Almost a quarter of our blog readers access our site from their mobile devices. This isn’t too surprising, since more than half of mobile subscribers in the US have a smartphone. Similar mobile adoption trends are taking shape around the world. And it’s not just that people have smartphones; it’s that they use them. A lot.
That’s why today we are announcing Opower Mobile. This new app will help our utility partners engage their customers in ways that are meaningful for customers and beneficial for utilities. By bringing the increasingly popular Opower 4 platform to smartphones, utilities can empower customers to take control of their energy use anytime, anywhere on their mobile device. And because the app is easily customizable, utilities have the ability to deploy it in a way is tailored for their needs.
The potential of mobile
It’s easy to see the business potential in mobile. Mobile apps are changing the way we communicate, shop, and learn about the world. They’re also changing the way we interact with traditional service providers. Over the next five years, almost half of U.S. bank account holders will be banking through mobile devices. Searching for “banks” in the Google Play store returns results for almost every major provider of financial services. Other service-oriented industries are adopting similar strategies, and for good reason: engaging customers through the mobile channel represents an opportunity to differentiate from competitors, increase customer satisfaction, and transition customers to self-service (mobile billing, for example).
The same motivations are true in the utility industry. Utility companies can realize significant benefits by empowering customers via self-service. And in fact customers are increasingly demanding these new and innovative tools from their utilities. In response, many utilities are beginning to introduce mobile apps to the market.
The utility mobile landscape
Utility applications currently follow two distinct development philosophies. Some are “transaction-first” applications, built to help a customer complete a transaction from a mobile device (reporting an outage, for example). Others are “engagement-first” applications, built to encourage and maintain user adoption. While those applications still include transaction capabilities, they prioritize user experience and interactive discovery. We’ve observed that about 90% of utility applications now in-market take the transaction-first approach.
Transaction-first applications tend to prioritize user completion of narrow tasks such as bill pay. When rolling out these kinds of offerings, utilities most commonly use off-the-shelf development frameworks that are quick to implement but functionally limited. In this way, transaction-first applications run the risk of creating an unpleasant association between the mobile application and the primarily neutral-or-negative user experience that it delivers – such as paying a high bill or learning of a service interruption. As a result, these applications typically have 2-star ratings in the app stores and low rates of adoption. (Compare that, for example, to USAA’s 4.5-star app.)
Engagement-first applications present a different approach to meeting business objectives. Rather than focus on narrow and sometimes unpleasant transactions (e.g. bill pay), these applications prioritize features that drive positive user experiences. This creates a strong foundation on which to layer transactional elements. Utilities with successful engagement-first applications have taken a cross-channel approach to marketing their apps and prioritizing discoverability. They correctly balance features that meet core utility business objectives with features that delight customers. Utilities that have taken this approach have achieved 4.5-star-rated applications that rival the best of the more successful financial services applications.
The challenges of engagement-first approaches
It’s not easy to build a successful engagement-first application. The first reason is that mobile users have diverse products and operating systems (see the colored pie chart below), and there are indications that the mobile ecosystem is going to get more complex. In addition, we must also acknowledge that a mobile user isn’t only a mobile user. It’s important that customers have a consistent experience across all channels (web, mobile, tablet, and whatever might come next). And we can’t forget the crucial emphasis that engagement-first applications have to place on design principles, since usability is vital to engagement.
Creating a seamless front-end experience is just one piece of ensuring a successful engagement-first app. Utilities must also consider the content in the application: beyond transaction features, what do customers actually want? Is it consistent with their experience across channels? What will motivate them to return to the application frequently? And how can utilities best provide those features? Our research has revealed that, among other things, customers seek usage information, energy analysis, and device controls. Successful engagement-first apps must be supported by a back-end infrastructure that can deliver this content, grow with new customer demands, and enable a customer relationship that’s coordinated and personalized across channels.
Lastly, mobile apps add the most value when they provide better visibility into customer actions and preferences. It’s essential to set up the proper instrumentation and reporting so that utilities can continually measure engagement and make the right adjustments over time. Responding to customer feedback (both vocal and behavioral) is a key ingredient to the success of any mobile app.
Keeping up will be hard, but it’s essential that engagement-first applications do so. Through the right mix of turnkey availability and customization opportunities, utilities have a chance to simultaneously meet their own needs and delight their customers.
At Opower, we’re focusing on building a great engagement-first mobile application (see more details here). We’re confident that this app will, as an extension of the broader Opower 4 platform, help utilities meet current customer expectations and provide a future-proof way to take advantage of new advances in mobile technology. We look forward to hearing your feedback on our vision.
Jordan Jakubovitz is a member of Opower’s Marketing and Strategy team.