Powerful persuasion: The art of effective conservation messages

Summer cooling season is upon us, and soon there are bound to be a few utility professionals wishing customers would quite cranking up their air conditioners. If you’re wondering what works when preaching conservation to customers, you’ll find great guidance from the folks at Flex Your Power.

Launched in 2001, this publicly funded agency manages a coalition of utilities, businesses, government agencies and others to promote energy awareness and efficiency. The organization was instrumental in motivating historic conservation measures among California’s electricity users during that state’s energy crisis.

According to the agency’s website, statewide consumption dropped as much as 14 percent during peak hours in 2001. One-third of both commercial and residential customers cut energy use by at least 20 percent.

When Flex Your Power began its public-education efforts, 67 percent of Californians surveyed felt the energy crisis was the most important issue facing the state, says Wally McGuire, the organization’s executive director. At that time, utility pros and public-policy wonks worried that asking people to conserve energy would spark public ire. It didn’t, McGuire says. In fact, according to him, the public is ready to hear conservation messages. Following are a few pointers to make sure yours are as effective as they can be.

Knowing what they don’t know
When Flex Your Power staffers first started working on their educational campaigns, they did extensive market testing to see how much awareness their audience members had. Turns out, it wasn’t much.

“Less than 10 percent of people at the time understood the concept of ‘peak’ hours,” McGuire says. “They didn’t know it mattered when you use the energy.” Now, McGuire thinks around 60 percent of California residents understand electricity peaks.

Consumers are more aware of their own energy patterns now, too. Back in 2001, McGuire reports, a high number of those surveyed thought they were already conserving energy. But when he explored further, he found they didn’t understand things like power “vampires,” or always-on devices — such as battery chargers, VCRs, stereos with “stand-by” modes — that suck power even when not in use. Publicizing such information and giving practical energy-saving tips is a cornerstone of the Flex Your Power program.

Thinking green
Global warming is gaining attention, also, McGuire says. In fact, he thinks there has been a “sea change,” a profound transformation in awareness over the last six months. A survey conducted by Zogby America for the National Wildlife Federation last August indicates the shift has been gaining momentum for years.

Nearly three of every four survey respondents — 74 percent — are more convinced that global warming is a reality than they were in 2004, the survey showed. A majority of Democrats, Republicans, and political independents shared that belief, indicating what Zogby researchers called a “shift in the momentum of global warming believers.”

McGuire and his team used “Save energy, money and the environment” as their campaign’s tag line last year. Asked what message motivates more — save the environment or save money — he says they’re about equal in market testing. Used together, they can’t be beat, he maintains.

Marketing that fits to a “T”
There are four ‘T’s’ of any marketing campaign, McGuire says. The first is “targeting the right people and the right messages.” Flex Your Power administrators target specific messages for commercial, industrial, residential, institutional and even agricultural energy users. The group has changed messages over the years, also. Initially, blackout prevention was the goal. Now energy efficiency is behind organizational messaging.

What’s the difference between conservation and efficiency? According to McGuire, “turn out the light” is a conservation directive. “Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs” is an efficiency move.

Another “T” is timing. Most Flex Your Power campaign dollars get spent between June and September, as the group tries to lower summer-peak demand.

Tools make up a third “T.” McGuire cites several that California used: rebates on energy-saving appliances, rate incentives for cutting consumption, mandates on building green — the list goes on.

Tone is the final “T,” and McGuire says to keep it light and positive. “Never lecture, never use guilt or fear,” he warns. “Use an upbeat, positive message, even if you’re in the middle of a crisis. You need to convince people they really can make a difference.”

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