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Harnessing the power of user generated content

Posted by Tom Power on October 1, 2014

At the risk of blatantly showing my age, I can remember a time when the best option for finding an appliance repairman or a pizza place that delivers was to pick up the phone book and leaf through the Yellow Pages. Actually, let me qualify that: That was the best option if you didn’t have a friend or relative who could recommend one.



Because if you did know someone who just got a dishwasher fixed right or raved about a pepperoni pie, you’d go with that option over the Yellow Pages every time. Well, even in these hyperconnected times, the same holds true.


When compared with other forms of advertising, a recommendation from a trusted peer has by far the greatest influence on our purchasing decisions.1 The big difference now is how easy the Internet has made it to get peer recommendations. Whether you turn to Yelp, go to a brand or a retailer’s website and check out the reviews, or pay the money and sign up on Angie’s List, a recommendation is never more than a click or two away.

It’s called user generated content, and it’s been a game changer for marketers. With traditional media, marketers were always in control. Brands typically delivered a message and consumers listened. That’s not the case with user generated content. These consumers are much more interested in what their peers have to say about a product, and that can be good for a brand — or bad.


That said, marketers are not powerless when it comes to user generated content. They may not be able to control it, but they can influence it. And the savvy ones are doing just that.

One segment that is increasingly harnessing the power of social interaction in the United States is the utilities and energy industry itself. The nation’s electric utilities are expanding their use of social media and mobile applications to improve smart grid benefits and better engage with their customers. The 50 largest U.S. utilities all have Facebook accounts, 49 of them currently have active Twitter accounts and 15 have mobile apps.2

Here’s an example of how one major utility employed user generated content to help increase participation in a voluntary energy program it offered its customers.



A generational challenge in Michigan
Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest utility, was faced with an unenviable task. It wanted to increase awareness of and participation in its Green Generation renewable energy program.

The problem was it wanted to do this in 2011, a time when the nation was still struggling to recover from the financial crisis and the recession that followed. This was an especially traumatic time in Michigan, and yet here was Consumers Energy trying to get customers to elect to pay extra to have their electricity come from renewable sources. It was not a choice that was going to make their kitchen appliances run better or their lights shine brighter.

Complicating matters was the fact that the truly environmentally conscious customers in Consumers Energy’s territory had already signed up in the previous years since the program launched in 2005. The remaining market was much more skeptical, far less interested in green energy and definitely put off by the additional cost.


Clearly, this challenge called for a grassroots movement, and Consumers Energy realized it needed to enlist the help of the next generation. So the utility developed Green Scenes, a viral video contest for Michigan high schools and utility customers.

The Green Scenes contest challenged each high school to create a short video about renewable energy. The video could then be posted on the Green Scenes website. Next, students, families and their community could vote to support their school’s video. The ultimate goal was to reach out to those customers who were unaware of or uninterested in the Green Generation program and motivate them to consider the long-term benefits of renewable energy for future generations.


This is where the user generated content comes in. Consumers Energy strongly encouraged students and families to spread the word on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. After all, increasing the use of renewable energy was vital for future generations, but there was plenty at stake for the students, too. The winning video entries would earn prize money for their schools, with a first prize of $5,000.


To build excitement and generate involvement in the schools, Green Scenes Entry Kits were sent to school administrators. These included posters, information sheets, press releases for local newspapers and websites, letters to parents about the contest and renewable energy and video release forms. Each Entry Kit also had a designated entry code for the administrator, ensuring that only one authorized video per school would be entered.



High schools from every area of Michigan and with every enrollment class size entered videos. A total of 5,107 people registered online and voted in the contest. The social media activity was also extremely strong, as thousands of utility customers posted comments and shared the videos and website. This created an active and engaged online community united by renewable energy.

You can view some of the videos that were submitted here.


Topics: Inbound Marketing

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