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Social Intelligence

Harnessing the true power of social media.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2014
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Utilities and their customers exchange critical information during crises, natural disasters, power outages, and other black swan events, thanks to the ubiquity of social media and its growing role in B-to-C communication. In some states, regulators require utilities to use social media to keep customers informed about outages and restoration of power. For example, earlier this year, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities issued a mandate requiring utilities to use social media to report on outages and on restoration of power.

Given the increase in extraordinary events - such as the recent floods in Colorado, wildfires in California, and Superstorm Sandy - both regulators and the public will place a greater burden on utilities to use social for critical, real-time information.

While social media's importance in providing fast, effective communication during emergencies is indisputable, its real potential is more subtle and sophisticated. Utilities can find a wealth of useful information buried between the lines of blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets, emails, and shares. By parsing and analyzing information generated on social media by stakeholders, especially customers, utilities can harness social media's true power, gaining insights on matters ranging from investment decisions to setting appropriate rates. Utilities also can use these insights to prevent certain types of events, such as brownouts, to execute better during "acts of God" and other emergencies, and mitigate risk to reputation.

As the composition of their residential customer base increasingly shifts to millennials, becoming adept in the ways of social media and using it to its full advantage - including data mining - will eventually be a matter of good business for utilities. This cohort not only communicates almost exclusively through social media, but also shares all kinds of information online, including their interactions with and feelings about brands and commercial entities. Also, millennials have grown accustomed to interacting effectively with other companies including cable, telecommunication, and financial institutions via social media. Therefore, they have come to expect and soon will demand this type of two-way interaction from their utilities.

Data Glut

Utilities aren't facing a shortage of data about what they are doing or a lack of feedback from customers. Indeed, customers generate an abundance of so-called "unstructured data" daily on social media about utilities. The data can stem from something as basic as customers or the utility using it for notification about a relatively minor, short-lived event, such as a brownout. Other examples might include videos showing how customers cope in the wake of an event such as Superstorm Sandy. Regardless of the scope or scale of the event, customers use social media to share their perceptions about a utility's actions and express their level of satisfaction with service.

Nor is there a shortage of tools and emerging techniques to alert utilities about how often they're mentioned in social media, and where - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and blogs.

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