Fun Tools to Spark Energy Conservation: Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment


What will it take to convince the average person to manage and reduce, their energy consumption? One of the most compelling ways could be to make energy consumption transparent to communities, using the persuasive power of the group to trigger those hard-hitting emotional responses like shame and guilt (if you consume more than your peers), or competition (if you want to do better than your peers). Startups are tapping into this notion and this morning Lucid Design Group announced that it’s launched a social network based around building energy consumption.

Lucid’s so-called Building Dashboard Network, which is based around its energy management tool Building Dashboard, is a social network that enables building owners to compare their energy consumption, as well as share that energy use over existing communities like Facebook and Twitter. It’s not directly targeted at consumers and home-owners (yet) but more at larger buildings like college dorms and offices — for example, the social network will be used for the upcoming 2010 Campus Conservation Nationals, where 40 universities compete around conservation.

Lucid has been talking about some kind of social networking tool since I profiled them close to three years ago. The six-year-old company, which was formed out of research at Oberlin College, sells a software and sensor service that monitors the real-time use of electricity, natural gas and water. They recently raised $1.5 million in funding.

Lucid CEO Michael Murray explained to me that in particular colleges have been really eager to engage with the social networking aspect of energy management in order to keep up with what other schools are doing. The Lucid social network enables college customers to see the energy consumption of any other registered school and enables them to place badges on their sites for winning competitions and for having green building credentials. Murray said while they encourage customers to be as open as possible, if customers are concerned with privacy, they can opt out of displaying their consumption.

Emotions are a compelling motivator for a topic that is inherently boring. Efficiency 2.0 has been working on software that uses group social behavior to convince users to commit to, and follow through with, actions that reduce energy consumption. A section of their software focuses on “the neighborhood” and enables a user to befriend (via Facebook-style friend requests) neighbors participating in the program and compares the energy consumption of those in the group. If you’re using a lot more energy than your neighbors, you’re given an image of a face with a frown; if you’re using less energy, you get various degrees of a happy face.

“It’s basically guilting them into energy efficiency,” Efficiency 2.0 CEO and founder Tom Scaramellino told me last year, adding that the “weight-loss industry has been doing this for years. We’re trying to be the Jenny Craig for energy.”

OPower (formerly Positive Energy) has been using the same type of happy/sad face and peer comparison data for its paper-based utility services (see pictured utility reminder). OPower has found that even if it isn’t on the web, customers will respond to data mailed to them on how much energy they are consuming compared to their peers.

All of this means that it might not be the best or slickest website or tool that ends up convincing consumers to change their behavior and manage their energy consumption. It could likely be the one that is the most emotionally manipulative. But that’s something that industries from advertising, media, banking, and any type of sales in general, have known for a long, long time.


denyse cage

As source of energy, word power is as powerful as energy itself when focused positively and grandly to create desired effects. Choose one’s words WISELY….THANK YOU.

Ogi Kavazovic

At OPOWER, we completely disagree with the notion that “shame, guilt or embarrassment” are effective means for driving energy efficiency. The popular neighbor-comparison feature is not about peer-pressure, it’s about contextualizing data and making it more interesting and meaningful. Here’s how it works:

  1. Putting energy data into much-needed context – Telling people how much energy they’re consuming, even in real-time, means little unless we put it into context. One of the simplest, most accurate ways to contextualize energy data is to tell people how their consumption compares to what is normal in their neighborhood. It’s as simple as that. This is not peer pressure. Peer pressure, or “shame,” only exists if other people know about your energy use and you feel the pressure to change your behavior as a result. This is not what is happening here – we are simply telling customers what is “popular.” To put this notion in a more familiar context, would someone feel pressure to buy an item on if they see that its highly rated? Would someone feel pressure when a waiter tells them that the steak dish is the most popular items on the menu? Most people don’t. In fact, they very much appreciate and like to hear this extra information. The same holds true for energy use.

  2. Making energy data more interesting – Let’s face it, energy data is boring. People don’t care about it, they are not going to spend any meaningful time reading charts and graphs about their in-home energy consumption. Regardless, we need them to do this because customer attention and contribution is the only way to improve energy efficiency on a large-scale. Telling someone “you used 30 kWhs today” is uninteresting to the vast majority of the population. It is also meaningless. However, if you tell them you use “5% less than most people in your neighborhood,” then not only is this a dramatically more interesting piece of information, but it also makes much more sense!

All in all, the claim that neighbor comparison feature is “manipulative” is far-fetched, and does a disservice to the energy efficiency industry and ultimately the environment. It’s one of the best ways invented so far to get people to pay attention to energy use, and motivate them to, first and foremost, help themselves by saving on their bills! To claim that people can be manipulated into saving their own money is almost an oxymoron. We should look at the dramatically increased levels of customer engagement as a good thing, and the resulting energy and bill savings as a great thing. Hopefully, we can get the industry to move away from the sensationalist angle on peer pressure and manipulation, and instead focus on the millions of people that are now getting involved with energy efficiency, and the fantastic energy savings that come as a result of increased customer engagement.

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