Outreach Elevates Your to Leadership Status
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Propane dealers are used to wearing many hats: Owner, supervisor, buyer, risk manager, sympathetic ear. This year, consider taking on a new role as a community educator - and watch your company's image take on a new shine.
You may not think of your business as an institution of higher learning, but you'd be surprised what a short jump it is from being an energy supplier to being an authority on energy issues.
As a propane dealer, you sit at the confluence of some of today's most important public policy issues, including climate change, energy supply, finance and global politics. You have an inside track that makes you an expert, and you can build on that to become a local authority and thought leader.
It takes a substantial commitment of time and resources to make an impression through education, but you can get a lot of mileage from your efforts, and the rewards can be huge. You'll separate yourself from the ranks of the ordinary and build a reputation as a community patron and leader - the kind of "white hat" company that today's weary consumers prefer.
Do It Your Way
To get started, you first have to make some choices. What topics do you want to address? And how do you want to do it? You can sponsor a large community event that addresses a universal concern like climate change, or you can focus on niche topics that closely reflect your company's expertise, such as indoor air quality (IAQ), radiant heating or solar. You can sponsor live events or use the Internet to serve up your presentations on demand.
When sizing up your options, the best place to start is with your own interests. A topic that fascinates you (or one of your employees) is relatively easy to address because you begin with some insight and passion, and the project becomes a labor of love.
If you want to address a global topic like conservation or climate change that resonates widely, think big. You might be able to host a large, high-profile event that features a panel of experts and draws a large crowd. But if you are more interested in specific, narrow topics like IAQ or solar energy, you should think in terms of workshops that draw smaller crowds and relate more closely to products and services that you provide.
If you are interested in advanced Internet technologies, you can skip the live events and draw on a broad range of online communication tools. You can create a series of podcasts or online seminars or launch a blog or even a v-blog (video blog) that the public can access from your website.
Here are some points to consider when planning a seminar, workshop or podcast.
- Put an interesting spin on your presentation. If you want to talk about conserving energy at home, avoid a generic title like "Home Energy Conservation" in favor of something more engaging, such as "How the Average Home Can Save $1,000 a Year."
- Pick the date carefully. Don't schedule in conflict with the American Idol finals or the local high school play.
- Be positive. Give a lively, upbeat presentation that generates enthusiasm about your topic. Plan every detail meticulously to make sure you make a positive impression on the attendees.
- Make sure you have at least one "sound bite" - an interesting fact or statistic that audience members will want to repeat to their friends.
- Support your presentation with visual aids, such as a PowerPoint presentation. Your audience will have an easier time engaging and remembering your message, because images are more memorable than words.
- Avoid having one person talk for too long. Use different speakers, or break up the presentation with a demonstration.
- Be prepared for anything. Your chosen topic may be conservation, but that won't stop an audience member from popping a random question. Be prepared with a strong answer about fuel prices or anything else that might come up.
Educate, Don't Sell
There are many differences in execution depending on your choices, but each approach can deliver the same significant benefits for your company - namely raising your profile and enhancing your image. You can expect existing customers to feel renewed pride and become evangelists for your company. You will also get the attention of non-customers and tempt them to bring their business your way.
To achieve maximum return on your education venture, you need to do a lot of things right. Most importantly, you have to make your workshops or seminars purely educational and resist any temptation to hawk your products and services. You have enticed your audience with a promise of objective information, and it is imperative that you deliver as promised. The public knows you are in business to make money, and some in attendance will be waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of a sales pitch. You have to surprise them by making your presentation 100% sales-free. When you show them you are serious about providing pure information, you will win respect for your sincerity.
Keeping your presentation purely educational does not prevent you from marketing your company and its products and services to the audience. You can reinforce the image you are creating with lots of supporting materials. Posters or banners designed for the event can promote your company as a trusted voice and a conscientious local company. Custom pens and notepads distributed to all the guests can echo the same theme. Brochures describing your company and its services can be placed on tables next to the snacks, where attendees are free to peruse them or take them along.
As long as the presentation itself is pure, the attendees will not be put off by a reasonable amount of passive marketing - but be diligent about keeping it passive. If you start passing out packets of company literature, you'll break the spell and enable your guests to think that that's why you really brought them there.
The personal interaction with the attendees is vital, but it is only part of your payback. You need to publicize your outreach in every available media channel to derive the maximum benefit. Plan a series of advance press releases that will go to every media outlet covering your market. Aim to have local newspapers, radio stations, television stations and Web sites announce the event well in advance. Make sure that an announcement finds its way into every community calendar serving your market. Put attractive fliers on local notice boards. Don't miss any free publicity opportunities.
Try to strike up a rapport with editors and reporters covering your area and get them interested in your education program. The press is always on the lookout for local news that is interesting and different, and they might choose to initiate their own stories about your upcoming event. If they seem interested, be prepared to give them everything they want, including written background on your company and a list of related Internet resources. Put your information on a CD so they can cut and paste. Make it easy for them, and they might expand on the story and give you a surprising amount of coverage.
Don't stop there, either. Invite the press to your event and let them shoot footage or take pictures. Once again, present them with lots of prepared material on the topic and make yourself available after the event for follow-up. When you treat reporters nicely and go out of your way to give them what they need, they tend to give you good publicity.
By reaching out to the press and making a good impression, you can become a media darling in your market. Energy is a huge, ongoing issue, and you can establish yourself as their go-to propane source. This can lead to periodic bursts of favorable publicity that will help reinforce your company's image as a community leader.
Don't forget to play up your educational outreach across all your marketing channels. Highlight your efforts in your newsletters, on your website, and in your message-on-hold and advertising. If you get good press coverage, ask the newspaper or station for permission to run the story on your site.
The more repetition, the better. If you can cement your image as a caring leader in the community, your good reputation will grow, and new customers will find you.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.propane-advertising.com.