How to Beat the Gas Utilities at their Own Game

Two Words: Grassroots Marketing

By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.

OK, so maybe this’ll take a bit more than two words, but the point remains: grassroots marketing is simply one of, if not the, most effective tools that heating oil and propane companies have for preventing fuel conversions. Now, admittedly, many people read “grassroots marketing” and start thinking about kids in newsy caps standing on street corners, handing out pamphlets — probably not a realistic strategy for your company — so let me take a minute to review what that phrase means today, and what it means in the context of today’s energy industry.

Grassroots marketing generally refers to a marketing strategy that targets a specific niche rather than a large audience. Typically speaking, such a strategy is executed directly, meaning it puts an actionable piece of information right in front of the targeted recipient. Whether on the doorstep or web browser, or in a mailbox or email inbox, the message speaks to the target’s specific interests and concerns as they relate to a particular topic.

For an energy marketer, the target would be homes and businesses in the surrounding area. The topic here would of course be fuel choices and conversions. The interests and concerns are more complex, but in this context, let’s boil them down to affordability, reliability and environmental impact. Energy consumers want their fuel to cost less, they want to count on it being available when they need it, and even if they don’t necessarily want it to be green, they probably want it to be clean.

So, how does a heating oil or propane provider address these interests and concerns while speaking directly to home and business owners in the area? And more importantly, how do you do it better than the utilities that are trying to take away your customers? Grassroots energy marketing can take a number of forms, but there are two cost-effective, complementary tools that have been most successful for local heating oil and propane businesses in the Northeast: Direct Mail Marketing and Pay-Per-Click Landing Pages.

“Postcard Says What?”
Postcards are one of the most effective forms of direct mail marketing, because humans are essentially hard-wired to read them rather than throw them right in the trash. Through the generations, we’ve used these cheap, simple pieces of cardstock to show someone something impressive and tell them about it. The recipient sees an image, mentally responds to it, and habitually flips the card to read the other side. This isn’t just true for trips to the Grand Canyon. It can and does work for energy marketers as long as the image is gripping enough to grab your customers’ attention, the headline is compelling enough to keep it, and the rest of the copy is strong enough to hammer your message home.

Working with the American Energy Coalition, PriMedia has helped develop and deploy postcards in a number of areas that were under threat from gas utility encroachment, including southern Connecticut and other parts of New England. Most recently, we brought the message to central Pennsylvania, where energy utility subsidiary Peoples Gas has been trying to get home and business owners to agree to sign up for gas service. By collecting enough signatures of intent, the utility can justify and fund pipeline extensions in the area. (You can read about all the particulars of this situation in “PPA Vs. Peoples” on page 30.)

The Pennsylvania Petroleum Association and American Energy Coalition rightly identified the scenario as ripe for an Every Door Direct Mail® campaign (more on that term a little further down), and working on behalf of the area’s local companies and associations, contracted PriMedia to design a series of postcards that could be sent to homes and businesses in specific geographic locations. Our team leveraged a particularly applicable image and created powerful headlines and messaging to apply to the situation at hand.

Each postcard in a series of four targeted a different area. Thus, the message was continually adjusted to hone in on a specific niche of home and business owners. Furthermore, the details of the message evolved as the situation developed. Once a local newspaper picked up the story, our copywriters had a new source to cite, with specific quotes from disappointed gas customers. By telling that story and editing it to suit different audiences, Pennsylvania’s local heating oil associations were able to connect with consumers at a grassroots level, hammering home the message that natural gas conversions are not the affordable option the utilities say they are.

Affordability was the issue at hand here, but the postcards could just as easily be customized to make points about dependability, sustainability or any other argument that applies in your area. By the same token, this campaign was coordinated primarily at the association level, but because postcards are such affordable assets, individual dealers can tailor the message to their customer base. Of course, for the best results, you’ll want to work with a full-service marketing agency that can facilitate the graphic design, research, copywriting and printing needed to execute any campaign effectively.

DM vs. EDDM®
USPS® defines its Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM) service as “an affordable targeted advertising technique that lets you map your marketing mail audience by age, income, or household size.” This demographic information is pulled automatically from the prior U.S. Census Report, and the postal service has a mapping tool that allows marketers to zero in on addresses in a particular ZIP Code or carrier route. Therein lies the biggest difference between direct mail (DM) and EDDM.

Whereas DM campaigns are generally restricted to the addresses on a particular mailing list, EDDM campaigns can hit every address in a designated area and can even target postal routes based on the reported age or income of their occupants. This allows you to go beyond your base, to connect directly with your neighbors, and customize your message to suit different kinds of households. Short of going out by yourself and banging on people’s doors, it doesn’t get much more grassroots than that.

The question of whether a DM or an EDDM campaign is best for your company depends largely on the goal of the particular campaign you are looking to launch. If you’re expanding your service area and looking to attract new customers, obviously a direct mail campaign to your existing customer list isn’t going to cut it. Likewise, if you’re part of a local association that’s trying to counter the utility company’s disinformation campaigns, you may want to spread the word beyond your base. EDDM was used for three of the four aforementioned Pennsylvania campaigns. In the single DM campaign, this method was chosen so as to avoid otherwise inevitable overlap with one of the EDDM areas.

When trying to determine whether DM or EDDM is the right choice for a postcard or other print marketing campaigns, it’s always best to consult a professional agency that has the research and media-buying experience needed to secure the best possible price and ensure your message hits its mark. In either case, though, you don’t want to simply send a postcard and call it a day. You need to follow up to ensure that when your targets go to find out more about what’s going on in their area, it’s your message and not the utility’s that stays in front of them.

Clear For Landing
A pay-per-click landing page empowers you to do exactly that. Think about it: a homeowner hears one thing from the gas utility, or maybe from a neighbor who’s just echoing the utility’s claim, then hears another thing from you or your local energy association. What’s the next thing that homeowner is most likely to do? If you answered, “go online and look it up,” then you’re right on the money.

For better or worse, most people get their information online today. Unfortunately, most utilities are owned by massive corporations that can afford to build beautiful, state-of-the-art websites and run highly active social media campaigns designed to control the flow of energy-related information in your area. Fortunately for our industry though, there is an affordable and effective way to quickly reinforce the anti-conversion
message. That’s what the American Energy Coalition did in southern Connecticut, and it’s what they’re doing again in central Pennsylvania.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the terms “pay-per-click” and “landing page,” here is a quick refresher. Pay-per-click is an advertising service that enables website owners to have their pages automatically appear atop page-one search results for particular keyword terms, which might be, for example, “heating oil conversions” or “switching to gas heat.” Each time a person clicks on the sponsored link, the site owner is charged an amount based on the going bidding price for the keyword terms.

The landing page is simply the web page to which the internet user is sent when he or she clicks that link. (If this still sounds like a foreign language to you, I apologize, but believe it or not this is the simplified explanation. That’s why the associations entrust Google-certified web developers to handle this sort of thing.) The American Energy Coalition commissioned three new landing pages for Pennsylvania: “Upgrade and Save,” “The Real Cost to Convert,” and “Disadvantages of Natural Gas.” Each provides energy consumers with an invaluable knowledge base, as well as tools that can help them find an energy expert in the area or determine the actual cost of switching fuels. But the end goal is always the same: preventing fuel conversions.

Your Roots Run Deeper
As a heating oil or propane marketer, you already know that history is on the side of your product. And you can already see that history is beginning to absolve our industry in terms of pricing and sustainability arguments. The challenge is to make sure your customers and neighbors see this too. I won’t lie: it’s a tough challenge, because we’re up against multinational corporations with politicians in their pockets … and pockets that run deeper than the Permian Basin … but as I’ve said before, our industry has a winning, positive message and the facts to turn the tide on energy policy.

In a battle for our communities’ hearts and minds, we also have another powerful weapon in our arsenal — our roots. Most local heating oil and propane businesses that still thrive today are longtime members of the communities they serve. So, when I say they have history on their side, I mean it literally too. With that in mind, grassroots marketing is in a sense, a back-to-basics approach. It’s about getting out there and connecting with the people your drivers see on their routes every day. In other words, it should be second nature for a business like yours. The mediums may have changed, but that only means your message can ring louder than ever before.

If you’d like help getting your message out with a grassroots marketing strategy, please give me a call at 800-796-3342 or contact PriMedia online.

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