This article was taken from the whitepaper “Communications & Water management: How utilities can communicate better.” You’ll find the it here.
The importance of storytelling in the water sector
Communicating the real value of water
It’s never been more important for the water sector to communicate the real value of water. Water’s one of the most underappreciated, undervalued core resources for human life. And when water’s undervalued, it’s much more challenging for organizations behind this vital resource to get people to take an interest in water matters, critical to the health of their communities.
Storytelling through content holds enormous potential for utilities to not only communicate the value of water but also build and nurture a relationship with their customers beyond the status quo, which is often marked by infrequent and transactional communications. The unfortunate reality is, utilities can lack trust and credibility with their customers simply because there’s no prior, consistent history of positive or creative engagement.
If customers’ only interactions with their water provider is paying their bill or receiving an email about a hosepipe ban, they’ll naturally see utilities as faceless organizations that only reach out when they’re chasing money or something’s gone wrong.
On the other hand, when a prior relationship does exist between utilities and their customers, it helps build trust and loyalty, and it’s much easier for water providers to affect positive change in their communities, whether it’s asking people to change behavior, conserve more water, or accept water management solutions that are better for the environment, like recycled water.
Building a positive relationship
Storytelling and creative content can help water providers build a positive relationship with their customers in an engaging way. They can transform perspectives by telling the stories of the unsung heroes in their organizations — the operators, engineers, and innovators in the field who make sure quality water gets to people’s taps. Stories should also include the CEO, but they must go beyond the CEO. There’s lots of room for utilities to tell stories about water and the environment as well.
People want to relate in a human way and understand more about the amazing individuals and processes behind the scenes that bring the community crucial water services, and one of the best ways utilities can humanize the work they do is through storytelling.
Look beyond water for storytelling inspiration
Organizations often look within their own industries for best practices, and when it comes to positive communications, there are some great examples in water, like NE Ohio Regional Sewer District profiled in this paper. But there’s enormous value in looking further afield. Water companies can take inspiration from how other sectors tell stories that resonate with audiences.
They can learn from the amazing stories being told by organizations like Pixar and Disney, where story reigns as king. Stories employ emotion, novelty, and imagery. They make information stick in people’s memories the way a list of facts simply can’t. Stories make an impression in people’s minds and bring important messages to life, and they build trust and connection between the teller and the listener. Most importantly, stories help to build a following between the audience and the characters.
Start with the “why” (don’t get caught up in the “what”)
Often, organizations get caught up in communicating the “what” of their stories — the capacity of a new facility, the technology (and many associated acronyms), or highly technical processes. While these are elements to a story and necessary as follow up information, the “what” is probably not the thing people are most concerned about.
When you tell a story, start with the “why.” Why should people care? Why is this important? What does this mean to people? It’s important to take a step back and ask the question, why should this information be of interest to our utility’s customer base? For example, if it’s a new development, perhaps people care because it will provide new jobs and security to the region. Or perhaps people care because it will help provide water security for future generations.
When you tap into the “why” behind the information you want to share with your customers, you can more easily access the story’s emotional value and that can often be used to create more meaningful engagement with your customers.
Consider the hero’s journey framework
When it comes to storytelling, one of the main challenges for utilities is to try to make everyday processes exciting and engaging. If you’re highlighting a manager of a storage treatment center, or you’re sharing a customer success story, how can you actually unpack that story in an engaging way?
Water utilities may gain some inspiration from a classic narrative framework called “the Hero’s Journey,” popularized by American writer Joseph Campbell. The hero’s journey is a narrative archetype that has been present in myths, legends, and stories throughout history. It depicts the transformative journey of a protagonist who embarks on an adventure, faces various trials and challenges, and ultimately undergoes personal growth and self-discovery.
The hero’s journey typically follows a pattern, starting with the call to adventure, where the hero is summoned to leave their ordinary world and embark on a quest. Along the way, they encounter mentors, allies, and adversaries, and are tested both physically and emotionally. Through these trials, the hero gains new skills, knowledge, and insights, ultimately reaching a climactic moment where they face their greatest challenge. By overcoming this challenge, the hero returns home, often transformed, with newfound wisdom and a gift to share with their community.
Consider how the hero’s journey framework can help you build compelling narratives that humanize the industry, raise awareness about water-related challenges, and encourage collective action towards a more sustainable water future. These narratives can inspire others to engage with their water utility, adopt sustainable practices, and appreciate the value of water in their own lives.
Content fuels your outreach strategy
Explore content channels your customers use
The way people consume content and media has evolved and changed over the years. Traditional channels used by water companies have and continue to include email, paper bills, and SMS messages. However, with the democratization of creative communications tools and channels over the years, utility communications teams can easily leverage to build a meaningful relationship with their customers.
Proactive water companies will explore the variety of tools and channels available to them to find the ones their customers use and engage with. That way, they can get in front of customers with stories that actively build trust with the people they serve.
Social media channels like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and video and audio channels like YouTube and Spotify, can give water providers a way to reach their customers with interesting, helpful, or simply entertaining content, like photos, videos, interviews, and even podcasts.
And by taking a multi-pronged approach, utilities can repurpose the content they create for one channel to apply to other channels, streamlining the process and expanding their reach.
Content strategy — a three stage process
Your content strategy goes much further than the occasional press release. A content strategy provides utilities with a blueprint, a plan of action to help drip-feed content consistently around key people and developments in the organization. When organizations consistently provide valuable and reliable content, they establish trust and credibility with their customers. Regularly engaging with customers through content helps build rapport, loyalty, and a sense of connection.
The awareness stage of a content strategy refers to the initial stage of the customer journey where they know very little about your organization, its mission, its values, or its challenges. At this stage, your content is typically designed to build awareness about certain aspects of your utility’s work, so you can effectively lay the foundation for a better relationship with your customers. During the awareness stage of your content strategy, you produce informative and valuable content that addresses the challenges or questions your audience may have.
For example, while within the water industry phrases such as “water scarcity,” “contaminants of emerging concern,” or “PFAS” are well understood, how well are they known to the wider public? It’s a challenge to communicate a new pilot project on PFAS, if there is a lack of awareness of what PFAS is. The awareness phase is where you build that knowledge-base with your customers by providing a series of valuable and relevant content that interests, educates, entertains, or inspires your customers.
2. Thought leadership
Thought leadership allows water companies to demonstrate their deep knowledge and expertise by sharing valuable insights, innovative ideas, and industry trends, while also connecting customers with the “main characters” of the organization.
In films and TV we tend to focus on key characters or protagonists. Hours of entertainment is crafted with cleverly written scripts to help audiences ‘buy in’ to characters, whether good or bad. In adapting this for the water industry, it’s important to identify who in the organization are the “main characters” who have the expertise as well as the likeability to become the face behind the announcement and development.
Once identified, a series of content, whether interviews, soundbites, and videos can be used to help position this individual as an authority, which helps build trust. Consistency and cadency is key here. For example, if the utility is embarking on a digital transformation journey, then naturally someone in the position of Chief Digital Officer, or Smart Water Manager, would be well positioned to be the spokesperson for this work. This helps make this person reachable, relatable and relevant through regular content.
3. Call to action
A call to action (CTA) in content strategy is a specific directive or instruction given to your audience, urging them to take a particular action. It is a crucial component of any content piece, whether it’s a blog post, website page, social media post, or email.
A CTA could be as simple as “click here for more information,” “sign up for our monthly newsletter,” “leave a comment below” or even “don’t flush wipes.” By including well-placed CTAs in your content strategy, you can effectively guide your customers towards taking desired actions, ultimately driving engagement and achieving your water utility’s goals.
Content is king, but engagement is queen
There’s a well known phrase in communications: “Content is king, but engagement is queen, and the lady rules the house.” In other words, content is king, but it’s also ubiquitous — there is now more content to consume across multiple channels than ever before. Everyone’s fighting for the split attention of audiences. In order to be effective, content needs its queen — engagement. Content needs to interest and engage your audience. A well-planned and thought-out content strategy can provide a blueprint for utilities, mapping out the key topics, thought leaders, and channels, so creative engagement can shine through.