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Solar as a Social Network?

Patrick Crane knows a thing or two about building networks. As the Former VP of Marketing for the popular business networking website LinkedIn from 2007 to 2010, Crane helped dramatically expand the site's reach and influence at a time when Facebook was beating down competitors like Friendster and Myspace.

Today, LinkedIn has become the go-to place for business networking – racking up more than 85 million users, 900 employees and, according to Bloomberg, growing to an estimated $2.9 billion in worth. The company is currently positioning itself for an IPO.

Now Crane is taking his understanding of building business around online networks and applying it to the solar industry. Last week, the web-based solar-services company Sungevity announced that Crane had joined on as Chief Marketing Officer – beefing up the company's already internet-savvy team.

“I like building things,” he says. “Sungevity is a means to use everything I'd done before in online...and hopefully accelerate the rate at which people are thinking about this amazing technology.”

Sungevity broke onto the scene with its streamlined quoting process in 2007 – giving homeowners a simple interface to compare aesthetics, pricing and connect with an installer. It has since raised tens of millions of dollars to build a solar lease product and expand its network of partner installers to new states.

The company also became a leading campaigner in the Solar on the White House campaign, using social networks to drive more than 50,000 online petition signatures for the cause.

With Crane's new role, Sungevity has stepped it up a notch, saying that the social and business networking concept (both online and physical) will become the core of its business. Solar as a Social Network, they call it.

What does that mean exactly?

So far, without any formal business execution, the term is a bit squishy. But it does offer a glimpse into what Sungevity wants to become: the go-to source for exchanging ideas and experiences about installing solar.

The term Solar as a Social Network was coined during Crane's own experience going solar. (He actually decided to join Sungevity after leasing a solar system through the company's iQuote platform). Upon installing a system on his roof, the entire neighborhood expressed interest – creating a unique talking point and a sense of pride.

“This triggers all kinds of social dynamics that occur in social networks,” he says. “It's about the natural network effects that start to happen when someone visibly goes solar.”

By identifying key customers willing to share their experiences offline and online, Sungevity hopes to leverage those social dynamics and increase its network of prosthelytizing customers. The same goes for the business side: By putting the tools in place to give installer partners better information about their services and their customers' needs, Sungevity can improve the quality of service and faster expand its installer network.

A lot of people out there might be saying, “so what?” After all, physical and online social networking has been important strategy for a number of companies.

Here are a few examples, among many:

  • SolarNexus provides web-based software that helps installers manage purchasing decisions and job-site information to streamline operations.
  • Numerous equipment and service providers have been building applications for mobile devices and social networks that allow users to share information about their solar system production or energy use.
  • And in physical networking, GRID Alternatives provides training programs for low-income communities and performs “solar barn-raisings” that allow locals to participate in an installation and learn more about the technology.

It remains to be seen how Sungevity will execute on its strategy. But last week's hiring news is certainly notable for the industry, as it brings in someone with successful, business-driven networking experience.

At a time when the online networking space became increasingly crowded between 2007 and 2010, Crane and the team at LinkedIn were able to differentiate their product and build a meaningful alternative to Facebook.

Can the team at Sungevity do the same for solar?

For an interview with Patrick Crane, listen to this week's podcast linked above. We'll also talk to Elliott Gansner of pvXchange about a piece he co-authored on the increasing fragmentation of the U.S. solar market.

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I am a reporter with ClimateProgress.org, a blog published by the Center for American Progress. I am former editor and producer for RenewableEnergyWorld.com, where I contributed stories and hosted the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast. Keep in to...

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