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Using Social Marketing to Promote Energy Efficiency and Conservation

hummer, janeUtilities 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.

Jane Hummer
Jane Hummer is a senior consultant at Navigant Consulting.
 
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12 thoughts on “Using Social Marketing to Promote Energy Efficiency and Conservation

  1. Although you are using the CFL campaign as an example of a successful strategy it is also an irresponsible campaign as consumers were not informed of the mercury problem that is being created by the CFL bulbs. I see this as an example of “green wash” rather than informing the public on how to make truly sustainable choices and changes. In the past few months a report was released in the NY times revealing that their is not a single waterway in the US that does not have mercury issues. The CFL’s are creating the same issue in landfills with the potential to poison our ground water. LED’s on the other hand do not have such an issue. I hope you will consider using better examples in your future articles as they are influential to those who read them.

  2. Maria, Your concerns are completely misplaced, however well intentioned they were.

    CFLs save about 3/4 of the energy an incandescent bulb of the same brightness uses. Since most of the electricity generated in this country comes from burning coal, and since the burning of coal releases mercury into the environment, the CFLs actually save considerably more mercury emissions than what may be released when they are disposed of. The burning of coal represents the vast majority of mercury emissions in this country – far ahead of all other sources COMBINED. Even including the CFLs.

    In addition, the reason that CFLs eventually burn out is that the mercury they do contain becomes chemically bound to the fluorescent material coating the inside of the bulb. Therefore, when the bulb is disposed of, almost all of the mercury it contains is trapped in place, rather than being free to percolate into groundwater, etc. So CFLs actually do not create “the same issue in landfills with the potential to poison our ground water”.

  3. Further information:

    The following text is a response from the EnergyStar web site (EPA) and can be found at: http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf.

    The EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 104 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. Most of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.) Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL – about 11 percent – is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken. Therefore, if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) – they would add 0.13 metric tons, or 0.1 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.

  4. Nice post. I think you have captured the thinking behind applying social influence to behavioral change rather well. This kind of approach can be used to address many issues. I expect we will see more of it in the years ahead. Along with a transition to LED’s.

  5. Great article!! We are launching a similar campaign targeting youth called GreenMyParents. Kids, ages 10-17, lead a program of green in the home and negotiate with their parents for a share of the financial savings.

    The idea, much like what Jane Hummer describes, turns kids into advocates with their family and peers to strive for $100 of savings individually and $100 million as a group.

    Visit us on facebook: http://facebook.com/GreenMyParents/

  6. Excellent topic – and great comments!

    I’m always surprised when I see companies promoting their green efforts primarly through mass media – media which that doesn’t allow a two-way communication. The message sent out is meticulously crafted and tested, which makes me wonder if the company consciously chose that platform so campaign viewers cannot easily express their opinion.

    I’ve always been a firm believer that, if a company wants to promote social and environmental change, it needs to engage the public and empower interaction. Social media is a natural fit.

  7. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments. It’s very exciting to see so much interest in this topic and the growing momentum behind using social/behavioral insights to strengthen energy efficiency program offerings.

    Sofia – I definitely agree that it’s surprising (and somewhat suspicious) when companies use such tightly crafted media messages to promote their “green” street cred. A big theme I’ve seen in my research is the demand for interactive, two-way forms of communication (both between consumers and companies as well as peer-to-peer communication between consumers).

    Also, regarding the issue of mercury in CFL bulbs: the Project Porchlight campaign highlighted in my article does make a point to distribute information about safely recycling CFLs. See their website: http://www.projectporchlight.com/content/cfl-recyclers.

  8. Dear Jane, Thank you for this article and raising an issue that has been overlooked. I am interested in learning more about promoting energy efficiency with the help of social-based marketing. Do you recommend any additional articles/books or research on that topic?

  9. Hi, This article is very interesting. Do you recommend any books or other articles that relate to the impact social marketing could have on energy efficiency?

  10. Jane, I work at the Center of Information Management and Energy Development in La Habana, Cuba. I have read your article and I would like to request you more information about social marketing to promote energy efficiency, like articles or pdf documents.

    Thank you very much.

    Mario.

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