Lots of folks talk about consumer-member engagement, but few take the time to plan in. While preparing a presentation on responsive communication plans for the Northwest Public Power Association, almost every time I asked a friend for an overall communication plan example, they didn’t have one.

Do you have a cohesive, actionable plan for your consumer engagement efforts?

An Indiana co-op communicator asked me to help her brainstorm ways to create a consumer-member engagement plan for the next three to four years. Here are the ideas I shared with her, based on my #2019NIC research and best practices I’ve seen over the last 15 years. (We livestreamed the presentation on Facebook.)

Consumer-Member Engagement Planning Steps

  1. Start by focusing on your goals. What does your engagement look like right now? What benchmarks can you put in place to test how successful you’ve been? American Consumer Satisfaction Index scores are a solid way to do that, but you could also conduct your own surveys. Break down your goals for the next three years, with ways set up to check your success along the way. Make sure your plan is responsive—able to easily adapt based on how members react to your message(s).
  2. Know your audience. In a national survey, Touchstone Energy found new co-op members and the oldest co-op members are the happiest. Public power consumers share many of the same traits. What happens in the middle isn’t always about you—members with children are less satisfied and often their bills are higher (I wrote about this last year). Create profiles that represent your members. This will help you think about what messages matter to them, and which channels will be effective for each audience segment.
  3. Craft your message: What message will resonate with your consumer-members on different communication channels? What do you want to say? Why should they engage—what’s in it for them? I think a lot of folks talk from the utilities’ point of view, instead of looking at everything from the consumer-member’s side. Try to speak their language.
  4. Pick Channels: Where will you connect with your consumer-members? Face-to-face works well for some. Other segments of your audience are busy, so online communities might be a better bet. Choose your channels after you know what message(s) you want to get out there.
  5. Tactics: We all have a lot of tactics under our belts: magazines, bill inserts, social media, a presence at community events, and utility programs such as water heaters, geothermal rebates, and efficiency audits. The key is not to get lost in the tactics. Tactics should be the last thing on your list.

Think about what you want to accomplish first and how to connect that goal through clear messaging, then pick ways to put your plan into motion!

Curious about how many areas your plan should include? In my opinion, your tactics should stretch across the entire utility. They have to. Too often the communications team sends messages out but do not incorporate the other—primary—ways folks connect to the co-op. In addition to the common tactics/channels we all use, go deeper.

Start with Staff

Create easy scripts for your consumer-member services representatives, being sure to include the engagement message you identified in your plan. All new consumers get a handbook, right? Overhaul it and weave in your effort’s messaging. But before you start getting the message out to members, start with staff. I can’t tell you how many folks skip that step. Include lineworkers, too. Find ways for lineworkers and consumer-member services staff to talk to you about what they are hearing from consumers on the job. What are the common questions? Do they know how to answer? I’ve seen utilities give every employee a laminated wallet card with a list of how to handle an emergency. What if the other side of the card shared your member engagement goal?

Consider creating a cross-departmental staff team focused on engagement. Someone from operations and engineering might notice a problem long before public relations hears about it. A consumer services representative could see an opportunity before you do. An accountant might notice payment trends and problem areas, and suggest ways to make life better for consumers. Bring a small team together—people who share your goal and are excited about engaging consumers—and your plan will be more successful.

Connect Engaging Programs to Plan Goals

What does consumer-member engagement look like at your utility? Do you want an increase in Operation Round Up or other community support program sign-ups? Do you want more folks to redeem efficiency-focused rebates? Do you want higher community meeting attendance? Weave all of those benchmarks into your overarching engagement plan’s goals. Then create messages for each of those efforts, and track your results over the next three to four years. Try focusing on a specific area each quarter, building up your program engagement over time.

Engage New Consumer-Members

A few years ago I drafted a member engagement action plan for a Nevada co-op. They wanted to engage new members straight away. Instead of sending a handbook once and being done with it, we talked about crafting unique messages for new members. A set of postcards and a box of efficiency supplies would be mailed to new members over the course of their first year. (This amazing co-op had already mailed efficiency kits and installed bonus efficiency measures with free audits at every single home in their service area—the boxes would continue that effort for new members.) Engaging your newest members—at a time when they are satisfied and open to you—is a powerful tactic.

Seek Member Feedback

Surveys are great, but they don’t pack as much of a punch as a consumer-member engagement committee. There are several ways to create a solid feedback group for your utility. Some utilities have a standing committee: consumer-members who get together twice a year for a meal and hear a presentation from utility leadership. Board members/trustees pick who is invited, and it’s great, but not perfect. At some utilities, there’s no turnover. After a few decades the consumer-members do not reflect your broader base.

If you want ‘YES’ consumer-members, sure. Go that route. But if you want consumer-members who will be honest with you—who are not afraid to share pain points—look for other ways to build your committee. Some public power utilities have a small group of ambassadors; folks who love the utility and work in the community. If you’re looking for ways to improve engagement, you might want to still push a bit farther.

I recently spoke to Jay Sanders, community relations director at Middle Tennessee Electric Cooperative, Tennessee. His co-op focuses a lot of time on member engagement. They’re building a food truck to go to community events and ask for feedback on service. What a great idea! But they went farther. Instead of hosting people at the utility, they created an online community.

They picked a few hundred folks from across their membership area/varied demographics to get an invite to the community. They only accepted the first hundred or so (all slots were filled in less than 24 hours). The co-op checks in with the community once a quarter, then the members rotate off and a new set of invitations will be emailed to a random set of members. Jay says they picked this approach because the people they want to engage don’t have time to come to the co-op for a meal. But these members want to be heard. Watch this video to learn more about MTEC’s approach to member engagement.

Share Your Engagement Plans

I get excited when I talk about consumer-member engagement. It’s one of the reasons I love working on our free More Powerful Together toolkit for Pioneer members. How do you plan to engage your consumer-members in 2020? Share your ideas here, or send them to me. Public power communicators are stronger when we brainstorm together!