As social media adoption continues to grow, utilities of all sizes are recognizing the impact these new services can have on their marketing, communications, and business strategies. While some utilities have already seized on the opportunity that social media offers, others remain on the sidelines. Awareness of the benefits that utilities can garner by using social media services to communicate with end users – such as keeping customers informed about pricing and billing changes, educating customers about new products and services, and allowing for a more engaged relationship with customers – is on the rise.

According to a new white paper from Pike Research, about 57 million customers worldwide used social media to engage utilities in 2011 and that number is expected to rise to 624 million customers by the end of 2017. The paper is based on a web-based survey of more than 1000 U.S. consumers in the fall of 2011 using a nationally representative and demographically balanced sample.

“For many people social media has emerged as a useful way to engage with their utilities, and somewhat surprisingly these customers are doing so on a fairly frequent basis, as our survey data shows,” says senior analyst Neil Strother. “Most of these customers are younger adults under 30 who have embraced social media as their preferred communication tool. Utility managers should have some strategy in place for listening to and engaging with customers via these newer channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.”

While the overall percentage of customers who interact with utilities using social media is not large, at just under 11%, of those who do communicate with their provider using social media, nearly 60% say they do so either “very often” or “regularly.” As expected, younger respondents were more likely to use social media services, with those under age 30 reporting the highest use (83%) of any demographic segment. That means that the number of customers using these services to engage with their utility will only grow in coming years. Correspondingly, as social media become more pervasive, utilities and other companies will look to invest in and grow their presence in this area.

The primary reasons for contacting a utility using social media are billing issues or to obtain information. Somewhat surprisingly, the percentage of respondents using social media to praise their utility’s service (24.7%) is more than double that complaining via social media (11%).

Pike Research’s white paper, Social Media in the Utility Industry Consumer Survey, examines the current frequency of consumer interactions with utilities using social media tools, the reasons for those interactions, and the demographic and behavioral segments most likely to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogs for utility interactions. The report also analyzes the level of interest among consumers in future engagement with utilities via social media.