When tech is not enough: If you want consumers to change, give them a nudge

Millions of households are set to lose out as five of the ‘big six’ energy providers have recently announced more price hikes for their standard variable tariffs. The news of price rises invariably sparks conversations among the most engaged audiences on how to save money and traffic to the multiple switching sites increases, but is the conversation reaching the people who need it the most?

The ones who will be hit hardest will be some of the most vulnerable groups in society such as the elderly and housebound, many of whom are pre-pay users. These people are more often than not the least engaged, the least likely to know what the price rise means for them, and more importantly, what they can do about it.

In a bid to save energy and reduce costs for the nation, 2013 saw Smart Energy GB launched with a campaign to help everyone in Great Britain understand smart meters. Their national rollout of smart meters, with their range of intelligent functions, promised everyone, including the most vulnerable groups, that they would have more control over their gas and electricity use and therefore what they pay.

Smart Energy GB works with organisations like the National Housing Federation, the Post Office and Age UK and Citizens Advice to reach the most vulnerable groups of people. But while smart meters are a great idea, they do not change habits on their own.

In 2006, the government of Victoria, Australia decided to mandate smart metering across the state, to be paid for by customers. The programme relied on customers signing up to flexible tariffs that rewarded them for shifting their usage away from peak hours, but 11 years into the programme, less than 1% of energy consumers have done so. Research in 2014 showed that two out of three consumers still did not fully understand the benefits of smart metering.

So, while metering does give consumers more visibility and for most, more control, it would not appear to be a silver bullet.

In my experience, the use of monitoring technology is most effective at delivering change when paired with a range other behaviour change techniques. Take the Change4Life Sugar Smart app, for example. Sugar Smart allows parents and children to visualise just how much sugar is lurking in their food and drink by simply scanning the barcode. With over 1m downloads, it reached the top of the app download charts and 81% of mums say that it helped them cut down.

Whilst the app is brilliantly simple, its success was a function of several behavioural nudges which included:

  • Clever behavioural targeting including the syncing of TV and digital ads which interrupted sugar purchase and consumption to drive downloads.
  • A partnership with My Supermarket to highlight sugar levels in shoppers’ baskets right at the point of purchase.
  • A school book bag insert to help parents make the link between sugar and harm
  • Incentives from trusted brands to get parents to trial healthier choices.
  • Influencers such as celebrity mums and TV nutritionists to highlight and help overcome consumer confusion around labelling and portion sizes.

You cannot expect an individual to make a change by simply giving them a piece of tech or an app. They must be supported by other behaviour change techniques that make it easy via a range of communication channels that are targeted.

While they might not appear obvious bedfellows, those who are trying to save kilowatts may still have plenty to learn from those saving kilojoules.

Jane Asscher is the chief executive and founding partner at 23red

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