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Hitting the tipping point in smart consumer engagement

A lot of talking, and a lot of listening. That's what I did at GridWeek last week.

One of the overriding themes in this year's conference was that of customer engagement, particularly how it works and who is doing it right.

Early in the week, I joined Aclara's Mark Thompson, To the Point's Judith Schwartz, Parks Associates' Tricia Parks, Best Buy Co.'s Kristen Bowring, and Thomas Stathos, director of customer programs and services for PPL Electric Utilities, to discuss the "Personal" Grid.

This is one of my favorite topics. Smart grid planners are recognizing the need to ensure that they equip consumers with true access to smart grid benefits, such as control over their energy use.

But when offered these options, what -- if anything -- will consumers do differently?

We all understand that behavior change happens along a continuum, but opinions differ as to what it will take to move less-engaged customers closer to adoption.

According to a new study conducted by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) -- there is a clear tipping point for the spread of ideas. The study's findings, reported in the July 22 early online edition of Physical Review E, noted that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will be adopted by the majority of society.

The scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.

"When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the minority," SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski told Science "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame."

The implications of this study for utilities seeking to effectively communicate with their customers -- in the face of fearmongering and absolute fiction being spread via Internet channels such as YouTube, Web sites, chat rooms, Twitter, and by word of mouth, television and print media -- are clear. Create the  positive relationships, and hit that tipping point community by community, ideally. If you're late out of the gate creating positive consumer relationships, it's going to be that much harder.

In fact, thanks to a viral anti-smart meter spin, many electric utilities have an uphill battle to reach that vital 10 percent tipping point. In fact, many have an uphill battle ahead of them simply to gain customer trust, to be that "trusted advisor" that customers reach to first for information.

A few nights before GridWeek began, I received a text message from my youngest daughter, now a freshman in university. "Are you for or against smart meters? Having a debate" it read. She followed with, "Are there potential health risks?" and then, "Can one opt out?"

She and her two roommates, who haven't yet paid a utility bill in their lives (their utilities are included in their monthly rent), are nonetheless interested in what they've read and heard about smart meters. Because I write about them, I am my daughter's "trusted advisor." One of her roommates had recently read a particularly inflammatory article about smart meters, and that pop culture newspaper is his "trusted advisor." So, in their apartment, the debate was on. At the end of the day, thanks to clear information, my daughter's argument tipped the scales.

The point is, in many portions of this country, the fearmongers have already hit the tipping point in public opinion. It's not impossible to change it, but it's going to be darned difficult without a lot of concerted, educated effort.

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine


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