New marketing assistant learns utility ropes at GCEA

A utility energy-efficiency program can only help customers save money and help control operation costs if customers participate. Getting the word out is a perpetual struggle for many power providers, and one that is even harder for small rural cooperatives. Gunnison County Electric Association You are leaving (GCEA) in Colorado is meeting that challenge with new blood and a fresh perspective—and a crash course in energy-efficiency programming.

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Logann Peterson, who graduated last year from Western State Colorado University You are leaving with a degree in strategic communication, recently made the leap from marketing intern to marketing and communications assistant. In her new career as a utility professional, Peterson faces the double challenge of engaging younger customers while learning about her new field. “I didn’t really know anything about the utility business when I accepted the internship,” she admitted. “Working at GCEA has been an eye-opening experience. A cooperative is more like a big family than a corporation.”

Lots to learn
The opportunities available at a utility also surprised Peterson. “Alantha’s job is a whole new concept for me,” she added.

“Alantha” is GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison, who administers GCEA’s customer energy-efficiency programs. Part of Peterson’s internship included helping to market rebates on LED lighting and Energy Star appliances, and free energy audits for residential and commercial members. GCEA also offers rebates for electric thermal storage heaters and ground-source heat pumps, as well as discounts to members on Convectair room heaters You are leaving

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

To get up to speed on the topic of energy efficiency, Peterson immersed herself in literature Garrison recommended and did plenty of research on her own. She also accompanied Garrison on an energy audit. “I didn’t know there was so much equipment involved, like blower doors and infrared cameras,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the tools show what is going on in a building.”

Peterson assists with production of the newsletters, bill inserts, web content and radio ads, while Garrison provides technical expertise and direction for stories on energy-saving measures and related co-op programs. “We don’t expect Logann to learn all the details about our incentives and energy-efficiency programs, but she is very interested in learning about the technologies,” Garrison noted. “She went to the DOE site to research LED lights for an article on lighting.”

GCEA has relied on the traditional formats to promote its programs, and having someone trained in marketing to polish the material has been helpful, Garrison observed. However, “Those avenues are not really building the customer participation we have hoped for,” she said.

Updating strategy
Garrison’s goals for the coming year include improving member feedback and increasing outreach to younger members. That dovetails nicely with Peterson’s first-year goal of establishing a social media presence for GCEA. “Social media is the number-one way businesses communicate with customers today,” Peterson pointed out. “Up to now, the co-op’s online profile has been very low.”

GCEA recently gave its website a makeover and launched a Facebook page and Twitter account, which Peterson will maintain. In addition to announcing outages, Garrison hopes Facebook and Twitter can be used to share energy-efficiency tips, get the word out about energy audits promote co-op events.

Peterson has her work cut out for her, attracting visitors to GCEA’s social media sites and establishing metrics for that outreach effort. “Right now, most of our ‘likes’ are from GCEA employees,” she admitted.

Tale of two demographics
Part of the challenge in marketing GCEA programs is finding ways to reach two distinct groups of members.

Unlike many rural areas, Gunnison attracts young people because of the college, many of whom stay after graduation to enjoy the Western Slope lifestyle. Those residents are more likely to pay attention to social media, but less likely to own their homes. “Most students are renters, and it is tough to motivate them to change their energy use habits,” Peterson observed.

Outside of town is a decidedly older, more settled demographic of ranchers and farmers, which is changing too, but more slowly. “I’d classify them as the ‘over 30’ crowd,” said Peterson. “The internet doesn’t reach into some of the more remote corners of our service area, either, so we still have to communicate with those members in the ‘old-fashioned’ way,” she added.

Low-tech bridge-building
Partnering with organizations in the community is another old-fashioned way to engage members, and one that is proving effective for GCEA. A fellowship student for a master’s program at Western State has set up a few member events and is working with the local housing authority to promote weatherization. “He going door to door to identify members who are income-qualified for the program and telling homeowners what is available to them,” Garrison said. “The personal touch may be low-tech but it works—our goal is to upgrade 12 homes this year and we are on track to meet it.”

Garrison and other GCEA employees have also taught a class on utility business and science at the university. The class not only educates younger and future members about energy use, it serves to position GCEA staff as experts on the topic, another marketing goal.

Forward to the future
Times are changing for utilities—even in rural areas like Gunnison and power providers have to keep up. Fortunately, GCEA is preparing for the future by investing in young employees who are up to the challenge.

Crafting a modern marketing strategy to reach members with the programs that will keep the lights on and the economy strong is going to take a certain amount of trial and error, as Garrison and Peterson readily acknowledge. Energy Services Bulletin wishes Logann Peterson good luck in her new job. We look forward to covering GCEA’s marketing and energy-efficiency successes as they work out the formula.

Answering your customer’s demand response questions

The difficult task of explaining load management to someone outside the utility industry is one you have to tackle if your utility plans to market a peak-shaving, demand response program to customers. A recent article in Energy Pulse Redirecting to a non-government site, by Energy Consultant Sarah Battaglia of Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.  Redirecting to a non-government site, makes it a little easier. Battaglia’s list of Top 10 questions about demand response programs speaks to the customer’s concerns, but utilities should pay attention to her answers.

Demand response is a tried-and-true measure to most utility professionals but your customers may not be familiar with it. Before large key accounts enroll in a program, they need to understand how the strategy helps the utility—and helps them—including how their businesses might be affected by brownouts or blackouts. They will want to know when and how often events occur, who will notify the company and how, what kind of hardware they need and who pays for it and installs it. Member services representatives should be prepared to offer customers different ways to curtail their energy use based on the type of business.

Utility programs are more likely to succeed when you look at your services through the customers’ eyes and treat them like partners, rather than passive receivers. This article provides insight into the business owners’ point of view and can help program managers be ready with straightforward explanations that will earn the customer’s participation and trust.

Join us at the Customer Connections Conference

The American Public Power Association’s annual Customer Connections Conference happens Oct. 24 through 27, in Anaheim, Calif. This event promises lots of valuable information and insight for utilities at a time when we must create a new definition of customer service.  That’s why Breaking News will be covering Customer Connections live.

Bookmark this site and check in frequently during the conference to learn what the experts are saying about designing and implementing programs that meet your customers’ needs and help your utility meet its goals. We will be reporting from these dual track sessions (Pacific Time):

Monday, Oct. 25

  • 10:30-noon:  Customer Service Roundtable
  • 1:30-2:45p.m.:  Can You Prove the Savings for Your Energy Efficiency Program?
  • 3-4:15p.m.:  Social Media: Building the Case, Executing the Strategy, Capturing the Learnings

Tuesday, Oct. 26

  • 8:30-10 a.m.:  Top Five Smart Grid Communications Challenges
  • 10:15-11:45 a.m.:  New Age Distributed Generation: Emerging On-site Generation Options for Your Customers
  • 1:15-2:45 p.m.:  Integrated Marketing Communications: What’s the Right Mix?
  • 3:00-4:15 p.m.:  Joint Action/State/Regional Organization Roundtable

Our coverage isn’t just for those who can’t make it to Anaheim. Attendees are free to add their views in the comments section, too. Or e-mail the editor, and you just might get yourself a guest contributor spot.

Moving Beyond Savings: Exploring Techniques for Determining “How” and “Why” of Behavioral Program Success

Ann Dougherty, Opinion Dynamics Corporation

We know incentive programs save kWh, but we need to know how and why to replicate the savings and build on them.

Behavioral programs are actions that aren’t specifically rebated. It can be marketing, education, outreach, canvassing. As goals get higher, utilities need to find ways to get savings outside of rebates. Behavior based programs must change behavior to keep the savings coming.

There is not a clear link between the program and results with behavioral programs.

Aclara’s Residential Energy Analysis is an opt-in program by Pennsylvania Power and Light. Customers can engage in multiple levels. At the most basic level, they answered questions that were integrated with billing data to give potential savings. At level two, customers answer 25 questions and do a virtual home tour that shows savings from specific measures. The third level gives a detailed analysis by end use and provides targeted recommendations.

Using 2009 participants as the control group for 2008 participants, the evaluation found that, at levels one and two, customers got a 1 percent reduction in energy use. At the third level, savings were much higher.

Statewide Flex Your Power program is a marketing effort to raise awareness of energy use launched in California after the 2002 energy crisis. Everyone in the state is a participant.  To evaluate the program, focus groups were conducted throughout California, along with a pilot survey and interviews conducted with 1,000 California residents.

Using the purchase of a CFL as the goal, the study measured the influence of several factors from concern about global warming to actual product barriers. The conclusion was that net energy savings could be significant from marketing programs.

The programs are so young that it is hard to measure persistence of savings. The behavioral programs may be reinforcing incentive programs.

Studies indicate that in behavioral programs:

  • Information needs to be specific and targeted: this is what you need to do, this is what it will cost, this is what it will save.
  • Barriers are more important than motivation.
  • Customers are individuals, one to one messaging is more effective in motivating, especially if message comes from a member of the community.
  • Target your customers at their level, and reach them with customized programs.

If utilities use market research to take programs to next level, they will be able to create increasingly sophisticated programs.