Finding the ‘Secret Sauce’ to define and motivate your target audience

Most people can agree that being efficient consumers of energy is a good thing. And yet encouraging energy efficiency can be challenging, in part because the potential audience can be huge and diverse, and in part because making a change, even if it saves you money, typically requires effort.

That’s why it’s essential to find the people who are most likely to give energy-efficiency programs a try. Intelligent use of customer data can help target and inform a receptive audience. Members of this audience will then be encouraged to take action with some motivation.

I recently moderated a panel at the Behavior Energy and Climate Conference in Washington, D.C., where three experts discussed innovative ways to strategically target energy-efficiency programs, address factors that make people hesitant to join, and then scale the program.

For example, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) wanted to encourage customers to switch to more efficient water heaters, an effort that, if successful, could save 500 megawatts, the amount of power consumed by the homes in Seattle and Boise combined.

Becca Yates, the alliance’s marketing and communications manager, said the group narrowed down its audience from more than 12 million customers of some 100 utilities by using its own customer data plus information from other sources, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. The alliance identified a potential customer base of likely early adopters in certain areas, then created segments using criteria such as use of electricity for heating, home value, and income.

NEEA needed to persuade customers to buy an energy-saving product that had a rather high upfront cost. It achieved increased sales by targeting online ads to sites focused on home and garden, appliances, remodeling, energy efficiency, and green living. It also used cookies to re-target customers who did not act the first time they saw the ads, which helped generate awareness. NEAA also used direct mail campaigns, getting better results after urging customers to meet a rebate deadline.

In the Rocky Mountain region, Questar Gas wanted to encourage customers to take part in its appliance rebate and efficiency program, even though customers’ rates in the natural gas-rich region are among the lowest in the nation.

Ted Peterson, Questar’s energy efficiency program manager, said the company was already sending customers reports comparing their energy use to their neighbors’, based on a range of home sizes, building ages and other general factors. But the utility found ways to provide better comparisons, based on specific home sizes, weather zones, service contracts, and a new mathematical formula that ensured only the most similar customers would be compared.

The utility also emulated companies like Netflix and Amazon, which make product recommendations like, “Customers who bought this product also bought…”  to recommend products like a new water heater or furnace, showing the amount the customer would save.

Using data to target and inform your audience is a critical step, but members of this audience may need additional motivation. This motivation was demonstrated by utilities in North Carolina and Vermont, which wanted to get more customers to use ENERGY STAR-certified LED light bulbs. LED bulbs use about 80 percent less energy than traditional 60-watt incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer. But customers are sometimes reluctant to buy them because they’re more expensive and harder to find.

Working with Home Depot and Costco in North Carolina, Duke Energy set up in-store events to promote a sale that put the cost of a bulb at about $5. With plenty of stock on hand, representatives used a lighting strip to demonstrate ease of use. Customers signed cards pledging to convert one bulb in their home to an LED. The in-store promotions resulted in an almost 900 percent increase in sales, and area residents’ daily energy use dropped significantly in the month after the events. In addition, 84 percent of those who participated in the in-store event said the next light bulb they bought would be an LED.

In Vermont, students at one elementary school sold LED bulbs at a reduced cost as a fundraiser. The goal of the drive was to get customers to change all the incandescent bulbs in one room to LEDs. The results: 87 homeowners bought a total of 1,022 bulbs. In an Efficiency Vermont customer survey, 78 percent said they planned to buy an LED bulb in the future.

Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University and advisor to the ENERGY STAR program, who did a case study on the projects, said customers in both the Duke Energy and Efficiency Vermont promotions reduced their overall energy use in the weeks after buying the LED bulbs.

Driving participation in energy-saving programs doesn’t have to be a hit-or-miss strategy. These efforts show that intelligent use of data can help identify a target audience and break down barriers, so customers will be more open to a new, more efficient technology. This is how we will move toward a more sustainable future.