Like many companies, Dominion Energy is adjusting to a new world in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, particularly when it comes to customer engagement.
In early March, the onset of the coronavirus put a halt to Dominion Energy’s in-person meetings and open houses. Such events were the cornerstone of the company’s ability to explain the overall objectives of an electric transmission project to stakeholders and interested members of the public. But with mandated shelter-in-place and stay-at-home guidelines put into effect seemingly overnight, delaying projects was simply not an option. In turn, the question quickly became, "How does a company continue to build customer trust and two-way dialogue in this new normal?" Dominion Energy had no choice but to switch to an online presence to engage with customers.
"Without question, the coronavirus pandemic forced all of us to pivot our traditional way of thinking and become comfortable with unfamiliar tactics. This meant educating ourselves about digital tools and strategies, while still maintaining our focus on the customer and their expectation of engagement. If the whole world was going virtual, we knew we needed to as well," said Gregory E. Mathe, manager of electric transmission communications.
The decision to transition to a virtual community meeting proved to be a learning curve for the Electric Transmission Project Team, but one they navigated smoothly.
Step one for the team was to work with a marketing company to establish the creative and social media marketing plan via Facebook and Twitter. Step two was to hold practice drills for everyone — from the project manager to forestry — so they understood that appearance, customer feedback, and even the at-home background was critical for an effective virtual meeting.
Finally, in less than three weeks of preparation, the team held their inaugural virtual community meeting for the Buggs Island-Plywood Electric Transmission Rebuild Project. Mathe said the goal was simple, "We wanted to kick the tires on the technology, build experience among the project team, and learn our way through launching a digital ad campaign to support the event. Participation numbers were really a secondary consideration."
The average in-person open house usually lasts two hours, but the virtual community meeting took only 20 minutes. The meeting was conducted with elements routinely used during normal in-person gatherings to include a Q&A with subject matter experts, construction timelines, and visual simulations. The team was cognizant of customers who might not be comfortable with an online platform or lacked internet access, so toll-free dial-in options were also made available.
"The benefit of having a virtual community meeting is accessibility. We understand that many of our customers want to engage with us and attend our community open houses but work or family obligations can get in the way. By putting our information online, people can either tune in to our meetings live or they can watch them later," said Mathe.
In addition, Mathe said that with more people working from home, customers who would have typically been at work are now paying more attention to projects in their community. Therefore, now is an ideal time to engage and build rapport with this captive audience.
"It has always been hard to convert hardcopy communications into website views or in-person attendance at events. But when we couple digital communications and virtual events, we instantaneously pull people into our online resources and make it easy for them to participate in public meetings from the comfort of their kitchen table," Mathe concluded. "In a matter of speaking, and it can be counterintuitive, keeping them in a digital ecosystem actually delivers more message penetration and lessens the barriers to engagement."
Dominion Energy expects that the in-person open house meeting will eventually return, but the progress made from the innovative virtual community meetings will remain vital and essential for the future.
Virtual community meeting data:
- Over 50 attendees to the event.
- Over 178,000 impressions for ads on social platforms (Facebook and Twitter), with the bulk of them coming from Facebook. Over 3200 clicks on ads bringing users to project page.
- Facebook click through rate (CTR) was 1.84%. Benchmark average is 0.90%.
- Average project page view time originating from social campaign was 4:25.
- Device ID targeting based on location: Over 40,000 impressions, 72 clicks, CTR 0.17%. Benchmark is 0.06% to 0.08%.
- Digital news outlets ads: Over 200,000 impressions, 287 clicks, CTR 0.14%. Benchmark is 0.06% to 0.08%.
- More than 1400 unique project page views over the two weeks preceding the virtual open house meeting.
- Overall average view time on page of 4:25.
Tips and tricks for hosting a virtual community meeting:
- Make it easy for attendees to attend the event. Provide guidance on how to join and what to expect during the meeting.
- Prepare the project team, including how to use virtual technology, details on the presentation flow, and event logistics.
- Have a solid digital communications plan to support the virtual event, including an easy-to-navigate project webpage.
- Repeat Step 2.
- Anticipate issues and plan for contingencies.
- Capture results and celebrate the team’s success (then plan for your next event).