Consumers may change behavior if delivered the right message

If you've heard me speak at a conference, you know there's a point in the presentation where I typically say, "Don't try to educate your audience into changing their behaviors." Then I ask the audience to raise their hands if they can think of at least one thing they know they should do on a daily basis to be healthier but that they don't do. Nearly every hand goes up, and I say, "See, knowing a thing doesn't mean you're going to do a thing."

But I might be wrong.

I spoke with a group of folks earlier this week who run utility green power programs. Green power programs are the ones where you, as a customer, can opt to pay an extra $4 or so for a "block" of green power, essentially subsidizing the cost of adding more renewable energy to the grid. While the handful of leading programs in the country see participation as high as 10 percent of customers, the average utility green power program gets around 1 to 2 percent of the utility's entire customer base to participate. Yet, according to our Energy Pulse data, true believers — 20 percent of Americans — are prime targets for this kind of program. They:

• Are very concerned about the environmental impact of our energy usage
• Overwhelmingly agree global warming is occurring and caused by humans
• Are the one segment whose values and behaviors typically align — they've done more (and spent more money) to conserve energy than most Americans
• Say they're very likely to sign up for their utility's green power program (after we explain it to them)

So why aren't they all enrolled and willingly paying an extra $4 per month to ensure we're producing power in a way that's more environmentally friendly?

This is the part where I might be wrong about education not leading to action.

When you dig into our data, you also see that even true believers are not very likely to link home energy consumption to climate change. Only 5 percent connect coal-fired electricity generation to global warming — they think manufacturing plants and cars and trucks are the leading causes.

So they essentially don't see the problem — or the need to support a green power program. Because this is a group of people who usually take action based on their values — and these folks value the environment — this is a situation where a better understanding of the problem could cause someone to take action.

The trick is in creating a compelling message. A gloom and doom message doesn't actually work — the Sierra Club's been doing that all around the country for the last couple of years, and we have yet to see it penetrate the consciousness of a significant number of consumers. And a logical or "safe" explanation of these programs doesn't work either — that's what's gotten utilities the tiny amount of participation they have now.

True believers are also optimists, and their public image matters to them. They see themselves as clever and in the know, so an inspiring — or funny — campaign that sheds light on how green power programs work and why they are important would speak to true believers' values and move them to action, particularly if the campaign includes a way to publicly embrace green power via social media. I'm thinking of a campaign along the lines of our "Wasting Water Is Weird" or "Avoid Energy Drama" campaigns, by the way.

So, in this case, education might move a specific group of people to action, if the message is right and the action steps are clear (and offer bragging rights). Hopefully, we'll find some utilities willing to test this theory. I'll let you know how it goes.

This story originally appeared at the Shelton Group's Shelton Insights blog. U-turn image by rnl via Shutterstock.