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Spreading the Energy Efficiency Message To Rural Customers: A Conversation With Focus on Energy

image credit: Jessica Wagner (L), Colleen Lies (R)

Since inception, the domain of energy efficiency programs has largely remained restricted to urban centers. Part of the reason for this is that rural areas present unique challenges to such programs. Homes and businesses are spread out and awareness about the concept of energy efficiency itself is low. The media market is also considerably fragmented, making it difficult to craft blanket messaging that speaks to a wide variety of stakeholders.

But recent times have witnessed a change in that dynamic. Several legislations and initiatives are being targeted at this overlooked region. For example, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2008 funds programs related to energy efficiency in rural counties.

More proof of changes blowing in the rural winds came at the Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP) awards earlier this year, when a program focused on rural communities won the award for best residential marketing.

Focus on Energy, the organization behind the program, is a Wisconsin statewide program that partners with 107 utilities to help eligible residents and businesses save energy and money through energy efficiency and renewable programs. Started in January 2018, the “Wisconsin Is In” campaign was targeted at rural communities in the state. Its goal was to increase their participation and engagement in Focus on Energy’s programs. The initiative received a total of $867,000 for targeted marketing techniques from the $26 million that Focus on Energy received from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for a two-year pilot period (2017-2018).  

Based on available figures, the organization exceeded those goals. According to latest statistics, the program increased participation by 68 percent in 582 rural zip codes. Those statistics are even more impressive, when you consider that Focus on Energy id not have any program goals aimed at rural customers before 2017.

Jessica Wagner, director of marketing and communications at Focus on Energy, and Colleen Lies, senior marketing account manager for the Home Performance Program, discussed the strategy and thinking behind “Wisconsin Is In” with Energy Central.

What was the strategy used in marketing the “Wisconsin is in” Campaign?

Jessica: At the umbrella level, we targeted rural homeowners in the campaign. What we did was to take a lot of statistics from our third-party evaluators and tied it to messaging that involved the state and neighborhood. Rural communities in Wisconsin tend to be proud of where they live so we highlighted the different benefits of Focus on Energy programs to Wisconsin. For example, the Focus program supports around 1,200 jobs in the state. During the campaign, we also referred to the fact that coal purchases meant that money was going out of the state. Through energy efficiency programs, we keep those dollars inside Wisconsin. We highlighted these messages to homeowners so that they feel they are part of something local and also contributing to the state’s overall strength at the same time.

How was the campaign implemented?

Jessica: The overall implementation strategy was defined based on earlier work we did in segmenting customers and defining archetypes. We found that our rural customers tend to align with the explorer archetype. The Explorer values possibility, freedom, discovery, growth and integrity and their goal is to experience a better, more authentic, more fulfilling life. They seek out new things and take initiative to create a more fulfilling life. Our marketing messages are designed to combine the local flavor with the overarching benefits to the state from energy savings. Because we were targeting rural customers, we reached out to them through TV, radio, and direct mail. Typically, we haven’t utilized these mediums much in the past.

Colleen: On the individual program level, our messaging and tactics roll up to what’s defined at the umbrella level. This creates a consistent look and feel in the marketplace and the marketing efforts amplify each other. It is a bottom-up approach, in which efforts by program implementers are funneled up to the top. We also take into account our program-specific customer segmentation data and our key customer profiles such as the Golden Year Patriots, Middle Class Melting Pot, and Prosperous and Young Homeowners. These profiles are created based on their income, education etc. We create messaging using these customer characteristics in mind.   

Can you talk about the metrics used to measure your campaign’s success?

Jessica: We used standard measurements in order to track progress of our initiatives. We created a microsite and used Google analytics to measure traffic there after outreach efforts. So, we measured traffic to our site after we ran TV ads or sent out promotional mailers. In addition to this, we used digital search rankings to see how our initiatives performed in awareness about energy efficiency in Wisconsin. We also utilized social media for promotional advertising to see which versions of our ads were performing well. As part of our measurement efforts, we went back and verified the number of rural participants and energy savings incentives we had offered. Per our estimates, 30% more incentives went to rural customers after the campaign began.

What is the role of trade allies in your outreach efforts?  

Colleen: Focus on Energy Trade Allies are contractors and service providers who partner with us to help sell and install energy efficient products in Wisconsin homes and businesses. They help spread the word about Focus on Energy and program’s incentives and resources, and in return we provide them with marketing and business opportunities such as co-branded marketing collateral, educational information and sales training, cooperative advertising funds and placement on our online search tool.  

We are constantly sending people to the tool as one of the first steps to participating or getting into our programs. We also add value to our relationship with trade allies by training them on educational material and offering them marketing tips. We have around 2,000 trade allies overall. About 1,000 participate in the home heating and cooling programs and another 60 partner with us on insulation, air sealing and home energy assessment projects.  

You have eight programs targeted at homeowners listed on your website. Which is the most popular program and why?

Jessica: The most popular program that we have is the Simple Energy Efficiency program. It’s free and we have six different packs available with a variety of products. Obviously, it’s popular because it’s free!  

Colleen: To add to that, other programs generally require equipment, such as a furnace or air conditioner, to be nearing the end of their life expectancy to establish the need for replacement or upgrade. They also tend to be bigger purchase decisions so they require more homeowner consideration and research.

Can you talk about changes to Focus on Energy programs in recent years?
Jessica: Earlier we had a direct install program. But it is hard to reach rural communities in Wisconsin and still make the program cost-effective. We ended up switching from direct install to the self-install pack programs. The improvements in customer equity have been drastic. Before, with our direct install program, we were hitting 15,000 homes. Now, with the simple energy efficiency program, we hit 80,000 homes. It allows much greater participation within our programs and provides a great introduction to energy efficiency and Focus on Energy.

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