Recently, more and more solar companies have asked me how they can get an online calculator on their website that would let a visitor determine whether his building and its location would qualify to host a solar array. And then, if he does qualify, the form would give that visitor an estimate of both how much solar would cost him to get and how much solar would save him to use.
But if you want to use the form to generate sales leads, then before you install your own solar web calculator, you need to know what the best ones can do. Alas, not all solar web calculators are created equal. Some will get you more leads than others.
As of April 2016, Google’s service is still a pilot program covering selected areas, basically the hottest solar markets in the US — from California and Colorado to North Carolina and up to Massachusetts. But Google has plans to expand Project Sunroof, so it may soon be available in your area if it’s not already.
Each site has a solar qualification form at the top of their homepage. How do those from the two big solar companies compare with Google’s new system?
We all know how simple Google products usually look and read, and Project Sunroof is no exception, with minimalist design and simple, readable text.
For their part, in terms of design and content, both SolarCity and Sungevity have great websites that any solar company, residential or commercial, would do well to emulate. I’ve even written before about how brilliant SolarCity’s site is, but I could say the same about Sungevity. On both sites, clean design, engaging content and good organization make for an appealing user experience.
So, all three sites create an effective environment to welcome potential solar buyers.
Now, onto the solar web calculators. Since these are basically lead generation forms, I’m going to ask the million-dollar question of each form: which one is likely to generate the most sales leads online?
SolarCity’s quote form is attractive and easy to find right at the top of their homepage. It’s elegantly designed, with a slider that makes it fun to enter the cost of your average electric bill. Once you enter your zip, the form just expands to ask for your other contact info, without sending you to a separate page — That’s handy.
However, I don’t like SolarCity’s form because it requires the user to provide contact information, including a phone number, to get any information about whether his home qualifies for solar and how much that homeowner would save with solar vs how much he’d pay to get it. This probably scares off 90% of potential users, who aren’t ready to make contact with the company but are still just poking around.
Sungevity’s quote request form is not much different from SolarCity’s. It’s easy to find and attractively designed, and also offers a fun slider for your monthly electric cost.
But it’s not as elegant as SolarCity’s because it sends the user to another page to enter more contact information, instead of being able to do it right there as Solar City allows. And even worse, Sungevity’s form asks for much more information. I’m sure this scares off many visitors and loses the company many sales leads that they’d get with a simpler online form.
I don’t like it for the same reason as SolarCity’s: Sungevity’s form is not really a solar savings calculator that asks the user for some data and then gives some data back in return, a fair and satisfying online transaction.
Instead, at Sungevity, the user first has to give up a lot of sensitive personal information. Then, he has to agree to receive a sales call. And all in exchange for…what? Does the company send him some data first about how much he could save with solar based on the electric bill data he submitted through the slider on the homepage? I don’t know because I didn’t go through the whole process — I don’t want to start getting robocalls from Sungevity’s telemarketing system.
Just like SolarCity’s form, Sungevity’s quote request is basically an offer for the bottom of the sales funnel (BOFU) that will only appeal to a small portion of visitors to the site — only those who are already almost ready to buy. But it will scare off those solar prospects who are earlier in their decision-making process.
Google’s Project Sunroof
Project Sunroof solves this problem by giving the user lots of data right away without the user having to submit contact info. Thus, it appeals to a much wider audience than Sungevity’s or Solar City’s.
Of course, Project Sunroof has the advantage in data, as it can pull rooftop images from Google Earth, geographic information from Google Maps and stuff about solar costs and benefits from Google Who-Knows-What-Else.
The user experience is smooth not only because visitors only have to enter a little data in to get a lot of data out, but also because Project Sunroof’s interface is programmed so much more elegantly. They’ve done a great job gamifying the process and making it fun to input your data by giving you instant feedback for a variety of different options.
It’s also more user-friendly than another well known third-party solar calculator, the one at NREL’s PVWatts, which asks about the user to answer questions about a PV array’s “tilt” and “asimuth” and thus seems targeted at tech-savvy solar pros rather than solar-novice homeowners.
I love Project Sunroof and I think it’s safe to say that Google’s new offering in solar web calculators will revolutionize solar sales. Solar companies that don’t somehow get involved will increasingly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Why Google Wins for Solar Web Calculators
If SolarCity and Sungevity would just let the user submit the form and get some data back in return without having to first put in his contact info, the companies could easily widen their audience by 80% or more. That would help them appeal not only to the few visitors who have already reached the Decision Stage but also to majority of web visitors who are still just looking around, at the Awareness and Consideration Stages of the Solar Buyer’s Journey.
Are they trying to weed out tire-kickers and only provide info to serious prospects ready to buy? Maybe. If so, this would be penny-wise and pound-foolish since they’re leaving money on the table by ignoring everybody who’s not yet ready to talk to a salesman.
They’re missing out on the chance to cultivate many more potential buyers who still need more time to educate themselves on solar. If they could do that through an automated system like Google’s, then they wouldn’t be incurring extra costs for staff time. So once the initial investment was made to set up the system, the ongoing cost to the companies would be minimal. Yet, the benefit in reaching new prospects would be huge.
Any solar company with a big enough marketing budget to get a high quality solar savings calculator on their own website should develop something as close as possible to Project Sunroof.
Meanwhile, Google has already partnered with several large solar companies, including Sungevity, to offer local installations to Project Sunroof users.
I’ve now got an inquiry into Google about whether solar companies who want to offer a solar savings calculator to their web visitors can get the advantages of Project Sunroof on their own websites without having to re-invent the wheel — in this case, a solid gold wheel that would be incredibly expensive to re-invent if it’s even possible.
For example, maybe Google will let webmasters embed Project Sunroof into any website as they can with Google Maps or Google Calendar. And maybe they’d even allow solar companies to customize the system to work with the zip codes they serve and the financing options they offer.
A guy can dream, can’t he?
If Google really wants to spread solar across America and around the world, an open-source approach that shares Project Sunroof with any solar installer would make a big difference. Incidentally, that might help the solar industry even more by putting dozens of sleazy lead generation vendors out of business.
I’ll publish an update once I hear back from Project Sunroof.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group