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

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

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

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

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

Phase 1: Crisis Communications

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

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

Phase 2: Transition to a New Normal

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

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

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

Phase 3: Post-Crisis Communications

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

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

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

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

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

Infographic listing benefits of A-B testing for email marketing

What messages resonate best with your target audience? A/B testing is an easy way for energy utilities to make data-driven decisions in your content and design choices.

Every customer is unique — a message that works for one audience segment may not be effective for another. With A/B testing, you can better understand what message garners higher customer engagement for a particular list by testing different versions with a small sample and then sending the “winning” message to the bulk of the list.

A/B testing can be used to optimize different parts of your message, including the subject line, hero image and call-to-action placement. However, only test one variant per A/B test. If you test both the hero image and call-to-action, for example, it’s difficult to determine which element triggered a better response.

We recommend testing for a full week, considering 93% of all opens and clicks happen during this time. Once the test has garnered enough responses, the next step is to declare a winner. A good rule of thumb is to look for 95% confidence between the variants (the minimum recommended). Depending on the sample size, this translates to a 25% to 35% performance variance.

Stop guessing which subject line will get the most opens or which CTA will attract the most clicks. Let your customers decide! By sending two versions of a message to a small audience, you can see which one customers prefer before sending the highest-performing message to the rest of the list.

Optimize your campaigns for success with a digital marketing strategy from Questline.

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

Marketing messages during the outbreak

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

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

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

Content strategy and eNewsletters respond to the crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customers want to hear from you

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

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

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

Coronavirus messaging that connects

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

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

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

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

Email newsletters are delivering engagement

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

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

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

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

Subject lines that stand out in inboxes

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

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

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

Reaching the right audience

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

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

Coronavirus messaging and content strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bill is just a bill — until the day it stops arriving at your customer’s doorstep and starts showing up in her inbox. When a bill becomes paperless, it’s time to celebrate — you’re one step closer to meeting your conversion and customer satisfaction goals. Not to mention, when customers go paperless, your operational costs go down and digital interactions go up.

Paperless billing means customers have the convenience of viewing their bills and managing their accounts anywhere at any time. According to a Fiserv household survey, 75% of customers say paperless billing helps them better manage their finances. It also means more convenience and less paper cluttering up their home, a major advantage for many customers.

For the energy utility, paperless billing means increased awareness of all digital messaging, allowing you to get closer to a seamless digital experience at every touchpoint. In addition, the option to go paperless tends to improve customer satisfaction. An impressive 46% of paperless billing customers say digital billing services increased their satisfaction with their biller.

Save trees, speed up payments

Regardless of industry, studies have found that customers often pay bills later when sent by mail compared to bills sent electronically, making paperless the preferred method of billing in the financial suite of most organizations.

One report noted more than 65% of customers who defaulted into a paperless bill chose to keep their bill paperless over the long term, suggesting a direct relationship between digital payment and paperless preference.

Generational differences in bill pay suggest a continued move towards paperless as well. Survey data shows that 56% of all bills are paid online via a biller, bank or third party. The same study found 78% of online bills paid by millennials are paid through billers’ websites, while only 39% of seniors pay online. This shift to digital is only becoming more apparent as generations of digital natives become bill recipients.

Environmental concerns also propel businesses to promote their paperless options more aggressively. Paper billing has an obvious ongoing and negative impact on the environment. One small Texas utility calculated that if their entire subscriber base went paperless, they could, on an annual basis:

  • Prevent 26,200 trees from being cut down
  • Avoid the equivalent of 1,700 households’ monthly energy use
  • Save 574,300 swimming pools full of water
  • Cut 1.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from being released into the atmosphere.

While paperless is a value-add for both utilities and customers, campaigns around paperless billing are still relatively new and success rates vary depending on a variety of factors, including frequency, consistency, incentives, multi-channel support and the level of experience of those deploying them. Over the past decade, Questline Digital has developed and successfully deployed a variety of different campaigns to great results.

Paperless campaign best practices

What best practices have we learned as we’ve developed our paperless communications program? What’s the best way to get customers to opt-in to paperless communications? Converting longstanding paper bill recipients into digital ones can seem daunting. Here are few things to prioritize as you consider a paperless campaign strategy for your energy utility.

  • Make it easy for customers. One extremely effective delivery option is a paperless billing series that includes easy enroll landing pages. Easy enroll pages are typically pre-populated with customer information, so it’s quick and simple for customers to confirm and sign up. The easier you make the sign-up process, with fewer clicks, the lower the abandonment rate for those well-meaning but distracted customers, and the higher the conversions.
  • Provide incentives. Sometimes, customers need a little encouragement to take an extra minute and consider the value of paperless enrollment. Incentives are great a way to drive interest and inspire action. When gift cards or sweepstakes are offered we’ve found on average there is a 28% higher click-to-open rate over benchmark rates.
  • Aim for omnichannel. One-on-one outreach is a strong start, but a seamless campaign across multiple customer touchpoints raises the rate of paperless conversions. You can incorporate paperless messaging into bill inserts, newsletters, digital ad placements, social media posts and even into the in-person customer experience to maximize the impact of the campaign.

Considering a paperless billing campaign? Learn how Questline Digital’s solution connects with customers to maximize conversions.