Utilities and governments across North America are discovering the power of applying social marketing strategies to the difficult task of changing residential consumers’ attitudes and behaviors related to energy conservation. Traditionally, the risk-averse utility industry has not invested much in promoting behavior change, preferring instead to provide incentives for the installation of energy-efficient lighting and appliances which have known, persistent savings. This method serves utilities well by enabling easy calculation of their program’s cost-effectiveness.
However, it does little to create lasting demand for energy efficiency once a program’s financial incentives run out. In order to transform the market for energy efficiency and make conservation behaviors as commonplace as recycling, a more sustained effort to win over consumers’ hearts and minds is necessary. In other words: give a man a CFL, secure one CFL’s worth of energy savings; teach a man to love the CFL, inspire a lifetime of energy-efficient behaviors. Some of the innovative ways that utilities and governments have applied the principles of social marketing to increase their program participation, reduce overhead costs, and transform markets for energy efficiency follow below.
Many of the most engaging behavior change campaigns abide by the old adage, “think globally, act locally” by forming partnerships with local governments, schools, non-profits, churches, and other community groups to deliver the program on a local level. The global danger of climate change can seem overwhelming to individuals who read about doomsday scenarios in the newspaper and are bombarded with energy conservation messages from a multitude of sources, often with political and financial agendas. Local non-profits and community groups are viewed as credible messengers who can remind people that even small actions can make a real difference if taken by many people. These local partners can provide logistical and financial support as well as volunteer manpower, greatly extending the reach of a state- or utility-sponsored campaign.
One example of a campaign that has done this particularly well is Project Porchlight – a campaign sponsored by utilities and governments across the U.S. and Canada. The campaign recruits volunteers through community groups, schools, and businesses, and the volunteers canvass their neighborhoods and deliver free CFL bulbs as well as targeted energy efficiency program information from the sponsoring utility. The economies of scale from purchasing many bulbs, and the use of volunteers to deliver the bulbs, result in very cost-effective energy savings, even before you take into account the effects of additional savings from behavior changes or additional energy efficiency purchases that likely result from the bulb recipients’ increased knowledge of energy efficiency options.
One reason that community-based campaigns like Project Porchlight are so successful is because people are often more receptive to messages coming from people that they perceive as their peers. The trained volunteers are able to engage their neighbors in peer-to-peer dialogues about opportunities to save energy (beyond installing the bulb). By presenting energy-efficient behaviors as mainstream things that “people like yourself do”, campaigns can invoke the power of social norms. People are more likely to change their behavior if they believe that others are doing so, too, and most people harbor a strong desire to avoid being perceived as outside the mainstream. The one-on-one interactions made possible through community-based social marketing campaigns (and the use of social media) also enable people to ask questions and obtain information that is personalized to their unique situation, which further increases the likelihood that they’ll act on the information that they receive.
Another way that utilities invoke social norms to promote energy conservation is by providing comparative billing data on how one household’s energy consumption compares to similar homes in their neighborhood. Several companies, most notably OPOWER, provide software solutions to utilities to implement this comparative billing strategy, which has consistently resulted in energy usage reductions averaging 1.5-3.5% per customer in pilots across the country. There is anecdotal evidence that participants actually look forward to opening their utility bills, hoping to see the little smiley face that indicates that they used less energy than most of their neighbors. Making energy efficiency and conservation seem fun and feasible for an ordinary household (rather than an onerous exercise in deprivation undertaken only by “tree-huggers”) is essential to winning over the hearts and minds of the average consumer and transforming the market for residential energy efficiency.
Attempting to influence consumer behavior and purchases through social incentives rather than financial ones is a major shift in thinking for most utilities. State governments can help ease them through the transition to a more behavior-focused approach by creating a regulatory environment which encourages and incentivizes the development and evaluation of behavior-based pilot programs which will demonstrate the magnitude and persistence of energy savings. The state of California has recently taken steps toward allowing the energy savings from comparative billing programs (such as OPOWER) to count towards utilities’ mandated energy efficiency targets, but much more remains to be done to enable utilities to deploy the full range of social marketing strategies and thus help create an enduring culture of energy conservation in the U.S.
Jane Hummer is a senior consultant at Navigant Consulting.