The explosive growth of social media has caused utility managers to rethink their customer relations strategies. For decades, utilities considered their customers as ratepayers who needed to be provided with a safe and reliable energy source. The real boss, however, was a regulator that held significant, if not complete, control over key utility decision-making. Interaction with customers was essentially one-way: we, the utility, provide the electricity; call us if you have an issue, and we will have our customer service people look into it and let you know what we can do. Complaints sometimes reached the regulator, but an individual’s voice was often outshouted or ignored unless something egregious was done by the utility. The wide-open and immediate nature of social media is now rendering that model obsolete.

According to a recent report from Pike Research, for power utilities the choice to ignore and avoid social media is no longer viable. Although some utility managers remain wary of the potential risk involved with social media, the fact is conversations are already taking place, beyond the utility’s control, where sometimes false or misleading information can do harm to the brand. It is in the utility’s own best interest to engage with customers in social channels and at least have a chance to steer the conversation.

“Empowered customers are not about to give up on social media, and utilities will need to incorporate these tools as part of their broader customer engagement programs,” says senior analyst Neil Strother. “Smart utilities will seize the opportunity to increase customer satisfaction when these social engagements arise by properly staffing listening channels and preparing valuable content to be shared.”

Pike Research estimates that approximately 57 million customers worldwide will use social media to engage utilities in 2011, and the cleantech market intelligence firm expects that number to rise to 624 million customers by the end of 2017. Utilities successfully participating in social media will follow a set of best practices that includes knowing their customers' social media preferences and profiles, clearly defining their social media objectives and articulating a strategy for their social media efforts, and selecting and deploying appropriate technologies that integrate social media with existing channels.