Using Social Marketing to Promote Energy Efficiency and Conservation

Environmental leader logo2 This Environmental Leader article echoes the mission and strategy of our ReCharge America campaign. Hummer presents some of the innovative social marketing and community efforts that several utilities and governments are developing to result in energy behavior change. Like ReCharge America, some of the best programs use community members as messengers, spread a positive message about home energy use and put a home's energy use/actions in the context of their communities.

Posted Mar. 22, 2010
By Jane Hummer, Environmental Leader

Utilities 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

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 globaly, 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.

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