How propane marketing has changed in the past 50 years

April 16, 2018 By    

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Jan. 10 marked the 50th anniversary of the cold winter day on which I first climbed the steps of the cylinder dock at a propane company in Bay City, Michigan, to meet old Alex, the dock man. I have climbed a lot of other steps since then, but that was the very beginning of my propane career.

Alex seemed a bit annoyed at having to teach a kid like me about propane while working through all of his other daily tasks. To Alex, I was probably that era’s version of a millennial. The cylinder dock was a major focal point of the residential propane business at this location, as it was for many propane businesses back then. The customer transition from a twin 100-pound cylinder hookup to a bulk propane tank was an easy path for propane companies to grow gallons, as usage grew from cooking and clothes drying to water and home heating.

Implementation of any good marketing plan back then started at the cylinder dock. When I hadn’t quit my new job after the first week, Alex resigned himself to teaching me about propane and the cylinder part of the business.

Back in those early years, marketing propane was all about finding new users. Customer retention wasn’t much of an issue. The one or two propane competitors you might have had stuck closer to home and spent most of their time handling their growing customer base rather than trying to poach yours.

Consumer demand focused on the comfort and convenience of city gas while living in the country. While those demands are still there, today we can add efficiency (translating into cost savings), high performance and environmental friendliness as more reasons consumers still seek out propane as their primary energy source. Propane appliance additions, customer referrals from satisfied propane users and some level of door-to-door selling were the mainstays of customer growth back then. Advertising, for the most part, was relegated to conventional choices such as Yellow Pages ads and occasional radio and newspaper advertising, mostly in smaller markets.

Customer retention efforts may have included full-service appliance sales, periodic statement stuffers and an occasional door hanger campaign. Remember, there was no internet, no search engines, no pay-per-click, no websites, no social media, no email, no text messaging, and the list goes on.

Marketing propane today is remarkably different than it was 50 years ago. Even though some marketers are slow to realize it, customer retention is a much bigger challenge today than it was 50 years ago. Not only do you have many of your propane competitors chasing after your customers, you also have natural gas and electric public utilities and co-ops adding big energy-switching pressure.

Reaching new users is also a much bigger challenge than it was 50 years ago. Back then, 100 percent of a company’s marketing and advertising dollars were spent on conventional means such as print and radio. Successful propane marketers, with whom I work today, invest an average of 70 percent of their marketing efforts in the digital space, while only 30 percent is spent in more conventional ways. I am not forcing them there. That is where successful marketing has gone, no matter what product you are selling.

Today, a propane marketer needs a good mobile-friendly, fully-optimized website as the foundation for everything else that is done to market the company to consumers. A complementary social media campaign also helps with both customer retention and growth. From there, it is a matter of finding what the rest of your marketing efforts should look like to be successful in your area.

Despite the digital world in which we now live, it is still important to have a good employee team of well-trained and motivated individuals who can deliver personal and expert customer service that a chat room on a website will never be able to duplicate. There is even still room for an Alex in your business, quietly and safely taking care of the beginning steps of customer care.


Tom Jaenicke is vice president of Propane Marketing Services at Warm Thoughts Communications. He can be reached at tjaenicke@warmthoughts.com or at 810-252-7855.

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