As we all continue to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic, we find normalcy amid new social structures and a constantly evolving stream of information. As digital communicators, Questline Digital has been supporting its energy utility partners with content and insights to optimize customer communications during the outbreak.  

During the initial five weeks of the pandemic, Questline Digital sent more than 44.2 million coronavirus-related emails to energy utility customers across the United States. These emails contained information about utilities’ preparations in the outbreak, safety tips, scam protection alerts and energy efficiency tips.

Where do we go from here?

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, Questline Digital has continued to focus on energy utility communications to bring you insights on what resonates with customers. We’ve analyzed 28 million emails and eNewsletters sent after the initial coronavirus response emails. These emails include a variety of topics ranging from transactional safety and storm alerts to energy efficiency programs and paperless billing. Overall, these messages are performing well, reaching an average open rate of 28.9%.

  • The top percentile of messages delivered a 38% average open rate.
  • Messages reached 53% of their intended audience with half of those opening multiple emails.

Marketing messages during the outbreak

In mid-March, our energy utility partners paused marketing communications. This strategy allowed them to focus on sending COVID-19-related information, making sure to not come across as insensitive to the developing crisis. As the environment settles into a new normal, energy utilities are resuming marketing campaigns. Energy efficiency and paperless billing campaigns are top performers.

  • Energy efficiency messages reached a 26% average open rate, surpassing the benchmark by 11%.
  • Engagement also performed well with a CTR 5% above benchmark.
  • Paperless billing campaigns reached a 27% open rate. This is a 20% increase from Questline Digital’s annual Energy Utility Benchmarks Report.
  • These campaigns had a CTR 76% above benchmarks.

As your utility eases back into your marketing schedule, we recommend prioritizing promotions that can help save customers energy and money. For example, subject lines highlighting the sale price are performing better than simply stating a promotion.

Content strategy and eNewsletters respond to the crisis

Ongoing publications like eNewletters are seeing a significant boost in engagement. We recommend continuing newsletter deployments on your regular schedule to keep a consistent touchpoint with your customers.

  • The average open rate for eNewsletters in March 2020 was 21.6%.
  • We see utility eNewsletters achieving a 14% higher open rate and 5% higher CTR than the eNewsletter benchmark.

The top-performing content during this time continues to be coronavirus-related. These content pieces ensure the newsletter is relevant and reflect what’s on customers’ minds. Our collection of coronavirus content continues to evolve and spans many topics about life during the outbreak. As you look to round out your content strategy, other top-performing content categories include home improvement, energy efficiency and indoor air quality.

As many of us continue to spend more time at home, we are trying to find ways to make our spaces more comfortable and energy efficient. Utilities should personalize content with information and links to their programs as well as promotional snippets in eNewsletters. In April, 22% of content views generated outbound clicks to a personalized link.

Considering relevant content to include in your eNewsletters? Reflect on the top-performing Questline Digital content in April:

  • 6 Ways to Save This Spring (Article)
  • Go Green This Earth Day (Infographic)
  • Coronavirus Action Plan: Protecting Your Power (Article)
  • Stay Home, Stay Safe and Save Energy (Article)
  • How Do Sump Pumps Work? (Infographic)

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

The coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated just how critical customer engagement is for energy utilities — in good times and bad. Under normal circumstances, ongoing engagement helps promote safety, smart energy use and program participation.

But during an emergency, as with the current global pandemic, your relationship with customers really pays off. Now this engaged audience is easy to reach and they are ready and eager to hear from you. You can share vital health and safety information — at the moment they need it most — thanks to your long-term commitment to customer engagement.

eNewsletters connect during a crisis

This pattern is especially clear with email newsletters. A monthly eNewsletter provides a regular touchpoint, a reliable way for utilities to remind customers that you want to help them improve their energy use and make their lives more comfortable.

During the coronavirus outbreak, being a reliable part of customers’ lives has taken on new meaning. And customers have responded by engaging with eNewsletters at unprecedented rates.

In March, the eNewsletters Questline Digital deploys for energy utilities delivered a 36.7% average open rate. That’s 65% higher than the same month last year. Engagement with eNewsletter content, measured by click-through rate and click-to-open rate, also reached four-year highs. Even clicks on promotional links have been elevated during the outbreak.

The content customers are looking for

As with any content marketing strategy, an email newsletter should cover topics that interest customers and reflect their needs. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak that meant articles about customers’ immediate health and safety concerns, as well as reassurances of the security and reliability of their energy supply.

That theme comes through in this list of Questline Digital’s top-performing content in March:

  • Coronavirus Action Plan: Protecting Your Power
  • Do’s and Don’ts: Coronavirus Prevention
  • 6 Ways to Make Your Home Office Energy Efficient
  • Business Downtime: Steps to Saving Energy and Money
  • 5 Simple Steps to Social Distancing

Customers’ initial concerns are now shifting to longer-term needs as they settle into a stay-at-home lifestyle in April and beyond. This is a good time to remind customers that they can take control of their energy use through simple efficiency measures. Not only are they spending a lot more time at home, and possibly using more energy, they might have some time to tackle simple improvement projects as well.

This also applies to customers’ home offices. They want to improve their work-from-home setups, including using technology like smart power strips to control their energy use. They also are looking for advice on avoiding scams and protecting their home computers from cyberattacks.

Many business customers are grappling with unexpected shutdowns, leaving their companies partially or completely closed. These customers are looking for content that will help them reduce their energy use — and their expenses — until they can reopen.

Customers are also open to program promotions that are relevant to their concerns — as long as the messaging is sensitive to the current climate. For example, the convenience and safety of hands-free paperless billing or online account access, or the potential savings of an energy efficiency program, supports the stay-at-home lifestyle and can help them reduce their energy bills.

Continue engaging with customers throughout the crisis

Customers trust their energy provider. You are a reliable source for safety information and customers look to you for helpful advice on reducing their energy use. Your monthly eNewsletter is the right vehicle to continue sharing that content throughout the coronavirus outbreak.

Learn how an eNewsletter solution from Questline Digital will build customer engagement for your energy utility.

For energy utilities, ongoing communications will be key to helping residential and business customers navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

On April 16, Questline Digital President Dave Reim hosted the third coronavirus town hall forum and led a discussion on what utilities should be communicating to their customers beyond crisis communications. Questline Digital’s team of industry experts discussed messaging strategies from energy utilities that have been most successful with their communication efforts during the pandemic.

What our data shows about COVID-19 crisis communications   

Since mid-March, Questline Digital has assisted our energy utilities partners with the deployment of more than 100 separate email campaigns, reaching over 50 million energy utility customers. According to our performance metrics, the average open rate for coronavirus-related messages is 40.4% — which is nearly 50% higher than the Questline Digital benchmark.

This data demonstrates that customers want to hear from their utility on important topics like billing assistance programs, safety information and COVID-19 business resources. We are seeing an email cadence of one to two emails each week per audience (residential and business). These emails are focused around the following topics:

  • Safety and reliability
  • Corporate messages
  • Energy efficiency
  • Income challenges
  • What’s recent/new

Messaging that matters

Questline Digital Account Director Nina Cummins emphasized how safety and reliability messages resonate with customers who want reassurance that their power will remain on. To put customers’ minds at ease, utilities should communicate emergency and business continuity plans, the importance of serving critical infrastructure, rescheduling non-essential in-home services and other reliability-related topics.

Following safety messaging, Questline Digital Account Director Joshua Platt explained how many energy utilities are sending corporate messages, often in the form of president or CEO letters. These messages focus on how the utility is helping their employees, customers and community, such as donations/contributions, business resources and scam alerts.

Finding solutions

Susan Kownacki, Questline Digital’s VP of Account Services, reiterated the economic toll of COVID-19 with millions of Americans losing their jobs. Many utilities have been proactive about creating COVID-19-specific solutions and communicating them to customers on multiple channels, including email, websites and social media.

These solutions include suspension of service disconnections for non-payment and waiving late payment charges. Utilities should also reinforce the assistance tools and resources they already have in place for economically challenged customers, including:  

  • Budget or level billing
  • Online payment extension
  • Other financial assistance online

eNewsletters are essential

In addition to email communications, eNewsletters are an important platform to reach customers during this challenging time. Brian Lindamood, Questline Digital’s VP of Marketing and Content Strategy, covered topics to include in your eNewsletter, such as saving energy at home, business downtime and bill payment/financial assistance.

In the coming weeks, it makes sense to shift your content from immediate health and safety topics to more ongoing, stay-at-home concerns. For example, customers are concerned about the increased energy use associated with work from home. When crafting COVID-19 messages, think about answers to these questions: 

  • What are your customers most concerned about during the pandemic?
  • How is your utility and employees dealing with the changes?   
  • How are lineworkers staying safe and keeping social distance?
  • How can your utility help customers with valuable resources and tips?

To learn more about engagement during the crisis download Questline Digital’s ebook, “How COVID-19 Transformed Customer Communications.”

Questline Digital has taken the lead to help its energy utility partners keep their customers informed of the coronavirus pandemic. Since early March we have sent more than 34.9 million outbreak-related emails to utility customers across the United States. Initially, these emails contained information about utilities’ preparations and initial responses to the pandemic. As the situation has evolved and energy providers continue to communicate with customers, topics have expanded to include safety tips, scam protection alerts and energy efficiency tips.

Customers want to hear from you

Despite the flood of emails filling inboxes, customers are reading messages from their energy utility. Customers trust their energy provider — and they are looking to you for reliable safety advice as well as program information that will help them save energy during these difficult times. Questline Digital performance metrics show that these messages are resonating with customers.

  • 40.4% average open rate for coronavirus email messages, with several individual messages surpassing 50% open rate
  • 49% higher open rate than the ancillary alerts category from Questline Digital’s annual Benchmarks Report
  • 75% of customers who opened one coronavirus-related email also opened follow-up messages

We recommend maintaining a regular cadence of one message per week, continuing to answer customers’ questions and offer support as the crisis unfolds. Your customers want to be assured they will continue to have energy services — and it’s important to reinforce this message on a regular basis.

Coronavirus messaging that connects

During the early days of the outbreak, in the initial communication from utilities, the most successful messages reassured customers that their utility has a plan in place and is fully prepared to keep the power on during any crisis. We recommend that subsequent messages include:

  • Outage preparation plans
  • How the utility is keeping its employees and customers safe
  • How the utility is working with local authorities to support health providers and first responders
  • Donations/support of community causes
  • Scam alerts

Many utilities have decided to pause promotional emails during this time in order to not appear insensitive; however, we are seeing elevated clicks on promotional links in email newsletters. It is appropriate to promote programs that address customers’ concerns or complement the new reality of the stay-at-home lifestyle. For example:

  • The convenience of paperless billing or online account access
  • Energy efficiency tips or home walkthrough/self-audits to reduce energy bills
  • Level billing or other payment programs to relieve financial concerns

Email newsletters are delivering engagement

In addition to outbreak-specific ancillary messages, the extremely strong performance of email newsletters shows that customers value the ongoing relationship with their utility. Compared to Questline Digital benchmarks, email newsletter engagement (measured by click-to-open rate) is at a four-year high.

  • 36.7% average open rate for newsletters in March 2020
  • 65% higher open rate than the same month last year
  • Customers are engaging with coronavirus content at two times the rate of other newsletter content

We recommend continuing your newsletter deployments on your regular schedule. It is important to replace most or all of your regular content with coronavirus-related content, to ensure the newsletter is relevant and consistent with what’s on customers’ minds.

In addition to high content engagement, we are also seeing elevated clicks on promotional snippets in newsletters. This is an opportunity to share safety guides or other resource, as well as program promotions that align with outbreak messaging (for example, the convenience of paperless billing or money-saving opportunities of energy efficiency).

Subject lines that stand out in inboxes

Customers are receiving crisis communications messages from every business that has their email address. Yet, utility emails continue to stand out in their inboxes, reflecting the important relationship that customers have with their energy provider. Based on our performance metrics, we recommend these subject line best practices to achieve strong open rates:

  • Use your energy utility’s name in the subject line
  • Acknowledge that the message includes coronavirus information

For email newsletters, include the headline of the first article. We have seen open rates twice as high as usual when the subject line includes the title of a coronavirus-related article.

Reaching the right audience

We are seeing a difference in open rates between residential and business audiences. Keep in mind that a subset of your customers may exist in your residential list with their personal email and in your business list with their business email. In these cases, a customer might see the same email in both inboxes and disregard the second.

If your email includes information specific to the business sector, we recommend differentiating the subject line. In particular, small businesses are significantly affected by this pandemic. If industry segmentation data is available, you can target your message even further. In previous studies, Questline Digital has seen increases in open rates as high as 12% with segmented audiences.

Coronavirus messaging and content strategy

Questline Digital has created a collection of assets to support energy utilities’ content strategies during the outbreak. This content caters to a diverse group of audiences, including small and large business customers and work-from-home residential customers. This content is available for download or direct publication to a utility’s website, and it’s easy to share on social media platforms.

As with the ancillary messages and newsletters, performance metrics demonstrate that customers are eager to receive this content from utilities.

  • More than 100,000 total pageviews on coronavirus-related content
  • Pageviews are not only extremely high, they continue to generate traffic for several days after publication

Utilities are content personalize this content with information or links to their programs. Our data suggest that you should promote programs regarding ways to pay energy bills from home and the best ways to stay informed with the utility’s coronavirus updates. Click-through rate on these links is 4%.

In terms of content topics, during the first weeks of the outbreak customers were looking for basic health and safety advice and reassurances from their energy company that the crisis would not affect the reliability of the power supply. For the month of March, the top-performing Questline Digital content was:

  • Coronavirus Action Plan: Protecting Your Power
  • Do’s and Don’ts: Coronavirus Prevention
  • 6 Ways to Make Your Home Office Energy Efficient
  • Business Downtime: Steps to Saving Energy and Money
  • 5 Simple Steps to Social Distancing

As the outbreak continues, and customers grapple with the new reality of staying at home for an extended time, we recommend shifting your content to address ongoing and longer-term concerns:

  • Saving energy (and money) at home
  • Working from home
  • Cybersecurity for home workers
  • Business downtime
  • Bill payment/financial assistance

Learn how a customer engagement strategy from Questline Digital will help you stay ahead of the next communications challenge.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, so do conversations surrounding how best to approach communications with customers. On April 3, Questline Digital President Dave Reim hosted the second coronavirus town hall forum and led a discussion on communication best practices for energy utility business customers.

A recent J.D. Power Utility Pulse survey that showed 49% of customers recall seeing a coronavirus message from their utility in the past seven days and only 36% of customers rate their electric utilities’ response to coronavirus as great, excellent or perfect. This data presents an immense opportunity to close the gap and increase engagement with the other 64% of customers.

Our panel of industry experts, which included representatives from American Electric Power, Baltimore Gas & Electric, Eversource and ElectriCities of North Carolina, provided an inside look into their utilities’ strategies. They stated that delivering messages to business customers was just as much a focus as communicating to residential customers. In fact, demonstrated in the results of our forum survey, utilities are already communicating with customers on a wide range of topics, with frequent mentions including:

  • 69% Grace period for late payment of bills
  • 66% Security of power deliver
  • 62% Energy saving tips or advice
  • 52% Available channels of communication

Among the other topics included — energy efficiency program promotion, tips or advice for business health during the outbreak, community support activities and donations, information about non-utility assistance and changes to infrastructure maintenance — not a single topic was left without a response. Energy utilities are working to meet business customers where they are and provide valuable information to this audience.

To push the boundaries further on what utilities should communicate, a second survey focused on non-traditional content and messaging that utilities would consider providing to their business customers. Responses included:

  • 72% Finding and applying for small business stimulus funds
  • 59% How best to serve and help those in your community
  • 56% How to protect employees who can’t work from home
  • 47% Calming employee fears

With most of the utilities interested in communicating more information regarding small business stimulus funds, Questline Digital Senior Engineer Mike Carter covered key highlights from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

  • Up to 100% forgivable loan
  • Loan amount up to 2.5 times average monthly operation expenses up to a maximum of $10 million

Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Program

  • Separate program from PPP
  • A $10,000 advance is forgivable

Unemployment Insurance Coverage

  • An additional $600 per week
  • 13 additional weeks of unemployment coverage

Even as crisis communications messages flood customer inboxes, Questline Digital’s performance metrics show that customers want to hear from their energy utility. The open rate for coronavirus-related messages consistently outperforms Questline Digital benchmarks, which demonstrates that these messages are resonating with customers.

Keep your business customers informed and engaged with an eNewsletter solution from Questline Digital.