Socially acceptable: Dialog between utilities and customers headed for change

by Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

Those of us around in 1973 didn’t have set-top satellite receivers sucking up programming and power 24 hours a day. Nor did we have a home computer running continuously, flat-screen TVs or chargers hooked into iPods and cell phones scattered around the house. Such gadgets use a lot of juice. But, if engineers hadn’t improved the energy efficiency on all our gizmos over the years, our economy would now consume nearly 50 percent more energy than it actually does, according to calculations performed by the Alliance to Save Energy.

Given that, plus global warming and the U.S. Department of Energy prediction that electricity demand will rise 30 percent by 2030, it’s no wonder that electric utilities are starting to focus more on conservation. With that new focus comes a new conversation with customers, a shift to “social marketing.” It uses all the tools of traditional marketing but, instead of peddling product, utilities will sell ideals and behavior change.

For the greater good

Behavior change is at the heart of any utility demand response program aimed at lowering peak loads, and getting people to make that change could well require a tug at social consciousness. “At some level, this is the ultimate in benevolent gestures,” says Bill LeBlanc, president of the consultancy Boulder Energy Group and senior advisor to the energy research firm E Source.

Unlike a save-money pitch in an on-going conservation program, a demand-response appeal asks people to think beyond their own pocketbooks. LeBlanc sums it up this way: “If I do my part, if I help the utility, maybe we won’t have to build another power plant.” On the other hand, one consumer turning off an air conditioner isn’t going to do much good, he continues. The benefits of demand response only accrue “if people act collectively. From a social-norms standpoint, you have to convince people this is worth doing as a group.”

This is where social marketing comes in. “We’re selling a way of being,” says Patricia Thompson, a senior consultant with Summit Blue Consulting. “Learning is not just an individual process. It’s a community process. We’re very much affected by the habits or mores of our communities.”

As evidence, researchers from Arizona State University found that people are more likely to litter on a dirty street than a clean one. Likewise, people involved in conservation programs actually conserved more when they felt their neighbors were conserving more.

For this reason, social marketing is well suited to social media — online or mobile media tools designed for interactive sharing of information. According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is itself a form of social media, “Social media can take many forms,” including blogs and Internet forums. Networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are social media applications.

Navigating cyberspace

Why is social media a good fit for social marketing? LeBlanc points out, a person’s milieu, or social environment, is different now than it was 10 years ago. “Before, my group was probably going to be my work group, my neighbors, a club,” all very solid entities. “Now, I can have virtual groups.”

One neat thing about virtual groups is that they generate digital data. “With social media, you can actually mine data off the conversations you’re interested in,” says Patricia Thompson. That is, you can discover which constituents are saying what, and “Pinpoint your likely prospects in the social media space.”

What’s more, virtual groups have gone mainstream. LinkedIn now has some 30 million professionals registered. Before you assume they’re all under the age of 30, consider this: The same day I wrote this story, the president of a successful advanced-metering technology company sent me an email invitation to connect through this venue.

And, social media can reach people when they’re in a good spot to hear your message. According to researchers who evaluated the effectiveness of California’s 2006-2007 Flex Your Power (FYP) demand-response campaign, one shortfall of the program was that peak alerts often reached people when they were in no position to cut energy use.

“Someone needs to be home during peak hours to adjust thermostat settings or turn off unneeded lights,” the researchers wrote in their report. That’s not likely if you’re getting the word out over peak drive-time radio spots.

In fact, the researchers concluded, “Online advertising, text messaging, email and other cost-effective social media channels are underutilized.” As Thompson, who was one of the FYP evaluators, says: “It’s hard to avoid a text message in a way that you can avoid an email, phone call or TV commercial.”

So, should utilities promote critical-peak load shedding through Twitter, the microblogging site that lets users send 140-character updates, called “tweets,” to those in their circle? It couldn’t hurt for socially motivated programs like demand response. Think of it as tweeting your customers right.

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 Utilimetrics News, the monthly publication of Utilimetrics (formerly the Automatic Meter Reading Association).

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