Identify Opportunities, and Seize Them


Plan your strategy and market accordingly

By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.

Another heating season is almost in the books, and it’s time for owners and executives to pause, take stock, and figure out how to do more business, strengthen the company, and make more money in 2015 and beyond.

To improve sales, you need to motivate your buyers. That means connecting with them, getting them interested in your products and services, and making sales. Whether you are aiming to expand relationships with current customers or recruit new accounts, the challenge is the same: Connect, motivate and close.

There are countless communications tools you can use to grow your business, and it is important to choose wisely in order to support your specific goals as effectively as possible. You’re not Geico or AT&T with a bottomless marketing budget; you need to make every impression count. You need your own formula, based on what you and your team are trying to achieve.

Before zeroing in on tactics and strategies for increasing business, let’s take a quick survey of the competitive landscape, because a lot of things changed in 2014, which stands as a watershed year for energy marketers. Consider these major developments.

  • The National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) won its reauthorization in Congress, ending a four-year hiatus and bringing new hope to heating oil marketers.
  • Oil went into a free fall that reduced the price of crude by 55 percent, and we still don’t know where the bottom is.
  • ASTM International began the process of approving new grades of heating oil that include up to 20 percent biodiesel.
  • Google Inc. purchased Nest Labs and the Nest Learning Thermostat, lighting a fire under the “smart home” movement and positioning the once-humble thermostat as the gateway device. Whatever exclusivity energy marketers have enjoyed in the home comfort realm is now under threat.

The first three items are all good news. At the moment, heating oil does not have a price problem, and the certification of B20 blends by ASTM could open the door for better relations with regulators intent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And with NORA back in business, Oilheat dealers can count on an increasing level of support from the Alliance and from the industry associations in their states.

The rise of the Nest Learning thermostat and the “Internet of Things” is intrinsically neither good nor bad, but it is likely to raise consumer interest in home comfort and create new opportunities in “smart home” contracting.

Formulas for Success

The developments of 2014 suggest that our industry will see better business conditions in 2015, but each company must still set its course and win its own competitive battles. In my experience, companies that succeed continuously in energy marketing are flexible, open to new ideas and adept at communicating their value proposition. They regularly try new things and accept that some initiatives will be more successful than others. They also believe in their own ability to generate more business through effective consumer outreach.

If you are unsatisfied with your company’s performance, be careful not to blame it all on market conditions without evaluating whether you have done all you can to strengthen the company. Have you portrayed the company and its capabilities accurately and put your message in front of your customers and prospects often enough? Are you effectively communicating the value that your team delivers every day, or could your outreach actually be selling the company short? Customer expectations are evolving, and it is risky to allow the company to appear obsolete and mired in old ways and ideas. It is terrible to lose business to other companies who lack your team’s expertise and commitment but pluck away your customers because they do a better job of communicating. Don’t let that happen to you.

Instead, craft clear, effective messaging to help prospects see who your company is and how your team can help make their homes safer and more comfortable – and their lives more convenient. Prospecting for new business is like dating: You need to look your best to turn heads.

Every company in our industry is confronted with a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and each one must develop its own image and choose the communications tools that best support their particular goals. Here are some specific objectives that companies might have for 2015 and beyond and marketing strategies to support them.

If a company wants to recruit more fuel customers…

To increase fuel sales, you need to be highly visible, and you must give consumers a reason to choose you over the competition.

If it’s full-service, premium accounts you’re after, take a long, hard look at your company’s image and message. Think like a customer, and ask yourself – and your friends and colleagues – what a typical consumer is likely to conclude about the company from what they can see online and in the community.

If you’re satisfied, go ahead and focus on new promotional campaigns. When your website has a strong, professional feel, online marketing is cost-effective: You drive prospects to your website, they like what they see, and conversion rates are higher.

If, on the other hand, your self-evaluation leaves you underwhelmed, do not rush ahead with online promotions, because they will not return the value you want. Instead, make it a top priority to update your image so that prospects will be more impressed when they give the company a close look. The good news: A major image overhaul, done right, has a lasting shelf life and provides new messaging that you can use to make all your promotional campaigns more effective.

With the strong image in place, companies can develop attractive offers that involve discounts on fuel or service work for new customers who purchase both. Direct mail and pay-per-click advertising are great tools for motivating prospects, especially when you provide coupons.

A company newsletter makes a great direct mail piece. You can send your prospects the exact same newsletter you send your customers, or else create a separate version with a replacement article that highlights new customer offers. Consider using a remarketing strategy, which uses a network of Internet ad servers to present your ad repeatedly to prospects who have visited your fuel sales web pages.

For full-service companies looking to add fuel-only accounts, it’s a whole different strategy. Many companies have succeeded by creating discount companies and leveraging their marketing expertise to stand out among discounters. They create simple but impressive websites and use online ordering systems to deliver superior convenience. Some even enable customers to order fuel by text message. Pay-per-click advertising and direct mail postcards are effective tools for promoting a superior discount fuel model.

If a company wants to add more customers for equipment installation and service…

To add accounts for service and installation unrelated to fuel sales, a company must advertise aggressively with a combination of pay per click, direct mail and traditional advertising. It helps if your company messaging emphasizes technical expertise above fuel delivery, but you need to strike a good balance if you don’t want to handicap the company when it comes to attracting new fuel accounts. Before you advertise, build out the website with one or more landing pages highlighting your installation and maintenance services, and use those URLs in your ads.

Research your market to get a clear sense of how many potential customers are out there and how strong the competition is. Set realistic goals for new customer acquisition over the next few years, and develop a marketing budget to match your ambitions.

If a company is diversifying and adding new services…

If you are diversifying your service portfolio, take the time to develop a thorough rollout plan that accounts for costs, sales targets and sales support. Your first targets will generally include your current customers, and it will take several notifications to get the word out. Create strong, persuasive copy to help people understand the value, and then repurpose it as needed. Start on the company website with a page or section dedicated to the new service as well as a specialized landing page to be promoted in your advertising. Be sure the landing page has a call to action and a mechanism for contacting the company immediately.

Once that is in place, repurpose your messaging in a variety of ways, depending on the targets. For current customers, use a combination of newsletter articles, customer letters, coupons, videos and e-mail messages. To reach beyond the base, create a combination of postcards, coupons and advertisements. Use the landing page URL in all of your communications so people don’t have to search around to find the right content.

E-mail marketing can be a cost-effective tool for promoting new services, provided you have plenty of e-mail addresses. If your e-mail list is inadequate, start taking steps to “harvest” customer e-mails, such as creating an online customer account portal that requires an e-mail validation step. Consider providing a one-time incentive to reward customers for setting up an account.

If a company is providing an expanded array of services to keep other contractors out of the home…

A number of companies have leveraged their strong customer relationships to launch new services such as plumbing, electrical, security alarms, building shell and handyman. They see the value of their “inside track” position and use it both to grow the company and defend their turf. This strategy also helps you get into more homes, because the convenience of the “one-stop” business model is compelling. It is important to emphasize one-stop convenience and highlight your broad service array, so that customers and prospects will get the point within the first few seconds of seeing your home page.

The core tool for marketing this model is the company newsletter, which is an ideal vehicle for supporting each new service launch and providing ongoing sales support for your other services. Newsletters are particularly cost effective for this business model, because you are working to build relationships that are deeper and more lucrative than your traditional fuel and service relationships. The per-customer costs are easy to justify when the potential rewards are so great. Once you produce a great newsletter, it makes sense to print extra copies and send them to prospects.

Advertising also becomes more cost-effective when you are trying to sell that service model beyond the base. Every home is a potential account, so there are not wasted impressions, and the potential revenue per account justifies the cost.

If a company wants to be capitalize on the “smart home” movement…

The so-called “Internet of Things” is just beginning to go mainstream, and the home comfort contractor is one of several classes of company positioned to capitalize. If you plan to pursue opportunities in the “smart home” realm, plan to emphasize your technological expertise in every campaign you undertake. Creating a subsidiary or a new company for “smart home” contracting is one logical choice, because it allows you to get started without recasting the entire company image.

Alternatively, you can radically update your company’s image to emphasize technological expertise, which is not such a stretch, given the sophisticated nature of today’s heating and cooling equipment. Many companies are already deploying Internet-enabled thermostats, intelligent controls and remote monitors. Our industry makes extensive use of onboard electronics and sophisticated software to communicate from the delivery truck to the back office. We send technicians and salespeople into the field with handheld computers and use apps to create proposals. Advanced technology is already deeply woven into many things a home comfort contractor does, and many companies are already reflecting that in their images.

To position yourself as a “smart home” contractor who can make customers’ homes safer and more convenient with Internet connectivity, craft new a tech-savvy image and message this year, and then infuse it consistently in all your customer communications, starting with your website. Use tools like pay-per-click advertising, a blog and social media to attract new customers for a broad range of intelligent home services.

Of course, your existing customer base provides a ready market for your “smart home” services. Consider a special edition company newsletter dedicated to the topic of Internet-enabled services and remote diagnostics and monitoring.

Whether you are looking to carve out a whole new niche or simply attract more customers for your current range of services, PriMedia can help. Please contact me at 800-796-3342 or to start the discussion.

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