Generac Grid Services Blog

The Art of Persuasion: Studies that Can Help You Recruit DERs

Posted by Enbala on Jun 8, 2016 3:28:20 PM

Every demand response program, every virtual power plant, every distributed energy resource (DER) management system needs one thing to be successful: customers who are willing to hand over their DER controls. Given that participant recruitment is such an important factor in a DER management program’s success, it can’t hurt to bone up on the art of persuasion.

That’s easy to do with The Small Big, a business book that looks at several different studies on how to coax others to do the things you want them to do. Its authors include Robert Cialdini, who wrote Influence, a business psychology text that has been on Fortune’s list of the 75 Smartest Business Books for years. Influence boils down the art of persuasion into six key motivators.

Six Key Motivators

  • Social proof or normative influence, which is what people see others doing and assume is simply the way one should behave.
  • Reciprocity, or the obligation people feel to return a favor. This is the motivator behind free address labels or greeting cards tucked into direct-mail fundraisig lettes.
  • Consistency, or the urge to honor commitments and values.
  • Authority, which builds on peoples’ tendency to obey those they perceive to be in charge
  • Liking, or the draw people feel toward those they like.
  • Scarcity, the motivator that makes phrases like “while quantities last” or “limited time only” successful. Scarcity generates demand.

It is the first item in the above list of motivators that Cialdini and other researchers have found effective in persuading people to take green action. Social proof is the concept behind those little reports generated by the consumer-engagement and energy-efficiency company named OPower. It provides utility customers with a snapshot of how their energy use stacks up against similar households in the neighborhood. And, Cialdini served as OPower’s “chief scientist,” a role in which he continued his examinations of what messages prompt people to be good environmental stewards or save energy.


In one experiment, Cialdini and his team spent a month hitting residents in a San Diego subdivision with one of four reasons why they should try to save energy. For the environment, for the next generation, for cash savings … those are the messages that didn’t prompt action, according to the meter readers. What tipped the dial? A message telling people that most of their neighbors were taking action to conserve electricity.

Cialdini ran an experiment with similar messaging in an effort to get hotel guests to reuse towels in an energy- and water-saving effort. Again, normative influence was the most powerful motivator used to get guests complying with the initiative. Towel reuse rose 26 percent when hotel guests heard that other guests reused towels too.

To test normative influence as it applies to littering, a teamof Dutch researchers used rubber bands to attach advertisements to the handlebars of bicycles parked behind a mall. Sometimes the researchers left the ads only – with no garbage can nearby that riders could use to dispose of the advertisement – and sometimes the researchers added disarray to the alley by putting graffiti on nearby walls. The results? A third of the bicycle owners littered a clean alley. Two-thirds toss the advertisements on the ground when graffiti was present.

This research and more is covered in The Small Big, which spotlights some 50 different studies in which small changes in communications messaging had big impact. Most of the research was conducted by scientists other than Cialdini, who is now a professor emeritus at Arizona State University.

For those who need to recruit participants into a DER management program, there’s one study of particular interest. Social scientists Frank Flynn and Vanessa Bohns set out to see if people accurately predict how well their requests for favors will be received or if we tend to underestimate the kindness of strangers.

In one experiment, study participants were instructed to ask people they didn’t know to fill out a questionnaire and predict how many requests they’d have to make to get five questionnaires back. Most study participants expected they’d have to ask 20 different people for the favor in order to find five people who would grant it. On average, they only had to ask 10 people; half of those asked said yes.

In a similar study, research participants who had to ask others for a charitable donation underestimated the amounts they’d get by some 25 percent.

The Flynn and Bohns studies might be good ones to keep in mind when you go out recruiting customers for demand-side management programs. Chances are, you’ll find people more willing than you expect. And, in all likelihood, they’ll deliver even more energy flexibility than you anticipate.


Topics: DERs, demand management, demand response, customer persuasion

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