If 2020 has taught us anything as energy marketers, it’s that online marketing matters. Whether it’s growing your customer base, communicating with your existing customers, selling equipment or even recruiting drivers, you need to be online and you need to do it well.
In the not-so-distant past, relying on a phone book listing, some print ads and equipment stickers would’ve been enough to acquire new customers. Today, those strategies are obsolete. Homeowners may see your postcard mailing and it may help them notice you, but before they make a call, they’re still going to Google you. They’re going to read customer reviews, go to your website and decide whether or not to do business with you based on your digital presence.
This was true of customer tendencies before 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders accelerated these trends, meaning if it’s not already your focus, digital marketing needs to become your primary focus come 2021.
Trends and lessons we learned
Because Warm Thoughts Communications manages over 130 fuel company websites and conducts consumer research specific to the oilheat and propane industries, the findings below come from the company’s internal 2020 data.
In 2020, overall digital engagement increased
Click-through rates on pay-per-click advertisements increased by 5%, website traffic increased by 3% and Facebook’s total reach increased by 101%, with total engagement increasing by 35% on Warm Thoughts’ fuel clients’ websites. This is due to a coordinated marketing strategy focused on the combination of meeting the needs of homeowners who are at home and those individuals increasing their screen time.
Home comfort is of utmost importance
Warm Thoughts data demonstrates a larger global trend, as well. With so much more time at home, people want to improve their home comfort, which in many cases includes heating and cooling equipment. The data indicates homeowners were online throughout 2020, shopping for fuel companies and interacting with them at higher rates than they were in 2019.
Digital marketing paid off
Fuel companies that capitalized on this trend and increased their digital marketing spending saw a return on investment. For example, Warm Thoughts ran a pool heater advertising campaign on Facebook and Google for a client. Within a six-week period, the campaign delivered more than 140 pool heater leads. We expect the focus on home improvements to continue into 2021 and will doubledown on this increased opportunity with the right strategies and expertise.
Work-from-home has and will become the norm
In addition to digital usage trends, the pandemic also brought a new normal to the way we work and live. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with remote work and 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week at the end of 2021. This shift means fuel companies can expect more calls pertaining to heating and cooling as usage increases. They can also expect more interest from homeowners in updating equipment, maintenance calls and fuel deliveries as a work-from-home schedule allows for increased flexibility and customer availability. While these trends sound promising, there’s a downside. More time at home for customers can also increase competition between fuel companies. Homeowners no longer have to take off from work to be home for service appointments or limit themselves to weekend- only service. As a result, it’s easier for homeowners to compare fuel companies. That comparison will happen on search engines like Google and social platforms like Facebook. To stand out from your competition, you need to outperform them in the digital landscape.
5 digital strategy tips for 2021
The following items should serve as the baseline of your digital marketing strategy for 2021.
No. 1: Maximize your website’s potential
Whether you’re building a fresh website or updating an already existing site, ensuring you have a website that’s working for you should be your top priority. Build a custom website—do not use templates! Template-based websites may be cheaper to build, but custom websites perform better on search engine rankings, allow for greater customization with branding and can grow with you as your business grows. In addition to how the website is built, it has to look good and evoke a feeling that’s consistent with your brand.
These days, your website is your brand. To successfully communicate your message, your website must go beyond the products you offer to deliver your unique selling proposition. When a consumer lands on your homepage, they need to immediately understand why your business is the right choice for their family’s comfort and safety.
No. 2: Pay attention to SEO
To further complicate the task at hand, your website needs to tell this story in a way that’s not only aesthetically pleasing but that also conveys this message to search engines so you rank on results pages. Search engine optimization (SEO) is key to your business’ success. You can have the best website, the best pricing and the best staff, but if a customer can’t find you in their service area, none of that matters. Unless you’re a techie, it’s easy to overlook SEO. It isn’t glamorous. It’s about content, coding, meta descriptions, title tags and algorithms—and it’s constantly evolving. However, without it, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle.
SEO is the key to bringing organic traffic to your site. It’s the way you show up on the first page of results when a homeowner searches “boiler repair near me.” Without it, you’re likely missing out on those types of searches. What’s worse, you wouldn’t know it unless you conducted an audit or had an SEO expert on staff.
No. 3: Be active on social media
In March 2020, Facebook reported an increase of more than 50% in user activity across its products. With that trend in place, Warm Thoughts Communications optimized its clients’ Facebook pages to drive engagement, resulting in a 101% increase in total reach throughout 2020. If you’re not active on social media, you’re missing out on this opportunity.
It’s not enough to simply have a Facebook page. You need to actively post engaging content three to four times a week in order to satisfy Facebook’s algorithm. Because of that, it’s best to include a variety of content that isn’t strictly promotional. Encourage users to like, comment on and share your posts. Ask them to provide you with the golden goose of digital content: a positive review! Social media is also an important medium to communicate with your customers about company changes, such as office hours or in-home-appointment policies. Be sure to include social media as part of your digital strategy for 2021.
No. 4: Communicate with your customers
For many businesses, one of the greatest lessons of 2020 was realizing the importance of customer communication. With the outbreak of COVID-19, fuel companies needed a way to quickly communicate office hours, health policies, appointment changes and more. Unless a business was already equipped with a comprehensive list of customer e-mails and cell numbers, it was left struggling to communicate efficiently and effectively with its customers. Creating a customer communication strategy is no easy task. It involves the following components, at the least:
• Customer service training
• Establishing a system to collect customer details
• Setting up an e-mail marketing platform
• Website design that’s easily customizable
• Software that allows you to send confirmation messages to customers
• Implementing chatbots (a.k.a: conversational agents) on your website
As you head into 2021, having a digital customer communication strategy will allow you to quickly adapt. Research shows that a robust strategy on this front will also improve customer retention. With homeowners spending more time at home, it’s much easier for them to shop around, so relying on their first interaction with your business isn’t enough. In order to improve retention of new customers and increase your customer base, you need a plan for customer communications.
No. 5: Manage your online reputation
The business impact of customer reviews is undeniable. Studies indicate that 97% of customers say reviews factor into their buying decisions. If your website doesn’t feature customer reviews, you could be losing potential business.
It’s important to have a strategy to manage your online reputation, as online reviews are trusted just as much as referrals from friends. This is a complex process as it involves your ability to both solicit and aggregate reviews, and ultimately, show them off. When done well, it can aid business growth. When you ignore it, it can drive potential customers away. According to marketing firm BrightLocal, 93% of customers determine whether a business has a good or bad reputation based upon their review star rating.
The big picture
Digital marketing is constantly evolving. As a fuel company, you might be comfortable with the notion that your business is essential, but essential isn’t enough to grow. Growth comes from staying ahead of the curve, adapting and competing. As we move into 2021, there’s no better time to push forward with a well-executed digital marketing strategy. ICM