Low-Cost, High-Impact Customer Energy Education


Focus groups can be so eye-opening. I’ve sat in on a few over the years. I’ll never forget the one where a residential customer pushed back against a facilitator’s question about electric usage in this way: “What’s usage got to do with my bill?”


Effective Messaging Means Defeating the Curse of Knowledge

Utility marketers and communicators know the answer to that customer’s question is, “a lot.” The challenge they face is overcoming what Made to Stick described as the “curse of knowledge,” which assumes others share your detailed subject-matter knowledge about something — in this case, energy and energy use.

The best way to overcome the curse of knowledge is to work hard to convey critical information to customers in bite-sized, easily understood nuggets, using terms that are broadly familiar to the general public. Use terms that the average eighth-grade graduate would understand. I have blogged about this book before and the overall importance of creating effective, easily understood messages here and here and here.



Made to Stick describes situations where there is an imbalance of knowledge between specialists and the general public. As utility communicators, we must work continually to translate what we know about energy and energy usage into terms our friends and neighbors would understand. Made to Stick provides an easily remembered acronym for bridging that gap: with Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.


Rolled up, it spells SUCCES. So no, not a typo. Instead, communicators should consider it a mantra. 


Today, utility marketers and communicators have a wider-than-ever array of tools they can use to inform customers that by more actively managing the way they use electricity, gas, and water, they can lower their monthly utility bill. 



There also are a variety of tones that could be adopted, including funny, serious, concerned, and supportive. The key message, about using resources wisely, can be linked to any number of local or global issues, including the customer’s wallet, protecting the local environment, minimizing waste, being forward thinking about resource adequacy, maximizing customer control, and battling global climate change.


The Importance of Customer Energy Education

I recently wrote a thought leadership piece for Questline Digital, titled Utility Customer Education The Key to Securing a Stronger Energy Future. I asked subject-matter experts at three well-known leaders in customer energy education — Austin Energy (Texas), Silicon Valley Power (California), and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (also California) — to focus on one customer segment and describe how they try to educate that segment about electric issues.  

In conducting this type of research into marketing effectiveness, sometimes the answer is a better message. In this case, however, the interviews turned on finding the most impactful marketing channels.

Underlying the research was this simple truth: Electricity providers are facing higher costs, greater customer expectations, and increased sustainability mandates. To meet and overcome these challenges, utilities will need the help of well-informed and engaged customers. 

“The energy industry is getting more complex by the day,” said Brian Lindamood, Questline Digital’s Vice President of Marketing and Content Strategy. “Utilities are under enormous pressure to ensure the resilience and reliability of the energy supply. At the same time, customers have more control than ever over their own energy use, thanks to smart technologies.”

“That’s why education is so important,” he added. “At a growing number of utilities, leaders are paying more attention to the importance of engaging with their customers about these energy issues. They are realizing that informed customers will play a critical role in managing demand and reaching decarbonization goals.”

Snippets from the thought-leadership piece are below. Should your work, or the work of a colleague, concern energy education, I encourage you to download the complimentary research piece from Questline Digital.


Austin Energy: Educating the Next Generation of Customers


“Experience imprints knowledge in one’s mind,” said Donylle Seals, an Austin Energy environmental program coordinator who oversees that utility’s All-Stars program, which provides students with approximately five days of multifaceted, experiential energy education that compliments the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) sixth-grade curriculum state requirements. 

Source: Austin Energy


In-class presentations are coupled with resources students can take home to use, keep, and measure the benefits of wise energy use, thus getting parents involved.

“We seek to empower students by giving them tools and sending them home to share,” added Seals. “Sixth grade students are curious — their mind is a sponge, absorbing everything.”

The All-Stars energy module starts off with a demonstration of a bicycle connected to a board with incandescent lights, compact fluorescent lamps, and LEDs. In most cases, each student gets the opportunity to pedal while the rest see how much energy it takes to light up the different fixtures. Feeling the difference in how much energy it takes to pedal an incandescent compared to an LED bulb is the first of many “a-ha” moments.


Silicon Valley Power: The Personal Touch Makes a Difference

“We want to help our small and midsized business (SMB) customers save money on their electric bills because that helps keep them in business,” explained Mary Medeiros McEnroe, public benefits program manager for Silicon Valley Power (SVP). SVP is a community-owned utility that provides electricity to nearly 60,000 customers in and around Santa Clara, California.

“Unfortunately, many SMBs fail, so lowering their electric bills can be a matter of survival to them, and that’s important for our community,” said Medeiros McEnroe. “If we can help these customers use less electricity, we don’t need to generate it or procure it, which also benefits our utility.”

She continued: “We have found the personal touch to be a critical success factor in reaching and educating SMB customers. We have all the usual marketing tools — videos, a website, direct mail, print newsletters, collateral, email — but the personal touch has worked best for our smaller SMB customers.”

Communications tip of the month: Your customers are more likely to participate in programs like energy efficiency or non-traditional pricing plans if they understand why those programs are being offered and how it will impact them. That takes high-impact, understandable messaging and adroit use of marketing channels.


In reaching out to customers in the food service industry, SVP has used messaging from the Food Service Technology Center showing how restaurants can cook more French fries faster and cheaper with an electric fryer than a gas-fired fryer. Electric fryers don’t need to change their cooking oil as often as gas-fired ones and the oil reheats faster. Faster cooking of French fries translates into less heat in the kitchen that must be removed with air conditioning. This leads to more product sold per hour. It also translates into lower operating costs because less cooking oil is purchased.


Taking a holistic, customer-centered approach to marketing is essential. “What’s important to customers? That’s where energy education must start,” she advised.


LADWP: Face-to-Face Works with Large Business Customers Too!

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) is one of a growing number of utilities that see the value in face-to-face interactions with large business customers. 

For many years, the community-owned utility had a one-way conversation with its commercial and industrial (C&I) customers: The utility pushed information to those customers, regardless of whether they wanted it, recalled Bryan Schweickert, the utility’s director of key accounts

Over the last five years, however, Schweickert said that has changed. Now, it’s more of a two-way conversation, pull and push, where customers have a greater role in pulling the information they need from the utility.

Courtesy: Questline Digital

For example, for 20 years LADWP has been communicating with its school districts about the economic and environmental benefits of electric buses. But now, electric school bus makers such as Blue Bird are actively producing electric buses, and school districts have adopted sustainability goals, making a customer-centered conversation about electric buses more realistic and relevant. 

“Now, school districts are saying, ‘Sure, we’ll take the $10,000 rebate per bus, but we’d really like your help with battery storage and a charging system so we can hit our carbon reduction goals.’”



The Takeaway: Customer Energy Education More Important Than Ever

The three experts I interviewed for the Questline Digital thought-leadership piece agreed that customer energy education was a vital piece of any electric utility’s plan to succeed as its market evolves. The methods of delivery may change, but the strategic need to have customers informed and educated about their electricity usage will likely only increase over time.

As this need increases, utilities must meet the demand head-on, keeping customers’ desires, preferences, and interests top-of-mind. An educated, and motivated, customer base is essential to meet a utility’s future challenges. 

This reinforces the message of a bumper sticker, often distributed by schoolteachers around the time of a bond vote on an educational matter: “If you think education is expensive, consider the cost of ignorance.”


Photo credits: iStock unless otherwise noted


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