Viral Marketing to Change Household Energy Behavior

October 10, 2013

By Emily Conner and Jennifer Ross

Note: The Communicating about Energy in the Triangle team has continued exploration and debate as to appropriate ways to encourage household-level energy behavior change. Recently, we focused on diffusion via social networks as a strategy that could be employed. Here are two brief excerpts from that discussion. 

From graduate student Emily Conner:

The best success story of successful descriptive norms being used to reduce energy consumption was by the company OPower. The company uses Home Energy Report letters to indicate to the customers their energy reductions, a comparison to their neighbors, and a smiley face indicating their success level. The average energy consumption reduction in a home receiving Home Energy Reports decreased on average 11-20% in the short run and 5% over the long run, with energy usage keeping consistently lower than initial levels through the five years studied. Perhaps the most important part of the Opower case was that it was the first successful study of a low or no cost solution to energy efficiency projects. This is the longest period of successful energy reduction seen thus far in our class discussion, which could suggest a possible application for lower income and public housing households. (However, the study also suggested that injunctive norms, e.g., a person receiving a “Good” instead of “Great,” did not have a significant effect.

From undergraduate Jennifer Ross: 

When thinking about the implementation of a viral marketing strategy for energy conservation or efficiency, it is critical to understand which components of the message will be internalized and which will be shared. In his book, Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health: Sharing Disparities, Southwell (2013) makes an interesting point that the news articles that are more frequently read and more frequently shared actually differ. This observation was noted for both the Washington Post and the more local News and Observer. In my opinion, the first step towards creating a viral marketing strategy, geared towards energy efficiency, should be determining the aspects of energy efficiency that are “shareable” not just personally motivating. Are neighbors more likely to discuss energy savings, environmental consequences, or just the fact that many of their friends and family have adopted new energy-use behaviors? Using this data will ensure design of a more effective viral marketing strategy (operating under the assumption that neighbors have been shown to adopt new energy-use when the information is shared within their social network).


Southwell, Brian. (2013). Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health: Sharing Disparities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.