Community solar is a hot topic, but there’s a prevailing assumption out there that community solar customers are hard, and expensive, to acquire. Why is that? There certainly seems to be enough interest in solar energy among American consumers. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research study found that almost nine-in-ten U.S. adults (89%) favor expanding the use of solar power.
That level of interest, combined with the fact that only 57% of U.S. homes are eligible for rooftop solar, should equal a big market with the massive demand for community solar, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Converting interest into actual purchasing decisions has long been a challenge for many in the industry.
At a recent community solar workshop, I had the chance to sit down with a diverse group of utility managers, developers, asset owners, and lawyers to talk through this challenge and identify some of the ways that we at BlueWave approach it. Interestingly, the same four questions seemed to come up over and over:
- How can we message effectively to residential vs. commercial customers?
It all starts, as most marketing strategies do, with getting to know your audience. What are their motivations and interests? What are their key criteria for making decisions? What (and who) influences them? To market effectively you have to understand the psychological drivers of the decision makers, and that can often vary depending on the person, business, industry, and location.
With thorough research and granular audience segmentation complete, it’s easier to develop messaging and marketing tactics that are targeted and will better resonate with each group. Residential and commercial customers are very different, and messages and marketing tactics need to vary for each group.
With that said, residents, small business owners, and C&I managers do have one thing in common: they all want to save money. No matter if they’re motivated by cultural, altruistic, or business drivers, saving money is always a plus.
- How can we manage the cost of acquisition while keeping customers engaged?
Put in the time and do your research. Influencing behavior is not an easy thing to do, and you need to use the proper channels to deliver messages that will move your customers. Some will appreciate texts from a service provider, while others will be confused and even annoyed by the intrusion. Some will want to hear about the environment and some will only want to hear about financial savings. Giving the wrong message or using the wrong channel can deter a decision-maker.
It’s worth spending the time and money to do the research and understand your market. As a result, fewer interactions will be necessary because each touch point with your potential customers will be much more targeted and impactful.
- How can we balance the legal constraints & complication of Community-Solar-as-a-Service with properly educating customers and providing a simple purchase experience?
Consumer products place significant effort into creating that magical customer experience. Whether it’s the glamorous packaging and brand profile of a new phone or the seamless, customized experience of Amazon or Lyft, that simple, consumer-oriented design is what, in many cases, creates mass-market adoption of a product.
So how can we replicate that process for community solar customers? How do we create that simple, seamless process for customers that makes it easy for them to engage? Well, that turns out to be a pretty big nut to crack because much of the innovation needed to simplify billing and contract terms is constrained by state policies. That’s where trade associations like the Coalition for Community Solar Access come in, lobbying for the structures needed to make community solar programs accessible to more people.
Community solar is inherently complex, but wherever possible we must do what we can to simplify the customer experience. That means reducing the complexity of billing, and making less overwhelming contracts with plain language and no termination fees. At the same time, ensuring compliance with all consumer protection laws is absolutely crucial and requires constant vigilance, which can sometimes, paradoxically, make communications more complicated.
- Is there a way to be successful with low-income customers?
On its surface, community solar for low and moderate income (LMI) customers seems like a no-brainer. LMI customers spend a large percentage of their earnings on their utility bills, which means that community solar offers a real savings opportunity for them. At the same time, for community solar providers, it’s an opportunity to access a previously untapped segment of potential customers. A win-win, right? Again, it’s not that easy, but progress is being made and BlueWave and others are starting to bridge the gap between LMI customers and financiers.
One thing is for sure: it benefits all of us to bring more community solar subscribers on board because those subscribers make our projects possible. And more solar means less fossil fuel, which is why we, and probably you, got into this business in the first place.
As a long-time developer of community solar projects, BlueWave has certainly experienced our share of challenges. We’ve learned a few things along the way, and our hard-won experience informs the way that we now provide customer acquisition and management services to other developers and asset owners. We segment carefully and engage prospects (and then customers) with regular touchpoints from day one, we keep their experience as simple as possible, and we actively seek out ways to give as many people access to solar as we can.