Design clear, concise and relevant program messages

Are your efficiency program messages effective?

The pandemic cut off many direct install and community awareness efforts. Efficiency program marketing shifted, too. Most of the easy projects in the West are done.

To meet efficiency goals, tailor your marketing messages. We can learn from each other, but you can’t run the same program at all utilities. Something that works wonders for Central Lincoln PUD in Oregon will not fly at all for the City of Lodi in California.

At Efficiency Services Group, I work with utilities on program implementation and design, identifying what works for each community. The type of program and messages you’ll need depends on demographics, consumer characteristics and program goals.

After two decades of figuring out the puzzle of what works in each community with different outreach options, I’ve found five ways to strengthen efficiency program marketing and design.


1. Offer Choices

Giving options for how to hear about and enroll in your program can be powerful.

When launching a program, use a mix of channels such as a community event, bill insert, social media post and a testimonial in your magazine. Share the same message on different channels. Consumers need to hear something several times before it sinks in. 

Once you’ve got their attention, empower consumers by offering several ways to enroll. We have some efficiency programs where we say, “To request more free products, you can either call or click this link or send in this postcard.” Avoid limiting options with only one path for program enrollment.

For direct install programs, expect a mix of responses over the phone, mail, email and online forms. Providing different options allows the consumer to self-select what method works best for them.

ESG receives most consumer requests by email, but we enroll consumers over the phone, too. We get feedback from callers who are surprised and pleased that a real person answered the phone. Most callers are happy to give us their email addresses so we can send them forms and/or links to program information online. It’s rare for someone to ask us to mail paper forms, but it happens. 

Helpful Paths for Engagement:

  • Calling/canvassing community 
  • Magazine story
  • Website forms
  • Social media
  • Bill inserts
  • Email
  • Direct mail

Empower consumer choice by tapping several communication channels leading consumers to the same place. 

2. Remove Barriers

Every extra click or form to use a program creates a barrier, cutting into program enrollment and success. 

Word-of-mouth communication is the best marketing component for income-qualified programs. When utilities stopped field programs in 2020, we felt the loss of this critical engagement tool.

Online income qualification was available during the pandemic for consumers at Clatskanie PUD in Oregon, but applications dropped close to zero during the pandemic. The lesson here is that helping consumers, in person, to complete applications was by far the most effective way to get participation.

For low-income program success, you need face-to-face interaction with consumers. People have many competing priorities in their lives. They’re not always going to read bill inserts.

Get out into the community you’re targeting. After helping someone, encourage word of mouth marketing and referrals. Leave behind cards can help, but they can easily be forgotten. Direct referrals are better. 

When installing efficiency measures, ask the consumer if they have a neighbor who needs help cutting energy waste, too. If so, ask them to give the neighbor a call or ask if you can call the neighbor and mention the consumer who thought they’d like the program.

Meet people where they are. Avoid extra steps to get in touch with you. Remove as many barriers as possible.

3. Create Relevant Messages

Our direct install efficiency program for Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative, Oregon, had to shift to a consumer care kit in early 2020. In response, we created a personal, community-focused message: “We’re here for you. Always.” Pioneer’s team created another message for ESG that hit home for consumers: “We may be apart, but we’ll get through this together.”

We got a lot of positive feedback from messaging about community support and the partnership between the utility and the consumer.

These messages might not work next year; both were tied to a shared community experience. But they resonated with the times, showing the importance of keeping your content clean, clear and relevant.

The Lexicon Project, a guide developed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, studied what words matter to consumers. For example, when you say, “Switch your old water heater out for a newer electric water heater,” or, “Switch to electric appliances,” consumers assume the utility wants to make more money.

To connect with consumers, NRECA advises using plain, personal and positive messages. Focus on your program benefits. Saving money long term is a compelling reason to invest today. 

When working on messaging, consider different audiences. Consumers living in manufactured homes have different needs and resources compared to consumers who rent and consumer homeowners. Craft clear, meaningful messages for each of your audiences to boost program engagement. 

esg care kits print materials

4. Focus on Need

If you have a limited budget, stage the program. Who’s your hardest-to-reach group? Who’s your top priority because of need?

Northern Wasco County PUD, Washington, has a traditional rebate program. Most participating consumers live in single family households in The Dalles. There was a need in other areas of the PUD’s community, but rebate program participation was low.

To serve the greatest need in their community, we helped Northern Wasco County PUD target efficiency dollars and outreach on four tribal communities along the Columbia River. Next, we moved on to very rural customers. The next time they had budget, we worked on multifamily.

It was the opposite loading order of traditional rebate programs. The utility served the greatest need first, then moved to the next priority.

A lot of the low-hanging fruit is gone; we have to think differently about our efficiency efforts. Consumers have different efficiency needs and priorities, based on income and type of home (manufactured, rental, homeowner). Start small. Work your way through the needs, one consumer segment at a time. 

Instead of trying to serve everyone at once, make programs manageable and increase your impact by focusing on specific consumer needs and communities.

5. Keep Complaints in Context

There will always be complaints. Prepare yourself and your leadership, highlighting success stories to balance out critics.

If you send out a customer care kit, you’ll have a certain number of people call to complain. A common complaint is, “Why don’t you just take the money off my bill?” That’s not the way program funding works. Funding has to be used for energy efficiency.

Prepare a few clear talking points about your efficiency program and share it with consumer service staff before the first kit reaches consumers.

At Clatskanie PUD, Oregon, consumers who call to complain are encouraged to give the care kits to a neighbor in need. This keeps the efficiency resources used in the community.

Make sure talking points share:

  • Funding source
  • Number of kits mailed
  • Energy dollars saved by installing the kit at one typical home
  • How to donate the kit to a neighbor or community group

You can’t do a program without a few complaints here and there. Don’t let complaints stop you. Keep complaints in context.

Ready to Energize Efficiency Programs?

I’ve seen so many different homes over the last two decades. I continue to be surprised by the way people live, the challenges consumers deal with daily and how poorly constructed or old a lot of homes out there are, especially for the low-income sector.

Consumers have to make decisions about food to put on their table, or medications to buy, or turning their heat on. We can help make their life better, but we must use clear, relevant messages and make it easy to enroll in our programs.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for efficiency programs, but that’s part of why I love our industry. When we focus on the people we serve, we can tailor our programs to meet specific needs and make a meaningful difference. We are More Powerful Together.