Hitting the tipping point in smart consumer engagement

GridWeek conversations center around the consumer

Kate Rowland | Sep 19, 2011


A lot of talking, and a lot of listening. That's what I did at GridWeek last week.

One of the overriding themes in this year's conference was that of customer engagement, particularly how it works and who is doing it right.

Early in the week, I joined Aclara's Mark Thompson, To the Point's Judith Schwartz, Parks Associates' Tricia Parks, Best Buy Co.'s Kristen Bowring, and Thomas Stathos, director of customer programs and services for PPL Electric Utilities, to discuss the "Personal" Grid.

This is one of my favorite topics. Smart grid planners are recognizing the need to ensure that they equip consumers with true access to smart grid benefits, such as control over their energy use.

But when offered these options, what -- if anything -- will consumers do differently?

We all understand that behavior change happens along a continuum, but opinions differ as to what it will take to move less-engaged customers closer to adoption.

According to a new study conducted by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) -- there is a clear tipping point for the spread of ideas. The study's findings, reported in the July 22 early online edition of Physical Review E, noted that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will be adopted by the majority of society.

The scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.

"When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the minority," SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski told Science Blog.com. "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame."

The implications of this study for utilities seeking to effectively communicate with their customers -- in the face of fearmongering and absolute fiction being spread via Internet channels such as YouTube, Web sites, chat rooms, Twitter, and by word of mouth, television and print media -- are clear. Create the  positive relationships, and hit that tipping point community by community, ideally. If you're late out of the gate creating positive consumer relationships, it's going to be that much harder.

In fact, thanks to a viral anti-smart meter spin, many electric utilities have an uphill battle to reach that vital 10 percent tipping point. In fact, many have an uphill battle ahead of them simply to gain customer trust, to be that "trusted advisor" that customers reach to first for information.

A few nights before GridWeek began, I received a text message from my youngest daughter, now a freshman in university. "Are you for or against smart meters? Having a debate" it read. She followed with, "Are there potential health risks?" and then, "Can one opt out?"

She and her two roommates, who haven't yet paid a utility bill in their lives (their utilities are included in their monthly rent), are nonetheless interested in what they've read and heard about smart meters. Because I write about them, I am my daughter's "trusted advisor." One of her roommates had recently read a particularly inflammatory article about smart meters, and that pop culture newspaper is his "trusted advisor." So, in their apartment, the debate was on. At the end of the day, thanks to clear information, my daughter's argument tipped the scales.

The point is, in many portions of this country, the fearmongers have already hit the tipping point in public opinion. It's not impossible to change it, but it's going to be darned difficult without a lot of concerted, educated effort.

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine

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Borrowing from established consumer brands


I agree with the 1st poster here regarding how branding will be/is a key component of obtaining customer buy-in and adoption smart meter technology.  That said, I think many utilities traditionally have had a different sort of brand building tasks than they will need moving forward.  They might benefit from borrowing branding know-how from established consumer brands.  Traditionally, being a good corporate citizen, sponsoring community events, etc. were key components of a utilities brand.  Basically, keep your image good within the community. 

But as competition starts to enter into many communities, different goals are needed.  What makes one energy provider standout from the next?  Cost? Service? Friendly Employees? Quality of Electricity?  It will be interesting to see how different companies define their purpose in the market and how they present that to the consumers.  In general, this is not something electric utilities have done in the past.  Most other industries are significantly ahead of utilities when it comes to customer focus and branding. 

I think it would be interesting to see co-branded services or promotions from familiar consumer names.  What if Whole Foods and a local electric company teamed up to provide a green energy service?  Would people’s positive view of Whole Food help a utility gain that 10% tipping point quicker?  Maybe Best Buy provides home devices and Geek Squad services in partnership with the local electric company.  It seems like utilities could benefit greatly by leveraging existing consumer brands to help gain the “trusted advisor” status.



Is brand an ugly word?

In the many posts I rarely hear anyone talk about the utility brand.  Branding is one of the most important topics when it comes to building relationships, communicating effectively, and influencing consumers.  In its most elemental form, the brand is the accumulation of experiences between the utility and the consumers.  Positive experience help to build the brand and negative experiences erode it.

For those utilities with strong brands, they will hit the tipping point much faster and with much less effort and cost.  Moreover, the strong brand will provide the utility with more options for attaining their goals.  For example, a utility with a poor brand will have a much more difficult time implementing an opt-out program or even raising rates.  In contrast, a utility with a strong brand can consider these options moving forward.

The brand in the utility industry is built largely on trust because of the information and power asymmetries that exist between a monopoly utility and consumer.  If a consumer is unhappy with its utility, they cannot simply choose a competitor.  This creates a relationship where the consumer is at the utility's control, so it is essential that the consumer feel the utility is looking out for their best interest. 

Each instance a utility uses a heavy hand or made a decision that was perceived to be counter to the consumer's interest, they erode consumer trust. Every frustrating interaction on the website or the contact center further erodes brand equity.

This makes it much more difficult to communicate and influence the consumer base.  A distrustful consumer will rarely listen to a utility communication and will definitely have a difficult time believing it.  Thus, telling a mistrusting consumer that this smart meter will improve their lives falls upon deaf or suspicious ears.  As a result, this opens them up to believing communication sources that say smart meters cause cancer even when science and common sense suggests otherwise.

There will always be good and bad information on the web and in the media. Consumer consumption and internalization of this information reflects past experiences with this company or organization.  Poor experiences will improve the chances of people being influenced by negative information and good experiences will allow positive messages to take hold.  Thus, it is important for utilities to build these positive relationships, which take years if not decades, and shape their organization so it is consumer centered.  Moreover, it also why utilities must blog and create content that helps to shape the digital conversation.