In this age of real-time data flow, digital channels have become the de facto tool for utility outage communications. Whether through the company website, a mobile app, or social channels, customers expect a timely and robust way to access the outage information they need on demand. I think our industry has come a long way, especially in the past several years. Utilities are providing increasingly sophisticated outage features and communication platforms that shed light on local restoration efforts and fill the dreaded information void during times of darkness. Social channels help validate consumer concerns that an outage or event has occurred and that the utility is aware of the issue, as well as direct customers to more information and provide a more human and interactive experience. Of equal importance, social channels now provide the communication vehicles to reach critical stakeholders (especially the media, relevant political or community leaders, and small or midsize businesses) with ongoing updates and guidance during these important and key moments of truth.
In our Review of North American Electric and Gas Company Websites: 2011, we assessed how quickly reviewers were able to find the status of an outage, such as estimated time of restoration at an individual location or, at the very least, a small geographic area. We found that 53 of the 100 utility websites had this capability, which is up from 43 sites in 2009. Reviewers gave higher scores to interactive outage maps capable of zooming in on specific areas and those that provided more-detailed information like the number of customers affected, estimated restoration times, the status of crews, and causes of outages. Outage pages displaying the date and time for updates and update frequency also scored higher.
All of this makes sense because the emotional underpinnings come down to respect and control. Without this information and functionality, we leave customers to the dangerous whims of the information vacuum, an experience that’s often negatively internalized. I recommend that you figure out the technical barriers to make these tools available to your customers and communicate with more immediacy and humanity through social channels. And know that you have a lot of research at your fingertips through your E Source team! Learn more about the do’s and don’ts of web and mobile outage design through the E Source Utility Website Design Center. You can also search our Resource Center for research on how utilities are leveraging social media for outages and crisis situations.
Best of luck this summer, and please don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you want to talk more about best practices in outage communications!