Marketing Smart Meters in a Modern World

Smart meters are becoming mainstream in modern American. The Institute for Electric Innovation reports that more than 30 electric companies across the country have fully deployed smart meters across their service areas, and that by 2020 there will be 90 million smart meters installed in the United States. As Patty Durand, president and CEO of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), states, “The term ‘smart grid’ has made entry into consumers’ awareness like ‘smartphones’ and ‘the smart home,’ and people generally feel positively toward the word.”

Based on the numbers, it might seem that most consumers are on board with smart meters — after all, they provide utilities with helpful information to better serve communities by optimizing energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and enable the electric company to quickly troubleshoot outages and restore power. However, misconceptions and lack of awareness around smart meter technology still threaten a utility’s ability to get complete buy-in from its customers. As Durand notes, “It’s important for consumers to be aware of what’s going on on the grid so they can participate. Many want to, research shows, but if they don’t know how to, that’s a barrier.” Another barrier is that some customers may not want to learn more about smart meters, as the technology folds into the ubiquitous dialogue of energy efficiency — a topic that many people are getting burned out on.

Smart marketing for smart meters comes down to one simple (but not so simple) truth: success is in the messaging. The messaging is the beginning of breaking down these barriers.

In its hot-off-the-press Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation Study, the SGCC suggests that 40% of consumers fall into the “Selectively Engaged” category — further segmented to three subgroups: Savings Seekers, Technology Cautious, and Movers & Shakers. These are consumers who are focused on saving money, understanding how technology helps them use energy wisely, and who want to be wowed by smart energy technology, respectively. What they all have in common is the idea that engagement will happen on their own terms, and only when they have a specific need. According to the SGCC, they also represent a “real opportunity when creating programs and working to increase engagement.”

What does it mean for utilities? It’s time to take a deeper dive in understanding the barriers of different consumer segments to build better affection, relevance and trust through targeted messaging.

The barrier: Consumers feel “forced” into something they don’t understand

In a recent opinion letter to Charleston’s The Post and Courier, one consumer expressed his concerns with smart meters: “There is little to no information available from local utilities about the installation of these devices on homes, except glowing statements about how much energy efficiency is gained by their use. These utilities do not indicate any available ‘opt-out’ for consumers to retain their ‘dumb,’ non-microwave emitting meters.”

Similarly, this mom felt confused by the announcement from her utility that a smart meter was coming to her home. She writes, “I’d heard about smart meters, but I didn’t know much about them so I started to poke around. It’s not typical for me to be excited about some technology thingamabob being added to my home without my knowing anything about it. I didn’t like what I found.” Her reasons for refusing the meter included concerns about health, fire risk, privacy and personal safety.

The message: Make clear the benefits of the smart meter to each segment, so they can see the technology as a positive rather than a negative

Savings Seekers will respond to messages around how the smart meter will save them money, while Technology Cautious customers will be looking for more information around how the meters work and why it matters to them. Movers & Shakers are more interested in energy efficiency, and want to be impressed (especially by their utility). Give them information on how smart meters fit into smart homes and inspire smarter behaviors around energy.

The barrier: Consumers fear their health and privacy are at risk

In a March 2017 story in the Detroit Free Press, it was reported that more than 150 people attended a committee hearing to voice their support for a bill that would make it easier for them to opt out of their utility’s smart meter installation. The story includes several quotes from consumers concerned with the high volume of electromagnetic waves to be emitted from the meter installations, and the potential for the meters to provide a “gateway” for getting information on activity in the home.

An article published on Wall Street Daily sought to debunk many of the “myths” around smart meters, but was met with much skepticism in the reader comments following the post. One reader commented, “I think that these devices only help the utility, who will of course save money by better predicting and meeting the demand. They should give me a discount to have one installed. I do not see how they save me anything and I am afraid of the marketing negative possibilities, such as selling to appliance manufacturers, home insulators, home invaders, and others who want to know more about me to target advertising, which also can make money for the utility who will sell any and all information they have I am sure.”

The message: Use facts to tell each segment how the technology works and how the data will be used

Savings Seekers will have lower awareness and knowledge of the technology, and will likely need more information about how the meter works and details around how their unique data will lead to more savings. Technology Cautious consumers will need lots of validation (facts and stats) proving the safety of the meters. Movers & Shakers will be on board with the proposed benefits of the meter technology, but will be skeptical on the motives of the utility. (SGCC reports this group as being the least satisfied with their utility.)

Customer segmentation might seem like a heavy lift on the front end because it potentially leads to several different messages depending on the audience; but on the back end it has the potential to get help utilities get ahead of negative perceptions and false “truths” about smart meters. As utilities seek more ways to build meaningful relationships with customers, a meaningful message is a great place to start.