Social media takes flight
How one cooperative’s use of Facebook helped save a bird hatchery
By Edward VanHoose
The newspaper hasn’t come yet. The television is off because there is no electricity. How long before storm relief is on its way? Enter the newest tools via high-end cell phones, the Internet and a whole new communication means called social media. Need a
lot of people to know something quickly? Send a Tweet. Need to know when your electricity is coming back on? Look to Facebook.
Rusty and Lee Ann Birch have been raising birds as part of a self-imposed conservation project for quite some time now. Rusty loves to hunt and was worried about a decline in the population of game birds in his immediate locale.
As Rusty says, “It’s just a way to give back and make sure they will always be there.”
But the Birch’s conservation efforts were nearly brought to an end this past winter during, and immediately after, the blizzard in February.
Lee Ann describes the situation saying, “We had already experienced some power outages because of the storm, but didn’t expect that there would be anything else because the co-op had already gotten our power back on.”
Unfortunately, all of the repairs weren’t done.
It was after one of the winter storms, and the co-op was going to have a planned shutdown to do more repairs. Because Lee Ann had developed a relationship with Kevin Bernson, Vice President of Media and Public Relations for Shelby Electric Cooperative, she was aware of the Facebook page the cooperative had in place for notifying members about important events, including outages. She had just added Shelby Electric as a “friend” because it was posting about its outages due to storms.
“When I saw that Kevin had posted about a planned outage that would last about an hour and a half, during a time we would not be home, we knew we had to do something to keep the babies warm during the outage,” says Lee Ann.
Each of the quail the Birch’s raise comes from an egg that must be painstakingly gathered from previously freed quail, and meticulously cared for in anticipation of adding to the Birch’s conservation efforts. Rusty had a clutch of about 100 newly-hatched baby quail that had already been kept under heat lamps for around three weeks.
In order for a quail egg to hatch it must be kept at temperatures of at least 98 degrees, but not much more that 102 degrees. Many people swear that they get better results from eggs kept at 100 degrees. Once the eggs are hatched however, the chicks need to be kept constantly warm.
Because the Birch’s knew about the outage from Bernson’s post on Shelby Electric Cooperative’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/YourCoop), they were able to rush home and try to figure out a way to keep their new babies warm. Normally the birds are kept warm with a simple 100-watt red light bulb. Without electricity though, the Birch’s had to rely on their ingenuity. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
“We had plenty of time to figure out to move them close to the fireplace in the basement and rig up a way to funnel the warm air into the plastic tubs that we use for brooders. Normally we have lights on them to provide the heat. Having the information on the planned outage as early
as we did, I am sure saved the quail,”
says Lee Ann.
“We were able to figure out a way to use the fireplace to heat up some metal sheets we had that we put over their pen. That kept them warm enough while we waited for the power to come back on,” says Rusty.
In the meantime, Shelby crews were hard at work getting the power back on, putting in long hours in extremely cold conditions. Bernson wanted to be sure that everyone could see the linemen hard at work, and was able to leverage the cooperative’s new Facebook presence to give everyone a bird’s eye view.
“I gave cameras to the crews and asked them to video what was going on,” says Bernson. “Then I uploaded those videos so members who were following us could actually see the conditions for themselves.”
At least one of those videos can still be seen by visiting the cooperative’s page. You can find the videos by visiting the photos section and then clicking on “videos” at the top right.
During a large-scale outage, many times the phones are jammed with members trying to get information. Often, so many call at once that a member can wait an exorbitantly long time to get through. That can be very frustrating and is certainly not what the cooperative wants. Lee Ann sympathizes with people in that situation, and is glad the cooperative was checking up on members using this alternate communication tool as well.
“Many members were also posting during the storms if they were experiencing trouble. Sometimes it’s hard to reach the office to let them know,” says Lee Ann. “Kevin was able to let them know if he had an idea on when the crews would be in their area. He also posted pictures of the guys while they were working that let people know the conditions the guys had to work in.”
“Those pictures really gave everyone cause to say thanks for what the linemen do,” says Rusty.
Of course, you may wonder how it is that someone could check Facebook if their power is out? These days many smart phones are capable of accessing the Internet, and many of them even have a specialized Facebook “app.” It’s easy for someone without power to surf the web even while depending upon candlelight to light their homes.
“Many people have Facebook on their cell phones to keep in touch even when the power is out,” says Lee Ann. “That’s how we accessed the information, even when we weren’t at home.”
Many people responded to Shelby Electric’s Facebook page during the outage and many more have signed up to follow them since. Other cooperatives around the country have also participated in various social media experiments. Some programs have been successful, and others have shown promise. As for Rusty and Lee Ann’s view on the issue, they are certainly happy Shelby Electric was progressive in their thinking, and adopted the use of social media as a communication tool.
“Having Shelby Electric and Kevin on Facebook was a big help that day,” says Lee Ann.
Outage prompts members to use Shelby Electric’s Facebook page
When asked about Shelby Electric’s adoption of social media for communicating with members, Kevin Bernson says, “Social media’s growing popularity and ease of use prompted us to explore using these tools. In particular, Facebook has been a more useful tool than any of the others. Facebook has made several improvements with changes to its business platform in the short time Shelby Electric Cooperative (SEC) has had a page. It seems Facebook wants more and more businesses to utilize the service while still keeping the people-to-people social media network as the core.”
Although it took some time for members to realize that SEC had opened these lines of communications, in recent times Bernson has seen a tremendous amount of feedback from members. One event in particular caused a huge upsurge in users visiting Shelby’s page.
“During the early part of February we had some ice storms hit the area. Because we had the Facebook page I thought I’d start using it as another communication tool to let people know where we had power out, etc. As the first day of the outage ended and a second ice storm was on its way, not only did we use Facebook to provide outage information to our members, our page also became a tool for inside personnel to get the latest outage information.” He said local media began telling people to go to SEC’s page for additional outage information.
“We saw a jump in “likes” from 200 to over 700. During the four days of outages we recorded over 129,000 page views,” says Bernson.
Corn Belt Energy incorporating social media in its communication mix
Corn Belt Energy entered the social media arena in 2010 with a Twitter account intended to provide members another line of communication with the co-op. It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that Corn Belt began a Facebook page as well. Fortunately, the timing of opening up its page was just before the big storm hit.
“The major snow storm in early February provided an opportunity for Corn Belt to keep members updated via Facebook and Twitter in addition to more traditional means (website, phone system, etc.). According to statistics and analysis, we recorded thousands of visits to our Facebook page and our website as people checked in for status updates. Over 150 people “liked” us on Facebook during the course of that storm,” says Erin Campbell.
Of course, there is always some trepidation when using new methods and this was no different.
“Internally, we knew we were stepping into unchartered territory when we first launched a Facebook fan page. So far, our experience has been very positive. Social media gives us another opportunity to interact with our members and create a dialogue.”
The cooperative wants to assure members that just because it’s using this new communication tool doesn’t mean it will stop communicating via traditional methods.
“Social media will not replace any of the other ways we communicate with our member-owners; it simply provides another way to engage them,” says Campbell.
The cooperative may even find additional ways to leverage its social media presence.
Campbell says, “In the future, we may take advantage of survey functions and event planning capabilities that are available on Facebook. We’re also looking at creating short video tutorials that would showcase energy efficiency tips and safety tips. Our goal is for members to be better informed of all the cooperative programs and services that are available to them including rebates, payment options, community programs for schools, scholarships for students and more.”
Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative uses Facebook to reach out to members
Although Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative (EIEC) only began using social media in early 2010, Mike Wilson is still an early adopter in the use of social media for cooperative communication.
“I am interested in social media personally which helps quite a bit, and I have the backing of our CEO Dave Champion,” says Wilson.
Wilson uses social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter in conjunction with more traditional communication methods to reach as wide an audience of EIEC’s membership as possible.
“Even if only a handful of our members like this method of communication, it is worth it for us. We use our website, Twitter, Facebook, bill stuffers, the ICL and even bill messages to help get our message out,” he said.
That message is varied and includes information such as EIEC’s unique business model, why electric cooperatives were originally established, promoting energy efficiency and the Co-op Connections Card discount program.
“Eastern Illini has a positive message to tell. We will use whatever methods our members are using to communicate with them,” says Wilson.
Going where the member “lives” online is key to a successful social media program. Because members are already using tools like Facebook, it makes it a perfect fit for communicating with them.
And EIEC is looking to the future, too.
“The biggest thing I would like to achieve in 2011 is to get even more of our members to think social media when they think Eastern Illini. It is a quick, convenient and inexpensive way to communicate – especially during outages, when members want information updated quickly.”
Southern Illinois Electric enters Facebook era
Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative (SIEC) is new to the social media game. Jerri Schaefer only began work on SIEC’s Facebook page in April of this year.
“Our Facebook page is so new, that we haven’t had a lot of feedback yet, but many have stated they liked our flood pictures,” Schaefer says.
“Our plan is to use our Facebook page as another means of communication to our members, in addition to our website, magazine and local radio and newspaper advertising. We plan to promote our Facebook presence in upcoming center sections (JAMUP) located inside the Illinois Country Living magazine.”
The move was prompted by the cooperative’s dedication to keeping its membership informed and safe.
“We are always looking for ways to expand our communication efforts, so that our members are better informed on electrical safety, power outages, energy efficiency and community involvement within our service territory,” says Schaefer.
When asked about the challenges and reasons behind SIEC’s implementation of social media Schaefer responds, “Any new technology brings with it a taste of apprehension, so we are taking things slowly. We started to realize the benefit of such a site, especially for electrical outage updates.”