Marketing lessons from the water department

June 24th, 2010 No Comments

What can you learn about marketing from the water company? I recently posted an interview with Alan Heymann, the Director of Public Affairs of the Washington, DC Water and Sewer Authority, about how the water company, DC Water and Sewer, uses social and online media to help their customers and embrace today’s communication channels.

But what can we learn from him? What can we learn about marketing from a public utility? It turns out … a lot!

  • Alan’s 21 year old sister-in-law doesn’t e-mail. E-mail has been around for over 30 years and is quickly becoming passe. Don’t rely on e-mail.
  • Even if you are glued to your inbox (nothing wrong with that!), understand that not everyone is. Different people use different channels of communications. You need to be where your customers are — even if it’s not where you would naturally be.
  • Don’t expect your customers to call your help line. Some people won’t pick up the phone to report a broken hydrant, but they will take a picture of it with their cell phone and post it on Twitter. If you’re not listening, you would never know about the broken pipe until it was much too late — now you know about it much earlier. If I can’t contact you online, I’m not choosing your service without a seriously compelling reason.
  • Their staff are active social media users — with 15% of the population on Twitter, and millions online, particularly Digital Natives, this is just a regular part of how people communicate. This is mainstream, not for the geek. Even Ashton Kutcher is on Twitter. If your staff is not naturally comfortable with technology, consider replacing or adding to your staff. Digital Natives are now entering the workforce in huge numbers, and this could be anything from the newly minted college graduate to the 30-year-old with a few years of work experience and a graduate degree. If you’re not a Digital Native, become a Digital Immigrant – get comfortable with tech.
  • Social media is not a silo – It is holistic. It requires strategy. Social media efforts are done as part of an overall branding, media relations, and marketing message. The IT department also doesn’t operate in a silo and there is talented development staff with business acumen.
  • Social media isn’t just marketing.  It’s also customer service, sales, business development, and product management. These are all valuable investments — by the way, customer service can serve marketing — happier customers won’t be speaking poorly about your brand.
  • Digital marketing is done at the highest level. The person behind @dcwater is not some intern, but their Director of Public Affairs – who understands technology but also knows his field, with a law degree from George Washington University and a journalism degree from Northwestern. It’s managed at the highest level, representing its significant importance.

If the water department gets it, and you don’t, you are behind the times. Public utilities are generally the most conservative of industries — and yet, they understand that social media and online communications is simply how people communicate today.

You might not like paying your water bill, but at least learn from the water company!

(Water picture under CC from Zen Photo)

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