional forms of social media, as your level of comfort increases. Making this decision can be a daunting task with over 200 available sites to choose from. However, if you do decide social media will benefit your system, follow one basic rule – “KISS AND TELL” or “Keep It Short, Simple and Tell the world what your system is doing.”
Director of Marketing