What works when you’re marketing ‘green’ energy?

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

Some 85 percent of utilities surveyed last year were offering energy audit programs. Another 61 percent were promoting “green” energy as a product, according to industry research firm Chartwell. But, participation in such programs is still fairly low. Only 2.3 percent of utility customers took advantage of online energy audits as recently as 2006. Just 2 percent chose to pay extra for renewable energy.

Maybe it’s the marketing.

If you visited Arizona Public Service’s website, you’d see they’re using altruistic messages to sell solar power and compact florescent lights. “Change a light bulb, change their future,” reads copy surrounding photos of four darling children.

Kansas City Power & Light takes a different tack. “Green solutions: Lower your bills,” their website says.

Which message might be truly effective? Neither, according to Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University.

Cialdini is the author of several books on persuasion, including “Influence: Science and Practice.” His books reflect three decades of research aimed at discovering why we comply. Fortune magazine ranks one of Cialdini’s tomes among their “75 Smartest Business Books” and, considering the author’s research on promoting conservation programs, his works could be smart reading for utility professionals.

Keeping up
“Normative beliefs are beliefs about the extent to which others are performing an action,” Cialdini explains, and there are different types of normative beliefs. For instance, descriptive norms cover what you think other people are doing, or behavior that’s “normal,” while injunctive norms have to do with what you think “other people approve or disapprove.” Both normative and injunctive beliefs come into play when crafting green messages, Cialdini has found.

Cialdini teamed with other researchers to query a group of California residents about saving energy at home. They asked survey respondents about behavior: “How often do you try to conserve energy?” Plus, they asked questions related to beliefs about saving energy: “How much do you think saving energy will protect the natural environment?” Or, “How much do you think saving energy will benefit society?”

The researchers also asked people what prompted them to conserve energy: “In deciding to conserve energy, how important is it to you that you’ll save money?” ” … protect the environment?” “… benefit society?” “…that other people conserve energy?” The investigative team also asked people if they thought their neighbors were working to conserve energy.

In the end, protecting the environment was the most popular reason to cut energy use. That was followed by societal benefits, then saving money. “Other people are doing it” wasn’t a popular choice. However, when the researchers correlated the reasons for saving energy with the self-reported energy conservation of the study participants, it was the group who thought others were conservationists who reported the most conservation themselves.

Truth meter
In the second half of the study, the team once again used California residents who received postcards and door-hangers telling them that researchers from a local university had an energy conservation study under way. The investigators sent residents an appeal to conserve energy for one of three reasons: Save money, protect the environment, or benefit society. In addition, some study participants simply were told that most of their neighbors were conserving energy.

This time, the researchers read electric meters to see which messages really worked, and it was the neighborly tip-off that pulled in the greatest response. None of the benevolent conservation messages worked as well as simply telling folks that “other people are doing this.”

Cialdini et al. did yet another experiment to test whether evidence of other people’s littering might somehow prompt people to litter. In this study, researchers tucked flyers under windshield wipers on cars and then waited to see if people were more likely to toss the flyers on the ground when the parking lot was already peppered with them. They were.

Even more littering occurred when study subjects saw a planted confederate toss a handbill onto much-littered ground, but there was less “me-too” littering when folks saw someone litter what was basically clean ground. Why? Because clean ground implied that littering wasn’t done or OK in the area.

Cialdini thinks that descriptive norms — norms that tell what people are doing — become more powerful when combined with injunctive norms, or perceptions of what others approve and disapprove. His studies bear this out, although influence-peddlers aren’t using such insights to help their causes.

“Those are two very powerful sources of influence and, indeed, we find that they are under-employed,” Cialdini says. “As a rule, communicators just don’t use those sources of influence, and that’s a big mistake.”

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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