This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 TVPPA magazine, The Better Communication Issue. Learn more in our free webinar, How to Build your Brand Story, on Wednesday, Nov. 2. 

Register for the webinar


Stories are critical for connecting with consumers. How can utilities use proactive communications and engagement strategies to reach their audience?

“There are so many competing messages out there,” Middle Tennessee Electric CEO Chris Jones says. “We have such a great story to tell. We’re doing such good things. But often our members don’t know, understand or see it.”

As the winner of the 2022 J.C. Brown CEO Communication Leadership Award from NRECA, Chris advocates for strengthening utility stories and strategies.

“Our vision as an organization is all about reaching world-class levels of member satisfaction,” Chris says. “To do that, we’ve got to be good storytellers.” 

Building a proactive communication and engagement strategy across both print and digital channels takes four steps: listening, planning, sharing why stories matter and targeting utility storytelling.

 

1. Listen

Stories start with a focus on what consumers want to hear, not necessarily what utility leadership wants to say.

“When you’re in an industry for 30-plus years, you expect other people to speak the same language and have the same excitement about keeping the lights on,” Appalachian Electric Cooperative Director of Member Services Mitch Cain says. “In reality, that’s simply not the case.”

To learn how the co-op’s storytelling could better connect with members, AEC partnered with Pioneer to conduct a series of member focus groups in 2021 and 2022. In the first set of conversations, only four of the 18 participants had any significant awareness of more than two co-op products and services.

Middle Tennessee Electric created an online member advisory committee in 2019. Each quarter, the co-op asks 75 randomly selected members questions about campaigns, and programs, and solicits questions from members, too. New member voices and perspectives are added each year.

“That’s been a very valuable resource for us to understand member expectations and to engage with our membership,” Chris says.

By listening, utility communicators can proactively address pain points through a multi-channel storytelling plan. 

pioneer utility services icon

Where to hear story ideas:

  • Ask staff members who answer your phones about common consumer problems. Turn solutions into story topics.
  • Are you monitoring and responding to online questions? Claim your Google Business Profile at google.com/business and use questions as story ideas.
  • Instead of using social media as a billboard, write posts asking for feedback, then answer common questions. 
  • What are the most common terms members search for on your website? Write about them, then consider making it easier to find those tasks.

2. Plan a story strategy

While it’s fun to assume good storytelling happens organically, the best stories are planned and align with a broader strategy.

“We are in this every day. We understand our programs,” AEC Communications and Marketing Supervisor Emily Walls says. “Using member 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 and visuals.”

What goals determine which stories you highlight? With careful planning, your content can showcase the value of cross-channel, targeted communications.

Work with your management team to identify goals for utility programs. Measurable communications opportunities include:

  • Converting members to auto-pay
  • Increasing energy efficiency program engagement
  • Dropping call wait times during outages
  • Adding voting and annual meeting attendance
  • Boosting billing portal participation

List the high-priority areas where your team would like to see movement. Tell stories about those topics strategically, over time. Then use these measurable goals to track your story strategy’s performance.

 

3. Share your why

People remember stories, not utility goals. Why does the story matter to consumers?

When a story starts with the name of the utility, you quickly lose reader interest. Instead of focusing on what the utility is doing, change the focus to why something happened and who will be affected. Aim for stories which reflect the consumers and communities your programs impact.

A good starting point is bestselling author Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle concept. He presents storytelling as a three-ringed target. Often utility storytellers explain what we do (poles, wires, fiber). This is in the broadest circle. To get closer to our target audiences and inside the next circle, share how the utility works (the shared mantra of safe, reliable and affordable). To hit the center of the target and engage consumers, Sinek advises starting stories with why the topic matters to the audience. 

pioneer utility services iconExamples of why stories matter:

  • Why does broadband expansion matter? Fiber access connects consumers to education, jobs and health care to improve their daily lives. 
  • Why does energy efficiency matter? Consumers save money and can live more comfortably.
  • Why do scholarships matter? Focus on winners and why they are entering a particular field, not who is giving the money. 

Remember, you’re not writing for yourself or your utility management team. Start with why a story matters to your reader to have a better shot at catching — and holding — their attention.

4. Tap data to target stories

When you use a billboard, the message reaches everyone who drives by… including people who are not your consumers. 

Digital advertising capabilities remove waste, helping utilities deliver messages to specific people. For example, if your utility wants to increase efficiency rebate participation, get testimonials from consumers in low-participation neighborhoods. Share testimonials and program ads through both direct mail and targeted digital advertising.

“We’ve got more and more access to data,” Chris notes. “We need to mine that data and understand it to help shape our communications. 

pioneer utility services iconStory targeting options:

  • Geotargeting: Direct mail or online ads delivered by ZIP code
  • Mobile conquesting/Geofencing: Reach people who live at a specific address and/or who visited a specific place (including an office or community event)
  • Behavioral targeting: Send stories or ads to someone based on online behavior 
  • Retargeting: Deliver online ads to someone who visited the utility website but did not do something (sign up for broadband, apply for a rebate, etc.)

“In the next five years, we’ll be more data-driven and we’ll do more targeted communications,” Chris predicts. “Using the data for what your consumers are doing to drive all of your communications makes sense. They know more about what they need than we do. Listen to them and share their stories.”

 

Keep telling your story

By focusing on why stories matter to consumers, utility communicators can coordinate stories across print and digital channels, using data to target stories to those who need them most. 

“We’ve got to get the message out and go beyond just the meat and potatoes of, ‘We’ve got to be reliable and affordable,’” Chris shares. “We’ve got to tell the story of other things we’re doing, whether it’s in energy efficiency or community engagement. They need to know more beyond just the bill they’re getting from us. That’s a challenge for all of us as communicators.”

As a communications co-op, Pioneer offers several free resources to help communicators strengthen utility stories.

Storytelling Goals Worksheet (PDF)

Use this worksheet as you identify utility goals, then list story ideas based on what matters to your consumers.

Download the worksheet

Podcasts, Case Studies, eBooks and Events