Globally, social media through its many platforms has taken off. It is the essential part of shaping a brand for a product or corporate identity; it is used for engagement with current and potential consumers and at a time when genuine trust is broadly reserved for people's existing networks and friends; (97% trusting word of mouth over 47% trusting adverts) there is a need to be part of the conversation about you.
But what about utilities? How can wires and pipes be that engaging and exciting as to warrant a meaningful interaction with this terrifying and new-fangled method of communications? I had the pleasure of chairing the first day of the SMi Group's 'Social Media in Utilities' conference on Monday (15 April) and the message was clear that whether you want to engage on this platform or not, people are already talking about you, you can choose to be part of the conversation or you can just let it happen behind your back. This is the same whether you're a major global commercial brand or you maintain and operate the electricity or gas network that the average person is content to take for granted.
Yet there are reasons for some in the industry where there are not for others, utilising social media effectively is an individual company decision and the rationale for doing so is going to be different for each too. The idea that one size doesn't fit all is very true but so is the fact that customers are seeking their utilities out on social media with just around 50 million people following utilities in 2011 it is predicted to rise to over 600 million by 2017. Retailers have an audience to engage with both to retain and build their customer base. The networks are geared around customer service in a different way and especially where social media is concerned the profit is even less of an issue.
Customer service is a key feature of Ofgem's RIIO price control criteria and UK Power Networks spoke at the conference setting out their approach to engaging with customers through Twitter. After taking the time to listen to what those on the social media platform were saying they quickly established the focus was on power cuts. This is a situation the usual communications parts of the company can't add to, this real value comes from the close working between the customer services teams and the engineers working to fix the problem.
UKPN could have stopped there, customers are contacting them, they're responding and problems are being resolved. But in launching themselves onto Twitter, UKPN understood that they were taking a decision not to simply passively engage with those who contacted them but to reach out to the customers who may not otherwise have chosen to interact directly with their network operator. This proactive move meant UKPN were contacting people on Twitter who had posted about a power cut in their patch to update them on engineering work or to find out more details to fix it - customers will take to Twitter more readily than they would pick up the phone to call. By not waiting for the questions and seeking the issues to resolve, UKPN went from sending an initial 100 tweets per month in March 2012 to almost 1,500 per month now, positively interacting with customers who would never have got in touch with them otherwise.
Many of the other network operators have adopted a similar attitude and made a commitment to talk to their customers via a means that they choose rather than requiring them to conform to a corporate norm. This is something to be encouraged and celebrated. Currently, Ofgem don't include social media as a recognised customer service engagement tool but it is hoped that this is only a matter of time. Whether you're O2 tackling a major national service outage by tweeting with appropriate humour and humility, or you're a network operator looking to inject some personality into the wires and pipes, social media has become a necessity for great customer service.