The answer: Both were hot topics of discussion in New Orleans last month at the annual National Energy and Utility Affordability Conference (NEUAC). More than 600 utility representatives, community action agency employees, low-income advocates, and other energy folks took the Big Easy by storm for a few days of learning and networking—and sampling the local cuisine! This was my first trip to New Orleans since I was 5 years old, so needless to say, I don’t remember much of pre-Katrina New Orleans other than fried catfish and falling asleep to the sweet sounds of jazz music at Preservation Hall. But I must say, I was amazed at how much of the city has bounced back since Hurricane Katrina’s deadly visit in 2005. A Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified mixed-income housing complex, Columbia Parc, has even been built within the city’s hurricane-ravaged Seventh Ward on a former public housing site. Applauding the new, yet still appreciating the old, New Orleans’ beautiful architecture and landscaping can be seen by taking a ride on the city’s streetcar system through the historic Garden District.
With the Garden District’s beautiful, old Southern homes and the seemingly endless seafood feasts that can be found throughout New Orleans, it can be almost easy to forget that poverty is endemic in the city. Some of the more impoverished areas of the city continue to lie abandoned nearly seven years after Katrina, as many of their inhabitants cannot afford to return and rebuild. More than 30 percent of those who do still call New Orleans home are 50 percent or more below the federal poverty line, making low-income energy-efficiency programs and education a priority for the city’s utility company, Entergy New Orleans, as well as for numerous local and regional nonprofits.
How does a utility company, nonprofit group, or other organization engage the city’s hard-to-reach low-income customers, who may not speak English, and may be disabled or elderly? The answer to this question, as explained by many of the conference presenters, is grassroots marketing. Speakers from utilities and nonprofit organizations across the U.S. testified to the power of grassroots marketing in reaching low-income, rural, senior, or multicultural customers. They specifically highlighted engaging the community and neighborhoods, developing effective partnerships, and recognizing the effectiveness of word of mouth. They gave concrete examples of how these on-the-ground techniques succeed in boosting energy-efficiency program participation. For example, a rep from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) shared how the utility partners with over 50 community-based organizations to promote participation in its energy-efficiency programs!
Luckily for those of you who weren’t at the conference in New Orleans, you still have a few chances to hop on the bandwagon and learn about grassroots marketing strategies and successes. First, you can visit the NEUAC website to find a quick recap of the 2012 conference, along with many of the speaker presentations. Specifically, take a look at the presentations provided by Progress Energy Florida (PDF) and SDG&E (PDF) to get some tips about working at the neighborhood level and partnering with other organizations. Second, my recently published report Grassroots Marketing: Tried-and-True Strategies That Never Go Out of Style (for members of the E Source Residential Market Service) covers a variety of techniques for connecting with hard-to-reach customers and provides a number of unique examples of these techniques in action. And last but certainly not least, if you’ll be attending this year’s E Source Forum (and I hope you will), be sure to swing by my “Successfully Reaching the ‘Hard to Reach’” session on Thursday, October 4, at 10:30 a.m. You’ll have a chance to hear how other utilities are connecting with rural, senior, or culturally diverse customers within their service territories, and you’ll learn how you can use grassroots marketing strategies to successfully connect with these demographics. I hope to see you there!