Solar Marketing in the Digital Age
Inside this Article
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.
Effective Solar Marketing
Until solar matures and becomes a more pervasive player in the US energy mix, marketing departments will face the challenge of acquiring more customers with fewer resources. Just a few years ago, the cost to install solar was double what it is today, which enabled some companies to spend liberally on building their brand and market share. Today, solar is a tight-margin business that requires low customer acquisition costs for companies to turn a profit while continuing to grow.
One of the most cost-effective marketing strategies is to segment the database of potential customers, and then nurture and engage those leads by generating audience-specific value-added content. Since today’s customers are actively looking for information via digital platforms, brands that provide trusted content are more likely to win their business. Therefore, marketers should focus on generating content intended to inform and educate rather than push a specific product or service offering.
The solar industry sells to a variety of customer types and decision makers: homeowners, business owners, low-income housing developers, tenants, entities with investment-grade credit, public institutions, utilities, independent power producers, consultants and even politicians. Customer relationship management (CRM) software allows marketers to segment prospects by customer type and level of interest.
Selling solar to the chief financial officer of a food packing facility in California’s Central Valley is completely different from selling it to a homeowner in Florida. Similarly, selling racking to the vice president of procurement for an EPC firm is different from selling it to the buyer for a local PV parts distributor. The basic concept behind market segmentation is that prospective customers are more receptive to content that speaks directly to them and their needs. For example, a facilities manager for a school district might find a blog post titled “Evaluating Inverter Warrantees Most Commonly Used for School Facilities” more compelling than one titled simply “Evaluating Inverter Warrantees.” Targeting audience needs in marketing content dramatically improves response rates.
CRM software. To collect customer datasets, some solar companies purchase contact lists. Others become members of a trade association to access its membership list, or they scour the web or collect business cards at trade shows. Regardless of how a company builds its lead database, CRM software allows it to manage and track these prospective customers.
A CRM software platform is the hub that archives information about new, existing and potential clients. Popular CRM offerings today include Insightly, Oracle, Salesforce, SugarCRM and Zoho. Each offers off-the-shelf solutions that also allow customization. Some of these solutions are geared toward design-build companies with 100 employees or less, while others are better suited to large online consumer product retailers.
Administrators can use CRM software to set alerts and triggers that allow various departments within an organization to coordinate and communicate with one another. The marketing department, meanwhile, can use this platform to segment datasets into categories such as leads, contacts, opportunities and accounts. The CRM platform can also integrate with marketing automation tools and digital marketing platforms.
Marketing automation tools. Automation tools such as HubSpot, Marketo, Oracle Eloqua and Pardot can serve up different pieces of content at specified intervals or in response to specific actions or milestones, based on sets of rules defined within the software. With Pardot, for example, marketers can create a set-it-and-forget-it email drip campaign: At the click of a button, the prospect receives a series of targeted email messages in a prescribed order.
Integration with CRM platforms further empowers marketing automation tools. For instance, when a prospect takes a specific action, such as clicking on a link in an email or filling out a form on a website, the CRM platform can alert the appropriate sales representative and note the interaction in the lead database. While it takes a lot of work to set up these processes, which require constant iteration and improvement, they do offer another way to accomplish more with fewer resources.
Grading leads. Grading is the process of segmenting existing and potential customer datasets into clearly defined Tier 1 and Tier 2 markets. Tier 1 markets comprise ideal customers; Tier 2 markets are less immediately lucrative but still worth pursuing. For example, Tier 2 markets might include customers who are in an area that is more difficult for the company to service or customers who require a resource-intensive form of financing.
CRM software can assign each prospective customer a grade based on conformity to an ideal customer profile. For instance, the marketing and sales teams might decide that the ideal customer is a homeowner in New Mexico with an average electric bill of $200 per month. Based on this benchmark, a residential prospect in Albuquerque with an average electric bill of $250 might receive an A grade in the CRM platform, whereas a neighbor with an average electric bill of $150 might receive a B. Grading is one way to sort the lead database within the CRM platform to identify the highest-priority prospects.
Scoring leads. Scoring is the process of differentiating leads within marketing automation software according to the level of customer interest or engagement. Low scores generally describe early-stage buyers with minimal brand engagement. The more those prospects interact with marketing content, the higher their score.
For example, the software could assign two points for clicking on a marketing email. If the lead then goes on to interact with the content in a way that indicates readiness to buy (perhaps downloading a list of customer references), that could add another 20 points. The sum total of all of these engagements—page views, site searches, downloads, email opens, email clicks, page landings, webinar registrations, video views and so on—is the lead’s score. A higher score implies a greater interest in the brand and its offerings.
Scoring leads in this manner enables more timely and appropriate interactions with prospective customers. CRM software can send automatic alerts to sales personnel whenever a lead reaches a particular score threshold. The score can also indicate whether this is an early-, middle- or late-stage buyer and allow the marketer to initiate an appropriate strategy. (See “The Buyer’s Journey” Inside The Article sidebar.)
General segmentation versus hypersegmentation. To segment a database, marketers should start by filtering their lists according to the most clearly quantifiable values, such as buyer type, procurement stage, industry type, geography, site specifications and so forth. Then the focus shifts to maintaining the accuracy of these limited fields as the database expands.
While the data will never be perfectly accurate, taking a strategic approach to segmenting lists maximizes their usefulness. It is best not to focus on job titles, for example, since employees with the same title do not necessarily have the same role from one organization to another. Further, in the business-to-business space, customers are ultimately business entities, agencies or organizations. As such, a chief financial officer and a facilities manager might both offer inroads to potential customers, but they will have different goals based on their specific roles. The marketing content should reflect these distinctions.
There is a fine line between optimal segmentation and too much. While a tightly refined list might result in a great response rate, it also requires more time to filter and may not result in the highest number of responses. As shown in Table 1, casting a wider net may result in a higher number of responses, offsetting a lower response rate. Applying too many filters to the data could eliminate an opportunity that falls just outside those parameters. Hypersegmentation works only if the data are extremely clean and thorough, and the company has the resources to generate enough content for each precise customer segment.
If customers in a specific market segment share five or more characteristics, then refine the segment further based on those characteristics (for example, residential customer, located in a specific region and so on). If customers come through a variety of channels and many are unique in some way, segment on the two or three characteristics most common in the ideal Tier 1 and Tier 2 segments (for example, the “ideal customer” defined earlier—homeowner, in New Mexico, electric bill greater than $200 per month). An abundance of responses is a good problem to have. The marketing department can then work on finding ways to further refine customer profiling or implement some sort of qualification process that insulates the sales team from tire kickers.
LEAD NURTURING AND ENGAGEMENT
With the list segments defined, next up is the use of digital marketing tools and online forums to engage each segment in a variety of ways. In this context, engagement is any interaction a customer or prospect has with the brand. Unfortunately, not all potential customers are ready to buy at the same time, and prospects actively looking for the brand’s products and services will be at different stages of the procurement process. Therefore, the marketing plan needs to engage prospective customers at regular intervals over a period of time that is roughly double the length of the average sales cycle. This lead-nurturing plan can be elaborate or simple.
The optimal cadence (frequency of touches), as well as the quantity of interactions, will depend on the buyer segment and its familiarity with and interest level in the company’s offerings. The strategy could involve sending a single email to a list of recipients once a month for a year, or 10 different emails over the course of a single month. Marketers can also mix and match engagement methods, perhaps implementing a program that uses email marketing in conjunction with follow-up phone calls that attempt to drive traffic to the registration page for a webinar. The intent is the same, regardless of method or cadence: to develop a trail of content that nurtures prospective customers along the buyer’s journey. In effect, the goal is to get prospects who are initially unaware of the company and its products and services to a point where they reach out for more-specific information about an offering—which is a signal that they are ready to buy.
Social media platforms. By setting cookies on website visitors’ browsers, marketing automation tools also improve marketers’ ability to track customer engagement on different social media platforms. Tracking these interactions offers insight about the content that prospective customers find most valuable or interesting. These insights can help marketers improve web traffic and blog content and reach new audiences.
While each social media platform has its own limitations and conventions, they all provide opportunities for customer engagement. Twitter currently has a limited character count, whereas YouTube is a platform for video content. Facebook has a casual and familiar tone, while LinkedIn is professional and conservative. Marketers can use these distinctions to target different types of leads with different content.
Remember when customers used to engage with professionals directly? Fifteen years ago, solar professionals went door-to-door to discuss how solar worked. Customers attended home and garden shows and Rotary Club breakfasts to meet with the one or two solar integrators active in their local market. Solar company websites were very basic—devoid of sticky features intended to hold customers’ attention or promote return visits—and displayed a limited volume of content in a single format: text.
Today’s consumers no longer need to walk the floor of an exhibit hall to get a snapshot of the solar industry. Instead, all the information they require is available from their web browser’s search bar. Further, research by McKinsey & Company suggests that 50% of business-to-business transactions now take place on digital platforms.
Now, more than ever before, marketers have the ability to engage with clients in online forums where the prospect or customer is most comfortable. While solar marketers may have more limited financial resources than they did a decade ago, they also have more digital pathways for conveying messages about the continuous evolution of solar technologies, regulations and policies. These pathways include paid online text ads, sponsored web searches, pay-per-click ads, display ads, blogs, digital publications, email marketing campaigns, webinars, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and so forth. Each one provides marketers with opportunities to cast a line, dangle some bait and try to catch the interest of prospective customers.
The most effective bait is value-added content, which educates and informs customers or engages them in a conversation. To stand out from the noise, value-added content should not be packed with sales pitches: Its goal is to provide information that customers can use along their buyer’s journey. Regardless of the medium—blog post, infographic, webinar or print collateral—value-added content should emphasize the teacher-student dynamic between the seller and the buyer and leave customers with a sense of trust in, and respect for, the brand. When value-added content is done well, creating and disseminating it results in customers who are better informed and therefore more discerning. If these better-informed buyers trust a brand, they are more likely to contact its sales representatives or visit its online store when they are ready to buy.
Generating content. Fostering customer loyalty depends largely on a marketer’s ability to create or source content that is of value to prospects and to deliver it when and where they are looking for it. Such content needs to target different market segments and buyer stages. While every organization is unique, a good rule of thumb is that 20% of the content should target early-stage buyers, 60% should target middle-stage buyers and 20% should target late-stage buyers.
To generate content that provides real value to real customers, the marketing department should work with sales to identify the common purchasing profiles within the existing customer base, and then develop content for those profiles. Say one type of customer needs to convince a group of colleagues to make a purchase. Appropriate content helps that person communicate the benefits of an offering to various department heads: For instance, a white paper or blog entitled “Guide to Evaluating the Economic Benefits of Solar” could enable a facilities manager to justify an investment in solar to a chief financial officer who is concerned only about the bottom line.
The failure to segment marketing content and target specific types of buyers and buyer stages results in messages that may be off topic or too general to serve potential customers. Obtuse marketing not only confuses customers but also contributes to list fatigue: When the messaging is not educational and does not provide real value, recipients simply tune out the brand and unsubscribe from permission-based emails.
It takes a lot of time and resources to develop quality content for multiple market segments and buyer stages, and then disseminate it effectively. Marketers need to take advantage of resources in other departments within their organization, as well as beyond it. The public relations department, for example, can pitch educational and promotional articles to media outlets. The finance team can develop an article about the pros and cons of various financing products for a trade publication. The marketing department can distribute the published article to customers looking to evaluate solar financing options. The implicit endorsement of a third-party publication will add credibility to the message, and, as long as the piece is informative, prospective customers will appreciate receiving it.
In addition to developing value-added content in-house, marketers can leverage other industry resources. The Solar Energy Industries Association, for example, is an excellent source of content about the general benefits of solar and the current state of the industry for early-stage buyers. More-detailed content published in industry trade publications suits the needs of middle-stage buyers. To perform a valuable service for prospective customers, simply point them in the direction of quality information from a trusted source—content that is easy to source and disseminate, but still provides valuable insights for potential customers. For instance, a monthly email blast might provide links to the five most interesting articles on a topic published in the last 30 days. Social media offers another outlet for sharing good information.
Marketing automation tools allow the marketer to easily disseminate value-added content to various market segments. To track engagement by buyer segment, the marketer integrates these automation tools with social media platforms, CRM software and various other application program interfaces. Rules within the marketing automation and CRM platforms can feed qualified leads directly to the sales team. When used in this manner, these software tools bridge the all-too-common divide between marketing and sales, eliminating delays that sometimes occur in handing off opportunities. The software also provides a central platform where the sales team can identify and engage qualified buyers while the marketing department nurtures early-stage leads further along the buyer’s journey.
While solar is a low-margin business, and marketing departments are under increasing pressure to lower customer acquisition costs and generate revenue, it is important to underpromise in messaging and overdeliver in practice. Overselling or deceptive phrasing in marketing poisons the well for everyone. Not only are unhappy customers more likely to share stories about their buying experiences than happy customers, but also potential customers are more likely to believe negative than positive reviews.
No one wins if a vendor advertises an impossibly low rate for a power purchase agreement as a way to win more business. If customers get hit with a change order later, that leaves them with the impression that solar is not as good a deal as advertised. If the vendor absorbs these costs and operates at margins that are not sustainable, that vendor will eventually go out of business and leave customers without warranty support. Getting such a black eye does not engender customer satisfaction or trust, nor does it attract investors, and it leaves open chinks in the armor that opponents to solar can exploit.
As an industry, we are selling systems with a 25-year service life. For many customers, a PV power system purchase is a one-shot deal. It is also a very large purchasing decision for both residential and commercial customers. As such, it is important that they have a good buying experience and be satisfied with the results. Ultimately, what is best for solar businesses is also what is best for consumers—namely, a thriving solar industry with a healthy amount of competition.
Philip Hall / Borrego Solar / Oakland, CA / borregosolar.com