Learn how one of the world's largest residential solar companies blends creativity with a battle-tested campaign model ensure their messaging hits home with consumers and policymakers alike.
Patrick: Hey everyone. I'm here today with Andy at Sunrun. Andy I would love to have you introduce yourself and Sunrun to the audience today.
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. Hi, I'm Andy Newbold, I am the Senior Manager of Public Affairs at Sunrun based here in San Francisco. Sunrun is the nation's leading residential solar battery storage and energy services company in the country. We operate in 23 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. We have approximately 4,000 employees and we have over 200,000 customers across the country as well.
Patrick: Could share a little bit about how your team uses social media and content marketing to help build advocates for solar?
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. We use it in a variety of ways. As I said, I do public affairs at Sunrun and so a lot of what I'm dealing with on a daily basis is trying to convince several stakeholders across the country to support policies that will help support the growth of solar energy. So the audience is key here. With digital social media the goal is to be hyper focused on the audiences that we're targeting. Or at least it enables us to be hyper focused, so if we're trying to target advocates, we can do that. If we're trying to target policy makers, legislators, regulators, we can do that. And if we're trying to target businesses, we can do that as well. So I think that's really the most advantageous thing. And so a lot of what we're doing is looking for new and creative digital assets to make our content stand out in an increasingly crowded space.
Patrick: To what extent do you need to tail your messaging for the different groups?
Andy: Yeah, that's a good question. I think a really good example of this, I do a lot of work in South Carolina, for example, and I do a lot of work in California. You can imagine the vast differences of the messages that you would want to deliver in those two states. And it's incredibly important that you don't use the same message across those two regions. It can offend. It can turn off advocates. It can have the opposite impact of what you're intending to do. And so for example, in South Carolina, we'll focus a lot more on words like freedom and control and independence. With South Carolina being a more Republican jurisdiction in the United States, those types of words play better down there. So a lot of our messaging and our imaging revolves around some of those words and phrases that will be attractive to folks down there. Whereas out in California we might generally focus more on the environment and clean energy and green energy and the feel good stuff of the environmental movement. And so I just think it's really important to distinguish those two audiences and make sure that you're approaching your communications efforts in a way that's thoughtful about them.
Patrick: What does it looks like today across the US in terms of how people perceive clean energy, whether it's through polling or other educational resources you've seen?
Andy: I think solar energy is quite a unique issue. It's immensely popular, and I'm not talking about just a lot of people like it. Almost everyone likes it. In fact polling shows 90% of Americans want more solar energy. And that's across party lines, so Republicans, Democrats, Independents all support solar energy and policies that will enable the growth of solar energy. That's fascinating to think about. There are very few issues in this country where nine out of ten voters would support and have a strong favorability of, so we have that going for us from a baseline, which is a really great way to start an advocacy effort. It's a really good way to start when you don't have to convince anyone. You don't have to convince anyone on the merits of your issue when you're trying to get them to take an action online. We're gifted with an issue that folks can rally behind. Now it's all about identifying who those people are, and making sure we're targeting them in the appropriate way.
Patrick: When you're trying to connect with folks and doing broader campaigns, is there any particular approach you take to drive advocacy?
Andy: Absolutely. Maybe I'll just take a step back and give you a little bit of context on my experience. I worked on Capitol Hill for my home state Senator Claire McCaskill as a Press Secretary. Then I worked at NextGen Climate with Tom Steyer as a press agent, and then I moved and did some work in public relations consulting. Now I'm here at Sunrun. So I have quite a broad experience across policy campaigns and also a bit of corporate communications
Andy: The way I think about communicating and getting my message out is through something called a PESO model. So PESO, P, E, S, O. The P is Paid. Paid media is what you think about when you're creating advertisements and targeting people online using, putting money behind it to make sure the right people see it. And like I said, I'm using this PESO model on every campaign. Each of these letters need to be hit in every campaign. So you have the P, the Paid. You have the [“E”] Earned media, this is your traditional bread and butter bootstrap media push, so it's trying to get reporters to write on your issue and cover it in a favorable way. That's no easy task and it requires a big effort, and it's probably where I'm most comfortable with and what I've spent most of my career doing, but it's another critical piece.
Andy: The next is the [“S”] Shared, and so this is your social media content. This is getting the message out through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. making sure that whatever campaign you have incorporates some sort of shared media campaign, is critical. Then last is the [“O”] Owned media content. This is for any organization whether it be a non-profit or a company, you need to make sure that you're creating this content on your website through blogs, through thought leadership where you are 100% owning that message and you are crafting it. You can also create owned content in the form of letters to the editor or opinion pieces, opposite of the editorial, op-eds. Content where no one else gets editorial rights but you or your organization. That's an important piece of any campaign, is to make sure you are controlling the message and of course you're trying to do that in these other ways. That's how I think everyone should think about it, and that all funnels into a digital strategy of getting all of those different elements out.
Patrick: How has that model evolved in terms of the levers you pull over the last few years? And do you see it changing much in the next five years?
Andy: I think it's evolved quite a bit. For example, I think we'll call it ten years ago, 20 years ago, everyone did press releases. It was press release for everything. Like get the press release written up, edited and then send a facsimile. Press releases were kind of like the bread and butter of communicators over the past several generations. We're moving away from press releases. Press releases are boring. And not engaging. No one reads a press release besides maybe the reporter you sent it to, but certainly not an advocate or a consumer. They're not reading press releases. I've never read a press release in my free time. It's just not a thing.
Andy: So we've evolved past that. We're looking for content that captures people's eyes. It's so busy in our lives through different mediums, podcasts, and Facebook and Instagram, all these different images and content, you have to find a way to break through that noise. So we found ourselves getting more and more creative, whether it be through enticing headlines and our own content, exciting pictures or gifts or videos. Stuff that pops. And falls within the attention span of folks these days, which is rapid, and needs to jump out. So that's kind of the evolution I think about kind of from, and that's only over the course of a couple decades.
Patrick: How do you think that might change in the next few years?
Andy: Going forward, I see an ever increasing need to be smart about how we're approaching digital. I think when I first started the industry, when Facebook was just coming online and Instagram was coming online, and you know you make your posts and you toss it out there to the world and hope that people saw it and everyone would just have to interpret it the way they interpreted it. What's happening is we're capable of getting much more targeted, and I think this is the key. I think we have so much data and so it's looking at that data, and understanding what our different audiences are, focusing in on those audiences, and then segmenting our message towards those various audiences. So like I said before using the example of South Carolina and California, when I make a Facebook post, I want to have two Facebook posts. I want to have one that goes to the South Carolina audience and one that goes to the California audiences. And it's probably going to be vastly different from the words, the copy, to the images. I mean this is going to be very rudimentary but I might send an eagle and an American flag to South Carolina, and I might send a bouquet of flowers with sunshine behind it in California. And those are going to appeal to those audiences more. So like I said, very rudimentary, but it's fundamental.
Patrick: A lot of folks are trying to advance clean energy. As you mentioned, it's a crowded space in many ways. A very rapidly growing space, but crowded nonetheless. What are the common mistakes that you see folks make with their messaging around clean energy?
Andy: I think kind of back to what I had said before. It's that people don't make the effort to understand and know their audiences. I think that is a very critical part of this, and so, like I said, if you're just kind of blanket throwing statements out there, you could have one campaign you're running and be targeting three different audiences. So you could be saying, "Hey Missouri, we're coming there and we're going to offer solar energy." And at the same time, you're going to want investors to see that, you're going to want policymakers to see that, and you're going to want more mainstream potential consumers to see that announcement, and the messages are going to be vastly different. So it's identifying and understanding your audiences so that you can target them in an effective way. Then also test your messages, too. I think that a lot of people don't have the time to do this, but a lot of people are just too lazy to do it, too. And so it's making sure that a lot of what we do is we throw messages out there. There is no data behind it so the best way to understand what's the most effective one is to test it. And it's as simple as an A/B testing.
Andy: And then also look outside the box for tools. I think we can go beyond Facebook and Twitter. We can find ways to capture an audience. For example, in my world where we're trying to advance policy. We'd gone as far as to put solar messages on coffee sleeves at coffee shops that we know that legislators are going to be at. It turns out you can send anything in the mail. So we've literally written messages on flip flops and sent them to policy makers that we thought have flip flopped on issues. We have painted coconuts and said, "Go nuts for solar." We are trying to find creative ways to get our messages across, and I think a lot of folks can get a little bit stuck in some of the more traditional press releases and bland “nothing burger” social media post.
Patrick: That's incredibly interesting. And hopefully the folks getting flip flops can at least wear them out to the beach with the coconut you gave them too.
Andy: Exactly. Exactly.
Patrick: The messaging around the value of solar, and what makes solar compelling to a consumer, has changed a lot in recent years. Could you share how the framing of the value of solar has changed, and where you might see it going?
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. It's a really great question. I think originally when we were in the early years of the industry, it was all about savings and having a lower bill, and that's all still very important. It's probably one of the number one drivers in our industry, and it's a true value proposition for consumers. But what we've seen is from wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the east, and the power loss that are associated with these increasingly frequent and extreme weather events — [these] are scaring people. And people are telling us, "We want other options. We want choices. We don't want to be tied to an energy infrastructure that we don't have any control of."
Andy: And so with solar on your roof and a battery that can store that energy and power you at night, or when the overall grid goes down, and your lights are on but your neighbors that don't have solar batteries are not on — that's an immense value to people because it provides a level of security and control that didn't exist previously. And so as we see the decline of costs for solar and batteries, the demand is coming up as we see these types of weather events happen, and the power to take control of your energy needs and protect your family. It's become a very popular thing. So I think that's been a really interesting shift in the way folks are thinking about this industry in particular.
Patrick: That framing around security and resiliency makes a lot of sense. How might that tie in to how people perceive the future? What would you say the household of like 2025 might look like?
Andy: This is what my colleagues and I joke, we call it the “flying car,” and it's kind of what is the vision. I can see, in the not too distant future, a home that's generating their own energy from the sun with solar panels. They're storing the excess energy that they're not using on their home in a battery to be used at a later time, whether it be night or when the grid goes down. I can see also in that home with a smart thermostat that is making all of your appliances. It's tapping into all of your appliances, your refrigerator, your air conditioner, your washing machine, and making them run more efficiently and making sure that they're running at a time that is most advantageous and connected with your battery and your solar. And then you also have an electric vehicle in the garage. What's an electric vehicle? It's just another battery that's sitting in a garage. So now you have this home battery that's providing you all these services, and then you have another battery with your car. So it's just more control, and more self sufficiency, and more dynamic energy management for folks.
Patrick: Hopefully we'll see more of that in the next couple years.
Andy: And then, and then, hold on, one more. Now you're doing that, your neighbor's doing that, a few more neighbors latch on. What's really interesting is when you start to aggregate all those systems together and create what folks are calling a “virtual power plant,” and so now you have this community of solar and battery homes that are being aggregated together and can be dispatched and help power the community next door. Or the neighbor next door that doesn't have this technology. So just wanted to add that as another potential cool “flying car” vision.
Patrick: How does that tie in with Demand Response efforts and the need to build new energy infrastructure if you have this dispatchable resource? [Note to reader, "demand response" typically refers to a voluntary program that compensates people or companies for reducing their electricity use when power prices are high — like when everyone's air conditioning is running in the peak of summer — or when power grid reliability is unstable.]
Andy: Yeah, what's really interesting is it reduces the need for some of the more traditional Demand Response energy infrastructure that exists. What we've seen is these coal-fired peaker plants that exist in the northeast and everywhere across the country, they're going out of business because there's no need for them. Why would you fire up a coal plant a hundred miles away when you could use the clean energy that's being stored in the batteries in the neighborhood down the street? And then in addition, it's reducing the need for these big transmission lines that are not only incredibly expensive and costing a lot of people money when they have to be built, but they're also kind of dangerous. I mean we look at the wildfires out here and they're still being investigated and looked at, but what we know is that these high voltage transmission lines have been known to generate sparks that create these fires. And so the less pressure that we're putting on these transmission lines the less need we have for these transmission lines, because we're generating our energy right at the source that we're using it. That's the future, and it's really exciting.
Patrick: One thing that comes up quite a bit as you have these new energy resources coming in, more efficient grids, you might have increase loss of traditional power generation and grid infrastructure, which might displace some legacy jobs. So how do you counter the message that you're going to cost jobs? How do you frame things to convey the possibilities of new jobs being created? It's simple to say new jobs will be created, but it's another thing to convince people.
Andy: That's a really great point, and I think what's really interesting is there's a quarter of a million solar energy jobs in the country right now. That's a lot. It's one of the fastest growing job industries in the country. What's really interesting about solar energy jobs is the majority of those jobs are in the installation. So these are non-exportable, can't be automated, jobs. They're high quality jobs. It's not like you're down in a coal mine huffing in nasty fumes. These are good quality jobs. These are careers for folks so you have these good quality, non-exportable, non-automatable jobs that are on the rise. And it also happens that solar jobs, the more solar you have, if you compare a solar job to a call it a gas or oil job, there are more jobs per kilowatt in solar than any other industry in energy. So I think that there's a quality factor. It's better than being in a coal mine. Fact. No one would argue that. And it's also a job that can't be replaced by robots, and that can't be discounted as well. And we're at the infancy so the sky is the limit here.
Patrick: You've hit on many benefits of solar, whether security, to public safety, to new jobs, to lower cost of electricity — there's a whole gamut of benefits — but we still haven't seen too much movement on the federal policy level. Everything has been relying on state renewable portfolio standards, and other state-level or regional initiatives. How do you see green energy, renewal energy, tying in with the 2020 Presidential Campaign and becoming an official party platform with the Democratic party or the Republic party?
Andy: Yeah, and I'll say we don't see it as just a Democratic platform, also a Republican platform that we would like to see at both National Conventions, Republicans and Democrats, the adoption of a platform that embraces policies that will enable more people, more individuals, to use solar energy. We think it's a really interesting way to empower people, and put people at the center of a solution. There's tons of polling out there that has shown that a candidate’s support, or lack of support, for clean energy options, particularly solar energy, has an impact on whether the voter will support them or not. Politicians should listen to that in both parties, and the fact is, we see it. Kamala Harris, the other day at a Town Hall, stood up on stage and talked about the economic benefits of solar energy and talked about investing, the government investing more money in solar energy, and cited Bureau of Labor statistics on solar jobs. And then you look at Lindsey Graham who was at the Sunrun ribbon cutting ceremony in South Carolina in 2014, and Cory Gardner in Colorado, a Republican who has constantly been in support of new solar energy technology and advancing policies that support it. We're seeing folks talk about it and we're seeing them use it to their political advantage because of the immense support that it has. So it's really exciting to see that.
Patrick: Wonderful. Well those are all the questions that I have for you today, Andy. I really appreciate your time.
Andy: Thank you. It was great Patrick.