What You’ll Learn
How has utility website design changed in response to shifts in consumer technology use during the pandemic? Charlie Stanley joined this episode to discuss trends in website redesigns to meet changing customer needs.
Guest SpeakerCharlie Stanley
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.
Megan McKoy-Noe: How has the way that consumers used technology during the pandemic impacted the way that utilities are now redesigning their websites? That’s what we’re going to be talking about in this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. Hello, my name is Megan McKoy-Noe. I’m one of the storytellers at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources and your host for this episode filling in for Andy Johns. We’re recording live at NRECA’s Connect conference in Seattle, Washington, with 500 of our closest co-op communicator friends. As Andy Johns always says, any noise you might hear in the background is ambiance or in this case, the sound of a very large and much needed group hug. I’m joined in this episode by Charlie Stanley. Charlie is our web solutions manager at Pioneer, part of the Pioneer Utility Resources family. Charlie, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Charlie Stanley: Absolutely. Thank you, Megan.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, Charlie, we were speaking a little while ago about some of the ways that folks are using websites differently now in 2022. And you’ve seen that trickle down through the designs that utilities are asking for and the different usability features that they’re asking for your team to include when designing their websites. Can you share a little bit about the changes that you’ve seen and what folks maybe should be thinking about in the future?
Charlie Stanley: Absolutely. Really, the trends have changed since the pandemic has came and in a way, is still here. The the co-op itself has seen trends change where they want the member to really be more empowered. And with that has ensured that their home page really is made for a task oriented member or site visitor. Commonly, things that previously members would call in for to complete a task. Today, they’re wanting to do that online. They’re wanting to do it after hours. They’re wanting to do it when you’re short staffed or when you’re out of the office or when your office isn’t open. So with that in mind, taking the home page and really putting those top tasks front and center and then also enabling those top tasks to be completed online, has been at the center of the design process.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Well, that sounds exciting. I know some utilities have been closed for a while and have just reopened over the past few months. Some utilities never closed down at all. They might have had maybe two or four weeks that they were closed. You know, so it’s interesting to see what that little shift in expectations has meant, even when we’re ready and willing for them to come into the office in person. What are the big tasks? You mentioned that there are certain tasks people want to do. If you had to pick your top three, top four tasks that utilities really see their members doing and wanting to have front and center, what are those?
Charlie Stanley: First and foremost is starting and stopping service. Establishing a membership. Most of the site visitors that are going to the site to start a new membership, automatically assume that they can do that online. So when you can’t do it online, more often than not, what was happening is the cooperative was leaving that off of the website completely. And the search history, the heat maps, the analytics studies, all of that really showed that the site visitor, the potential member of the cooperative, was assuming that they can complete a task that they weren’t actually able to complete online at all.
Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that. And I wouldn’t have thought about using the search history on your website to see what your members and your consumers are trying to do. Is that something you routinely do with your team before you start redesigning a website?
Charlie Stanley: We do. Whenever we have access to the analytics, whether that’s Google Analytics or in some cases we can do a full user experience research study on the site. And when we do that, we’ll install a heat map. The heat map can also be really valuable in seeing where site visitors are going today. Previously, a couple of years ago, one of the really popular things on a website was a slide show. And what the heat maps have shown us and focus groups, we’ve done some virtual ones even during the pandemic. What that showed us is that the slide show to the member or that site visitor was often viewed more as an advertisement, and they’d glaze over it. They wouldn’t see those slides and the heat map showed no activity on the slide. And essentially in talking with different members and site visitors, they essentially started calling the slide show the junk drawer of the website.
Megan McKoy-Noe: No, we don’t want to have junk drawers on our websites. Now, you’re mentioning a heat map and I have seen a heat map before, but for folks who don’t know what that is, could you explain that?
Charlie Stanley: Absolutely. It’s an overlay that we put on. On top of the website so that we can view where site visitors are moving their mouse, where site visitors are touching on a mobile device, and where site visitors are clicking or tapping depending on the technology that they’re using. The more taps, the hotter that area gets meaning the screen will turn red over links that are commonly clicked on and the site remains clear or blue on activity where there’s just no activity at all.
Megan McKoy-Noe: And this is something that you have to turn on. It’s not something like Google Analytics, which is available for them to track at any time. It’s an active overlay that you have to add before you start evaluating a website.
Charlie Stanley: Correct. When we have a utility organization, opt in to our user experience and user research, we add that to their existing website and let it sit for about 2 to 3 weeks to start gaining knowledge and intelligence on their existing site.
Megan McKoy-Noe: That’s really exciting and a great thing to think about doing. So often we are focused on what we want to share, our messages with our members and our consumers. We don’t always remember to think about them first. What are they coming to us for? So I love the addition of a heat map and using search history. You mentioned the first thing that folks are going to come to your website to do is to start or stop service. What other tasks seem to hit high?
Charlie Stanley: Managing your accounts a big one. And more often than not, what we found is that the utility organization was linking to a third party bill payment system, whether that’s Meridian or Smart Hub or any of those other integrations. But they were linking over to it and just saying like Smart Hub. And the challenge was a lot of the site visitors, especially new members, didn’t know what Smart Hub meant. So even though there’s bill stuffers going out, bill inserts and other communication, it wasn’t necessarily being tied to pay my bill. So changing some of the wording on the site and then seeing what type of integrations, because the co-op often sends out so many notices about scams and that type of information, someone that’s a little more tech savvy might see that scam notice and then see they’re being taken away from the utility’s website and be hesitant to enter their login details. So if we can have them enter the login credentials on the website itself, the site visitor, your member, feels more safe.
Megan McKoy-Noe: That completely makes sense. I would again, would not have thought about it from that perspective. So very cool. Are there any other really big tasks or forms that you’ve seen folks really start to ask to be able to take care of on the website versus maybe a traditional PDF that they would have to download.
Charlie Stanley: The big one right now, and we’re actually working with our subsidiary ESG, is moving all of our forms from PDF to online forms. Traditionally, rebate forms were something that you had to fill out manually. Gosh, you can only imagine trying to read somebody’s handwriting on some of these, and I’m sure a handful of people listening have tried to make their way through that handwriting. But being able to create a form where you set conditional logic, for example, making sure that there’s ten digits in a phone number and not letting somebody continue if they’re missing a digit. It gently reminds them that that needs to be there. Reminding them that they need to add the dot com to their email address and there needs to be an @ symbol in their email address. So those type of things will stop the site visitor from potentially entering invalid information. While it can’t correct everything, it does look for some simple things to make that process a bit easier. And then also what you’re able to do with that data, being able to get a spreadsheet of everyone that filled out this particular rebate form or say it’s a youth scholarship program, being able to get all of the participants that have filled that out into one spreadsheet. Previously we found the communicator or the energy efficiency specialist, somebody within the cooperative was taking all of those PDFs and manually typing them into a spreadsheet anyway.
Megan McKoy-Noe: No, no. So not only are you meeting your consumer’s expectations, which we always talk about, you’ve got to meet your members and consumers’ expectations, but you’re also making your job at the utility easier. So I love that. One of the other things that I’ve really noticed you and your team at Powerful doing on website redesigns is focusing on data visualization, taking some very complicated information and making it much easier for folks to understand. Instead of expecting them to read, you show them the most important information, and it just makes it a much easier experience. Can you talk a little bit about the trends that you’ve seen for data visualization, the places where it’s really useful?
Charlie Stanley: Absolutely. The biggest thing with data visualization and content visualization is taking something that would normally be a wall of words. And typically, as writers and communicators, we learn to write in long form. And when we’re writing that way on the web, it’s just different behavior. Somebody that’s going to a website to complete a task does not typically read long paragraphs. So using more headings, using bullet points rather than sentences, shorter statements that somebody can read is a high touch approach to kind of cleaning up some of that content. But you can take it a step further and tell your story through content visualization, using iconography, typography, different colors and ways to box that content into short statements. And even using what we call micro animations for numbers where it shows that number kind of spinning up to the final count. What that does is it engages the site visitor. It gets their eyes on that particular topic. And what we’ve seen with that is that a page that was previously a wall of words would have an average average spend of about 30 seconds on that page before somebody exited that page. With data visualization, the same content for one of our members, we’re seeing about 4 to 5 minutes. So you’re seeing 8 to 10 times the amount of time spent for actually four less words, which means they’re actually engaging in the content. They’re reading it.
Megan McKoy-Noe: You know, we talk about the importance of editing your story, and it’s hard. We love our words. We really do. But it really impacts how long folks are staying with you and how powerful your story can be. So those are just wonderful points to share. Are there any other trends, anything else that you think folks at utilities considering a website redesign things that they should keep in mind as they start the process?
Charlie Stanley: Looking at your content and what tools can be implemented to make that content more efficient, whether you’re posting jobs on your website, how that can be more dynamic content that comes and goes. Events that are put on your website, what type of tool you have implemented so that you can have more of a proactive approach versus reactive approach with your events, whether it’s an annual meeting, monthly board meetings, scholarship deadlines, anything like that. Being able to have that drop off your website once the event is over will create more credibility. Because what often happens is if those events are on the website as upcoming events, once they’re over, it discredits the organization as a whole and discredits the website as something that’s outdated.
Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, old news is old news. You don’t want that on your website anymore. That’s a wonderful point. Well, thank you, Charlie, so much for sharing your insights with our family of utility pioneers. He is Charlie Stanley. He is the web solution manager at Powerful, part of the Pioneer Utility Resources family. And I’m your host, Megan McKoy-Noe at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Until we talk again, keep telling your story.
Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.