I usually write about why solar companies should cut their budget for traditional marketing methods that can’t be measured and instead put more resources into Internet marketing where analytics can show clear return on investment.
But sometimes reaching potential solar buyers in person can be effective. And when that in-person contact also involves the Internet, then I’m intrigued.
The tech world has been all abuzz about the “Internet of Things.” That’s when machines or objects in the physical world besides computers and phones are connected to the Internet.
Now, if it were just about the Web Toaster, the Net Fridge or Google Glass, then the Internet of Things would be no more than an expensive gimmick for gear-heads with little relevance for solar marketers.
But business has been connecting everyday machines to the Internet for a long time. Just consider the ATM at your bank, as this video explains.
Now the Internet of Things has come to solar marketing. So, this story is about a way to reach solar buyers in person using a thing connected to the Web in very low-tech public spaces. It’s a technology that’s simultaneously old-school and cutting-edge — and is already showing success in reaching solar buyers.
Meeting Solar Buyers Where They Shop and Play
Solar companies are always looking for new ways to try to make solar power easier to understand for homeowners.
Figuring out if your home is suitable for rooftop PV, considering array sizes and costs, and then understanding myriad financing options from a lease to a PPA to a purchase with PACE can all be intimidating to the average consumer.
Some of the larger solar companies have come up with a solution — put interactive solar kiosks in shopping malls.
Take Sunrun for example. The company’s kiosks feature computer terminals with the company’s BrightPath software that allows consumers to find their home on a map and quickly see if it would qualify for solar.
Do the kiosks work to generate qualified solar leads and even close new sales? It looks like they do.
In Hawaii, for example, Sunrun placed solar kiosks in four retail locations and then saw same-store sales jump by a factor of ten over the previous year, according to Solar Power World.
Andrew Pontti, corporate communications manager at Sunrun, believes that existing retail solar approaches are relatively unsophisticated and that kiosks can greatly improve engagement. “Shoppers seek a non-threatening experience to play, learn and ask questions,” he said. “They can do so in the highly engaging environment we’ve created.”
Sunrun has also placed kiosks in stores in California and New York to educate consumers on their options and help get them started on the solar buyer’s journey. Each kiosk is staffed by a Sunrun salesperson who can answer consumers’ questions.
“Consumers want to learn about and buy solar where they feel comfortable,” Pontti told Solar Power World. “We think retail environments offer a significant opportunity for increasing solar adoption through a quality experience.”
Solar Kiosks for Education and Lead Generation
Other companies are also partnering with retailers to reach consumers inside the places where they shop.
In 2014, Sungevity launched its Instant iQuote program for generating solar installation quotes in seconds based on a street address, according to Greentech Media. The company wanted to find a way to make the system available to the public not just through buyers’ own computers and phones but via a physical presence at retail stores.
So, at select Lowe’s stores in California, the company offered customers iPads to access the Instant iQuote system, with guidance from a Sungevity salesperson.
Partnerships with retail stores are a promising way for residential solar companies to lower customer acquisition costs and generate better sales leads, according to Nicole Litvak at GTM Research. “That’s because depending on what type of partnership you have, you can target a specific type of customer who is going to be more likely to go solar.”
And before that, in 2012, Real Goods opened a 12-foot by 12-foot kiosk at a shopping mall near its office in Fresno. The company choose the Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis because the venue’s management was flexible about the kiosk’s staffing, according to a company spokesperson who spoke to Specialty Retail Report:
“Many other malls in the area would require us to be there whenever the mall was open, but at the Sierra Vista, we can choose the hours,” she says. The kiosk is staffed all day on weekends, and in the evenings Tuesday through Friday. When the kiosk is unmanned, mall customers can type in their contact information on an iPad at the kiosk, or take home printed materials.
A Kiosk that Could Go Solar, with Less Expense
Solar kiosks may show good results, but they’re not cheap to put up. In general, the cost to build a fully loaded, booth-like kiosk starts at around $10,000, according to mobile cart expert Denise Clark.
Entrepreneur George Gazelian, who’s rolling out his own line of upright kiosks to charge mobile phones, told me that on top of costs to build its kiosk, a company could pay $5,000 or more per month in rent to place that kiosk in a shopping mall or other retail venue.
Gazelian’s company Chargerent wants to offer solar companies (among others) a way to get their information on its new phone charging stations at a fraction of the cost of getting their own kiosk. This could make it more affordable for smaller solar companies to have a presence in a mall or other retail space.
The service is like Redbox for phone batteries, Gazelian told me.
“With Chargerent kiosks, customers can charge their favorite electronic devices on-the-go, without being stuck at a wall outlet, a charging station, or a charging locker. Once depleted customers simply return the charger at any one of our kiosks,” explains the company’s brochure.
Customers will pay $5 to rent the Chargerent battery for 24 hours. However, Gazelian is now seeking partnerships with solar companies who would be willing to sponsor batteries for customers free of charge at sports venues and other locations where high rental costs make the economics of the paid charging model difficult.
“A partnership can fill a need for venue guests while generating brand awareness and goodwill for the sponsor,” Gazelian told me.
Gazelian told me that he already has deals to host Chargerent units with the Westview and Macerich chains of shopping malls around the U.S. as well as casinos and sports venues, including the Rose Bowl. He hopes to expand to hotels, restaurants, convention centers, hospitals, theme parks, and music and street festivals, along with airports and train stations worldwide.
For under $1,000 per month, Chargerent could brand one of its kiosks for a sponsor. It could place solar company logos on the batteries dispensed by the unit and offer solar company information on the unit’s 20-inch touchscreen as well.
“We would take care of all aspects of deployment and servicing of machines at all locations. Our kiosks are fully customizable and signage will not only be on kiosks but on each individual charger held by customers all over the venues.”
It doesn’t take a lot of juice to charge up Chargerent batteries so far, but Gazelian told me that the company could easily fill the batteries with solar power in the future. That could make a difference once his business expands and demand for power through his batteries is higher.
Meanwhile, Chargerent is at the forefront of a emerging trend in electricity delivery.
In coming years as batteries continue to improve, more electricity will be delivered not through wires but via portable storage. For example, someday soon, you can expect to see electricity by drone. In the meantime, Chargerent’s returnable batteries offer portable power unplugged in places where plugs are hard to find or inconvenient to use.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group