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UnThink Solar
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Solar “Freakin’” Roadways Reveals How the Solar Industry Has Failed to Inspire America

Ladies and gentlemen, the solar industry has failed to communicate, and there’s no better example of how we’ve failed than the “Solar Freakin Roadways” crowd-funding project that’s raised over $2 million for a solar technology that will never become as utilized or as inexpensive as our good ol’ conventional solar PV panels.

I say this not to disparage or condemn the Solar Roadways creators. Clearly, they’re passionate about their invention and their ideal applications, but the reality is that they’ve thus far omitted real $/watt data for production, installation, O&M, or really anything cost related. Instead, they’ve created a fun little video with a satirical “voice” that has been viewed OVER 16 MILLION TIMES on YouTube.

That’s right. People have watched and shared this solar invention pipe dream 16 million times for a technology that is only a prototype, has no real-world testing, and has little chance of ever being widely used as imagined in this “freakin’” viral video:

This huge viral solar success is why we have failed as marketers and as an industry, and that of course includes me. How have we failed?

Because our traditional solar PV is everywhere in the world, and it “freakin’” already works! It's “freakin’” powering homes, businesses, satellites, and utilities cost-effectively on ordinary everyday rooftops and land, and it’s been proven to last 25 to 30 years or longer! In fact, as of the end of 2013, we’ve “freakin’” installed 136,697 MW, and that’s no “freakin’” demonstration project outside a garage!

...And yet 15 million people have never watched or shared a video made by traditional solar installers or solar manufacturers. In fact, most Americans still think solar is too expensive and that the technology still needs to be improved before considering it for their home or business.

We’ve got to change that. We’ve all got to make our own Solar “Freakin’” Roadway marketing every day, or at least try. I know that’s easier said than done, but for what it’s worth, let’s deconstruct Solar Roadways' success and learn from it:

1.    They were passionate about an idea, not about selling something. If you’re just in solar for the money, the stock market is probably easier, so go do that. This couple had a unique idea that they believed in, despite us solar-pro nay-sayers and I’m sure their own family naysayers.

It doesn’t matter that we all use a conventional solar invention or installation service. It’s still “freakin” fascinating to me to turn sunlight into free energy. The challenge is directing that fascination into a creative campaign that fascinates others and inspired them to share it with their friends, family, co-workers, and pets on Facebook or their cell phones. Not only must we create the campaign idea, but we must also execute it, and I think that’s where many solar companies get cold feet. More about this later.

2.    They made a video. In reality, they’ve made several videos over the years. This really wasn’t such an overnight success. You have to be visual today, and even more important, you need moving pictures and a voice and/or images that inspire you to take action. So start making videos. You can use them everywhere except on paper, but even then, you can print a link to them on paper.

3.    They had a story. All of their videos tell the same story, and it’s a sympathetic one: Essentially, it’s “We’re a couple who love each other, we’re engineers, and we have a solar dream invention that we believe will power the world.” Whether they’re right or wrong, doesn’t matter. Their story was compelling enough to inspire people to share their story over the years, but when they told it this time in this new “freakin’” way, it popped and it moved people to share it even more.

What’s your solar company story? You have one, I know you do. You probably think it’s boring, but if you tell it in a compelling way, it can be “freakin’” brilliant.

4.    They got someone to do a fun video. Fun/humor isn’t always necessary to get videos viral, but it sure does help. You could also use drama, cute, sexy, and surprising. Here, someone took a lot of archive material from the original Solar Roadways movie and added a voice with an attitude and some creative editing, and some silly graphics. All of this, once again, built a compelling and now oddly funny story. So the lesson here is to be bold and have fun, and it also might help to have a key phrase or tagline, like “freakin’” that, when projected in a fun way, can get attention and smiles.

Here’s a good example from ReVision Energy, a New England solar installer, who told a fun, personal story with video — and music: 

Many solar companies shy away from being bold like this because they fear they won’t be taken seriously. My answer to that is that you can still be bold and fun and be taken seriously. It’s all about how you do it, what you or a spokesperson says, and what you show. How are you connecting with your target audience, and by “connecting,” I mean “relating” to them?

Here’s another great example from Toyota. It’s funny, yet people take the product seriously and relate to the modern parent characters:

5.    They got publicity. With all of the above assets in hand, they put their fundraiser on Indegoggo, and then they and/or a PR agency sent these assets to key publications and bloggers that would “get” their authentic story, which was deemed compelling. That tech blog network spread their share-worthy video even farther, and when these articles found their way to Facebook, Twitter, reddit, and other social networks, the viral match was lit.

That’s a basic outline of how Solar “Freakin” Roadways captured America’s solar imagination. Now, you and I must strive to do the same with our own companies with plain old conventional solar power. As we’ve seen here, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, since clearly Solar Roadways had a pretty small marketing budget.

And by the way, we must do this over and over again. As much as I’m lauding Solar Roadways’ marketing success, this too shall pass. It will soon be forgotten and the next viral cat video will grab America’s short attention spans. So, whatever viral success you achieve from my advice, realize that it will be temporary, and that you and other solar companies must do the same… over and over again in our own special way.

Likewise, if you try and fail to get viral attention for your solar marketing efforts, try again. Even Solar “Freakin’” Roadways took 2 years to become “viral,” but they kept trying, and so should all of us.

UnThink Solar. Please.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” is a solar marketing and communications consultant and the author of Solar Fred's Guide to Solar Guerrilla Marketing. Sign up for the Solar Fred Marketing Newsletter, or contact him through UnThink Solar. You can also follow @SolarFred on Twitter.




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