When the Smart Grid Consumer Collective (SGCC) formed last year, it set on a tough and unforgiving road. The parties it represents — utilities and smart grid vendors, for the most part — were the enemy in the eyes of homeowners that saw their electric bills skyrocket soon after smart meters were installed. This led to some major, high-profile backlash in communities like Bakersfield, Calif. and parts of Texas.
Needless to say, the smart grid got off to a bad start in the U.S., as far as public perception is concerned. The fear now is that all the negative publicity could end up delaying or imperiling big-budget infrastructure upgrades as public utility commissions, local governments and consumer groups weigh in. That’s bad enough, but the SGCC has a bigger problem: consumer apathy.
According to the group’s “State of the Consumer Report” (PDF, registration required), 61 percent of those polled by EcoAlign weren’t familiar with the phrase, “smart grid.” Ouch!
So right off the bat, SGCC faces the daunting challenge of building awareness and promoting engagement. The data compiled by the group is a good start. There’s some great analysis on identifying various types of energy consumers and recommendations on reaching them.
Here are two insights (helpfully labeled as such in the report) that caught my eye, followed by my take on them.
Wooing the early adopter
INSIGHT: Capitalizing on immediate interest among the innovators and
early adopters will be valuable in crossing the chasm. Penetration will expand as applications, interfaces, incentives, and social norms evolve. (Page 28)
A little obvious, perhaps, but nonetheless true. My one worry: Can you make it cool?
The early adopter crowd is chomping at the bit to learn more about the iPad 2; waiting to see if Groupon or LivingSocial will dominate the local deals landscape; or if the impending flood of Android (or dare we dream, HP/Palm) tablets will unseat Apple as the king of slate computing. Contrast that buzz to the smart energy market where few devices, products or services have inspired this early adopter to give a tweet.
Speaking of tweets…
A public relations re-think
INSIGHT: Maintaining an authentic tone and delivering realistic messages through credible spokespeople will be the key to successful consumer engagement. (Page 30)
Also good advice that mirrors some excellent social media tips from Futerra Sustainability Communications’ Ed Gillespie. However, one little word rubbed me the wrong way. Can you guess which one? That’s right, “spokespeople.”
A spokesperson is a representative chosen to speak on behalf an organization or other person. The problem I have with that term is that it’s so laden with corporate baggage. It reeks of traditional PR machines and their one-way, “stay on message at all cost” strategies. Utilities, smart energy service providers and gadget makers will find that consumers have grown smarter, some more than a little jaded. Their tolerance for reps that merely “speak for” their company is short, if nonexistent.
Social media — where many of those aforementioned early adopters have taken up residence — demands authentic and realistic dialog, not the just the ability to deliver (or frankly spout) authentic and realistic-sounding messages. This requires a re-think of corporate communications. It falls to agile, social media-savvy marketing departments to tear down those walls — or bridge those “chasms” as the SGCC describes — that are keeping consumers from discovering the smart grid’s potential and benefiting from the advanced, energy- and money-saving perks that it enables.
Those observations aside, there’s a lot to like about the report in that it provides a sobering lay of the land. If PG&E had this report in hand before it foisted its smart meters on the unprepared — and ultimately unwilling — residents of Bakersfield, I suspect that it would have been much smoother sailing from the start.
Download the “SGCC 2011 State of the Consumer Report” (PDF, reg req’d)
Image credit: Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative