Gimmicks, giveaways and technologiesthat boost online consumer Web use

Roxane Richter
Customer Systems Editor

You can hear the energy consumer pitches now: “Check us out, we’ve got a live Web site bird cam.” “Hey, downloadable coupons with every sign-up.” “The best offer in frequent flyer points.” “Pssst, over here – free trees.” Like circus hawkers vying for passing by end-users, energy companies are desperately trying – through gimmicks, giveaways, one-click convenience and new technologies- to get consumers online to sign up, switch off, buy and alter their energy-related services and products.

From new-age “shop bots”(automated comparison shopping software) to online enrollment and review technologies, and usage analysis engines to energy bill calculations and e-billing – end-users are being bombarded with techno-glitz and glamour aimed at keeping them online and buying.

But if you think you have some extended period of time to capture and sell the Web-wearied e-surfer, you’re wrong. A recent study showed that that some of the top-notch Web properties (including AOL, Yahoo! and MSN) catch the user’s eye for no more than 28 seconds to a high of one minute and six seconds. So what is it that makes the online user keep coming back for more?

Gimmicks, gadgets and more

One of the more creative (and seemingly successful) ploys to get users online seems to be offering the new, the unusual and well, the downright weird. Case in point: Northern States Power Company’s BirdCam 2000. In live time, NSP consumers and Web surfers can watch the antics of a nestload of fluffy Peregrine falcon chicks who are perched atop the utility’s King power plant at The birds have proven so popular that the utility sells toy plush replicas of the furry bundles for $9.95 through their online store (along with energy mascot-emblazoned “Reddy Kilowatt” and “Reddy Flame” flannel boxer shorts, caps, shirts and golf towels).

“We always send out a news release on the falcons, and since we’re in our fourth year, we’ve got a lot of people who have book-marked the site. We hear from bird watchers, teachers, students and people in offices,” said Pam Fricke, NSP’s manager of creative services, “We had 850,000 hits in 1999. And since April, we’ve had 700,000 already in about two months since the new chicks were born.”

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Another innovative offering pulling more customers online is NSP’s new e-billing deal with CheckFree. In June, the utility began offering its two million customers in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona the option of paying their natural gas and power bills electronically. So far, Fricke said, the utility is signing up about 20 e-billing customers per day.

But take away energy companies’ gimmicks and e-bells and whistles and what have you got to get the end-user to sign on the dotted line? “Leading energy dot.coms don’t even compare to other industry sites like They just don’t have the full customer experience,” said Charles Maglione, Proxicom’s director of utilities practice, “A lot of sites are merely information sites that don’t actually ‘sell’ you. There’s comparison sites, auction sites and so on, but very few energy transactional sites, where you can take the comparison data, sign up for service and be billed online so the entire transaction is seamless.”

Proxicom, an e-business consulting firm, researches and reviews industry sites based upon on what they call the “Eight C’s” criteria: Customer service, Context, Content, Commerce, Customer experience, Capability, Community and Customization. Today’s e-secret to capture online consumers, according to Maglione, is customization. “It’s why you go back to the site. Like My Yahoo! or, there’s a nugget, a caveat, for you there. Whether you offer community-focused interest, like community events, or whatever, you’re offering additional areas of commerce. That gets people to get on and stay on the site.”

Using the Internet to serve

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The majority of utilities today though, already offer the “basics” of online customer care, service and product offerings. For instance, on the Detroit Edison site (, a consumer can: convert electric service from overhead to underground; turn on electrical service; disconnect electrical service; place a service request for outdoor protective lighting, a meter change, or a meter reading due to an estimated bill; request account information (such as a 12-month billing history), payment history or current balance; find bill payment locations; find the customer office location; learn how to read an electric meter; and check the status of interruptions (for interruptible air conditioning or water heating). Plus, there’s an abridged, user-friendly dictionary of utility definitions to help educate the end-user, including definitions like “transformer,” “main disconnect,” and “meter box.”

Using the Internet to cut costs

For its penny-pinching clients, the DTE Web site also features an incandescent light bulb versus fluorescent lighting cost engine. Users can input their current incandescent light bulb wattage and the approximate hours of use each day into several fields. After clicking on the “calculate savings” button, clients can view cost savings by switching to fluorescent bulbs.

“There’s a small minority of people who’ll use energy calculators,” Proxicom’s Maglione admits. “Generally, it’s the same person who measures how many miles they get per gallon in their car.”

One company betting on penny pinchers is Oakland, Calif.-based Energy Interactive. With an average target of 10-20 percent savings off a consumer’s total energy bill (and not just energy charges), Energy Interactive offers current clients like Commonwealth Edison, Duke Power and Virginia Power a software package called Home Energy Audit for their end-users to elicit the highest efficiencies from their home energy usage.

“If you saw a store with a sign that said ‘three percent savings’ would you rush in?” asked John Powers, president of Energy Interactive, referring to the average savings on retail switching. “For people who use energy, the benefits of using energy better far outweigh the benefits of switching suppliers.”

Powers said he’s found that it’s dangerous to classify residential consumers as a homogenous group. People who take online surveys generally fall into three categories, explained Powers, “the environmentally conscious, the do-it-yourselfer and the people with high bills who want to better understand energy costs.”

For utilities, Energy Interactive offers Energy Profiler Online, a Web-enabled energy information and analysis service that gives users the ability to manage real-time pricing and load curtailment programs, and to deliver online energy budgeting and bill estimation to major commercial and industrial customers. Currently, Potomac Electric, TXU, the Orlando Utilities Commission and Dayton Power and Light subscribe to this service and charge on average $20-$50 per meter per month for access.

For an apples-to-apples energy supplier cost comparison though, seems to lead the pack. Enermetrix’s Marketing Manager John Grayson said the company attempts to elicit users (mainly large retail buyers) through a variety of means, including free CD-ROMs that explain the enrollment process (and connects online with the exchange), free technology seminars and white papers for buying members, co-branding through seminars, advertising and marketing materials, bundled services and sales contests for members.

As for companies opting for freebies, gimmicks and giveaways in the current competition for retail customer acquisition, Grayson said: “Why replicate a lost leader? They’re all waiting for the market to mature. And instead of throwing a bunch of stuff at potential clients, they’re holding back.”

Speaking of customer stuff, several companies are attempting to lure consumers online through their Web-enabled toasters, refrigerators and ovens. How far are these “The Jetsons” space-age gadgets from your home and office? Well, they’re as close to you as your kitchen.

Internet-enabled refrigerators

If you scoff at the idea of an Internet-enabled refrigerator compiling your next grocery shopping list and sending it across the Web to your online grocer, well your intelligent networked refrigerator (and toaster and oven) may someday laugh at you.

Oakland, Calif.-based Sage Systems ( is now bringing Internet connectivity – through intelligent networked home outlets and appliances – right to your Web browser. Steve Raschke, Sage’s founder and CEO said the “intelligent home” market has made huge strides in boosting homeowner-friendliness while lowering costs. For a mere $895, a new homeowner can implement Aladn (Autonomous Local Area Distributed Network), a lightweight device-networking technology, in four light switches, a smart outlet for the refrigerator (usually the largest energy-consuming device), an Internet-enabled thermostat, a PC-connecting unit, and an intelligent gateway (plugs electrical panel into Web site). Established homes can get connected for about $30 per outlet. (See Figures 1 and 2)

So what, in Raschke’s opinion, brings people back to the Web? “It’s not online billing,” quipped Raschke, “Big deal. Everyone can offer that. We can embed a home page for each utility customer’s home. As a customer, I can check on my refrigerator to see if dust bunnies have collected on the coils, which reduces the appliance’s efficiency by 50 percent. I can set the thermostat at my comfort level and turn on my lights before I get home. When my latchkey kids get home, the system can tell me that they got inside safely and when.”

Competitors in the intelligent appliance market, according to Interactive magazine, include: Whirlpool (collaborating with Sun Microsystems to develop Internet-enabled refrigerators and other appliances using Sun’s Jini device-networking technology); General Electric and Maytag (incorporating Microsoft’s Universal Plug and Play into products); Echelon (LonWorks offers light switches and other electrical devices); and emWare (working with GE and Sunbeam to network non-PC home devices).

Outside the home, Aladn’s capabilities can also be admirably deployed by utilities. From a load-shedding perspective, the system’s remote devices can control thousands of end-user’s thermostats, averting blackouts and costly power purchases.

“In the past, remote devices for thermostats have been pretty dumb. A simple ‘on’ or ‘off’ command,” explained Raschke. “There’s been a fair amount of consumer backlash from utilities just switching off power in peak demand times. But we allow utilities to send out a single command over the Internet to incrementally set back a few thousand customer’s thermostats by a few degrees. It gets utilities past the tough spots in peak demand plus offers financial incentives to lower customer’s bills.”

On the Web, the customer receives a full report of any load shedding ordered throughout the day, yet still hold the option of override the system, a relationship which increases customer satisfaction while reducing energy consumption, Raschke explained.

In conclusion, there may be numerous gimmicks, giveaways, one-click convenience and new technologies available today to get consumers online to sign up, switch and buy energy-related services and products. But in the end, it seems to hold true that the customer is king and high levels of high-tech customer service are mandatory in order to engender high rates of customer retention.

My only fear in reaching out to this type of space-age energy future is that in the not-too-distant future someone will market an intelligent toaster that exceeds my own I.Q.

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