Suppose one of your members walks into a store, sees one of those newfangled thermostats you control from your smartphone, and wonders what it’s all about. Who would you want them to ask?

"We want them to come to us, the local co-op, when they have questions about how to manage their energy costs, questions about renewable energy, questions in general," said Tom Laing, vice president of research and member insights at TSE Services.

"We would rather they come to us, where we know they can get an honest and balanced opinion, rather than going to the internet, or some other resource that might not have our members' best interests at heart."

That's at the heart of Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives' brand strategy of being the trusted energy resource. And in the new 2016-2017 National Survey on the Cooperative Difference, Laing and his team asked more than 13,000 co-op members in 23 states where they'd go for advice on managing their energy use.

"The good news is that fully two-thirds of our members chose the co-op first," said Laing. "We've earned our members' trust, and they're coming to us with questions about energy efficiency. We just have to make sure we're in a position to answer them."

But that's only part of the equation, because the survey found that 39 percent of members said they'd take their questions to the internet, where "who knows what they get," Laing said.

And on questions about renewables, members were split almost evenly between the internet and the co-op as a first resource.

That means taking matters into your own hands. North Carolina cooperatives are pursuing digital ad strategies that put co-op content atop the search results when members enter certain key phrases. Members can click to get a co-op video and a link to more cooperative resources.

"It's an exciting time to be in our industry," Laing said. "To be able to put an ad right in front of a member—that you know is your member—who has searched on a phrase that you know you can provide answers to."

Lynn Moore, Touchstone Energy's executive director, noted that the national brand is pursuing that same strategy for its member co-ops.

"Once the ad is clicked they can find their local co-op and go directly to their cooperative's website," said Moore.

As part of its benefits, Touchstone Energy provides websites for its members. More than 500 cooperative systems use the Cooperative Web Builder tool to empower digital member engagement and position themselves as the trusted source.

"That's important," Moore stressed. "We want to make sure that people feel confident knowing they can either come through the real front door or the virtual front door to their local co-op."