Why the traditional passive marketing approach to energy efficiency programs has been inadequately effective

Utilities like Xcel and Centerpoint frequently include lists of energy-saving steps and ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs when they mail their bills to customers, often because they are required to do so by state law as in the case of Minnesota. In addition, utilities also stuff in information about a whole array of rebates, cash incentives or low-interest loans for energy-efficient products & home improvements. But the response rate & customer follow through has been too disappointingly low for the marketing dollars to translate into the equivalent energy savings. In reaction to modest response rates, the utility-funded energy efficiency marketing industry has doubled down offering slicker financing, refining their sales pitch, making their energy audits more convenient and increasing their rebates. Yet those doing the well-intentioned work under the usual methods still can’t seem get enough customers to be enthusiastic enough to manifest the energy savings on a scale we'd like to see. I myself have first hand experience doing energy efficiency doorknocking and getting less than 2% response rates when we simply left a flyer. For one thing, there is no substitute for direct personal contact. In order to exceed these historical modest levels of participation in energy efficiency programs among small businesses and residents, it will require some skilled community engagement and educational outreach from block leaders, energy service contractors, and community groups that goes far beyond the scope of where utility bureaucracies usually reach.

Why does the traditional marketing / advertising approach not work out so well when it comes to energy efficiency?

The usual advertising messages we usually see in the media are intended for the viewer to do simple end-use actions such as choosing one brand of service or product over another or voting for one candidate over another. However, saving home energy is usually a more complex and multi-step of a process than the “products bought and sold” activities which usual marketing operations are accustomed to. Purchasing advertising to spread messages on energy efficiency may be valuable for awareness raising, but it does not guarantee of actual behavior change. The first-hand contact we have with other people we know has greater influence upon our behavioral outcomes than the traditional marketing operations directed from companies.

By all means, providing information is a necessary step in achieving follow-through on energy efficiency. It is just that information-only approaches are ineffective in driving behavior changes. We can’t deny that outcome is genuinely frustrating. It is so easy just to distribute printed materials and leave it at that. If only bill-stuffers, flyers, door-hangers and direct mail could do the trick in transferring energy efficiency program dollars into actual energy savings, it would all be just so easy. New and robust community engagement and outreach strategies would not be necessary if the information-only approach had proven effective.

Overall, what are 3 reasons why an information-only approach does not work well in generating a decent response rate?  


      Typical utility customers have been so inundated with so many have loud marketing messages from so many different companies (with some making dubious-sounding promises of "saving thousands on your energy bill") that they start tuning them all out and not knowing which messenger to trust. In addition, there are a number of people who have followed through and hired energy efficiency contractors to do work on their home at a bargain-sounding price, only to find out later that the work of the contractors did not solve the energy waste problem. Such experiences and stories serve to build up a skeptical outlook in regard to confusion over who to trust. What does it look like for an energy efficiency contractor to go about their work in an informative and honest way? It would often lead to them telling a likely customer that they will need to either pony up ten thousand dollars or to expect disappointing results that don’t have much energy. That leads directly into the next barrier. 


      Utility customers at or below the poverty line often pay a large proportion of their monthly income into paying their energy utility bill. However, this same demographic that has the greatest financial incentive to undertake home energy saving measures has the least amount of means to access them. The reason is because so many of the available energy saving programs are only accessible to those can pay the cost up-front, have a high enough credit score to qualify for a loan, or own their own homes. Meanwhile, upper-income utility customers usually pay such a minute portion of their monthly budget on their energy utility bill that they hardly even notice the difference. Unless an affluent individual is strongly motivated by environmental virtue, they might have a greater incentive to spend their extra money on a fancy vacation as opposed to investing it in home energy efficiency. As a result, a key factor leading to low response rates is there is only a small middle ground niche market of utility customers who both have the immediate financial incentive to undertake energy efficiency and the means to conveniently access to the available programs.  


Let's suppose an energy service contractor does person-to-person contact with a simple unimpeachable message of saving money by saving energy.  I myself was part of an outreach team that gave a more deeply moral and genuine basic message of saving energy as the link between saving money on one end and saving our planetary environment on the other. That basic dual message almost always generated a positive up-front response among any resident who time to talk. But that initial brief contact rarely ever resulted in the same people actually devoting time to respond to our follow up-phone messages and emails on taking further steps they initially expressed interest in. There can not be too many people around who have both no internal motivation either to save Earth or save money.  But it seems saving earth and saving money were still too esoteric of messages to overcome a tepid, lack of enthusiasm and follow through rates for saving energy. By all means, it is not a good or excusable state of affairs when a utility customer only starts to care enough about home energy efficiency when they get an ice dam or some expensive but preventable disaster.

A better messages for engagement would be to talk about home comfort and to pitch the benefits of energy efficiency actions in a language that is more relatable and less esoteric. If a resident has asthma or allergies that personal experience becomes a big hook for taking action on indoor air quality. So overall, what hidden factor that lies behind this mystifying lack of enthusiasm and follow through on energy efficiency? It is when an individual has a lack of systemic understanding on how so many factors like home comfort, indoor air quality, ice dams, asthma, and other health concerns are all interconnected to home energy efficiency issues that could be solved by a comprehensive retrofit. So the role for both energy service providers and community engagement groups is to build relationships with potential customers and gently educating them about building science a little bit at a time until they can think systematically about the issue.  

     Person-to-person community engagement is necessary for us to accelerate progress on energy efficiency. The reasons why an information-only approach falls short in the case of energy efficiency lends insight into what essential aspects the community engagement should include:

1) If we have people putting in the effort to do community engagement, the energy efficiency programs need to be streamlined to stop confusion from becoming a barrier to action. Having a system of accrediting energy efficiency service providers on hand is a way to overcome the "Who to trust?" barrier.

2) Policy changes may be needed to make energy efficiency programs accessible to low-income, renters, and residents of multi-family buildings. Therefore having utility Partnerships with local governments are a key part of making community engagement effective in overcoming external barriers.

3) When doing community engagement, we can not miss the opportunity to do some education that connects energy efficiency to a whole host of relatable concerns in order to build up internal motivation.

4) It is important to have fall-back options as far as what to engage the community on so that the personal effort invested into outreach has less likelihood of becoming a conversational dead-end. If a community member who is being engaged with expresses that they have no further need for energy efficiency program help, they might be enthusiastic about becoming part of a local Community Solar Garden.     

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