Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Talking to consumers about energy

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative

Many of us spend our days talking to others who inhabit the same professional sphere and sometimes struggle to explain to those outside our field just what’s so important about what we do.  The power industry, in particular, suffers from this phenomenon, which is in partly why the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative was established – to help power utilities engage and communicate better with consumers.  And to help everyone talk to each other – technology vendors, consumer advocates, and consumers, about the changes taking place.

In the weeks ahead I’ll be working to take the issues associated with grid modernization – smart metering, dynamic pricing, utility capital investment, consumer choices around utility programs and home technologies – to a broader audience of laypersons. As approached this challenge I want to share my thinking around “how to talk to consumers.”

I welcome feedback from anyone with something practical to add to the following thoughts.

First, assume no specialized knowledge on the part of the consumer. Busy lives dominated by family needs, work and the pace of modern life often means that electricity is taken for granted. Flip a switch and it’s there. Our 20th century success in making electricity convenient, more or less reliable and affordable means that grabbing attention – just getting electricity to be properly valued – is a challenge. We’ve got to speak to consumers in terms they care about. In order to do that you have to ask questions or know something about them.

Even so, our research shows that nearly everyone cares about outages. For instance, it sometimes seems as if half of Americans know that when their power goes out they need to call the utility. The other half may not know this and can’t believe that’s the case when you point it out. Telling both sides about the outage detection abilities of smart meters might take different forms, but we might begin by asking whether they’ve been inconvenienced by an outage, and for how long.

Second, that brings us to “pain points.” If your audience is in a state along the Eastern Seaboard, ask how they were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Brace yourself! You might get a relieved “we were lucky, the outage only lasted a few hours.” But you might get an epic tale of woe from someone whose community lost power for a couple weeks. What, exactly, did they suffer through? Loss of life? Cold nights? Hot days? Spoiled food? Lack of information? Unable to get to work or back home? If a recent outage in a suburb of, say, Omaha, only cut power for an afternoon, did that impact the ability to charge a smartphone, make an appointment on time? Those pain points can frame your access to an engaging conversation.

Third, know your audience and, if necessary, ask questions to determine their knowledge. Then you can properly gauge the level of information they might find useful. I hear many people in the power industry who think they know what their consumers want or need, in terms of information or utility programs. But SGCC research, to cite one of my favorite examples, has often shown conventional wisdom to be flawed. Don’t assume you know your audience until you’ve actually studied them through surveys or polls, examined the research out there, or met with them via focus groups. If you don’t really know your audience/consumers there is a good chance your assumptions will be wrong.

Fourth, I think it’s good to connect the dots for people. Ask about and understand their pain points and ordinary, individual concerns about electricity’s reliability, affordability and so forth. But it’s always good to relate individual concerns to the large societal issues to provide context and sometimes that aha! moment. For instance, those smart meters they’ve vaguely heard about. Sure, they help the utility detect when power is out at their house. But do they know that advanced metering systems help utilities operate more efficiently and, therefore, with a lower environmental footprint?  That they will be empowered to manage their electricity budget and see their usage details if they want to?

Finally, right now, we know that a handful of motivations describe the predominant attitude of the broad swath of consumers. Again, a question or two will reveal whether a person is most concerned about saving money, preserving the environment, eager to adopt new technology or just wanting simplicity. That helps us understand how to craft relevant, intriguing and impactful messages that can engage and empower consumers as their utilities and even third parties offer them new programs and technologies.

Just a few thoughts. Let me know yours. 

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