Q:How are other utilities successfully engaging and building trust with small and midsize business (SMB) customers?

A:Getting SMB customers to participate in energy-efficiency programs is difficult, and although there isn’t a proven formula to engage these customers, we have information and examples to guide you in developing a cohesive and comprehensive strategy. In our response, we share some data insights into how these customers view energy-efficiency programs, types of initiatives that build trust, and examples of how other utilities have used marketing campaigns.

Know your audience

Knowing your target audience—as well as its energy-efficiency goals and perceptions—is the starting point for developing an effective campaign that builds trust and encourages engagement among SMB customers. We’ll dig into data from the 2017 E Source Small and Midsize Business Gap and Priority Benchmark, which you can access through the E Source Business Customer Insights Center, to help you understand the energy-management needs and attitudes of SMB customers.

Who makes energy-related decisions? From the 2017 E Source Small and Midsize Business Gap and Priority Benchmark, we found that:

  • 47% of companies have one person who makes the energy decisions and 39% have a team of decision-makers
  • 63% of respondents identified the business owner as a stakeholder
  • 23% identified company executives
  • 16% identified both operations and finance staff
  • 14% identified facilities staff

Who participates in energy-efficiency programs? Of the 1,862 respondents, 73% didn’t participate in an energy-efficiency program through their utility in the past 12 months. Those who did participate were asked to use a 0–10 scale, where 0 means not at all likely and 10 means very likely, to rate how likely they would be to recommend the program to their coworkers and colleagues. More than half (57%) gave a top-2 box rating of 9 or 10, 27% gave a rating of 7 or 8, and 16% gave a rating of 6 or below.

Who has energy-related goals? A majority of SMBs (62%) have energy-saving goals currently in place, but 25% don’t have goals for energy saving, environmental sustainability, or renewable energy.

Why do they participate in energy-efficiency projects? We asked respondents for the top three reasons they participate in energy-efficiency projects, and the highest-ranked answers concern financial incentives for participation.

Who do they trust as energy-efficiency advisors? SMB customers rank their utility highest as a trusted resource for energy-efficiency advice (54%), but they also rely on colleagues at similar businesses (28%), consultants (20%), and governmental agencies (20%).

Build their trust

In our report SMB Marketing and Engagement: Strategies to Increase DSM Program Participation, we discuss how you can build trust with your SMB customers. We’ll highlight a few ideas below, but for more-in-depth advice, check out the report.

Leverage SMB customers’ trust by including testimonials from efficiency program participants in your marketing campaigns.

Testimonials. SMB customers view their utility and colleagues at similar businesses as their most trusted sources for energy-efficiency advice. Leverage this trust by including testimonials from efficiency program participants in your marketing campaigns. Testimonials that present a specific business challenge and describe a solution and its results are the most compelling stories. Testimonials are also a great way to reward your current program participants by providing them with good PR exposure.

Customer advisory panels. A customer advisory panel allows you to hear firsthand the voice of your business customer. It also acts as a sounding board to test ideas, messages, and services directly with your customers. By getting in front of your target customers and incorporating them into the process, you can learn the unique needs and behaviors of your audience, all while establishing trust among the SMB panel participants.

Community partners. Your customers already trust their local and state trade and business associations. Collaborate with them to increase outreach to business members. Connecting with well-known organizations and chambers of commerce within your service territory is a great way to show your interest in community involvement.

Customer recognition. Customers are proud of their energy-saving efforts and accomplishments, and acknowledging them gives SMB customers something to strive for in their energy-efficiency plan while promoting utility-offered programs and rebates. SRP rewards its commercial customers through its Champions of Energy Efficiency Awards. The utility chooses champions based on their adoption of new energy-efficient technologies, behavioral changes, and support of ongoing program initiatives.

Utility examples of successful SMB marketing

Here are examples from Alliant Energy (figure 1) and SRP (figure 2) of how they’ve built trust with their SMB customers and are keeping them engaged.

Figure 1: Example of direct mail from Alliant Energy

In its letter, Alliant Energy includes a personal customer testimonial in addition to an easy-to-follow process for scheduling a free energy assessment.
Screenshot of a direct mail letter that Alliant Energy used to target small and midsize business customers. The letter includes a customer testimonal and steps for how to sign up for a free energy assessment

Figure 2: Example of an SRP-branded name tag for contractors

SRP’s contractors have access to cobranded marketing collateral and also wear SRP-branded name tags to customer appointments, so customers can be sure they’re authorized and endorsed by the utility.
Example of an SRP name tag for contractors. It says This contractor is an approved small business solutions alliance participant for the period of may 1, 2017, to april 30, 2018. Alliance participants are not affiliates or agents of SRP. SRP assumes no liability for their products or services

SRP benefited from successful SMB marketing in 2011 after launching its Business Resource Center with the goal to help SMBs survive in tough economic times. The resource center offered customers non-energy-related information and advice. With a relatively small budget, SRP ran a six-month online ad campaign on multiple business-minded sites. SRP saw these results:

  • Monthly visits to the Business Resource Center increased by 200%
  • Online banners generated 1,300 visits (more than 40% of total visits) (figure 3)
  • Banners also produced a 0.05% click-through rate

You can find more information on SRP’s Business Resource Center campaign, along with other utility ads, in E Source Energy AdVision, our database of more than 3,000 examples of utility marketing and advertising campaigns.

Figure 3: Example of SRP’s Business Resource Center rotating banner ads

SRP attributes more than 40% of total resource center visits to its rotating banner ads. In each frame, the words on the fingers swayed as if they were balancing atop of it.
Example of SRP's three rotating banner ads that it used durinig it Business Resource Center campaign. The first ad says endless business solutions. The second says endless business solutions one location. The third says Introducing SRP business resource center. Insights from local business leaders and much more all in one place. link and learn more button

Portland General Electric

PGE developed the Save More, Matter More campaign in 2010 to encourage customer dialogue and increase awareness of the programs offered by Energy Trust of Oregon. PGE’s target audience was general business customers, and the utility used direct-mail brochures/postcards, bill inserts, and website landing pages to reach them (figure 4). PGE saw these results:

  • Exceeded web visit goal by 250%
  • Exceeded consultation request goal by 550%
  • Exceeded referral goal by 300%
  • Gained strength in customer satisfaction (up 4%), value (up 8%), and favorability (up 9%) from the previous year

As a result, PGE repeated the campaign in 2011. You can find more information on PGE’s Save More, Matter More campaign, along with other utility ads, in E Source Energy AdVision, our database of more than 3,000 examples of utility marketing and advertising campaigns.

Figure 4: Direct mail from PGE’s Save More, Matter More campaign

Portland General Electric’s Save More, Matter More campaign targeted general business customers with the goal of increasing their awareness of programs offered by Energy Trust of Oregon. Some of PGE’s strategies were:
  • Target business customers needing the most assistance and communicate with them through their preferred channels
  • Offer free energy-efficiency consultations and a sweepstakes for all business customers
  • Focus the offer on lighting, creating a sense of urgency with expiring incentives
  • Send direct mail cobranded with Energy Trust
Page 1 of Portland General Electric's direct mail letter (cobranded with Energy Trust of Oregon) from its Save More, Matter More campaign. On this page it offers incentives to save and calls out the deadline for a limited-time bonus
Page 2 of Portland General Electric's direct mail letter (cobranded with Energy Trust of Oregon) from its Save More, Matter More campaign. This page features a customer testimonial and features two ways to join the campaign

Contributing Authors

Senior Analyst, Customer Engagement Solutions

Jessica is a senior analyst on the marketing and communications research team at E Source and she has 13 years of digital marketing and...