Utilities Must Improve Their Messages to Communicate the Benefits of Smart Meters

Utilities have a real challenge in succinctly communicating the benefits of smart meters.  Some benefits are not easily distilled into sound-bites.  However, utilities must improve their outreach to consumers to ensure that consumers understand the role of smart meters in helping them save money; helping utilities keep costs and electricity rates down; and reducing carbon emissions. 

I surveyed several US-based utility websites to see how they answered a basic website query for smart meters.  In my role play as a consumer seeking information about smart meters, my most basic question was “what’s in it for me”, also known as WIIFM.  This is a basic lesson taught in Marketing 101 – always tell the consumer what benefits they receive from a new product or service.  Lesson two is to make sure it happens early and often. 

My survey revealed that while smart meter information is presented on each website, it requires some effort to find the WIIFM information and sometimes fails to connect a benefit to a feature.  There are some interesting approaches that include the use of social media as new channels to deliver information, but these lack consistent messaging content.  Communications plans that deliver consistent, multi-layered, multi-channel messaging are necessary to address consumer questions about the value that smart meters have for individuals and communities.   None of the sites in my survey included any gamification elements – although these could have been embedded in pages that require a customer login. 

Here are some survey results.

Utility 1:  The first two search results were useless. The third search result reported on their smart meter deployment and identified two changes consumers would see – remote reading and connect/disconnect capabilities.  The WIIFM benefits were missing, and although they may be obvious to those of us in the business, we can’t assume that consumers will fill in those blanks.    

The fourth result directed me to the FAQ page for Smart Grid topics.   If I wasn’t already in search fatigue, I could find several questions and answers about smart meters, starting with the basic question:  What is a smart meter?  The answer to my WIIFM question was disappointing.  Here’s what I would learn:  “A smart meter – or digital meter – is just one part of a smart grid system. But the device is important in delivering nearly real-time information to our customers. With a digital meter on your home and supporting energy management programs, you can find out – at any time during the month – how much energy you’ve used from the previous day(s).”

This is not a compelling reason for a consumer.  I’ve been told I have a capability to learn how much energy I’ve used the previous day.  But there’s no connection to a consumer benefit here- such as being able to take actions that help me reduce my energy usage, and therefore my energy bills.      

Utility 2: My search results started with a page on how to read smart electric meters.  This page has a box on the right hand side of the page titled Smart Meter, and led to a new page that had a clear feature/benefit statement, “understand energy use to make money-saving and environmentally-friendly changes.”  Clicking on other areas of that page provided information on why smart meters are important in terms of delivering, individual, community, and global benefit perspectives.  The messaging about making choices to save money on energy bills was well-reinforced throughout the text, and ubiquity is important.

The fourth option down in the text box was titled Benefits.  Here I learned that not only would I save energy and money, I’d gain privacy through the elimination of meter reading, find outage sources quickly, and reduce the need for power plants.  The best statement I saw was embedded in a fact sheet linked to that benefits page.  It stated that a smart meter will let you know exactly when you use energy and what it costs.  Had the statement continued on with “and this information helps you make smart decisions to reduce energy use and your bills”, it would have been a fantastic benefits statement. 

These are five takeaways for utility marketing departments:

  1. Consumers expect the Smart Grid to help them save money – connect the dots via multi-layered messaging to show how smart meters achieve that.
  2. Cut the words – consumers are busy people and shouldn’t have to wade through lots of text.
  3. Prominently position the benefits statements up front.
  4. Test your website search results and make sure the pages you want to appear first will appear first.
  5. Think about how social media channels and gamification techniques can deliver benefits messages about smart meters.
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