The coronavirus pandemic is far from over. Businesses everywhere continue to deal with the economic fallout of the crisis even as some assistance and deferment programs come to an end. Small and medium business customers will continue to look to their energy utility throughout the winter for resources and support to survive the financial impact of coronavirus.

In Questline Digital’s Plugged In webinar, “Financial Impact of the Coronavirus on Small Businesses,” guest experts from the SBA and AEP Ohio discussed strategies for energy utilities to help SMB customers through the next phase of the crisis.

SMB customers fight to overcome COVID-19 challenges

Small business customers everywhere are feeling the stress and of the pandemic financially, mentally and emotionally. As numerous SMB owners fight to keep their dreams moving forward, others have locked their doors for what they hope is a temporary closure.

Andrea Roebker, regional communications director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, has held roundtable discussions throughout the Midwest listening to the concerns of small business owners. Through these meetings, Roebker has seen the stress of SMB owners firsthand, but she also says there is optimism as they push innovation in their businesses and remain encouraged by the possibility of future stimulus and financial aid.

Roebker’s team at the SBA takes information learned at these roundtables back to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of SMB owners and their needs. She says working to save small businesses and their jobs is huge. “Small businesses are the economic engine of this country. They create two out of every three jobs.”

At its core, the SBA helps to start, grow or expand small businesses through federal taxpayer funding. The SBA not only helps to educate and guide small businesses with resources, but also helps entrepreneurs who typically would not be able to get funding through a bank. By guaranteeing loans, the SBA reduces the risk for commercial lenders.

Federal support for businesses continues

In the first months of the coronavirus outbreak, Congress passed the CARES Act and created two new programs designed to assist small businesses. The SBA launched these programs in the following weeks, which is an unusually quick turnaround for federal government decisions.

  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was designed to keep employees on SMB payrolls. This program allocated money to 5.2 million small businesses and nonprofits nationwide.
  • Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advance was patterned after the SBA’s existing Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Typically, this emergency funding follows natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes; this is the first time in the SBA’s history that a disaster fell into the pandemic category.

Those programs ended on August 8, but the SBA still offers numerous ways to assist small businesses:

  • SBA Debt Relief program allows the SBA to make payments toward small business loans. The SBA has made several months of payments for those loans so small business owners can focus on other expenses, like paying their energy bills.
  • Traditional SBA-Backed Lending loan lowers the risk for banks and includes favorable terms for small businesses, allowing them to raise needed capital. Roebker noted that fiscal year 2020 is equal to fiscal year 2019 in level of lending. “Many would think small businesses wouldn’t be going after loans like this, but they are as a means to pivot or grow their businesses.”
  • No-Cost Business Advising helps small businesses get support and resources they need through resource partners across the nation, including helping entrepreneurs rewrite business plans or create a digital platform.

Connecting utility customers to SMB assistance

AEP Ohio and serves about 1.5 million customers, including several thousand small business customers. According to Katie Grayem, director of customer experience with AEP Ohio, “Our goal is really to have the trusted energy provider relationship with customers.” AEP Ohio’s pandemic response was designed to meet the needs of their customers and provide win-win opportunities for them to benefit from the utility’s services and programs. The goal was to help grow the communities they serve.

Through an educational and informative role, Grayem says the energy provider also helps customers understand available programs outside of AEP Ohio. “We were trying to stay really active to help customers reach their financial obligations to ‘keep the lights on,’ as they say,” Grayem said.

A multichannel messaging strategy was an effective way to reach AEP Ohio’s customers and empathize with them. The energy utility wanted to be proactive in telling customers with past due balances what the implications would be following the disconnect moratorium in Ohio.

AEP Ohio also shifted their calling center responses from a “pay us now” mentality to offering assistance in enrolling in payment programs. For the first time, the utility offered payment plan options for non-residential customers.

AEP Ohio leveraged various communications channels, including their Questline Digital eNewsletter, social media and a specific business assistance page on their website to offer payment plan options and energy savings tips. Their business call center also had a dedicated unit with specialized training on the PPP and CARES Act programs to offer further resources to customers.

Like Roebker, Grayem sees positive signs in the business owners who are benefiting from financial assistance programs. “Unlike our residential population, who seem to be most inclined to take longer payback periods,” she said, “our commercial customers really seemed to just want to try it out and I think that’s a sign of optimism.”

Maintain a strong digital relationship with your business customers with an eNewsletter solution from Questline Digital.

Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, more people are working from home than ever. In fact, 42% of the U.S. labor force now works from home full-time. What does this mean for your customers’ energy consumption?

According to CBS News, California residential energy use has risen 15% to 20% during the pandemic and New York energy use is up 4% to 7%.This is comparable to the International Energy Agency’s projections, noting that working from home could increase energy consumption by as much as 23%, “depending on regional differences in the average size of homes, heating or cooling needs and the efficiency of appliances.”

As customers spend more time working at home, they are using home office electronics throughout the day along with increased use of lighting, heating and cooling — even using kitchen appliances instead of the breakroom microwave at work. Of course, this all leads to an increase in home energy bills as well.

Payment options and efficiency advice for work-from-home customers

Questline Digital deployed more 72 million COVID-19-related messages on behalf of energy utilities during the initial months of the crisis. Those performance metrics painted a clear picture of the information customers wanted from their energy utilities.

Based on this insight, Questline Digital developed two key recommendations for connecting with work-from-home customers:

  1. Provide useful energy efficiency advice so customers can take control of their bills.
  2. Proactively communicate billing options to customers who are unfamiliar with assistance programs.

At the beginning of the crisis, email newsletters were the most reliable way to reach customers, as most utilities suspended program promotions and other non-essential communications. eNewsletters delivered record levels of engagement in March 2020, with a 37% average open rate — 65% higher than the same month the previous year. One of the most popular content topics throughout the spring was energy efficiency, especially saving energy in a home office.

When energy utilities resumed marketing campaigns in the late spring and early summer, energy efficiency and paperless billing campaigns were the top performers. Energy efficiency messages achieved a 26% average open rate, surpassing the benchmark rate by 11%.

There is a more worrying trend lurking in the shadows of the work-from-home surge: The economic shutdown caused by the pandemic has left 30 million Americans without jobs. Some dual-income households have even faced the prospect of losing income from one family member while another continues working from home, driving up energy costs. Many of these people are facing financial hardship for the first time and may not be familiar with your utility’s billing options and payment assistance programs.

A major investor-owned utility in the Southeast sent a payment reminder email to more than 86,000 customers early in the crisis. The message provided an option to make partial payments and linked to the utility’s COVID-19 resource page. The email experienced extraordinary engagement rates with a 41% open rate and 5,850 total clicks.

A permanent shift in home energy use

As many companies continue to allow employees to work from home, it is clear that work culture is changing. For example, Google employees are working from home until at least summer 2021 and Twitter staff can do so permanently. Even when the pandemic ends, a survey by the Harvard Business School found that one in six workers is projected to continue working from home at least two days a week.

Despite growing questions about a continued work from home future, it is apparent that this is just the beginning. Your energy utility needs to continue to prepare customers for the increased costs that come with their home office, whether through payment options or energy efficiency tips.

The future of our work-from-home world may be unknown, but what is known are the numerous ways your energy utility can help your residential and business customers. Be a trusted resource as customers continue to work through the struggles of a pandemic.

Learn how proactive communications like Questline Digital‘s Payment Assistance Campaign connect customers with billing options when they need help the most.

As we look back at energy utility communications in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has had a massive influence in the way consumers engage with email.

While the pandemic’s impact has been devastating, it has reinforced the value of establishing strong relationships with your customers. It also emphasizes the importance of reaching out during key moments throughout the customer journey.

We’ve identified three different phases of communication during the crisis and analyzed customer responses during each. These phases each spanned different time intervals as customer concerns and interests evolved over the course of the pandemic: Crisis Communications, Transition to a New Normal and ongoing Post-Crisis Communications.

First, let’s level-set by looking at January and February email activity right before the pandemic:

  • At the beginning of 2020, program promotions emails were performing slightly better than 2019 year-over-year (YoY), with a 1.4% increase in open rate and 0.6% increase in click-through rate (CTR). The unsubscribe rate was up 0.6% YoY.  
  • eNewsletters, though flat in open rate, experienced 24% higher CTR.

Phase 1: Crisis Communications

During the initial weeks of the pandemic in March, the focus of communications was solely on providing essential COVID-19 resources, including what customers could expect from their energy utility. Nearly half of these emails were opened by their target audience. During this relatively short period of time, most energy utilities paused marketing campaigns. Though some eNewsletters were paused or delayed, those containing coronavirus-related content reached record open numbers. You can learn more about this early period of time here.

  • eNewsletters outperformed YoY open rate by 69% and CTR by 134%

Phase 2: Transition to a New Normal

In April, energy utilities struck the right tone between continuing to inform customers about what to expect from them during the pandemic and re-introducing program promotions. Most of these promotions were well received.

The result: One in four customers opened promotional emails during this new normal. Content and eNewsletters with coronavirus-related content continued to have higher engagement rates than those without this timely information. Further breakdowns of promotional messages sent during this time can be found here.

  • The program promotion open rate in April 2020 outperformed April 2019 by 18%.
  • CTR was up 27% and the unsubscribe rate decreased 62%.
  • eNewsletter open rate was up 16% with a 40% higher CTR.

Phase 3: Post-Crisis Communications

Though the coronavirus crisis is by no means over, energy utilities have now established their plan and set expectations for ongoing communications with their customers. Starting in the middle of May through July, marketing communications received unprecedented levels of engagement.

  • Promotional messages in May-July had an open rate of 26.4% and a CTR of 1.7%. This is up 9% and 62% YoY, respectively.
  • The unsubscribe rate is down 36%.
  • eNewsletters (May-July) experienced an open rate of 25% and CTR of 2.1%. This is up 22% and 27%.

These communications are a prime example of building relationships through hardships. No two customers are alike, but all customers experience certain moments during their journey when they look for reassurances and resources from brands they trust. This has been especially true during the pandemic.

As this difficult time has reinforced, the way energy utilities communicate during a crisis can have long-lasting effects on customer relationships.

To learn more, download Questline Digital’s eBook, “How COVID-19 Transformed Customer Communications.”

The coronavirus pandemic continues to bring financial hardship to Americans from coast to coast. According to the latest unemployment numbers, weekly first-time jobless claims remain above 1 million for the 13th week in a row. During this difficult time, many energy utilities are promoting their financial assistance programs and encouraging customers to “pay it forward” to help their neighbors in need.

Lending a helping hand

Many people are interested in helping out in some way. These acts of kindness come in all shapes and sizes, including donating blood, volunteering and supporting local businesses. In fact, 46% of millennials say they want to give more in response to the pandemic.

Most people simply aren’t aware they have options to give back through their energy utility. Here’s a few examples of energy utility programs that provide customers with the opportunity to help their neighbors and community.

Entergy’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund: Established by the Entergy Charitable Foundation, this relief fund is dedicated to helping customers affected by the pandemic. The fund helps customers across multiple states, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Texas. In partnership with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Entergy Louisiana created Fueling the Fight, a program that covers costs of providing meals to healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic. The energy utility is matching individual donations up to $50,000.

AEP Ohio’s Neighbor to Neighbor Program: This assistance program helps customers facing financial hardship maintain or restore their basic electric service. For customers looking to give back, the energy utility will match every donation, and 100% of proceeds help a local family in need. Customers have the option to donate through their AEP Ohio bill.  

Mississippi Power’s Project SHARE: For as little as a dollar a month, customers can help make a difference for elderly or medically disabled customers. To make it easy, customers can add their desired donation when they pay their utility bill. Since its inception, Project SHARE has received more than $900,000 donations from customers and employees.

Eversource Energy’s Neighbor Helping Neighbor Fund: In partnership with six community action agencies, this program helps energy utility customers who are unable to pay their utility bill due to temporary crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Eversource provides their customers with the opportunity to make a one-time online donation or set up recurring contributions through their monthly bill. 

As the pandemic continues, energy utilities should promote their financial assistance programs as well as the opportunity for customers to donate to the cause. Many customers are looking to pay it forward and help their neighbors get back on their feet.

Questline Digital’s Payment Assistance Campaign can help you ease customer concerns and connect them with the right resources.

Over the past few months, Questline Digital has worked with our energy utility partners on a variety of coronavirus-related communications. On May 21, Questline Digital President Dave Reim held the fifth town hall forum to share these “tales from the trenches” to help other utilities develop their marketing and content strategy.

In this webinar, Questline Digital’s energy utility and marketing experts discussed what communications strategies, platforms and cadence were most effective during the pandemic. They also shared re-engagement strategies for programs, initiatives and services for energy utilities to implement in the coming months.

Evolving messages

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, messages to energy utility customers have evolved — from initial safety and reliability-related alerts to payment assistance program promotions. As Questline Digital Account Supervisor Julia Halterman explained, many energy utilities sent out initial coronavirus messages to business and residential customers in an alert or letter-style format. However, as our energy utility partners have demonstrated, proactive communications during uncertain times extend above and beyond an alert.

For example, a major Northeast investor-owned utility sent out communications centered around its awareness and action toward maintaining continuity amid COVID-19. The utility then began weekly communications from the president, lending credibility to future messaging. In April, the utility’s messaging transitioned to saving energy, managing bills and payment assistance programs, among other topics. Based on the high levels of engagement, it is clear that customers want thoughtful and responsive communications from their energy utility.

The right time for promotions 

In just a few short months, the world has completely changed and “business as usual” is no longer the case. As a result, some utilities halted their program promotions, instead focusing on COVID-19 messages and newsletter communications. As society transitions to a new normal, the question remains: When and how should utilities re-implement their program promotions?

According to Questline Digital Account Director Nina Cummins, now is the time to restart promotions because customers want to hear from you. Questline Digital’s team of experts recommends changing up typical promotional messaging to fit the current situation. For example, emphasize the “convenient” and “contactless” benefits of paperless billing.

When easing back into marketing efforts, energy utilities should determine what programs are most helpful for both parties. According to Cummins, there is a fine balance of internal program goals, remaining profitable and being sympathetic to your customers who are facing difficult times. Consider promoting these programs that are beneficial to utilities and customers:

  • Energy efficiency programs
  • Time-of-use plans
  • Smart thermostats
  • Appliance recycling
  • Home energy assessments

In addition to program promotions, our engagement experts recommend continuing customer onboarding campaigns. For example, Questline Digital’s Welcome Series is experiencing five times the benchmark click-through rate. Keep in mind, some of our clients have paused energy efficiency messaging within Welcome Series to remain empathetic to customers.

Helping customers in need  

With an unemployment rate of 14.7%, your customers need your help during this difficult time. Questline Digital Account Director Josh Platt discussed a national Electric Power Research Institute survey gauging consumer views on energy utilities during COVID-19. The survey found customer actions are not in line with customer expectations. Customers are using electricity more than ever before and expecting greater utility assistance. However, few respondents reached out to their utility for help — illustrating the importance of proactive communications.

One of our clients, a major investor-owned utility in the Southeast, sent out a payment reminder email to inform customers they temporarily suspended disconnects for non-payment. This email, sent to more than 86,000 customers, provided an option to make partial payments and linked to the utility’s COVID-19 resource page (the second most visited page on the utility’s website). The email experienced extraordinary engagement rates with a 41% open rate, 12.7% CTOR and 5,850 total clicks.

Newsletters are necessary

Throughout the pandemic, customers have been eager to hear from their energy utility — evident in the high engagement of our clients’ email newsletters. Brian Lindamood, Questline Digital’s VP of Marketing & Content Strategy, discussed how customers are not only reading articles, but clicking on links and program promotions within eNewsletters.

A regular and reassuring touchpoint, eNewsletters provide both residential and business customers valuable and relevant content. Content examples range from work-from-home tips to saving energy during business downtime. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, one of our energy utility partners was quick to replace their entire March eNewsletter with coronavirus content, including energy efficiency, reliability and health and safety topics. The open rate of 37% was more than double their usual open rate.

As these communications success stories showcase, energy utilities have many opportunities at their disposal to reach customers. It behooves utilities to use a variety of communication touchpoints — from one-off emails to program promotions to eNewsletters — to provide important coronavirus-related information to their customers.

To learn more, download Questline Digital’s eBook, “How COVID-19 Transformed Customer Communications.”