3 Extraordinary Ways to Educate Your Water Customers

3 Extraordinary Ways to Educate Your Water Customers
Kelley Dearing-Smith, strategic communications manager at Louisville Water Company, shows students a map of the Ohio River while leading a tour at the utility’s pumping facility.

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The words “public education” bring to mind quite a few standard approaches, including PowerPoint presentations, brochures and fact sheets. But that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s time to shift your thinking and explore some of these fresh ideas, which help increase the public's perception of water value. 

“It’s a thing that everyone assumes is available,” says Roz Rouse, water marketing specialist for Milwaukee Water Works. “And when it comes time to raise rates to cover the cost of water treatment, the public needs to understand the value of water. They all turn on the tap, but they might not understand where the water is coming from, the costs to treat it and its high value.” 

1. Purely education

At the heart of the Louisville Water Company customer education program is water. Water as a product, that is. According to Kelley Dearing-Smith, strategic communications manager, creating value in a product is where education starts. 

“We’re a business just like anywhere else,” she says. “We decided to trademark our tap water because we were getting frustrated at water bottle sales and home treatment products, and we believed that we had a product that was better. It gave us a platform to talk about a lot of other topics.” 

And that’s how Louisville pure tap was born, which was no small feat because Louisville Water serves a total of 850,000 people through about 285,000 business and residential connections in the Louisville metro area. 

The pure tap program began with empty plastic bottles that were filled with city tap water. Since then, the focus has shifted away from plastic water bottles and has evolved into a full brand launch, complete with social marketing, logos, T-shirts, coolers and more. You’ll likely see students on a field trip drinking out of BPA-free water bottles branded with the pure tap logo. You might find compostable, disposable cups with the Louisville water brand at a coffee shop. You might even see the logo at a sporting event or at a mobile water cart in the city. Louisville water has managed to take its product and brand it with a good dose of exciting marketing. 

“We’ve really become advocates for endorsing the brand,” Dearing-Smith says. “Our company recognizes the value of investing in public education.”

The cups, coolers and water bottles are Louisville Water’s version of free pens, which many companies use for marketing. Since 1996, Louisville Water has dedicated a portion of its budget to the program expenses. 

“The reason we justify our budget is that at the end of the day, it is still cheaper than any media campaign you would buy,” Dearing-Smith says. “When we raise our rates, I typically hear from one or two people. It’s not a public outcry. I think people appreciate the value.” 

Dearing-Smith adds that it’s important to link city officials with the brand.

“Our philosophy is if we’re part of the city, then no one should ever be serving bottled water at an event,” she says. “We supplied the city council with Louisville Water. If you own us, and we’re all in this together, then you need to endorse the brand.” 

2. Students, schools and museums

At Milwaukee Water Works, Rouse says a local hands-on science museum, Discovery World, has become a conduit for water education. 

“I make presentations by invitation to classrooms and with Discovery World, which is a great place for field trips,” she says. “At the museum, I give a brief presentation about where water comes from and then a representative of the Milwaukee Sewage District discusses wastewater treatment. That way, we cover all ends of the spectrum and the complete water cycle.” 

Rouse adds that by linking with local museums, utilities might find a good partner and be able to stretch public education budget dollars. 

“If the museum sends out information to teachers and schools, you get the message out about water programs,” she says. 

Rouse’s message to students is threefold: First, she offers an overview of the water treatment system. Secondly, she enforces Milwaukee’s version of water stewardship, which is called “Use Water Wisely,” and finally, she talks to students about careers in the water industry. 

To keep costs down, she encourages utilities to piggyback with existing programs from national organizations. For instance, the U.S. EPA runs a program that teaches consumers about how to read a meter, how to find leaks, how to check faucets and more.

“You can customize that information and put your utility’s name on it,” Rouse says. 

She also encourages utilities to take advantage of national events like Fix-A-Leak Week in March and Drinking Water Week in May. 

“It’s a good time to grab on to these national publicized weeks, put up a display and hand out brochures,” she says. 

3. Mentoring opportunities

Elizabeth Thelen heads the talent and entrepreneur programs at The Water Council in Milwaukee, which is an association of water companies, water utilities and water educators. For her, reaching out to students and educating them about career options in the water industry is where water education begins. 

“The vision of The Water Council was companies aren’t going to grow here and expand here unless we educate here,” she says. “We have this lofty goal that 100 percent of students in Milwaukee will know that water is an industry.” 

Thelen emphasizes that water education outreach can be as simple as devoting a few hours of an employee’s time to mentoring students. The Water Council has partnered with the “My Life, My Plan” program in Milwaukee, which helps students understand how to choose a career and find a college. 

“Where municipalities could become engaged is by being coaches in programs like this,” she says, adding that it’s a very low-risk, low-cost education option. 

Spice it up

Public education doesn’t have to be dull. It can be an exciting part of your job, something that pushes you to rethink how you speak to your customers about water. 

“If you’re a utility that needs to put money into infrastructure, you need someone to be a champion for you and that’s your customers,” Dearing-Smith says. “I really believe that people don’t value our product (water) because they never lose our product. In a room full of people, I say ‘Raise your hand if in the past six months, your cable or Internet has gone out. Now raise your hand if you’ve lost your water service.’ I’ll get just one or two people who raise their hands. How can you value something if you never lose something?” 

What unique methods have your utility implemented to teach the value of water to customers? Post a comment below. 


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