Appalachian Electric Cooperative monitors member satisfaction with a mix of surveys from Touchstone Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and E Source. But as utility leadership worked on the co-op’s strategic plan, they needed more than raw numbers to guide future initiatives. 

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AEC partnered with Pioneer and WordSouth to develop a series of focus groups. The sessions, led by Pioneer Marketing Consultant Jim Keiffer, delivered qualitative member data to help the utility create a comprehensive communications plan to drive member engagement and improve service.

Wonder what members really think about your utility? 

The Utility Pioneers at Appalachian Electric Cooperative decided to ask. The Tennessee-based electric co-op monitors member satisfaction with a mix of surveys from Touchstone Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and E Source. As utility leadership worked on the co-op’s strategic plan, they needed more than raw numbers to guide future initiatives. The co-op partnered with Pioneer in 2021 and 2022 to develop and lead a series of member focus groups to help shape their strategic plan development.

Emily Walls
Emily Walls

“Whenever you do a survey, whoever responds has to choose from options you give them: A, B, C, D or E. They’re forced into an answer,” AEC Communications and Marketing Supervisor Emily Walls says. “When you do a focus group, you really dive deep into each question.”

To help AEC create a comprehensive communications plan to drive member engagement, improve service and make better connections with millennials, the utility held two focus group sessions, gleaning insights from up to 20 members each time. 

“Focus groups allow a utility to deep dive into issues that surveys can only touch,” says Pioneer Marketing Consultant Jim Keiffer, who led group discussions. “You can also target a specific group of customers to deep dive into their wants and desires.”

During each focus group session, members met in two groups to provide scheduling flexibility. Meetings lasted about an hour and a half. The first set of discussions was held last July. A second set of discussions took place in April.

“When you’re in an industry for 30+ years, you… expect other people to speak the same language and have the same excitement about keeping the lights on,” AEC Director of Member Services Mitch Cain shares. “In reality, it’s simply not the case.

“Focus group conversations help you affirm the things you value, like tradition and history, and challenge you to see where you need to be with technology and where you need to be in today’s economy. I think that’s a healthy thing for any organization, to be a listener.”

Pioneer Marketing Consultant Jim Keiffer leads an Appalachian Electric Co-op member discussion.

Considering a focus group?

Here are five steps Pioneer followed with AEC to develop and deliver focus groups with cooperative value.

Focus Group Tips from Utility Pioneers

1. Find (and Thank) Member Voices

The team at AEC used a newsletter, bill message, targeted social media ad campaign and the utility website to recruit focus group participants. The participant goal for each focus group session was no more than 20 members. Two groups met last July and were open to any willing member, regardless of demographics. Participation in two April discussions was focused on millennial member voices.

“We advertised on Instagram and Facebook, which is where we got most of our respondents,” Emily shares. “The millennial group was so busy, it was harder to get members to follow through with the commitment.”

She recommends increasing the target group number for any focus group social media ad campaigns. While the co-op had a 95% response rate from members aged 35 and older, up to 60% of millennials who initially responded did not follow through. 

According to Mitch, the time commitment, focus group day and time, and meeting location all played into whether people who were initially interested would show up to join the focus group.

“It’s all a gamble, especially with younger folks,” Mitch explains. “To fill in the gaps, we created a call list to target new subdivision developments with young families and some student housing from the university. That was helpful.”

When asking members to invest time to talk about your utility, it helps to say thank you. AEC gave all participants $50 and a co-op swag bag. The first set of participants received the gift as a bill credit. Since the credit required members to come to the utility office in person to redeem, the incentive was changed to a $50 VISA gift card for the second set of discussions. 

“To me, $50 off your electric bill sounds pretty good,” Mitch says. “But I’m not sure millennials and some of the other folks valued that as worthy of their time.”

The focus groups were successful, but incentives didn’t draw as much interest as the co-op team expected.

“No one wants to come out for an hour and a half for $50,” Emily adds. “If we’d given $100, we would have had better participation.”

AEC plans another focus group for business members by early 2023. Incentives will be adjusted based on what the co-op learned from the first two sessions. AEC plans to work with their chamber of commerce, a nearby business school, and other groups serving local businesses to reach a broader pool of potential participants.

2. Promote Honesty with Anonymity

While it might be tempting to sit in the room as members talk about your co-op, your presence might hold members back from saying how they really feel. 

“If they see us there or if they’re in our facility, we don’t want their opinion to be swayed,” Emily explains. “You want [focus groups] to be as unbiased as possible.”

Pioneer and AEC discussed the benefits and drawbacks of utility staff attending the focus groups in person. AEC decided to not attend or record the sessions, instead relying on a debrief after the second session and a detailed feedback report. 

To add a further sense of confidentiality, focus groups were held in local community rooms, not at the utility office.

“Had I been there, I would have wound up correcting people or trying to educate people to my way of thinking,” Mitch shares. “Jim was able to say, ‘Why? How would that work for your family?’ We wouldn’t have gotten that if we’d been there.”

Pioneer Marketing Consultant Jim Keiffer leads an Appalachian Electric Co-op member discussion.
3. Develop Open-Ended Questions

To spark valuable conversations, start with open-ended questions. 

“Jim is really great at probing deeper into the questions and facilitating conversations so it doesn’t just stop at a one-word answer,” Emily says. “He dives deeper into that process.”

Pioneer’s team reviewed past AEC member surveys, then worked with the utility to develop questions for the both sets of focus groups, including:

  • What words or feelings come to mind when you think of the utility? 
  • What service would you like added? 
  • What service could be improved?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about AEC, what would it be? 

“I think focus groups are incredibly valuable,” Pioneer Producer Sarah Wootten says. She attended all of the discussions, taking notes to share with the utility afterwards. “I went in nervous, thinking who has strong emotions about their local utility? But the conversation flowed so well. We saw some frustrations they were having, that they probably wouldn’t have brought up at any other time. We heard big wins for the utility, too.” 

4. Strengthen Your Story with Feedback

Pioneer worked with AEC to not only facilitate the focus groups, but to help the co-op use the data to strengthen utility storytelling.

It’s always nice to hear good things. AEC’s millennial focus group members were extremely positive, calling the co-op “dependable,” “prompt,” “problem-solving,” “helpful” and “reliable.” But it’s equally (arguably more) valuable to hear about communication misses. 

“We did get positive feedback, but we also got feedback that’s going to help us grow and understand where we can improve,” Emily adds. “Getting negative feedback is almost more valuable, because it allows us to go back, see areas of weaknesses, and fix those.”

In the first pair of member conversations, only four members out of the 18 participants had any significant awareness of more than two of the co-op’s products and services.

“The good news is that the participants were very pleased with the offerings,” Jim says. “The bad news is they felt they had to put in great effort to find out about the programs.”

“The first focus group went really well, especially seeing where the communication holes were,” Sarah adds. “The utility is able to say, ‘OK. We have all these programs. These people have been members for years. But they don’t know the basics of our programs, and don’t know where they can get help.’ To hear how they want to be communicated with was powerful.”

Members also discussed:

  • What they liked (and didn’t like) about co-op meetings and member appreciation events
  • Solar program challenges
  • Desire for more regular co-op communications.
  • Challenges using utility app
  • Membership versus customer status

Pioneer delivered in-depth reports after each set of focus groups. Using member feedback, the reports helped AEC’s leadership identify key co-op strengths, opportunities for improvement, strengths that can be improved, and next steps. 

“I reference the reports all the time; they are detailed, something I can always go back to, and a valuable asset for me to use in all of my marketing,” Emily says. “The whole process, from the initial conversations to the end when we got the report was thorough, very well done and we’re super happy with the results.”

Each report also outlined focus areas for AEC’s strategic communications plan development, including:

  1. Promote existing products and services by developing clear marketing goals and objectives, then marketing across all communication channels. 
  2. Educate the community about the power of cooperative membership.
  3. Develop a clear set of broadband communications and explanations.
  4. Add text messages as a primary method of communication, especially within the outage program. 
  5. Expand use of social media and digital newsletters.

“I believe the biggest benefit was seeing the communication holes,” Sarah says. “Now AEC can address the gaps, making sure their message and story reaches all members of their community.”

Pioneer also delivered a set of member engagement solutions to help AEC connect to the community in new, member-inspired ways.

5. Plan Your Next Step

You asked, they answered. How will members know utility leadership listened? Pioneer advises following up with people who invested time with you.

“We recommended following up with focus group participants a few months after sessions to see if participants notice responses to the issues they raised,” Jim says. 

In addition to sharing the results with utility leadership and using them in your strategic plan, consider communicating the findings to all members and invite additional input.

“We are in this every day. We understand our programs,” Emily says. “Using this feedback, we have to go back to the drawing board and say, ‘What else do we need to do?’ The focus groups helped me so much in our marketing plan and creating an overall strategy. The feedback guides our message, our visuals. It’s highly beneficial for us to have those insights, and we’d definitely recommend it to anybody. The feedback is invaluable.”

“We had great facilitators, and it was a great process from top to bottom,” Mitch says. “These focus groups were cost-efficient tools that provide great value to us.”

Want to learn what consumers think about your utility?

Our utility storytellers are ready to help. Ask your account manager or editor about our focus group support, or reach us at