To Be Social It Has to Be Fun

Jayme Heimbuch at published a piece a few weeks ago about the failure of energy conservation to engage people via social networking, suggesting that perhaps people were the problem (because we seem to care more about celebrities than kilowatt hours).

Three weeks into a pilot where people are sending us photos, bragging to us and their colleagues about the electric savings they’ve uncovered, I’ve a different take on all of this.

Most existing energy conservation efforts haven’t engaged people in social media around their sites because the efforts are not any fun. Most of the tools function more like a test than a game, requiring you to gather and interpret all kinds of data before you can do anything the least bit fun. It would be akin to Trivial Pursuit requiring players to complete a comprehensive assessment to optimize team assignments. Imagine how much fun that would be.

Actually it would be about as much fun as filling out screen after screen of questions about your electric usage and insulation levels—stuff regular people don’t think about.

Disclosure: I’m an absolute energy geek. At my house the utility bill is something we open and discuss, as soon as it arrives. And then we input the data into customized spreadsheets, marvel at the graphs and talk about it some more.

But most people are not like me. Whereas I enjoy filling out carbon calculators and comparing the results from one tool to another, most regular people (our target market) find this a burden. And most people have enough burdens already.

Game developers have taught me that if you want to engage people you need to provide opportunities for early successes, to let players feel good about their efforts. It has to be fun.

Asking people questions they can’t answer about their appliances or energy usage makes them feel bad, incompetent even. It is not fun. While a few might dig in to learn more, most will drop out, opting to spend their time on something more pleasant. And we wonder why these folks aren’t posting their results on Facebook? What should they post?

Just learned I don’t know how to read my utility bill – even though I’ve been paying it for years.  It’s probably also time to admit that I can’t reset the clock on the microwave.

Our initiative, by contrast, empowers people. Participants can take easy actions, without having to learn how kWh converts to tons of CO2.  We give participants clear signals—points—to value their actions. In our experience people immediately grasp this approach, seeking out high point-value actions that fit into their lives.

We’re finding that a few people want to get into the details. We support and celebrate those efforts but that’s not the main event. The main event is regular people taking action and bragging to their colleagues about the points they’ve accumulated.

By making this fun and easy we have engaged participants who intend to continue taking actions that, in aggregate, will generate meaningful savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long run.

And isn’t that the real objective?


Workplace Communities vs Neighborhoods

I’ve been involved—as an observer, a participant or a catalyst—in a variety of community-based energy efficiency programs over the last two decades. All of those efforts aimed to leverage a geographic or political community identity (neighborhoods, towns, etc.) to encourage individuals to implement energy efficient products or conservation practices in their own homes. Utilities and local governments target geo-political communities because it’s operationally handy—the communities align with utility territories or local government jurisdictions. So it’s easy to know who’s in and who’s out.

Community efforts, though, are most effective in a community with:

  • a lot of informal interaction (so successes with one member can influence other members);
  • strong established communication networks that reach all community members; and
  • clear and compelling leadership to champion the effort.

Given those criteria, I’d argue that the ideal communities are corporate, not geo-political.

Think about your town or neighborhood vs. your workplace community.

  • Whereas I wave at a neighbor while pulling into my garage, I chat daily with my co-workers and know more about their lives.
  • While my city council person tries to reach me via snail mail and community forums that I rarely attend, everyone in my company has my email address and can interact with me at regularly scheduled meetings that I’m paid to attend.
  • And while I might disagree with both at times, my CEO’s commitment to an issue is usually more straightforward than my mayor’s, often because the hierarchy is clearer.

Hence Cool Choices’ current focus on corporate communities. Our approach is to partner with companies that are already leaders in corporate sustainability efforts. We work with these companies to facilitate a cultural transformation where employees embrace sustainability in their personal lives, just as their employer has embraced it on the business side. We believe workplace efforts that promote personal sustainability are a big win for both the corporation and the employees.

For example, these efforts:

  • Broaden and deepen employee engagement in corporate sustainability efforts, reinvigorating corporate efforts;
  • Provide employees with the tools and opportunities to save money in their personal lives;
  • Make sustainability a fun community effort; and
  • Enable corporations to differentiate themselves in terms of candidate recruitment, community relations and other arenas.

Ultimately I think these efforts will affect neighborhoods and whole towns. But that might well happen via one employer at a time.