It’s imperative that your utility prepares a proactive communications strategy to educate customers about rising energy costs and help them take control of monthly bills.

“Having a proactive and cohesive strategy around changing costs is no longer a nice-to-have,” says Mary Malone, Questline Digital Director of Account Development. “It’s become imperative to sustaining a trusting relationship with customers.”

Customers want to know:

  • Why are energy costs rising?
  • How do I reduce my energy consumption?
  • How do I save money on my energy bill?
  • What can I expect from my bills moving forward?

Your energy utility should explain rising energy costs and rate changes as clearly and directly as possible.

Remember to:

  • Keep messages simple by avoiding jargon
  • Highlight your utility’s commitment to keeping costs affordable for customers
  • Provide energy-efficiency resources and education
  • Clearly explain bill assistance programs or payment options

Why Are Energy Costs Rising?

The first question for many customers is, “Why are energy costs rising?” Although the answer is complicated, it’s important to explain as much as you can about the situation. The more customers know, the more understanding they’ll be to price shifts.

Many factors are causing spikes in energy costs, including the pandemic, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, supply chain issues and climate changes.

“The cost of natural gas that’s delivered through pipes was up 24% in February from the year prior, while electricity went up 9%,” The Guardian reported. “Price spikes are notably higher in places where electricity is generated from natural gas, such as the Northeast, which saw a 16% increase in January from the same time last year, with prices dipping down to a 6% increase in February.”

The unpredictable natural gas market, which powers much electricity generation, is also attributed to increased production costs. The addition of extreme weather conditions, including the Texas Freeze and Hurricane Ida, pushed oil production to stop on the Gulf Coast. These conditions led to higher energy prices as the demand increased.

Richard Berkley, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project, explained that the situation would be different if the U.S. didn’t rely so heavily on energy sources that depend on the supply chain and global market. “Now with sustained disruption of the world energy markets, we should expect to see higher prices till the end of the year,” he said.

Although customers may be aware of some of these situations, they may not know the direct impact these factors have on rising energy costs. Explaining this information in clear, easy-to-understand ways through emails, newsletters, alerts and more will help keep customers informed and educated.

How to Address the Cost of Energy

Besides world and weather events, customers don’t always understand why energy costs fluctuate throughout the year. Generally, electricity prices reflect the cost to build, finance, maintain and operate power plants and the grid.

Do your customers know this?

The more customers understand the various elements behind the cost to generate and distribute energy, the more empathetic they’ll be when increases occur. In other words, this has a major impact on long-term customer satisfaction.

According to E Source, customers want to understand how price increases and rate changes affect four areas:

  • Their families, businesses and personal lives
  • The environment
  • Future generations
  • Their communities

Tactfully explain to customers why some factors drive rising energy costs, including:

  • Fuel prices: Clearly explain that when demand increases, so does the cost. With supply chain challenges and the demand for fuel increasing, these higher fuel prices can lead to higher costs for generating electricity.
  • Power plant costs: Let customers know about the costs that go into operating and maintaining generation facilities and what cost increases your utility is seeing in daily operations.
  • Transmission and distribution systems: The systems that connect power plants to customers also need continuous maintenance. Describe where these costs come from.
  • Weather conditions: Most of the U.S. has been battered by high temperatures lately, which puts a strain on the grid as the demand for cooling increases. On the other hand, rising energy costs can also occur in the winter when frigid temperatures require increased heating. Customers may not realize that these things affect the cost of energy.
  • Regulations: Some states have regulated prices or a combination of regulated and unregulated prices. Be upfront about what your utility experiences when it comes to government and state regulations and how it impacts energy costs.

Transparently describing how energy prices are determined can help customers feel “in the know” and showcases your energy utility as a trusted resource.

Example of content marketing to educate customers about rising energy costs

Rising energy costs affect customers in different ways

Develop communications strategies for both residential and business customers. Their different needs and concerns should be addressed in distinct ways.

For example, retail electricity prices are usually higher for residential than commercial customers because of different distribution costs. However, supplying electricity to industrial customers is often less expensive and more efficient because they can receive the electricity at higher voltages.

For residential customers, it’s important to educate them on peak and non-peak hours and how these can affect their electric bills, especially if you offer time-of-use rate plans. Typically, electricity demand is high in the early afternoon and evening, which means costs will increase at these times. If customers change when they do some activities, such as charging their EV or running loads of laundry, to non-peak hours they can see a decrease in energy costs.

Provide this information to customers through newsletters, social media, text or emails where you can share content pieces that teach customers about energy use and lowering consumption.

Example of newsletter educating utility customers about rising energy costs

Reach Customers With the Right Message in the Right Channel

Communicating with customers should go beyond basic energy efficiency advice. Instead, provide direct ways that customers can lower their energy consumption and combat rising energy costs. It’s important for customers to know that increased energy efficiency ultimately leads to lower costs.

Additionally, provide resources like payment assistance programs, budget billing and content that speaks to the needs of customers impacted by rising energy costs.

A multi-channel communications strategy is key to reaching as many customers as possible. Recommended channels include email, direct mail, social media, text messaging and any other communication methods your utility’s customers prefer.

Email Example: Rate Change Message

Example of email communicating utility rate change to customers

The above email from Pioneer Energy Management in Ohio directly tells customers how much their rate is changing and when the change will be effective. It doesn’t include any fluff or introduction — it gets straight to the point. Once readers know that their rate is increasing, they can continue to read on for helpful tips to manage their electric bill.

Direct Mail Example: Rate Increase Message

Example of direct mail communicating rate increase to utility customers

Novia Scotia Power created a direct mail campaign that answered customers’ direct questions, including “Why are rate increases so high?” In its direct mail flyer, NSP shares that the utility is working toward distributing cleaner energy and switching to renewable sources. This transparent information allows customers to better understand why price increases are occurring and where the extra revenue is going.

Web Page Example: Rate Education

Example of utility website educating customers about energy rates

Southern California Edison has a page on its website titled “How Rates Are Set” that provides an FAQ section and clear explanations for how the utility determines the price of electricity and what affects those costs.

The utility also helpfully breaks down where each dollar of the customer’s energy cost goes:

  • 46 cents – generation: Costs of energy sources, including solar, wind and natural gas, and generation SCE owns, including hydro and natural gas plants.
  • 37 cents – distribution: Grid maintenance and new equipment, including poles and wires and substations.
  • 8 cents – transmission: Investment in operations and maintenance for high-voltage transmission lines.
  • 5 cents – wildfire: Insulated wire, vegetation clearing, enhanced inspections, weather stations, HD cameras, insurance.
  • 4 cents – public purpose programs: Mandated state programs, including incentives for energy efficiency and protection for low-income customers.

Customers appreciate transparent, direct information. When customers see your utility as a trusted resource they have higher overall satisfaction.

Social Media Example: Peak-Hour Reminders

Example of social media post communicating peak hour rates to energy utility customers

UniSource Energy Services, located in Arizona, provides reminders on its Facebook posts for customers to be aware of peak and off-peak hours when choosing activities. The utility then provides a link to more tips on cooling homes in the summer. Customers do not always know when off-peak hours are — sharing this information in a quick social media post acts as a helpful reminder.

Social Media Example: Bill Assistance Programs

Example of social media post communicating energy bill assistance programs to utility customers

AEP Ohio shared this post on Twitter to inform customers that their bill assistance programs were expanding eligibility requirements, even for customers who were not past due with their payments. This proactive post helps customers who may be struggling but were ineligible previously.

Urgent Need for Proactive Communications

With rising energy costs, there is an increased urgency to provide valuable information to customers for combatting high energy bills. Helping customers understand how to lower their energy consumption and how increased energy efficiency ultimately leads to lower costs can build positive relationships among customers.

Connect customers with the right payment programs and billing options. Learn how Questline Digital’s customer assistance solutions can help.

Eugene Ayuyao is a strong advocate for helping those in need. It’s no surprise, then, that her professional title at Southern California Edison (SCE) is Senior Manager of Income Qualified and Disadvantaged Communities Programs.

When speaking with Ayuyao, it’s clear that her passion runs deeper than just a job title. She believes in the cause and will do anything in her power to help create equal opportunities for all the low-income, underserved, diverse and vulnerable communities in the utility’s service area.

Ayuyao’s mission is to help these disadvantaged communities, ensuring they have the same access to technologies and assistance. She has a team of 30 individuals who implement new programs and help these customers in various capacities. “I’m really proud of every single program we manage and the work my team does day in and day out to serve our low-income customers,” she says.

Headshot of Eugene Ayuyao interview for Energy Spotlight

Ayuyao and her team work with 20 to 30 programs on average that make a positive impact to customers in need. “These programs are not just about energy efficiency and energy savings — they were created to really look at the health, comfort and safety of our customers,” Ayuyao says. Some of these programs include:

  • Energy savings assistance program: Customers who qualify as low-income can receive energy efficient appliances at no cost to them 
  • Critical care back-up battery program: Qualifying customers who live in a high fire risk area can receive a portable battery at no cost in case of loss of electricity during wildfires
  • Energy assistance fund program: This initiative offers grants to customers in difficult financial situations to help them pay their bills

As the utility industry continues to push forward with new technologies, Ayuyao is keen to remind the industry that there are still low-income customers who may not have access to such innovations. “As such, we partner with community based organizations who are typically well positioned to engage with the hardest to reach customers in our service area,” she notes. “Whenever we introduce new technologies, new initiatives…it is our responsibility that no one gets left behind.”

To assist in this endeavor, SCE currently offers its communications in 16 different languages. “There’s such a diverse community that we serve and we want to make sure every single one gets the help they need,” says Ayuyao.

Interestingly, if Ayuyao wasn’t in the energy industry, she would be following her family’s footsteps in the medical field. She laughs, saying that her parents, two brothers and sister-in-law are all physicians and boast about making a difference in people’s lives. Although she doesn’t disagree with that, she says, “They save lives, but being in this field of energy efficiency, I get to brag about saving the world.”

Outside of Ayuyao’s work, she likes to stay active and travel with her wife and two Pomeranians, Ash and Andi.

Questline Digital connected with Ayuyao to get her thoughts on changes in the industry, the evolution of energy and advice for those entering the utility space.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry?

Prior to joining SCE, I was involved in designing and developing new LED fixtures. This was the time when the technology was fairly new and most products in the market were either incandescent or CFLs. With this experience, I successfully landed a manager role at SCE and became responsible for implementation and oversight of their residential lighting programs.

Since then, my team’s coverage has expanded to other residential programs such as Energy Upgrade California Home Upgrades, Plug Load, Multifamily, New Construction and Behavioral Programs.

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to handle Commercial and Industrial Energy Efficiency contracts that focused on generating efficiency in various industries within our service area. In 2019, I was given another opportunity to manage SCE’s income-qualified programs, where I continued to deliver energy efficiency and bill assistance programs to the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach customers.

What has changed the most about your job working in the utility industry over the course of your career?

Technology has definitely played a big role in the change. We are seeing an increase in smart technologies with greater emphasis in addressing behavioral changes and more sustainable approaches to energy efficiency.

The social media evolution has also paved the way to reach more customers and get them engaged in learning about energy efficiency. Lastly, regulatory changes and the focus on clean energy is certainly redefining our strategy as an organization.

What campaign or initiative are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of our current income-qualified programs where we provide benefits to SCE’s long-term growth strategy and corporate responsibility through: 

  • Healthier and more resilient communities, saving energy and lowering bills for income-qualified customers, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.
  • Ensuring access and deployment of electrification and modernized technologies to income-qualified customers, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in support of achieving SCE’s and California’s aggressive clean energy goals in an equitable manner.
  • Developing strategic partnerships and supporting job creation that benefit income-qualified customers, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. 

What’s a marketing campaign you wish you’d thought of and why (inside or outside the energy industry)?

I don’t think this is original at all, but I would have wanted to have a referral base lead generation incentive program within the energy efficiency space. For example, campaigns focused on “Earn While Your Neighbor Saves” or “Earn a Buck to be Green.”

What is the hardest part of working in the energy industry today?

Government policies, political, environmental and social pressures all contribute to the challenges we face in the energy industry today.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t working in program management, I would be…

I would probably be a doctor.

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years? What are you looking forward to?

There will definitely be a shift in the use of cleaner energy options to address the rising impact of climate change. Examples of these efforts include building and transportation electrification.

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space?

I highly recommend using a customer lens when making operational decisions.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.

Low-income customers are notoriously challenging to reach for energy utilities. This group of customers — defined by the Pew Research Center as making less than $48,500 for a three-person household — are driven by saving money and they may qualify for needed payment assistance programs. However, they also share many of the same interests, wants and needs as utilities’ general customer base, from an interest in smart home technology to being environmentally conscious.  

To connect with low-income customers, your energy utility needs to take a closer look at this unique audience and what barriers exist to reaching them.  

Easing the energy burden

Low-income customers come from every walk of life, from rural communities to major metropolitan areas. They represent all ages and are made up of households with and without children. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many of these customers are facing financial troubles for the first time. It’s important to understand that income is the major characteristic that differentiates this group from higher-income customers — not other demographics or traits.

According to the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative’s (SECC) report “Understanding Lower-Income Consumers and the Smart Energy Future,” two-thirds of low-income customers spend more than 6% of their income on their energy bills. In contrast, the average U.S. consumer spends just 3%. These customers look to their energy utility for support and understanding, as well as programs or services to help ease their energy burden.

Breaking barriers to reach low-income customers

The reality is that barriers exist for low-income customers to take advantage of payment assistance programs. One of the biggest hurdles is basic awareness of these programs. In fact, only 46% of low-income customers are familiar with programs available to help with their monthly electric bill, according to SECC’s research. Awareness was even lower for energy efficiency programs. Only 33% knew about energy efficiency upgrades offered by their energy utility.

For energy utilities, building awareness is key to driving interest and participation in financial assistance programs among this audience. Consider utilizing segmentation to reach low-income customers with relevant, personalized information on programs like payment assistance or budget billing. Once familiar with these programs, more than 90% of customers will take advantage of the assistance.

In addition to offering payment options to make it easier to pay their monthly bill, low-income customers benefit from energy efficiency tips and advice. By improving energy efficiency, they can better manage energy use in their homes, which has a profound impact on their monthly bills. For example, consider reaching out to homeowners or renters with energy efficiency products, programs or helpful information relevant to their living situation.

A focus on the environment

Just like higher-income customers, there is a subgroup of low-income customers who are dedicated to an eco-friendly lifestyle. SECC research found that 44% of environmentally driven customers say a concern for future generations drives their interest in energy efficiency. These customers are concerned about air quality, carbon dioxide emissions and would like the government to invest in more renewable energy. Since this group has a higher income compared to other low-income customers, they are able to invest in more energy-efficient technologies than others in the segment.

To reach these customers, it behooves energy utilities to create marketing communications with an environmental focus. For example, when promoting energy efficiency products in your energy marketplace, consider using messaging that highlights the environmental benefits. You can also reach out to low-income customers with segmented email newsletters focused on energy efficiency, renewable energy and other eco-friendly options.  

Adoption of smart energy technologies

Smart energy technologies, ENERGY STAR® appliances and rooftop solar panels can seem like luxuries to even the typical energy consumer. However, it’s not only higher-income customers who have an interest in them.

When making purchasing decisions, a variety of drivers spark an interest in smart energy technologies for low-income customers. For example, the primary driver to purchase smart thermostats is saving money and making their home more comfortable. When purchasing smart appliances or smart lighting, low-income customers are driven by the ease of use. For rooftop solar panels and community solar, a passion for helping the environment is a significant motivator.

Despite these drivers, smart energy adoption remains a challenge. According to SECC research, 28% of low-income customers believe that these smart energy technologies are not worth the effort. To encourage adoption, reinforce the fact that these technologies are beneficial for both saving money and maintaining the comfort in their homes. It’s also important to provide insights on the positive impact to the energy grid and local community.

Reach low-income customers with a relevant message

As this research demonstrates, low-income customers have many of the same values and motivations as higher-income customers. To better connect with this audience, it’s vital to increase awareness about financial assistance programs, energy efficiency programs and smart energy technologies.

With the right messaging — from a focus on saving money to improving the environment — your energy utility can effectively reach low-income customers, connect them with relevant programs and help them achieve their energy goals.

Learn how Questline Digital’s payment assistance campaign can proactively reach low-income customers with important program information.

With state disconnection bans ending, more than 179 million Americans risk losing their electric service due to unpaid bills. As the economy continues to suffer as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many energy utilities are taking action to help customers facing financial hardship.

Helping utility customers with deferred payment programs

In August 2020, Questline Digital partnered with a major IOU in the Northeast to provide assistance to the utility’s customers with past due account balances. Questline Digital created an email and one-click landing page to encourage enrollment in the utility’s Deferred Payment Arrangement (DPA) program. This payment assistance program allows customers to pay their past due balance over an agreed period of time (12, 18 or 24 months). Enrollment required no money down regardless of past payment history, giving customers additional financial relief. 

The DPA program email used dynamic data to pre-populate a customer’s name, account number and balance due. It was a text-centered email, with some modifications made to make it transactional. The email linked to a one-click landing page, hosted by Questline Digital, with personalized customer information and a drop-down menu to choose the customers’ preferred payment term options. After selecting their payment term and clicking submit, customers reached a confirmation page. 

Resounding results and ROI 

On Sept. 8, the email was sent to 73,745 customers with unpaid account balances. The one-off email experienced high customer engagement with an open rate of 45.6%, click-to-open rate of nearly 41% and a click-through rate of 18.6%. Questline Digital’s performance metrics show the program promotion truly resonated with an audience experiencing financial crisis.

In fact, within the first 72 hours of the email deployment, the DPA program garnered 11,930 enrollments, representing a staggering $20.8 million in past due balances. The email and landing page proved to be a tremendous success, providing the energy utility with an ROI of roughly 7,000%.

Customer engagement snapshot   

  • 91,323 total opens
  • 32,872 unique opens
  • 17,313 total clicks
  • 13,428 unique clicks
  • 97.77% delivery rate
  • 45.59% open rate
  • 40.85% click-to-open rate
  • 18.62% CTR

Customer satisfaction and cost savings

The DPA promotional email and landing page prevented millions in delinquent accounts from being actively collected. As a result, the energy utility saved countless dollars in printing and mailing costs, while significantly reducing personnel costs and workload for the utility’s internal collections department. It also prevented the energy utility from outsourcing to a debt collection agency for the high volume of unpaid balances.

This customer communication will no doubt have a positive impact on the utility’s customer satisfaction scores. While some customers may still default on the payment terms, the program gives customers an opportunity to ease their financial burden and acknowledge their energy utility as a helpful resource during tough times.

Deferred payment programs provide hope during hardship

In this unprecedented time, energy utilities should encourage enrollment in their payment assistance programs. With no end in sight for the pandemic and a troubled economy, your energy utility needs to provide customers with relief. This promotional email and landing page has resulted in significant cost savings for the energy utility. But more than that — it has shown customers that behind their energy utility are people just like them.

Promote your utility’s payment options with a digital marketing solution from Questline Digital.

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.