The Atlanta-based Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) recently released its first-ever study of the factors that motivate consumers to engage with utilities and smart grid-enabled products. "Our consumer polls and segmentation research have not shown any increase in consumer awareness or engagement over the past year or two," SGCC Executive Director Patty Durand told us in an interview. "We wanted to find out why."
So a poll was executed for the group by Market Strategies International of Livonia, Mich, from July18-Aug 23, where 493 adult (18+) heads of households were interviewed by telephone. The report on the findings was titled, "Motivations and Emotions of Engaged Consumers," SGCC said.
"What is really interesting," Durand said, "is that many more consumers 'think they are engaged' in energy efficiency and energy savings than truly are, just because they are turning off their lights and turning the heat up or down, as necessary, to save money. However, that's not really the level of engagement we are seeking and it is unfortunate that these two things are the only step they think they can take," she added.
"People can only cut back so much on heating or air conditioning before they become uncomfortable. We are thinking not only of the adoption of such new technology as smart grids, smart homes and demand response but also of low-tech efforts that home owners can make.
"Caulking, sealing and insulation are the first moves a consumer should take in the home. You don't want to have fancy gadgets in a very leaky house," she added.
"Our new report talks at length about how to bring such low-engagement consumers along to high engagement. Think about cooking videos," Durand said. "They teach people a low-tech skill. Even a video on caulking would be helpful," she added.
"One of the biggest findings that has come out of this effort is that consumers would be more interested if we 'made things easier.' Our respondents clearly want to do more around energy, but they find the barriers too high to overcome. So what we want is to lower the pain point cause minimal disruption to their lifestyles.
"With out-of-the box installation, easy activation, intuitive use: Make it too hard and they will walk away."
Some findings from the poll were counter-intuitive and could be game changers in the effort to boost engagement, SGCC said. For example, while it would be easy to assume that the highest level of awareness and interest would be among the youngest, most tech-savvy respondents those in the 18-34 demographic the 35-55 age group and even the 55+ respondents ranked above less mature participants, it added.
Some 24% of the 18-34 group were highly engaged compared to 41% of the 35-55 part and 36% of the 55+ group.
Durand speculated the reason was, "With age comes more wealth and more concerns about saving money." Also, fewer of the youngest respondents own homes, so they would be less-concerned about making changes that affect energy efficiency.
"Overall, the study found, those with lower incomes and renters tend to feel constrained in their ability to make certain financial investments or renovations to their housing," she added.
With fewer millennials engaged, are consumers less likely to be informed by and engrossed in social media? The survey found that 10% of the most highly engaged consumers got their information through social media and 14% would send texts to the utility or happily receive them while 47% said they would visit the utility's website for online bill payments and 38% would use the utility's website for energy management.
The poll found program participation among the highly engaged broke down this way:
21% were enrolled in time-of-use rate programs;
20% in direct load control programs;
15% in critical peak programs;
5% in prepay programs though 7% of "average engagers" signed up for these, and
8% were enrolled in loyalty programs.
Those identified as "low engaged" were not involved in four of five of the above programs but 3% took part in a pre-pay program.
This is not demographics
"I want to caution you and anyone out there who is looking at our results against thinking in terms of demographics," Durand said. "The fact is, people care about these topics independent of age, income, race or educational attainments.
"What we are trying to do is encourage industry stakeholders to think about customers in a more complex way."
Indeed, the researchers found that highly-engaged consumers tend to cite more internal and/or future-oriented motivations for both their overall interest and specific purchases and program participation. Their inspiration might include "providing for future generations and caring for the environment."
By contrast, low-engagement consumers tended to be motivated by immediate gratifications such as saving money, convenience and control, the poll found.
What they bought so far
The respondents reported buying these energy-saving products (listed in descending order): CFL or LED light bulbs, ceiling fans, Energy Star appliances, weather stripping or insulation, attic vents, programmable thermostats, motion detectors, smart appliances, solar panels, in-home energy displays, in-home energy management systems and electric or hybrid vehicles.
Among those who took part in at least one energy-management program or who bought at least one energy management product, almost half said they learned about it online and not at their utility's website.
Respondents were asked to position themselves on a five-point scale, where 1-3 were less energy conscious and 4-5 were engaged. Out of the entire respondent group, 36% rated themselves from 1-3 and 64% rated themselves from 4-5.
Ultimately, said Durand, the challenge will be how to lead low engagement consumers to higher engagement levels. The answer to this challenge depends, in part, on how consumers perceive their own energy consciousness.
Reaching the energy conscious
She described strategies for two groups within the study that needed help. First was the "Low Engaged/Energy Conscious" group. To move them to higher engagement level appears to be hampered by life-stage issues such as income and housing, the study found.
While messages about environmental savings and even financial savings were sure to be received positively, it is the practicality, affordability and simplicity of messages that will be critical to getting this group of consumers to try new and existing energy programs. Stakeholders need to consider the design of programs to help address the life stage barriers such as inability to make changes to rental units and/or lack of capital present within this group.
Rising to the challenge
The other group that needs help is the "Low Engaged/Low Energy Conscious" that poses a bigger challenge, SGCC said. These consumers are not only not engaged, but have much less interest in engaging.
But this group reported willingness to make changes to cut their bill although whatever they do has to be simple, the poll found. SGGC recommended that utilities and other stakeholders do this by designing or upgrading programs and technologies to actually be easy-to-use and convenient.
Marketing communication for these new programs and technologies then needs to be targeted on the ease of installation/activation and ease of use low pain, same levels of comfort and minimal disruption to lifestyle. SGCC recommended that, to assess progress in engaging these two low-engagement groups, utilities consider measuring customer effort, customer satisfaction and response rates when determining the effectiveness of programs.
Durand's bottom line
"While most consumers are interested in saving money and the environment, what seems to separate the groups is financial ability to pay and the effort required to participate," Durand said." By addressing these issues, we believe our research shows that utilities and other stakeholders can drive significant improvements in customer engagement and satisfaction and ultimately realize the potential of their grid modernization investments."
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