Are Your Utility Communications Fully Evolved?

In human communication – whether it’s utility communications or 2 toddlers discussing the clouds – there has been a never ending progression of innovation, to wit: Body language begat sign language, which begat logography, syllabary, alphabets, phonetics, telephony phonography, radio and the iPod.  Cave drawings begat paintings, which begat printing, lithography, photography, motion pictures, TV, VCR, DVD, TIVO and BluRay.

The progression of data communication has been just as relentless:  the abacus begat the slide rule, which begat the calculator, the analytical engine, punched cards, analog computers, ENIAC, PC’s, laptops, web cams, smart phones, texting, and BlueTooth.

And all of the above begat the Internet, websites, AltaVista, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Skype  and an absolutely bewildering array of social media.

Which begs a question for anyone tasked with promoting public understanding and appreciation of a utility’s storm preparation and restoration efforts…..

…..Are you fully evolved?

To find out, we did an unabashedly subjective and unscientific survey of about two dozen websites of utilities from throughout the US, including the extra-continental states.  As you’d expect, we found some great websites.  And we found an alarming number that haven’t made it into the 21st Century yet.

With storm related matters as our priority, we used three main criteria for sorting out the lower forms of web mastery from the more highly evolved:  WIIFM, navigability, YouTube content, and social media and apps.

Criterion #1: WIIFM:  “What’s In It For Me?”

If safety and uninterrupted service are a utility’s primary goals, then most websites fail pretty miserably to effectively convey those messages.  In the vast majority, websites concentrate on telling customers what the company wants them to know, and not necessarily what the customer actually wants to know, especially when there are outages.

Outage location maps should be the norm for a 21st century utility, but a surprising number of websites lack them.  Many websites do have excellent text on utility storm preparedness and operations, and even highly useful tips on how customers can prepare to ride out a long outage. (See  PG&E, Central Vermont  Public Service, and the AEP companies for some good examples).  But text on websites in today’s smart phone-dominated world is kludgy *(*look it up in Wikipedia).

Criterion #2: Navigability

Solid utility communications should put the customer’s needs first, yet even the best websites we surveyed put “pay your bill” before “surviving a storm.”  Navlinks for storm and outage information usually lacked graphic icons and were frequently hard to find, requiring more than one click to get to any really helpful information, much less an online form to report an outage.  On most websites, if you aren’t upset with your outage when you bring up your utility’s website on your (battery-operated) iPad or smart phone, you’ll be furious after you try to find anything that will help you decide what to do during a storm.

Criterion #3: YouTube as a Channel for Utility Communications

If you punch in “how to” in YouTube, the 7th most popular site is “How To Tie Your Tie.”  That’s because for 80 million “Millenials” born between 1980 and 1995, YouTube has become the operational handbook for Life.  For people as old as 30, website text isn’t just kludgy, it’s passé.  Several companies have figured this out and have really good YouTube content to help with emergency preparedness and understanding (BG&E, Xcel Energy, Dominion Virginia Power, Memphis Light, Gas & Water, to name a few).  Puget Sound Energy has some really good stuff in English, Punjabi, Khmeri, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Somali, Chinese and even Spanish.  Entergy’s Operation: Storm Ready could very well be the benchmark for many utilities in website content, navigability and YouTube videos.

Criterion #4: Social Media and Apps

Most of the utilities we’ve already named – and a few others – include links to their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.  Entergy goes so far as to link to social bookmarking sites like delicious, Digg, Technorati and Reddit.  Very Impressive.  But as yet, we haven’t seen any mobile apps touted on utility websites, the best indication of a truly with-it, highly evolved utility communications operation.  If anybody out there has developed one, let us know and we’ll deliver the proper kudos.

EPILOGUE:  While we have critiqued (constructively, we hope) our colleagues in the utility communications business, we are chastened by the fact that we have yet to equal the best of them, based on our own criteria.  Too many Boomers and not enough Millenials on EPP’s staff.  But watch this space for further developments.  We’ll catch up.

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