Staying connected with energy utility customers is more important than ever. Utility marketers are constantly looking for effective ways to engage with their audience and deliver timely information about programs, services and energy-saving tips — all while cutting through the digital clutter that make it hard to attract customers’ attention.

Two popular marketing channels have emerged as top contenders in this space: SMS (Short Message Service) marketing vs. email marketing. While both channels share an ability to connect with customers efficiently, they differ in terms of reach, immediacy and user preferences.

Chart comparing the differences between sms marketing vs email marketing

The Differences Between SMS Marketing vs. Email Marketing

It’s essential for utilities to employ effective marketing strategies to reach their target audiences. While SMS marketing vs. email marketing have their own strengths and weaknesses, which one is more effective for utilities?

SMS marketing involves sending promotional messages directly to customers’ mobile phones. Research shows that the average SMS marketing campaign has a high open rate of 98%, making it an effective way to grab people’s attention quickly. Additionally, we know that 95% of text messages are read and responded to within three minutes of being received. SMS messages can also be tailored to specific audiences, allowing utilities to send personalized messages that are more likely to convert.

On the other hand, email marketing involves sending promotional emails directly to customers’ inboxes. It has a lower average open rate than SMS at only 20%, but offers more customization options such as dynamic information about customers, images and videos. Your utility is also more likely to have a greater number of customer emails than phone numbers.

When comparing SMS marketing vs. email marketing, it’s important to consider:

  • Customer preferences
  • Campaign data
  • Communication circumstances

Customer preferences

While the 98% open rate achieved by SMS marketing is impressive, it doesn’t tell a full story. In fact, according to Statista, between 2020 and 2021 almost 50% of survey respondents preferred receiving business communications through email, while only 25% of respondents preferred SMS.

When compared to email, one study says that 2023 will be the year we reach 4.37 billion email users worldwide — more than half of the global population. In 2023 alone, the number of emails sent and received is 347 billion, and that number is expected to reach 393 billion by 2026.

All of this data makes one thing clear: customer preferences are fluid.

There will always be customers who prefer email over SMS and vice versa. Choosing to use just one of these communication mediums isn’t recommended. Your customers want the option to choose which is best for them. 

Campaign data

SMS marketing campaigns and email marketing campaigns differ in the types of performance metrics that are available for evaluation.

SMS marketing campaigns typically yield information such as delivery rates, open rates, click-through rates (if using short links) and opt-out rates. Additionally, utilities can track the time it takes for customers to open and engage with messages, enabling them to optimize future campaigns based on user behavior patterns.

However, due to the character limitations of SMS messages and the absence of visual elements, the data collected through this channel may be less comprehensive compared to email marketing. Still, the high open rates and immediacy of SMS marketing make it an effective tool for utilities to communicate time-sensitive information and gauge customer responsiveness.

On the other hand, email marketing offers utilities a more extensive range of data points to analyze, thanks to its versatile format and richer content options. Besides open rates, click-through rates and conversion rates, email marketing allows utilities to track user engagement with specific elements within the email, such as images, videos and call-to-action buttons. This granular data helps utilities better understand their audience’s interests and preferences, allowing for more targeted and personalized communication.

Additionally, utilities can gather demographic information through email sign-up forms, enabling them to segment their audience and tailor content accordingly. While email marketing may not boast the immediacy of SMS, its ability to collect in-depth engagement data makes it an invaluable tool for fostering long-term customer relationships.

Communication circumstances

One element that you must consider in the SMS marketing vs. email marketing conversation is their different use cases. For example, email marketing can provide more personalization and creativity in its messages, connecting with customers not only through written text, but with design, too.

SMS marketing campaigns, on the other hand, focus on brevity and immediate impact. You must tell a customer exactly what they need to know in a matter of a few characters, using only text and short links.

When considering which circumstances to use SMS marketing vs. email marketing, one thing is important to maintain across both sectors: ask for permission.

Your utility wants to communicate essential information to customers, not annoy them. Therefore, it’s important to ask for permission from your customers before messaging them, especially when it comes to SMS marketing. Text messages are considered more personal, and sometimes more invasive, than emails, so getting permission is critical.

In fact, it’s not just a best practice — it’s the law. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is the federal legislation that governs telemarketing, text messaging and the Do-Not-Call List. One of the rules of this legislation is that companies must receive prior written consent ahead of contacting customers with commercial or marketing offers.

Other elements to consider between SMS marketing vs. email marketing include:

  • Timing: Maintain a regular cadence with email marketing so customers know when they can expect communications from you. But only send SMS messages to customers on a limited basis — they don’t want to hear from you every day.
  • Content length: Share long-form content and messages via email. With SMS, brevity is critical; only send brief updates about programs or services.
  • Personalization: Input dynamic customer data into emails to deliver a truly personalized message. Realize that texts come across more personal no matter what, as they are in a more intimate setting.
  • Content types: Share general updates about programs or marketplace products via email. But share time-sensitive offers and updates via text, such as an exclusive coupon on an electric vehicle charger or a last-minute chance to register for an e-bill giveaway.
Example of mobile solutions text alerts for energy utility

Which Communications Channel is Best for Utility Customers?

While it’s great to understand the differences between SMS marketing vs. email marketing, it’s important to understand which ones are right for your utility and, more importantly, your utility’s customers.

SMS marketing campaign use cases:

  1. Outage notifications: SMS marketing campaigns are ideal for sending real-time power outage alerts, ensuring customers receive crucial information promptly, even when they don’t have internet access.
  2. Billing reminders: Utilities can send timely SMS reminders for upcoming bill payments, helping customers avoid late fees and keep track of their monthly payments.
  3. Emergency alerts: In case of urgent situations, such as gas leaks or severe weather warnings, SMS messages can quickly inform customers about the issue and any necessary actions to take.
  4. Energy-saving tips: Short, actionable tips can be sent via SMS to encourage customers to reduce their energy consumption, especially timely messages during seasonal high-bill situations.

Email marketing campaign use cases:

  1. Newsletters: Email marketing is perfect for distributing utility newsletters that contain detailed information about new programs, services, industry updates and energy-saving initiatives.
  2. Personalized recommendations: Based on customer data, utilities can send personalized emails suggesting relevant energy efficiency programs, rebate offers, or home improvement tips tailored to individual needs.
  3. Educational content: Utilities can leverage email marketing to share in-depth educational resources, such as energy efficiency advice, infographics and videos, helping customers make informed decisions about their energy usage.

BONUS: Customer surveys and feedback. Both SMS and email are effective channels for inviting customers to participate in surveys or provide feedback on your utility’s services to gather insights for continuous improvement. The type of service provided and the length of the survey will be deciding factors in which channel your utility should use to promote surveys.

When to Use Both SMS Marketing and Email Marketing

Although the impending death of email has been predicted for decades, and text messaging was once seen as an ephemeral chat tool for teens, the truth is that these two marketing capabilities are valuable and dependable ways to connect with customers. The best marketing strategy isn’t comparing SMS marketing vs. email marketing and picking one or the other, but rather determining how to best combine both marketing channels to improve customer communications.

Incorporating both an SMS marketing and email marketing strategy is critical to connecting with all customers. In doing so, your utility will maximize its ability to communicate about programs and services on the platforms that customers prefer.

Learn more about how Questline Digital can help your utility develop an engagement strategy to connect with customers on all channels.

To capture the attention of energy utility customers, the copy in your marketing campaigns is just as important as the design. As an energy copywriter, you have the power to increase customer engagement and participation in your energy utility’s programs and services. For example, a strong subject line will encourage email opens, while a successful call-to-action will motivate customers to take the next steps.

With 15 years of writing and marketing experience in a wide variety of industries, Questline Digital’s Senior Energy Copywriter, Breanne George, shares copywriting best practices to transform your utility’s marketing promotions.

Chart listing the best practices for an energy copywriter

Tip 1: Tell a story

When you think of storytelling, you probably think of your favorite book or magazine article. However, your marketing campaigns can tell a story too. As an energy copywriter, you should create a theme around a specific benefit or motivation that resonates with your target audience.

Example of utility email campaign for paperless billing created by an energy copywriter

For example, we focused the above ebill message around the benefit of “anytime, anywhere bill access” for a major Northeast utility’s paperless billing campaign. Since a majority of the utility’s customers were commuters who used public transportation, the copy and imagery aligned to tell a story about easy bill payments that resonated with this audience.

In another email campaign to promote a Southeast energy utility’s security lighting program, Questline Digital created a story about the importance of security all year round. Through creative copywriting, the email campaign expressed how security lighting gives customers more time to enjoy summer fun, whether at a barbecue or basketball game. They don’t have to worry about their safety when the sun goes down.

Example of a program promotions email written by an energy copywriter

Tip 2: Get Personal with Segmentation

Whether your energy utility is targeting electric vehicle owners or low-income customers, narrowing down your audience to a smaller segment will improve email engagement. In fact, 74% of customers feel frustrated when content is not relevant to their interests. In today’s age of personalized digital communications, segmentation is an essential tactic for energy copywriters.

Your campaign should draw in customers by appealing to their needs, interests and lifestyles. To achieve this, you need to think about your audience:

  • What would make their life easier?
  • How does your program or service benefit customers?
  • Does the copy motivate them to keep reading?

To connect with customers who would benefit from a Time of Use (TOU) rate plan, PSEG Long Island utilized segmentation to send personalized emails to distinct groups of customers. For example, one email targeted electric vehicle owners and another email targeted customers who would benefit most based on their energy usage behaviors.

Instead of sending one mass message to all eligible customers, the emails were tailored to each individual and how much they could save based on their energy usage. The utility leveraged smart meter data to create these targeted messages.

Examples of segmented emails written by an energy copywriter

For segmentation success, energy copywriters need demographic information, marketing personas and any other research that breaks down your audience and what matters most to them. The more insights you have on your audience, the more the copy will reflect customers’ unique needs and interests. 

Tip 3: Avoid Energy Industry Jargon

For energy copywriters, it can be all too easy to forget that most utility customers aren’t experts in renewable energy, rate plans and other popular industry topics. Your readers may not understand complex terminology or programs that are common knowledge in the energy industry. That’s why writing copy that’s easy for customers to understand is essential for your email campaigns.

When you’re promoting a complex topic, such as an energy efficiency rebate or financial assistance program, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. They want to know what the program entails, key benefits and how to apply. They don’t need to know “everything but the kitchen sink.”

As an energy copywriter, you should avoid using industry jargon or technical language that your customers may not understand. To help customers learn more about a particular topic, try linking to educational articles, videos or infographics to provide extra assistance.

Examples of educational emails written by an energy copywriter

To help increase participation for a Midwest energy utility’s complex demand response program, Questline Digital created a segmented email campaign. The goal was to encourage participation among two groups of commercial and industrial (C&I) customers: prospective participants and past program participants. The emails were clear and concise, highlighting the benefits of participation and providing a helpful video testimonial from a local business.

Tip 4: Keep it Short and Sweet

In today’s fast-paced world, your customers don’t have time to read a long, text-heavy email. That’s why it’s best to write short and succinct copy.

Energy copywriters should be clear and concise, making the utility program as easy to understand as possible. This is where bulleted lists, headers, pull quotes and other call-outs help to break up the copy and make the information more digestible. Remember, your customers will get the full details when they click on your call-to-action.

It’s not always easy to write short and sweet when describing complicated utility programs. By using the copywriting tactics mentioned above, energy copywriters can avoid massive blocks of text. Use simple words and short sentences, focusing on the value propositions that resonate most with your customers.

Example of My Account email written by an energy copywriter

In this example, part of a welcome series for a West Coast energy utility, the email copy is easy to read with bullets and iconography. This email makes it easy for new customers to find important information, including payment options, billing alerts as well as energy-saving tips and tools.

Tip 5: Craft an Impactful Subject Line

Before your customers can engage with your marketing campaign, they first have to click into the email. A great subject line makes all the difference for energy copywriters. According to Questline Digital performance metrics, the sweet spot for subject lines is 50 characters or fewer. Your subject line should make it clear what customers will learn in as few words as possible.

We recommend using power words that encourage customers to take action. Consider the following subject lines about outage text alerts:

  • Subject line #1: Text alerts to stay informed during an outage
  • Subject line #2: Stay informed! Sign up for outage text alerts

While both subject lines have a similar message, the second option is actionable and encourages the reader to click into the email to sign up. For this example, you could also use a lightning bolt emoji to help the subject line stand out in customers’ inboxes. When it comes to subject lines, energy copywriters should try A/B testing to see what engages your utility’s audience.

Tip 6: Choose a Powerful Headline

Your headline captures attention and encourages customers to keep reading your message. As the first piece of copy your customers will see after clicking into your email, it’s vital to get your promotional message across in a simple, direct and engaging way. No pressure, right?

Energy copywriters should follow these helpful tips for writing an effective and engaging headline:

  • Be clear and concise: Your headline should be simple and direct, while articulating what customers will be reading in the email.
  • Lead with key details: Think of the most important message from your email and write it in a fresh way so the message stands out. This could be the dollar amount of an EV rebate program or the main customer benefit in a paperless billing campaign.
  • Consider the imagery: Make sure the headline and visuals work together. For example, “Protect Your Palace” was a headline for a Southeast energy utility’s security lighting campaign featuring a royal guard in the hero image.
  • Generate curiosity: By giving away just enough information — but not too much — your headline should persuade your audience to read further for more details.
  • Get creative (within reason): Avoid copywriting that is too whimsical, cutesy or irrelevant. Think creatively but don’t stray from the ultimate goal of your campaign.

For this paperless billing campaign for a large Northeast energy utility, an entertaining headline paired well with the campaign theme, which showed humorous yet true reasons why customers should make the switch.  

Example of an effective headline written by an energy copywriter

This headline for a Southeast energy utility’s charitable campaign helped to pull at readers’ heartstrings. The focus of the holiday-themed email was to encourage customers to round up their energy bill to give back to neighbors in need.

Example of community focused PR email written by an energy copywriter

Tip 7: Encourage Customers to Take Action

After engaging with your message, you want customers to take action, whether enrolling in paperless billing or taking advantage of a rebate program. As an energy copywriter, your call-to-action (CTA) is one of the most important elements of your marketing campaign.

Keep these best practices in mind to create a powerful CTA:

  • The shorter the better: Your audience will tune out an overly long and complicated CTA. Keep it short and simple so your customers understand what you want them to do.
  • Urgency is effective: Use time-sensitive language to help boost program conversions and create a sense of urgency. Some examples include “Time is running out,” “Don’t wait” or “Sign up today.”
  • Get creative with button copy: Sometimes a simple button like “Learn More” or “Get Started” works best. However, there are times when energy copywriters should switch things up and make it fun. For example, “Enroll. Enter. Win?” for a sweepstakes email or “Start Saving Now” for a rebate program promotion.
  • Placement matters: If your email is lengthy and requires readers to scroll, include two CTAs: one near the top and one near the bottom. This ensures customers can click through at any point in the email.

In this example from Duquesne Light Company, a Pennsylvania-based energy utility, there are two CTA buttons at the top and bottom of the email. The first button, “Enroll for a chance to WIN” gives readers an immediate opportunity to take action. The second button, below the benefits box, gives those who read the entire email an easy click-through to the enrollment page.

Example of effective CTA buttons written by energy copywriter

To help FirstEnergy promote its financial assistance programs, Questline Digital created an email campaign series with multiple CTA buttons. Since the email goes to both homeowners and renters, there are two buttons that link to the specific application pages.

The first two CTA buttons are located directly below the headline. Since the headline makes it clear what the email is about (connecting the customers to bill assistance), a CTA directly below the headline is appropriate in this instance. As an energy copywriter, you’ll need to determine what placement and number of CTAs are best for the subject matter and email length.

Example of call-to-action placement in email written by an energy copywriter

Copywriting is More Than Creative Writing

As these examples demonstrate, there are many things for energy copywriters to keep in mind when writing for utility marketing campaigns or program promotions. Copywriting is more than just creative writing — it’s about crafting an effective, concise and persuasive message that motivates your target audience. With these best practices in mind, you can transform your utility’s marketing messages, one word at a time.

Learn how Questline Digital’s energy copywriters can help you craft an effective message that connects with customers.

Subject lines are the make-it-or-break-it text for emails. An effective email subject line will catch the attention of the recipient and inspire them to open the message to learn more. The goal is to drive opens and engagement with your emails. A well-executed subject line can make your utility’s email stand out in the noise of customers’ inboxes.

To ensure successful email campaigns and boost engagement rates, it’s important to follow email subject line best practices, including:

  1. Make it personalized
  2. Keep it short
  3. Don’t bury the lead
  4. Use action language
  5. Include numbers
  6. Don’t use clickbait
  7. Think through emojis
  8. Make it readable
  9. Avoid shouting
  10. Test, test, test

BONUS TIP: Don’t forget the preview text.

Chart listing the top 10 best practices for effective email subject lines

Sample Subject Lines for Energy Utilities

Typically, program promotions can be the most difficult emails to get customers engaged with. After all, people don’t typically enjoy being sold to. Your subject lines for promotion emails need to work hard to showcase the benefits of utility programs, inspire action and catch customers’ attention.

With this in mind, we evaluated the top email sends in 2022 that were deployed to over 20,000 customers for our energy utility clients and have compiled the best sample subject lines for your reference and inspiration.

List of sample subject lines from top performing emails

Make it personalized

Research shows that 74% of customers are frustrated when content is not relevant to their interests. This means personalization is no longer a nice-to-have in digital marketing — it’s essential to increasing engagement with customers.

There are two main ways you can personalize an email subject line:

  1. Make the subject line text personal to what you know about the customer: Consider who the email is being sent to and why. Are you trying to increase awareness of an EV rebate to customers who have shown interest in purchasing one? Then make the subject line stand out for those customers.
  2. Humanize who the email is coming from: Instead of just using your utility name as the sender, state who it’s actually coming from. Questline Digital’s monthly newsletters are delivered from our Marketing Director and customers know that immediately with the subject line “From: Bethany @ Questline Digital.”

By following this email subject line best practice and adding more of a human touch to your utility’s subject lines, customers will see the communications as personal rather than promotional.

Sample of personalized email subject lines

Keep it short

One of the most common questions we hear at Questline Digital is, “How long should an email subject line be?”

The answer?

Email subject lines should be quick, clear and specific. Data shows that the best length is 40 characters or fewer. Longer subject lines are often truncated because of mobile displays and screen settings. Your intended message could be unintelligible if you make it too long.

With nearly 1.7 billion people using their mobile devices to read and share emails and 42% of users deleting emails that aren’t optimized for mobile, it’s essential that your subject lines are prepared for mobile viewing.

A Marketo study surveying around 200 email samples found that subject lines with four words received the highest open rate at 18.3%, followed by five words with an open rate of 17.1%. However, seven-word subject lines received the highest click-to-open rate, with 10.8%. Depending on your utility’s goal, it’s best to stick between four and seven words.

Don’t bury the lead

Put important words and information at the beginning of the subject line to catch a customer’s attention immediately. Let recipients understand what they are getting before they even open the email with this email subject line best practice. If your utility is offering a rebate or promotion, make that known upfront. Or, if your utility is announcing a new product or offer, convey the feeling of “insider updates” to customers via the subject line.

Answer the question: How would opening the email benefit them? Customers respond well to specific references to their situation; email subject lines with the words “you,” “your” and “about your” tend to perform well.

Use action language

Customers are more likely to open emails when they see actionable, eye-catching words in the subject line. Some powerful action words to use include:

  • Improve
  • Increase
  • Update
  • Join
  • Congratulations
  • Last Chance
  • Offer
  • Rebate

When deciding what action words to use, consider your goal for the email:

  • Are you trying to pique customers’ curiosity?
  • Are you appealing to their sense of self?
  • Are you trying to build trust?

No matter your utility’s goal, an email subject line best practice is to include action words in your subject line that makes sense with your goal. For example, if you are trying to increase paperless billing enrollments, try using “Enroll Today!”

Include numbers

Numbers naturally catch people’s attention. Humans like to organize information into logical, numbers-backed scenarios. So, including numbers in your utility’s subject lines only makes sense. Numbers can succinctly tell a story that words alone can’t. Plus, numbers differentiate themselves among words — making the email subject line stand out more.

Yesware completed a survey that analyzed 115 million email subject lines and found that those that include numbers outperform those without. Subject lines that include a number were found to achieve:

  • 53.2% open rate, compared to the average 51.9%
  • 32.0% reply rate, compared to the average 29.8%

When considering what numbers to add to subject lines, try including a promo code or dollar amount to catch attention. Subject lines such as “Save $XX when you use promo code XXXXX” are shown to improve open rates as well as CTOR.

Screenshot example of sample subject lines

Don’t use clickbait

Heed this email subject line best practice: Do not try to amplify your subject line with words that could be considered clickbait.

Your utility’s subject line should match the content of your email. Don’t try to trick recipients and boost open rates with an over-the-top subject line only to disappoint them when they see the email message.

Your subject line should always be clear and concise, informing customers exactly what they can expect when they open your email. Although your utility may be trying to cut through the clutter of customers’ inboxes, using clickbait is a surefire way to be flagged for spam or lose subscribers.

Instead, use tactics like including numbers, testing emojis and using action words to drive opens and clicks with your subject lines.

Think through emojis

There are strong arguments to be made both for and against using emojis in email subject lines. Some research has found that 56% of brands that included emojis in their subject lines saw an increase in unique open rates.

Other data has indicated that emails without emojis were considered to have more value. This same research, though, discovered after testing 3.9 million email subject lines with and without emojis that:

  • Subject lines without an emoji had higher open rates
  • Subject lines with an emoji had higher click-through rates

Even after testing, the data was still mixed.

So, what should your utility do? Test them to determine whether emojis resonate with your customers, and which messages lend themselves to subject lines with emojis.

When considering using emojis, remember:

  • Use no more than one emoji at a time.
  • Use emojis to complement words, not replace them.
  • Test among different systems. Google and Apple, for example, use different versions of emojis, so it’s important to test which ones you want to use across different systems that will receive them.

You can also test placing emojis at the beginning or end of your subject line. Just don’t assume that emojis will automatically elicit opens or clicks. Test and review the metrics to discover what your utility’s customers prefer.

Sample of email subject line with emoji

Make it readable

Using unique text characters or different fonts may seem like it would help your utility’s message stand out. But using special Unicode characters makes subject lines unintelligible to users who rely on screen readers. This means your email is not accessible to all audiences.

Plus, different fonts within subject lines tend to appear as spam to viewers, meaning your utility’s emails likely wouldn’t reach customer inboxes.

Making your utility’s email subject lines readable and accessible to all customers and systems is vital to having your message read.

Screenshot example of sample subject lines

Avoid shouting

We all know the feeling of seeing an all-caps message in our inbox, and immediately wondering why you’re being yelled at. Although some brands try this tactic to gain attention, most often it is seen as obnoxious and dissuades customers from wanting to open an email. Plus, this is another way emails can be flagged as spam.

As an email subject line best practice, simply avoid shouting at your customers. Instead, get your message across in a less-aggressive manner, such as using the action words mentioned above.

Additionally, your utility can test the use of capitalization (such as sentence case or title case) to see what resonates with customers. Typically, these tend to fare better in customers’ eyes than all-caps subject lines.

Test, test, test

Email subject line best practices include A/B testing. This is when you send two versions of a subject line to a portion of your audience, measure the open rate or click-through rate, then deliver the “winning” subject line to the remaining mailing list.

Through the consistent use of A/B testing over time, an energy utility can narrow down very specific best practices for their customer segments. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Is my A/B testing sample size big enough? Typically, 500 to 1,000 recipients is an effective sample size and will deliver statistically meaningful results.
  • How long should the A/B test run? More than 50% of opens and clicks happen within the first six hours after email delivery. However, to eliminate seasonal and day-of-week variables, it’s best to test for one full week before determining a winner.
  • Is there a clear winner in A/B testing? Depending on the sample size, a good rule of thumb is to look for a 25% to 35% performance variance in order to declare a clear winner.

You can also leverage free online tools to test your subject lines. These tools analyze and offer suggestions for improvement:

Don’t forget the preview text

While not technically a subject line, your preview text (also known as preheader text) is equally important and can help your utility grab attention and boost opens. Preview text is the sentence or phrase that appears in the list view of email clients before the message is opened.

Use preview text to convey additional information that expands on the subject line, without repeating the same information that’s in the subject line. For example, add an explanation or highlight a detail from the subject line that the preview text can expand on. Preview text length should range between 40 and 140 characters.

Sample of preheader or preview text included with email subject line

Employing Email Subject Line Best Practices

By following these email subject line best practices, your utility will set itself up to achieve increased open rates and click-through rates. In doing so, customer engagement will rise as customers look forward to receiving emails from your utility, knowing that they are receiving valuable and informative messages.

Learn how Questline Digital’s engagement experts can boost the performance of your email marketing campaigns.

A full year of Apple’s privacy changes has come and gone, marketing texts are trending, chat boxes continue to pop up and voice search is making itself heard, among many other hot topics for utility marketers. Questline Digital’s experts weighed in on the top 10 email marketing trends and best practices for 2023 during a recent Plugged In webinar.

Brian Lindamood, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy, and Nina Cummins, Account Director, shared their insights and interpretations for the year ahead.

Top 10 Email Marketing Trends for 2023

  1. Increased use of interactive content
  2. A focus on key email metrics beyond open rate
  3. Privacy technologies and their impact
  4. The rise of SMS marketing
  5. Strategic push notifications
  6. The use of chatbots
  7. Voice search capabilities
  8. Self-service experiences
  9. Increases in video marketing
  10. Segmentation and personalization expansion

Marketing Manager Maureen Mierke and other special guests from Questline Digital also joined the webinar to offer their advice on interactive content, Apple’s Privacy Policy, SMS marketing, push notifications and video marketing.

A Look Back at 2022 Email Marketing Trends

Last November, Questline Digital’s webinar on Email Marketing Best Practices for 2022 forecasted trends for this past year. We took a look back at the top 10 trends we saw in 2022:

  1. Creating an improved after-sales experience
  2. Auditing and understanding your data
  3. Making more out of your newsletters
  4. Optimizing for all platforms
  5. Creating more interactive emails
  6. Ensuring your emails are accessible
  7. Showcasing user-generated content
  8. Utilizing preference centers
  9. Hyper-personalizing email campaigns
  10. Changes to open rates and privacy

“Certainly everything on this list was important in some way this year,” Lindamood said of the 2022 predictions. “Some of these things are still ramping up and will continue to be factors in the coming year.”

Lindamood reviewed the importance of creating an after-sales experience with customer onboarding and developing a personalized experience starting on day one of service. Additionally, he said that optimization “is about making your emails accessible and compatible across all devices.” This was an important focus this past year, especially with the growing use of dark mode, and Lindamood suspects it will only get more important as the year goes along.

Cummins shared that many clients she works with have done a lot of deep diving to better understand their data, including reviewing performance metrics for their emails, newsletters and social media. As expected, Apple’s Privacy Policy dominated many data analytics conversations in 2022 and Cummins expects this trend to continue into 2023.

A Look Forward to the Email Marketing Trends and Best Practices for 2023

Chart listing the top 10 email marketing trends for 2023

Increased use of interactive content

Lindamood began with a discussion on interactive content. “There’s no doubt that interactive content is popular with customers and is an effective way for marketers to share a message,” he said.

Interactive content can include games, quizzes, calculators, polls, surveys or a myriad of other content types, he added. “It can be any digital experience where there’s some back and forth. The user takes an action or provides some information and the content responds in some way.” This type of content, requiring active participation from the user, makes it more fun and engaging for customers to learn about complex energy topics.

Animation of interactive games a marketing trend for 2023

Cummins shared an important reminder that interactive content in emails is all about adding interest and visual movement so that messages stand out.

Joe Pifher, Questline Digital’s Creative Director, shared his take on whether utilities should jump on this trend. He said when it comes to interactive emails, “There’s not enough support for them. Right now, the email clients are dinosaurs. There are some that can handle it and some that can’t. And without having your list broken up for every email client, it’s not worth the time to put that in there.”

Animation of interactive emails a trend for 2023

Overall, we see the use of interactive content rising, as research shows it generates five times more views than static content. However, when it comes to interactive emails, we suggest keeping interactivity simpler, including some GIFs or movement. The key is using email as a way to drive clicks and visits to interactive content on your utility’s website or other platform.

Metrics beyond open rates

Apple’s Privacy Policy changed the way digital marketers see open rates. Where they used to be a strong indicator of engagement, open rates are no longer reliable or useful in analyzing the performance of campaigns.

Jeremy Harning, Questline Digital’s Vice President of Technology, explained a little more about the impact from his perspective. Most notably, he shared:

  1. Since September 2021, when Apple introduced its changes to email tracking, Questline Digital has seen an 11% inflation in open rates, from about 25% on average to about 36% overall.
  2. We have also seen about 34% of our opens overall get flagged as “machine read,” indicating they are being opened by Apple’s proxy servers.

With this information, Questline Digital recommends that utility marketers review other metrics tied more directly to the utility’s goals, such as:

  • Conversion rate
  • Enrollment numbers
  • Page clicks
  • Time on page

“Open rates can inform how we get to an action, but it’s not going to determine if your campaign was successful,” Lindamood said. “As an industry, we really need to get past open rates. They’re not reliable anymore.”

The rise of SMS marketing and push notifications

Cummins shared that she sees the rise in mobile communications as an answer to what customers want: multichannel marketing that reaches them in their preferred channels.

“We’re on email, we’re on social media, so text messaging only makes sense to be next,” she said. “It’s quick, direct, and research shows that 98% of all text messages are opened, and one in three consumers check their text notifications within one minute of receiving a text.”

Additionally, push notifications are another method customers prefer for staying up to date with company happenings.

Quotation about push notifications being a top marketing trend for 2023

The data speaks for itself: Customers expect these types of messages. The caveat, according to Cummins, is making sure that text messages and push notifications provide value to customers.

“Are push notifications going to provide value in some way to a customer’s life?” she asked. “If so, then they’re great. If not, then people aren’t going to care. They’ll turn notifications off and it’s as simple as that.”

Susan Kownacki, Questline Digital’s Vice President of Account Services, shared an additional reminder.

“While most utilities have already been doing transactional text messages around outage and billing alerts, marketing messages are relatively new to our space,” Kownacki said. “To make a successful leap to non-transactional SMS, it’s absolutely critical to get your customers to opt-in. Because if you don’t, fines are steep, as much as $1,500 per offense, which can add up quickly.”

Chatbots, voice optimization and self-serve

Chatbots and voice search were hot topics leading into the previous year, and they’ll continue to be important marketing trends for 2023. “I don’t think a lot of utilities are investing in either of these things at the level that we thought initially,” Cummins said, “but I do think they’re still very valid and useful options to keep in mind in the near future.”

Lindamood said that customer expectations will continue to grow in this area. He shared research from J.D. Power that found that chat is the leading digital contact method for online customers: 42% of customers prefer chat versus only 23% for email and 16% for social media.

“For utilities, any interaction that you’re having with customers over the phone could probably be accomplished more efficiently with a chatbot,” Lindamood said. “It’s certainly more cost-effective for you and most of your customers would prefer it that way.”

Additionally, Lindamood noted that there are many opportunities for utilities to enhance educational efforts with chat, such as answering customers’ questions about program promotions on your website or providing advice on rate plans.

When it comes to voice search and optimization, Lindamood said that the next generation of utility customers will be more inclined to use voice search, as it’s what they’ve been acclimated to growing up.

We suggest creating FAQ pages or other pages on utility websites that list common energy-related questions along with clear answers. These pages will help customers, and they will be easy for voice-activated search engines to find.

Voice capabilities are also great for making content accessible to all customers. Those who are visually impaired may prefer listening to an article, while many people use audio for convenience’s sake, listening to content as they work on other things. Lindamood shared these best practices to help users who prefer to listen to content:

  • Include alt text that describes any images on the page
  • Make sure text is text — not a JPEG of a headline — so the computer can read it
  • Embed audio players within the content itself

Whether customers prefer to chat with customer service representatives instead of call or they prefer to listen to content instead of read it, the modern customer experience demands that options are available and that the end user can ultimately choose their own preference. Don’t force them to communicate in one specific way with your utility.

Increases in video marketing

Matt Irving, Questline Digital’s Creative Director of Video Content, shared the importance of video marketing, including its ability to capture attention, simplify complex topics and make an idea memorable and entertaining. When creating videos, he reminds utilities to think about the audience.

“Video content can do a lot of things. I like to say it’s part of a complete breakfast. It provides a big oomph, it can cover a lot of areas and it can have a really big impact. But it’s not the best choice for everything,” Irving said. “A video, or any content for that matter, should be relevant. It should be relevant to the consumers, it should be relevant to the space you’re talking to the consumers in and it should be relevant to you.”

Quotation about the importance of video marketing as a trend for 2023

Video is already the most popular and preferred content format for all customers, and it’s only going to grow. According to the Content Marketing Institute, video is going to be the “it” content for 2023, given that 78% of marketers plan to invest in video in the new year.

Segmentation and personalization expansion

Segmentation and personalization have been high-profile email marketing trends in 2022, and Lindamood and Cummins agreed that will continue into 2023. “If utilities haven’t started looking into segmentation, then they’re going to, and if they have then they’re going to push the boundaries more and see what they can accomplish,” Cummins said. “I think it’s really going to be a top priority in 2023.”

“Personalization is the thread that ties together a lot of the email marketing trends that we talked about,” Lindamood added. “I think it’s going to be the longest-lasting trend we’ve discussed. We’re still near the beginning of a big shift toward personalization and it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Personalized and segmented messages make those types of communications immediate, tangible and accessible to customers. Questline Digital expects to see more of this as we use customer data and preferences to personalize the experience they have with their utility.

New Year, New Opportunities, New Email Marketing Trends

Quotation about TikTok being an important digital marketing trend for 2023

Of all the email marketing trends and best practices discussed, Cummins shared that data is a low-hanging fruit. Utilities should focus on cleaning and using their data in new ways, including segmentation and personalization, to better reach and communicate with customers.

Additionally, Lindamood suggested that TikTok needs to become a priority for utilities in the new year and beyond. “Utilities really need to start taking TikTok seriously,” he said. “The thing about TikTok is it’s not just popular among certain customers watching videos, they’re also using it as a search engine. They are finding answers on TikTok, and as a utility, you need to be there answering their energy questions. As an industry, we need to start communicating with the TikTok audience in their preferred channel.”

Stay ahead of the latest email marketing trends with a customer engagement strategy from Questline Digital.

Effective email list management is critical to digital marketing success. By building digital relationships with residential and business customers, and growing lists to reach more customers, utilities can achieve marketing goals, increase program participation and boost customer satisfaction.

However, as customers ebb and flow, so does your email list. Addresses become inconsistent or nonexistent as they move or change email platforms. To reach your utility’s customers, it’s vital to focus on how to grow your customer database with email list growth hacks.

It’s also important to avoid the negative consequences of poor list management. These can range from complaints and reduced satisfaction to potential legal implications of “spamming” customers who don’t want to be emailed.

The following email list growth hacks will help your utility boost open rates, reduce opt-out and complaint rates, and improve digital marketing performance by connecting with the right customers.

Email List Size: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Quality over quantity. It’s a well-known phrase, but when it comes to email list growth hacks, it’s easy to think more along the lines of “bigger is better.”

Of course, engaging with more of your customers using relevant content they want to receive is a worthy goal and can result in huge gains in customer satisfaction. But the key here is engagementGrowing a list just for the sake of growth is a big mistake.

Questline Digital has found that without proactive list management, many of our utility partners find up to 80% of their email list has gone inactive and not opened or clicked an email within the past year. Why is that important?

There are several drawbacks to poor email list management:

  • Keeps your messages out of customers’ inboxes. All major ISPs now use subscriber engagement as a primary factor in whether they deliver your messages to the inbox, send it to the junk folder, or block it entirely. Questline Digital monitors something called “inbox placement” to see whether the messages we send for our clients are actually reaching the inbox. We have found that repeatedly sending to subscribers who don’t interact with your emails actually lowers sender reputation scores and the rate at which your mail gets placed in the inbox — even for those customers who have engaged in the past.
  • Skews your metrics (for the worse!). Sending to a large number of inactive subscribers not only lowers deliverability metrics, but it results in lower open rates, click rates and other key performance indicators. It’s hard to get a clear picture of your success with all that dead weight.
  • Damages customer relationships. As much as we’d like them to, not every customer wants to interact with their utility on a regular basis. For some, reliably delivering the energy they need is enough and they just aren’t interested in the information you’re sending. Email can be a very personal thing for some people. Don’t upset them by continuing to send messages they are never going to read.

7 Proven Email List Growth Hacks

To effectively communicate with more of your utility’s customers, take advantage of the following email list growth hacks.

Chart listing seven email list growth hacks

1. Develop opt-in campaigns

Opt-in email campaigns are easy solutions that let customers choose when they hear from your utility. By identifying what customers are interested in, your utility can encourage customers to sign up for emails based on those interests. For example, a customer may be looking to purchase an electric vehicle soon so they would enjoy receiving educational resources from your utility about EVs.

While some customers may choose not to participate, the ones who opt in will be valuable contacts who engage with the content your utility sends them.

Questline Digital recently produced an opt-in campaign for PSEG Long Island. We created banner ads to place on the utility’s website to encourage customers to sign up for its email newsletters. The banner ads led directly to a signup form where customers could specify what communications they were interested in – home, small/medium business or large business. Since its installment in November 2019, this creative campaign has led to 12,885 successful new registrations for PSEG Long Island’s newsletters.

Example of email list growth hacks with signup CTA button

2. Leverage employee touchpoints

For customers who often interact with account managers, like Key Accounts or Commercial & Industrial customers, adding information about opting-in to an email list can be an effective email list growth hack.

The trust that is built between account managers and their customers encourages customers to listen and act when informed about something as simple as signing up for an email list. Ask account managers to encourage their customers to share your utility’s emails with others in their business or industry.

For other employees, such as customer experience associates, add intuitive questions to call center scripts that demonstrate the benefits of receiving emails from your energy utility. After all, one of the best ways to acquire a customer’s email address is to just ask for it. These questions could include:

  • “Would you like to be notified of storm alerts and potential outages in your area?”
  • “What is the best way to reach you via email to share cost-saving energy tips for your home?”

For example, if electric vehicle owners are seeking EV information on your website or via your call center, you can ask them to opt-in to your email to receive program updates.

These questions are especially effective when new or moving customers call to add or change their service and they are open to starting an engaged relationship with their utility.

3. Offer an incentive

Incentives can be the extra push some customers need to sign up for your utility’s email communications. When customers receive something in return after signing up, they’re more likely to do so.

When Elk River was looking to increase subscriptions to its quarterly newsletter, the utility began a promotion for customers to receive a reusable grocery bag and four LED lightbulbs after signing up.

To make the promotion even more interesting, the utility’s Conservation and Key Accounts Manager, Tom Sagstetter, hand-delivered the items to each customer. This promotion increased the utility’s email list size exponentially. Sagstetter delivered more than 300 packages and increased readership by just as many.

Example of incentive used for email list growth hacks
Example of incentives used for email list growth hacks

“The newsletter is a great way to have more regular contact with our customers in a way that’s less formal than, say, their bill,” Sagstetter says. “The promotion we offered not only helped increase newsletter signups, it also helped extend the reach of our conservation message. By delivering the items myself, I was able to talk directly to customers about efficiency and what they were going to get ongoing in the newsletter.”

4. Take advantage of your utility’s website

Customers are likely already visiting your utility’s website to make payments or see past billing statements. Remind customers that you can deliver additional helpful content, like energy education or information about cost-savings programs, directly to their inboxes with this email list growth hack.

Example of email list growth hacks on website

Add simple email signup forms to your website that correspond to the content on each page. For example:

  • On an energy efficiency program page you could suggest, “Enter your email address to receive energy-saving tips and rebates.”
  • The call-to-action on a safety education page might be, “Sign up to get more home safety and energy efficiency advice.”

5. Require an email to access a resource

Consider offering webinars to customers that allow them to learn more about your energy efficiency programs, paperless billing, payment assistance services and more. Or offer consultations for energy-savings education, like an at-home energy assessment.

When providing these resources, require a user to enter their email address to access or sign up for them. Ensure you place an opt-in message so customers know that by signing up, they accept being added to your utility’s email list.

This is not only a great email list growth hack, it’s also a way to find out what topics customers are interested in.

During the height of the pandemic, National Grid and Eversource partnered on webinars to share payment assistance resources for customers. They were produced with closed captioning and broadcast separately in Spanish and Portuguese and included an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Over 9,770 total customers registered for the webinars — providing numerous new emails for the utilities.

City of Palo Alto provides similar resources to its customers year-round. The utility offers educational resources on topics like solar power technology, alternative water supplies, electric vehicles and more. Each event is promoted on the City of Palo Alto’s website and gathers names and email addresses when customers register.

Example of webinar for email list growth hacks

6. Include a pop-up form on your website

Pop-ups serve as a powerful call-to-action for customers. The important thing to remember with this email list growth hack is to ensure it doesn’t disrupt the customer’s experience on your website. Make the message clear, to the point and easy for them to click out of if they choose not to opt-in to your list.

Typically, pop-ups are displayed when a user intends to leave the website; after a certain percentage of the page has been scrolled through; or after a visitor has been active on the website for 10 seconds. Test which pop-ups work best for your utility to see your email list grow.

Example of popup form for email list growth hacks

The Forbes Agency Council suggests, “Not every visitor needs to be asked to join your mailing list. Try using pop-ups on specific pages or for specific audiences, such as returning visitors who’ve already engaged with your brand but aren’t in your customer relationship management system.”

7. Leverage social media

Your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram followers might be interested in relevant updates delivered via email. When you post on social media sites asking customers if they are interested in receiving updates, make sure you emphasize convenience and interests that appeal to social users.

For example:

  • “Never miss an update. Get the latest energy-saving tips sent straight to your inbox.”
  • “Sign up to learn more about sustainability and renewable energy.”

Set up social media campaigns to advertise your emails either with a sign-up form directly on the post or with a link that directs customers to a sign-up form.

Through social media you can show customers what they can expect from your utility’s emails. You can do this by using video or imagery that shows content they might receive.

Example of email list growth hacks with social post

“Social media is a really powerful tool for utilities,” says Alexandra Greenberg, Questline Digitals’ Content Strategist. “It offers a direct way to reach customers and share helpful tips or interesting energy facts to keep them engaged. But it’s also a great way for utilities to promote their services and offerings. People really pay attention to social media, and that makes it an essential platform for utilities to communicate with customers.”

Email List Growth Hacks to Avoid

Not all methods of growing an email list are acceptable — either technically or ethically. When planning an email list growth hacks strategy, avoid the following approaches:

  • Buying email lists: When your primary goal is to grow your list as quickly as possible, there’s a good chance you aren’t doing it organically. Buying lists, data mining from other departments or similar tactics can be counterproductive to your overall business goals. While it may technically be the fastest way to achieve an increased email list, it’s also the number-one mistake marketers could make. There is no way to ensure the purchased emails are legitimate or users who would be interested in your utility’s content. Make sure you keep the business goal in mind. Doubling your list has no effect on the end business goal if it results in a 50% reduction in inbox placement.
  • Adding email addresses without permission: Your utility should only send emails to customers who have expressed direct permission to receive them. Otherwise, adding emails without permission will make not only your customers upset, but it could land your utility in legal trouble as well.
  • Asking for too much information: If customers are interested in signing up for your utility’s emails, don’t make them jump through hoops to do so. Ask them for their general contact information, like their name, email address and phone number. Asking too much personal information can come off as spammy and push the customer to distrust your utility.
  • Offering an incentive that’s not valuable: As mentioned above, offering an incentive is an effective email list growth hack to encourage customers to sign up for your emails. However, ensure you are offering an incentive that is of value to customers, such as Elk River’s LED lightbulbs promotion. Don’t try to offer a rebate that expires tomorrow or a deal that can only be used if you go through X, Y and Z steps.
  • Sending too many emails: Congratulations — you’ve grown your email list. Now, ensure your email marketing strategy is consistent and that customers know what to expect. Sending multiple emails in one week could frustrate customers and encourage them to unsubscribe from your utility’s list, which would be counterintuitive to your progress.

Follow Opt-Out Rules and Opt-In Best Practices

Marketers often wrongly assume that bigger is always better when it comes to customer email lists. While you want to reach as many customers as you can to maximize the impact of your message, that effort is only effective if you email engaged customers who want to hear from your utility.

Adding unengaged customers to your list, on the other hand, could have a negative impact on email performance.

  • Open rates and click-through rates will decline when unengaged customers ignore or delete your messages. That makes it harder to analyze metrics and optimize the campaign for customers who do want to receive it.
  • Unengaged customers may unsubscribe from your list, allow your message to languish in junk folders, or mark it as “spam.” This will not only impact your deliverability metrics, it could affect your reputation with email service providers — threatening your ability to deliver future email to engaged customers.

The way you manage customer info on your email list is not just governed by common sense and courtesy, it’s regulated by federal law.

The CAN-SPAM act, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, gives consumers the right to have you stop emailing them — with potential penalties of more than $40,000 for each email in violation. While that could be expensive, the longer-term cost would be the loss of customer satisfaction from repeatedly emailing people who don’t want to hear from you — and ignoring them when they ask you to stop.

Follow these best practices to properly add and remove customers from your email list:

  • Ask customers to opt-in to your lists and use active opt-in methods (avoid passive or automatic opt-in tactics such as a pre-checked opt-in box). You want customers to choose to receive messages from you.
  • Make it clear to customers what they are signing up for. Allow separate opt-ins and opt-outs for different lists and explain the purpose and cadence of each one.
  • While customers may opt-out of receiving certain types of messages, you must also include an option that allows them to stop all messages from you.
  • Make signup easy and unsubscribing easier. Every email message must include a conspicuous explanation of how to opt-out that is easy for an ordinary person to recognize and understand.

Connecting with the Right Customers

Your email marketing strategy will not be successful by reaching the most customers, it will succeed by reaching the right customers. With these email list growth hacks to acquire new contacts, grow and maintain email lists, you can reduce complaints from unengaged customers while nurturing long-term relationships with engaged customers.

The email list growth hacks above are some tried-and-true methods to increase list size, but don’t be afraid to test different ways of reaching customers. With the right strategy, your utility can see significant growth in your email list and improve open and click rates.

Learn how an engagement strategy from Questline Digital can grow your utility’s email lists and build stronger connections with customers.