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7 Social & Behavioral Lessons for Renewable Energy Marketers

Kelton Research, funded by Schott & SEIA

Can the way we present environmental messages help or hinder true behavioral change?

Too often, in order to encourage the adoption of environmental products, green marketers send messages pursuing simply the line of information, environmental benefits (eg. CO2 reduction) and, sad to say, even the use of what I'd call "scare factics" associated with the woes of climate change. Seemingly, there's a belief that more information per se can sway opinion and therefore sway behavioral change.

Let's look at the website of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which proudly displays on its home page, The Solar Barometer, based on a national poll of Americans' attitudes on solar energy. Truly, it's a very positive message: 9 out of 10 Americans  think it's important to develop and use solar power.

Yet there is a growing consensus that this purely informational approach is not working. As Douglas McKenzie-Mohr wrote in his recent book Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing


The failure of mass media campaigns to foster sustainable behavior is due in part to the poor design of the messages, but more importantly to an underestimation of the difficulty of changing behavior...Information campaigns alone will rarely bring about behavior change.


Now I'm not saying that that the Solar Barometer's messaging is poor. The graphic was primarily designed to appeal to legislators, as a "voice of the people", particularly as the data indicates that both Republicans and Democrats alike support solar. In this respect, the message serves its purpose.

But McKenzie is making an interesting point - particularly for those who think that messages such as the Solar Barometer are effective in encouraging solar adoption. In his book and his highly useful CBSM website, McKenzie  shows that such informationally based campaigns as well as those based on self-interested economics (eg. price discounts), simply aren't cutting it. And yet these strategies persist. Are the solar companies which I see rebroadcasting this Solar Barometer graphic reaching out to legislators? Or do some actually believe this will influence public perception and action? McKenzie brings forth data to raise doubt.

And so my last blog post  reviewed One Block Off The Grid's The Science of Social Pressure, an awesome infographic capturing the results of recent behavioral studies on the power of friends and neighbors to influence positive environmental change. The graphic makes a great case that renewable energy marketers would be better off to throw off the the strictly informational approach: Instead, they would be better served in devising a more compelling message to create a new social norm, using a gentler, more positive "Join us" tone of voice. 

As Tina Rosenberg has written in her book Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Change the World, if we really want to effect a social change we have to appeal to a basic instinct of all human beings: Our longing to connect with one another.

Today's social networks provide a fine vehicle for marketers to build these connections. For in the end, these online networks are simply a mirror of people's day-to-day real life interactions. But because of the "network effect", these social networks also have the power to amplify influence, aka change behavior, even while extending over a much wider reach than real life.

What lessons do the new behavioral studies, particularly when combined with social media, tell us that green marketers can use to advantage? Interweaving results from the offline behavioral studies and social media marketing worlds, I've summarized seven lessons below for green marketers which promise a more compelling approach.

1. Friend and Follow Your Installation Site Customers 

Most vendors of renewable energy technologies - particularly solar and wind, products which makes a significant physical and visual statement - are well aware that their new installations attract the interest of neighbors , both individual consumers and nearby companies. Solar contractors are quite familiar with this. The equipment goes up on a customer's house and, suddenly, passers-by are stopping. The typical (hopefully rhetorical) question is, "Hey, is that solar on your roof?" 

Less acknowledged is that this same curiosity effect can be multiplied significantly by using social networks. If these same solar installers were to hang out online and watch the stream of conversations, they'd find the same questions and discussions were occurring. 

Lesson? Reach out beyond the real-life physical neighbors of a customer to their online neighbors.  Study the social networks your new customers belong to and listen in. You may well find them bragging. (And if they aren't bragging, well, that's more reason to listen in.;-))

But, hopefully, you already knew all this.

You didn't know this? Your company is  late to use social media or has been giving it scant attention? OBOG's infographic as well as the data summarized in McKenzie's research, should give you pause to reprioritize.  You are not just missing out on conversations about your company. You are missing out on one of the most powerful marketing mechanisms to convert customer's friends and neighbors.


2.  Engage Directly Online

Just as when a solar consulting firm is onsite and fields questions for passers-by, this very same tactic can be used online. For it is perfectly acceptable social netiquette to chime in oto an ongoing online conversation, offering more information if the dialog asks for it. For example, a friend may ask a technical question of your customer online regarding your product that the customer can't answer. These types of conversations are occurring all over 24 x 7 the social networks. Below I show a couple of examples from Google+ and Twitter.


Don't expect your customer to necessarily point to you. Feel free to respectfully chime in with a substantive answer. And because we tread lightly these days, initially present commercial-free advice representing yourself as an industry source. If the person is moving closer to questions that fall within your product line, then and only then answer with a commercial response. And while it's  my observation that this is hard for many renewable energy marketers to adopt, the rewards for patience can be great.

3. Aim for Shareability and Likeability

As part of their social behavior, human beings who like each other tend to engage in mimicry, resharing good positive messages, particularly if what's provided is information rich , eg. a useful link or a witty statement or one cast alongside an emotionally-riveting photo or video. (You don't have to read the behavioral studies to know this. Twitter users know this well as retweeting, Facebook users know this as sharing)

So stop worrying about that marketing-speak phrase, 'company messaging" or rebroadcasting messages intended to influence legislators. Worry more about how your company conversations  fit inside the social fabric of your customers ongoing conversations. Once you acknowledge this highly social context, you become more aware of how off-putting one-way broadcasting, especially emitting purely commercial messages is.

 By adopting this polite but helpful demeanor, you are on the path to truly personalizing and humanizing your business and products. (Remember, some patience is required: You have to earn that spot to be put inside the trust circle of your customer's social context.) 

By the way, if you don't understand what I mean by "humanize" your company, I highly recommend your getting a copy of the book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. (A great introduction to the book's concepts can be found in this interview.)


4. Speak to People's Desire to Be Part of a Group 

You may remember from the OBOG infographic, that hotel visitors are much more likely to re-use their bathroom towels if the message is not just environmental, but encourages them to join in an environmental activity as part of a group.  "Save the planet" is 25% less powerful than "Join Us in Saving the Planet".

What's even more interesting is that  we are not only  more likely to be influenced by the behavior of a group, but results improve considerably  the more that group resembles us. The original study by Goldstein, Cialdini and Giskevicius showed that the more specific the messaging called out a group a hotel guest could relate to, the higher the rate of behavior adoption.

Effect of Social Context in Influencing Hotel Towel Reuse Behavior

When the marketing placard referenced towel  reuse figures for the hotel, the percentage increased to 44%. However, when the specific room that the guest was staying in was referred to, 49% reused their towels.

Given what we know from these behavioral studies, appealing to group behavior should be much more compelling than simply showcasing peoples' attitudes toward your technology.


5. Don't "Use", But Be a Participant in Social Networks

This may seem  a nuance. But too often i hear companies and their consultants alike talk about "using social media". That phrase I believe perpetuates a very superficial level of usage.

Here's a great cultural reality check: Are you comfortable describing that your company as belonging and collaborating on social networks?  If you can answer a definitive "Yes" to that question, great! Your company is more likely to be gaining the benefits of social interaction, not simply  replacing your traditional marketing broadcasts with, for instance, Twitter broadcasts or Facebook re-plays of your latest press releases.

Remember, because we are social creatures, it's often the one-to-one interactions that carry the most credibility to other online observers.

6.  Leverage Group Online Buying Psychology

Renewable energy retailers in particular can take a social lesson from One Block Off the Grid's use  of Groupon, an online daily deal site promoting discount coupon sales. During the past year, Groupon and competitor LivingSocial have rapidly expanded their membership base to tens of millions of bargain seekers seeking discounts on all forms of mainstream products and services. One Block off The Grid's use demonstrates that these coupon services can also be valuable to vendors of much high-priced items. The below one-day deal attracted 26 people to spend nearly $100 apiece to save some $1000 on a solar installation.


Yes, we've always known as marketers that customers respond to"One Day Only!" as an urgent call-to-action.  But the online daily deal companies go a step further, using an onsite counter that shows how many people have taken the deal, giving onlookers an index of the deal's popularity. This again, speaks to  basic human social psychology: We see other people taking the deal and the deal becomes more appealing to us. These daily deal sites are leveraging the Principle of Scarcity:  The  changing deals-sold counter number appearing nearby a countdown clock fuels urgency among potential buyers-- especially where there is a limited supply. 


7. Return to Community Marketing Basics

In a sense, with both social networks and the successes of neighborhood action efforts , we are seeing a return to grass roots community-based marketing. For a great example, check out out Oakland's Solar Mosaic project, a community-based action and creation financing effort, putting solar tiles one by one on community centers.

Oakland Solar Mosaic from Solar Mosaic on Vimeo.

True enough, neighborhood action efforts, especially where arising from an NGO or government initiative, are not disposed to endorsing specific vendor technologies. But that said, companies who  keep their ear to the ground (both offline and online) for these neighborhood action campaigns, especially those ready with easy-to-install, use and maintain products accompanied by solar lease financing,  stand to benefit immensely.

presentation from the National Renewable Energy Lab captures well some of the fundamental state changes we are seeing in energy marketing, moving toward community-based social marketing. Although intended for energy conservation efforts, for renewable energy companies as well, it's a very worthy read.

Both social marketing studies and social media marketing share some common values. Authoritarian voice is out, peer discussion is in.  One-way broadcast persuasion is out, collaboration is in. Madison Avenue tactics are out, recommendations made between neighbors on Facebook or during a group bicycle ride are in.

In both cases, neighbor to neighbor communication is The New Black. (At least in the context we are discussing here, the main difference between the two is whether the successful behaviors are done online or offline.)

So in communicating with the online neighbors of your customers, hyperlocalize your online message for advantage. Don't hold back in calling out in tweets and Facebook  status messages the town names and neighborhoods where you have recently installed a renewable energy technology. This not only adds concreteness and reality to your messages, but provides a valuable search term for your message to be discovered online. Most importantly, in spelling out your familiarity with a locale, you are already one leg up in building trust within that locale.


Wrap-up. Before devising your next great marketing campaign around your environmental product, think of it more as a social experiment, one where you connect your company into your customer's community circles.

This is best done as a peer, not as a broadcaster. Sad to say, too many renewable energy companies are still not aware of the behavioral science studies indicating these 80s-90's environmental  marketing tactics need to be abandoned.

What we know now is we should table the information statistics. It's really back to basics, folks.  Your social experiment will be more effective if your message speaks to a very primal social need in people: Their need to collaborate and belong to a group.

Has your environmental company been successful in leveraging social behavior - either offline or online? Feel free to share in the comments.

Photo 1 image credit


Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., Griskevicius, V. A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels  J. of Consumer Research, Inc. ● Vol. 35 ● August 2008