Solar Marketing in the Digital Age

Regardless of the role a PV business plays in the solar value chain, a solid marketing strategy in 2016 must do more with less.

Thanks to the relative youth of the solar industry, marketing budgets will remain limited until marketing departments can fully demonstrate their contribution to revenues. Meanwhile, major shifts in consumer purchasing behaviors not only create new marketing challenges but also present new opportunities for marketers to quantify their impact on the bottom line. Customers have moved from in-person meetings and phone calls as the means of performing their initial due diligence, research, vetting and purchasing; they are now going through this journey alone and online. Since marketers traditionally manage the online presence of a brand, this change in the customers’ journey requires a transition from traditional marketing and branding campaigns to revenue-marketing initiatives responsible for the early stages of engagement that the sales department used to handle.

In this new paradigm, brands have to interact with prospects through digital channels and forums, where they have less control over shaping customers’ decision-making processes. Tools such as email, blog posts, webinars, online forms and videos allow marketers to create customized, multifaceted, presales lesson plans full of valuable content for each specific buyer persona with whom they want to do business. Further, marketers can now use digital marketing tools to track engagement with prospects online and quantify the impact that marketing and communications have on bringing business into the organization.

The Evolution of Solar Marketing

In any organization, marketing shapes and continuously maintains the corporate brand. The brand is the collective sum of all interactions (no matter how insignificant) the organization has with an external—or internal—audience. Success in marketing is measured qualitatively by how the marketplace perceives the brand and quantitatively by revenue. As brand ambassadors, marketers are on the front lines of this initiative and are responsible for the heavy lifting that enables the organization to achieve its mission and goals.

Solar marketing today has evolved in step with the US solar industry. The North American market for PV products really hit its stride in 2000 with the passage of California’s Senate Bill 1345, which directed the state’s energy commission to develop and administer a grant program supporting the purchase and installation of solar energy and selected small distributed generation systems. Initially, the solar industry faced skepticism from potential customers who were hesitant to be early adopters of an innovative technology, and it lacked financial backing as the investment community was unwilling to risk supporting a “green” energy source it knew little about.

However, the growth of international markets that were embracing photovoltaics drew the attention of Wall Street, and slowly investors turned their attention to the massive untapped US market potential. Primarily in California, solar competition grew in the residential and small-scale commercial sectors. More money went into researching new technologies, financial products and project development. The US solar market grew year over year, and audiences’ understanding of the solar value proposition matured. As solar firms grew and expanded into new geographies, so did their marketing departments, disseminating content that explained how solar works, touted the many benefits it provides and identified product vendors and installation contractors.

Fast-forward a decade: Solar’s potential customers have become far more sophisticated, and, thanks to the Internet, they can be their own subject matter experts without having to make a phone call or meet with a vendor. Several recent studies suggest that today’s buyers complete 60%–70% of their purchasing journey digitally. Whereas information about solar used to be scarce and hard to find, buyers now have access to a wealth of content from a variety of sources.

Given that today’s consumers tend to refrain from engaging a salesperson until the last possible moment, marketers need to innovate and find ways to curate the brand experience—not only adapting content to multiple platforms, but also targeting buyers early in their journey. In other words, marketers need to shift the dynamic in their strategies from that of seller and buyer to that of teacher and student.

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