Making Energy Efficiency Emotionally Appealing

September 03, 2011
September/October 2011
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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One of the critical jobs for a consumer product marketer is to make an emotional connection with potential customers, to create a desire to buy that isn't based on a reasonable evaluation of the costs and benefits of the product. How else does Apple convince everyone to upgrade iPhones every year, when each new version has just a few cool new features but costs just as much as the previous one? Or buy the new iPad 2, when by most accounts, it's pretty much the same thing as the original iPad?

Now take our industry -- home energy efficiency. With a rational consumer evaluation of the costs and benefits, we've got a great product, compared to Apple. The problem is that consumers don't make buying decisions rationally. So what can we do to sell our product -- home energy retrofits -- based on its emotional appeal?

Plenty. We've done some early work on applying the lessons of behavioral economics to selling home energy retrofits, but in this article, we're going to focus on what works and what doesn't in visual design, specifically, the design of energy efficiency reports.


A/B Testing

The ongoing pilot tests of the new national Home Energy Score being developed by DOE offered a great opportunity for some research in what works to create an emotional engagement with homeowners when it comes to energy efficiency. Over the past several months, EnergySavvy has worked with DOE to conduct an online test of potential design elements for the new national Home Energy Score, to determine which ones exert an emotional tug that makes homeowners think about getting home energy upgrades.

DOE released the basic framework of the Home Energy Score design in November 2010. It consists of a scale from 1 to 10 that compares your home with other homes in the area, and projects where you could be with various upgrades.

We set up an online A/B test (a type of test used in marketing to compare an original sample to a variety of single-variable samples), which used 12 different variations of the original design to isolate the engagement rate differences associated with relatively minor variations. These variations included emphasizing the dollar savings number over the score difference number (or vice versa), personalizing the language used in the scale, and changing colors used in the design, among others. People who took the test were directed to a simple landing page with the caption How Efficient Is Your Home? and a prominent display of the design. In some cases, it was the original design, while in others it was one of the variations. Although there were relatively subtle differences among many of the variations, there were significant differences in the conversion rates. A conversion was defined as a click-through on a button next to the visual labeled "Take the Survey," implying that there would be some effort associated with the next step. The idea was to see which variations had enough emotional appeal to encourage viewers to take this next step.

Case_HE%20Score%20(4)Figure 1. By changing the Home Energy Score design and adding friendly home icons, reactions from homeowners were better.

Case_HE%20Score%20(1)Figure 2. Showing a five-year savings calculation instead of annual savings resulted in increased conversion rates from homeowners.

What We Learned

The variations that had the highest conversion rates had the following characteristics:

Personalized language. By making the language and design of the visual more personal, through changes such as using "Your Home" instead of "Current Score," or by adding friendly home icons (see Figure 1), we showed statistically significant increases in conversion rates.

Estimate energy savings over several years. Showing a five-year dollar savings calculation instead of an annual dollar savings calculation increased conversion rates significantly (even though the five-year number was just the one-year number multiplied by 5). See Figure 2.

Simplify the result. Showing an estimated dollar savings alone, without also showing a target score, significantly increased conversion rates.

These are all very small differences, but each one produced statistically significant differences in engagement rates. Presenting a house’s energy score is just one way to engage (or disengage) a customer’s interest in a home energy efficiency program.

learn more

For more information on the methodology used in this test, or to ask other specific questions, contact Scott Case at

To learn more about the EnergySavvy programs, go to

To read Sheena Iyengar’s article, "The Fewer The Better—Streamlining Your 401(k) Plan's Fund Choices Can Improve Employees Participation And Decision-Making," visit

What Programs Can Learn—and Apply

To generalize what we learned from the quantitative A|B tests on the DOE Home Energy Score design, we've drawn a few conclusions that can be applied to visual design and copy for all home energy efficiency programs.

Keep it simple. Simpler, friendlier language and fewer data always won out on our A/B test cases. In an industry full of building science nerds (and we use that term affectionately), we've all got to fight the urge to overwhelm homeowners with technical details. Research by Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar showed a correlation between the number of 401K plan choices that employees at a company had and the rate at which they participated in any plan. The more plan choices they had, the lower the participation rate was for every option.

Personalize. Through visuals and language ("Your Home" and "Efficient Homes in Your Neighborhood" for example) we can invoke the social proof effect. This effect, which comes from social psychology, means that the actions that other people have taken in the past can influence people in the present to believe that those actions represent correct behavior. The social proof effect has been widely seen in persuading hotel guests to reuse their towels, for example.

Make it long term. Given that most energy efficiency improvements are intended to last for many years, it seems legitimate to show at least a five-year savings estimate. While studies in behavioral economics often show that people aren't always motivated more when they are given more money, the fact that the people in our tests were more motivated by the five-year savings number than they were by the equivalent annual savings number is consistent with the findings of other studies in social psychology.

Scott Case is the vice president of Product Management at EnergySavvy. Scott holds an MBA from MIT and a BA degree in political science and economics from Williams College.

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