Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mobile Warming: Time to Embrace Mobile Technology

Welcome to the re-launch of the NAGC blog, Adventures in Government Communications! This blog essentially replaces the NAGC Communicator newsletter. We'll have updates about NAGC, announcements and other types of information here, but most of all, we're going to have stories about government communicators like you! So, don't be shy, if you have a story to share, contact me at gthomas@mlgw.org or NAGC at info@nagconline.org.

This initial blog post is something that's taken over our culture, and I'll be presenting on this subject at the 2011 NAGC Communications School in May:

Mobile Warming

A couple of years ago, I realized I wasn’t cool. It’s a painful realization and one that’s hard to come to grips with. If you have ever stayed up all night to play Farmville on Facebook, you will probably face this realization soon if you haven’t already. Unfortunately for all of us with cable, Charlie Sheen has yet to confront this reality.


My moment of clarity came when I chastised my 20-something nephew for never responding to my e-mails. With a mixture of disdain and pity, he said, “Uncle Glen, nobody e-mails any more….we text.” And there it was, a cold splash of water on the “Cool Uncle Fa├žade” I had crafted so carefully. As I fumbled with my Van Halen 8-track, I realized that technology was one step ahead of me.


I was instantly put off by texting: the inconvenience of pecking through letters at a much slower pace than a simple phone call could provide. And the writer in me bristled at the slang. But a funny thing happened since then: not only did I get familiar with texting culture, but I got assimilated into it. Chances are you did, too. Why? Because it’s become a normal part of the way we communicate.


You know what the third most popular cell phone activity is? Talking on it! That’s right, the purpose for which phones were created is now #3 on this list. The top two? Checking the time and texting.


Simply put, mobile technology is here to stay, folks, and we have to change the way we think about it. It’s estimated that there will be 975 million mobile users by 2012. AP ran an article in February about how smart phones are now outselling personal computers.


Some other stats to consider:

  • 9 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a mobile device. (Experian Simmons)
  • 38 percent of U.S. cell phone users access the internet from their phones (Pew Internet and American Life Project)
  • There are more than 47 million daily mobile internet users in the U.S. (Pew Internet and American Life Project)
  • Mobile web is now more popular than reading (European Interactive Advertising Association)


As I said, if you haven’t done it already, it’s time to change the way you think about mobile technology. At MLGW, I think our moment of truth came in June 2009 after a tornado and straight line winds knocked out power to more than 140,000 customers, about one third of our overall base. We made the decision to utilize Twitter to help provide outage updates. In less than a week, our number of followers exploded from a little over 200 to more than 1,500. On June 15, 2009 at the height of the restoration process, we had a record 435,000 hits on mlgw.com and a record 10,000 visits to our blog. How was this happening with 33 percent of our customer base without power? Mobile phones.


Social Media

It’s easier than ever to access the web through your cell phone, and the influx of smart phone options will only increase these numbers. According to Nielsen, social media is the most popular online activity, and social media is very mobile friendly.


I’ve written in the past how important social media has become to MLGW’s communications efforts since that event, and it’s now a daily part of our communications routine. As of March 2011, we’ve got more than 3,600 followers on Twitter and about 1,100 “Likes” on Facebook.


But we’ve also had to take a step back and look at HOW customers are accessing social media and the web. There is a bigger opportunity to reach customers than simply interacting through Facebook and Twitter, and that’s reaching them where they are – through their mobile device.


Text Messaging

In addition to social media efforts, last year, MLGW took another step toward reaching customers via mobile technology. We launched MLGW Mobile Alerts, which allows customers to get text message reminders about bill due dates and/or impending cut-offs. Customers are able to sign up on our website, and the texting is a one-way communication from us. In order to reach multiple carriers, we utilize a third-part aggregator service. Thus far, we’ve got about 400 subscribers to the service, but it’s a step in the right direction. More importantly, our programmers have now purchased software that will allow us to expand these offerings to possibly include things like outage updates.


iPhone Appl

Our newest and most ambitious mobile venture is our iPhone application, which will be submitted to Apple this month. Our goal in creating this app is to save our customers time, give them quick access to information via their phone, and in the process improve customer satisfaction. You can’t create an app that just has links to your website, and we worked hard to create the types of time-saving, shortcut kinds of features that make apps so handy. And, to illustrate my previous point, you can’t just try and be the “cool uncle” and put some bells and whistles out there without functionality.


Our features in this initial version include a bill due date and amount, news and blog feeds, important numbers, office and payment locations, energy tips, payment arrangement request, and our “crown jewel,” outage status. A customer can actually enter their address information and get an update on the status of their outage. We’re already looking ahead to “Version 2” as well and are considering online outage reporting, streetlight outage reporting, a mapping function for our community offices, and more.


Challenges

The creation of the app hasn’t been without its challenges and it’s taken longer than we anticipated to roll it out. We’ve had to collaborate extensively with our IT department, which is responsible for creating and submitting the app, as well as our Legal area. One feature that would undoubtedly be popular, bill payment, isn’t available at this point from our third-party online bill payment vendor though it’s on the radar. We also know that we’ll have to work on apps for Android, Blackberry and maybe other platforms as well.


Mobile-Friendly Website

Finally, we are in the process of doing a full redesign of our website. In the process, rather than creating a mobile version of our site, we’re creating a mobile-friendly site to kill two birds with one stone, plus save some budget dollars.


Technology as a whole is moving so fast it can make your head spin. It’s hard enough to keep up, much less try to stay ahead of these trends. However, knowing what we know about where mobile technology is going, as communicators we owe it to our customers to at least investigate how we might interact with them through this medium. So maybe we aren’t “cool” any more, but at MLGW, we are on our way to better communications with our customers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to answer a text from my nephew.

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