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Key Takeaways from Solar Webinar: “Selling Quality in a Price-Sensitive Market”

Posted By Lowell F. on June 25th, 2014

Earlier this afternoon, I attended a highly informative webinar for solar installers on “Selling Quality in a Price-Sensitive Market” by Enphase Energy (Judy Ash) and UnThink Solar (Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza). I thought a few key points were worth passing along.

  • There’s a tremendous amount of price competition in solar power right now, and while some of that reflects positive trends like falling soft costs, another part of it reflects eroding margins.  In this environment, the question is how to market a premium-quality product and not just get into a destructive “race to the bottom” that’s all about price?
  • With more than 60% of residential solar customers getting only 2 quotes or fewer, it’s crucial that you be the first company the customer calls. The most important thing in that regard is good “word of mouth,” particularly by your customers to their friends, neighbors, etc.  One way to encourage this is of course to provide a great product and service. In addition, you can offer referral incentives.
  • The bottom line is that, while you need to be in the ballpark on price, quality of installation experience and product is crucial.
  • According to Tor Valenza, the goal should be to build a “mountain of trust” about your company and/or brand. Customers want solar panels that will last a long time and work right, but also pay attention to your appearance online and offline, communications and interactions with them, and a “certain je ne sais quoi” – something unique about your company that makes you who you are.
  • Trust can’t be built in 10 minutes, it takes continual effort over time. You should be conveying that you’re all about quality solar that will last a long time in all your marketing, online and offline. For instance, you should stress how long you’ve been in business, how many installations you’ve done, the quality brands you install, community certifications, etc.
  • Valenza strongly recommends  putting up a video about the installation process, the warranty, and other important information, as it makes the whole process “less scary” to potential customers. Valenza also recommends using social media in an honest, transparent way to interact with actual and potential customers and to help build trust.
  • Your company definitely needs a good-looking, and of course technically up-to-date website that makes a good first impression. Same thing with your marketing materials, installer/sales uniforms, case study images and videos.
  • Possibly most important, in Valenza’s view, is to always keep in mind that “people relate to people.” This means doing things like putting a bio and photo of all your company’s employees, having everyone do at least one blog post, being involved in your community (e.g., sponsoring a Little League team), etc.
  • Finally, on the “Je ne sais quoi” quality, Valenza stresses that every company has its own personality, something unique or different about it, something that sets it apart, and should work to convey that in an authentic manner.

A few key takeaway messages from all this include the following: 1) use consistent messaging; 2) have others say it for you (e.g., third-party validators); 3) add “proof points” (e.g., Better Business Bureau endorsements); 4) convey professionalism and excellence in everything you do; 5) use social media effectively; 6) be involved in your community; 7) work over the long haul to establish trust and maintain relationships; and 8) promote your “Je ne sais quoi” in a way that “humanizes your company, gives you an identity that people can relate to.” Do all that, and you may not guarantee success, but you’ll certainly increase your chances of success by a significant amount. Good luck!

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Solar Energy Marketing Expert David Briggs: Solar’s Key Challenge Now is to “truly out-compete traditional energy”

Posted By Lowell F. on June 25th, 2014

David Briggs has long-standing experience in the solar industry, including three years at a cleantech communications firm and three years as Marketing Manager at microinverter manufacturer Enphase Energy. Briggs now works as Director of Marketing at mounting systems provider IronRidge. Recently, Briggs took a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk to us about an important topic for the solar industry: how best to engage and market to your customer base, and ultimately to “truly out-compete traditional energy.” We greatly appreciate Briggs’ insight-filled responses to our questions.

1. Tell us a bit about your background in marketing renewable energy technology and services? What has your approach been, what specifically has been most effective about it?

I’ve always worked with solar manufacturers, but each one was very different—first with cell and module companies while at Antenna Group, then with the microinverter maker Enphase, and now with IronRidge, a mounting systems company. There’s surprisingly little overlap between these topics.

But despite their differences, I’ve always tried to bring the same philosophy to marketing—be direct and demonstrate a clear impact.

In an industry changing as fast as solar, “new ideas” are a dime a dozen, and “new” is rarely the most important part of any product.

It’s more important to address the product’s impact on the customer. This requires marketers to really understand the customer’s perspective, then reduce and simplify their message until it practically speaks for itself.

2. In his book, “The Thank You Economy:  How Business Must Adapt to Social Media,” Gary Vaynerchuk makes the argument that for businesses to succeed in the age of social media, they need to really listen to customers, to establish actual relationships, to “humanize” themselves, to demonstrate that they care.  Do you agree with Vaynerchuk’s recommendations? Have you personally used any of this in your marketing work in the renewable energy industry?

Yes, I believe this is essential to every company’s long-term success. But it’s not really a new concept. Vaynerchuk simply shows that social media gives this concept more potency and immediacy than ever before.

Listening to your customers and “humanizing” your company really comes down to empathy. Are you able to connect with your audience and feel what they feel? The more you do, the more your message (and your product) start to reflect it—they become simpler, clearer and more familiar.

And to Vaynerchuk’s point, listening and empathy are also the foundation of a dialog with your customers that can result in product improvements and critical insights for your long-term business roadmap.

The only difference I would point out between Vaynerchuk’s perspective and that of a solar manufacturer is that we cannot build products purely to excite customers; solar products have to perform over a long period of time in harsh environments. This requires all changes to be engineered and tested very, very carefully.

Still, solar customers are like any other—they demand constant improvement. This requires manufacturers to walk a fine line between making advancements and remaining careful. Add to this the extremely competitive manufacturing landscape, and you have all the conditions needed to destroy a company for being sloppy (and we’ve seen it happen in solar many times already).

In short, solar manufacturers must listen to their customers and push themselves to both stay on track and get ahead. Distractions and detours are death.

3. Guy Kawasaki’s book, “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions,” also gets at the humanization issue. Kawasaki’s view is that the key to selling anything is to “enchant” people. And that, in turn, is all about emotion: a) are you likable?; b) are you trustworthy?; c) do you have a great product/service/idea?  In your marketing work, have you found that Kawasaki’s thesis rings true, and if not, how specifically do you see it differently?

I haven’t read his book, but the word “enchant” immediately makes me think of “wow factor.”

All too often, marketers confuse “wow factor” with the thing that initially grabs a customer’s attention. While there are lots of gimmicks that can turn heads, “wow factor” comes from the core of what you do, and customers typically experience it after you’ve got their attention.

For marketers to focus only on getting attention is truly dangerous. It comes off as phony and makes the whole company look shallow.

Good marketing needs to address the entirety of the customer experience, extending beyond “step 1” of the journey to address everything from learning, to purchasing, to using.

An expression I like here is, “The experience is the product.”

4. Do you feel like the clean energy industry is ahead or behind the curve when it comes to creating a powerful, compelling narrative for its products and services? How about in terms of pushing back against the massive, well-funded assault by the fossil fuel industries against solar, wind, etc?

I believe the solar industry is on the verge of becoming a real player in energy.

What got us here were huge leaps forward in understanding our customer and improving our offering to match their needs. Specifically, I’m talking about the emergence of financing to make solar just as convenient and affordable as a utility bill (in the case of distributed generation) or just as profitable and “bankable” as a power plant (in the case of utility-scale).

But, just because we are now in the ballgame doesn’t necessarily mean we are poised to win. The challenge now, in my opinion, is to truly out-compete traditional energy.

A lot of people in solar believe this means being more “cost competitive” than traditional energy, but I think this is too short-sighted. Cost is only half of the equation; “benefit” is the other half.

If we want to start beating traditional energy, we must start solving problems that traditional energy simply can’t address. When we start to offer customers something truly new and remarkable—not just “saving 15% or more” —that’s when things get REALLY interesting.

To provide a concrete example, electric car makers have begun partnering with solar installers to sell both things at once. This synergy makes sense because the customer’s electricity bill will likely be going up, and solar is a great solution to that problem. But, this partnership is also quite limited in scope. It’s just a “lead generation” activity, and there’s no real integration of the two offerings.

Now, if you took the concept a step further, you could combine a company like Better Place with a company like Solar City, and you would be attempting to consolidate two different “energy budgets” (gasoline and electricity) into a single, unified service. Not only does this double the potential market size (in terms of revenue), but it also doubles the number of customer problems you can solve.

This type of integration of technology, service and finance can be taken in countless direction, many of which have the potential to establish fundamentally new paradigms in energy, with a potentially MASSIVE impact.

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AWEA, SEIA Leaders: Wind, Solar “two affordable, reliable, and business-friendly solutions” to Meet EPA Rules

Posted By Lowell F. on June 18th, 2014

We just wanted to highlight this morning’s op-ed in The Hill by Tom Kiernan and Rhone Resch – the leaders of the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association, respectively, about how wind and solar are “two affordable, reliable, and business-friendly solutions” for America to meet the proposed new EPA carbon pollution rules. Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed, with which we concur 100%.

Some members of Congress worry we could hurt our economy by working to meet the EPA’s proposed standards. They may not have heard the good news about these newly affordable solutions at hand.

While there’s no single solution to meeting the much-needed goal of reducing carbon emissions, wind and solar power are two of the biggest, fastest, and most cost-effective ways to meet the EPA’s proposed rule. Governors all across the country already know how they grow economies and create jobs – and a strong majority of Americans support scaling up these clean, homegrown energy sources.

That’s why we urge all members of Congress to look to wind and solar power as leading solutions to help meet America’s future energy needs.

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GTM: “Long Tail” Shrinking for Residential Solar Installers as Overall Market Grows

Posted By Lowell F. on May 19th, 2014

How is the U.S. residential solar installation market changing? Mike Munsell of Greentech Media has a fascinating article on the subject, which we strongly recommend.  A few highlights:

  • According to Shayle Kann, Senior Vice President of GTM Research, “just a few years ago, the residential installer landscape was dominated by small companies,” but today “the market has undergone a dramatic shift driven in large part by new financing models.”
  • Now, just one company – “SolarCity, the nation’s leading residential installer and financier” – “installed more than a quarter of all U.S. residential PV in 2013, up from 16 percent the year prior.”  Meanwhile, the “collective market share” of “the companies filling the No. 2 through No. 6 spots in the rankings” has grown “from 15 percent to 20 percent in the period 2012-2013.”
  • So, given all this, the article asks whether small installers are “in trouble.” The answer: “Not necessarily. Fortunately for all companies, the U.S. residential PV market tends to experience more consistent growth quarter over quarter than its non-residential and utility counterparts; it was also the fastest-growing segment last year.”

In sum, this is basically good news, as the U.S. residential solar installation market expands rapidly, meaning more business for everyone – whether you’re in the “long tail” or elsewhere.

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Video: White House Solar Panels Evidence the Clean Energy Revolution Happening Right Now

Posted By Lowell F. on May 12th, 2014

According to the White House, which now has solar panels on its roof for the first time in decades, “[s]olar power is an increasingly important building block on our path toward a clean energy future.” U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz explains:

Solar panels on the White House I think are a really important message that solar is here. We are doing it, we are doing it, we can do a lot more. I am very bullish on the future of solar energy as a key part of our clean energy future….The clean energy revolution is not something for the distant future. It’s happening right now and we want to capture that.

Cyrus Wadia of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy adds some more background:

Everything from the solar components to the inverter technology to the labor that put the panels on the roof was all American – domestic sourced and domestic made. It serves as a symbol that American technology in solar is available, it’s reliable and it’s ready for millions of Americans across the country…Every four minutes, some small business or home owner is going solar. In a sense, we’re going through a transition here and the industry is going through a transition that we’re just seeing the beginning of….You know, we need to diversify the clean energy portfolio as articulated in the President’s Climate Action Plan, which we are actively engaged in now. And we also need to spur the economic sectors of the future. Last year alone we created over 23,000 new jobs in solar energy.

Finally, U.S. Department of Energy Director of Solar Tech, Minh Le, points out:

The President is basically doing what Americans all across the nation are doing right now. They’re making the conscious choice to look for renewable energy like solar as the cheaper, cleaner, and preferred energy source for their homes and families.

These are exciting times for solar energy, whether it’s going on the White House or your house!

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