Jamie Woolley

Campaigner, strategist and writer

Big Clean Switch is making clean energy exciting for jaded UK customers. How? It started by using market research to unlock the reasons why people don’t follow through with the seemingly simple act of switching to a clean energy provider.

But what if research shows that people believe switching to clean energy is a great idea but nobody switches? What if clean energy advocacy organisations have been frustrated by the difficulty of getting people to switch?

Opinion surveys consistently show that a majority of people in the UK support clean energy yet only around 250,000 households — less than 1% of the country’s 27 million — have opted for 100% renewable energy. With so much support for clean energy, why aren’t more people making the switch?

That’s the question Big Clean Switch aimed to tackle at the start of an ambitious campaign that, as we write, is working to get a (much) larger portion of the UK households to use 100% renewable energy sources. Big Clean Switch needed to create messages that unlocked the switch to clean energy for people. It also needed to show advocates and partners that people will make the switch when presented with a meaningful reason to do so.

An image from the Big Clean Switch website shows messaging about switching providers. The emphasis on ease and simplicity reflects the results of testing barriers to switching.

Understanding behaviour to unlock motivations and barriers to change

Conducting research uncovered invaluable insights into how people perceive and respond to clean energy. This required extra time and expense, but it ensured the team were approaching the problem from the right angle.

The UK energy market was privatised in the early 1990s. Since then, six large energy companies — the Big Six — have come to dominate supply, with independent suppliers taking a small but increasing share of the market.

Customers have proven reluctant to switch between providers. In 2017, a report found that 82% of domestic electricity is supplied by the Big Six, while 60% of households were still on the most expensive, default tariff. This is surprising, given that further government research found that households could save £300 a year on average by changing to a cheaper tariff.

Something is preventing UK customers from switching suppliers despite marketplace competition and the added benefits of clean energy. Big Clean Switch commissioned an extensive market research programme to uncover the true nature of what prevents people from switching to clean energy providers (or switching at all).

They soon realised they were asking the wrong question. It wasn’t clean energy that was the problem.

Instead, people just weren’t keen on switching suppliers, full stop. It became clear that clean energy could provide a unique selling point to stand out from marketing offered by the Big Six, which tends to focus on price.

For Jon Fletcher, Big Clean Switch campaign director, this realisation unlocked a new perspective on the problem. “It was probably the moment when our mindset changed from one of being environmental campaigners approaching an environmental problem, to problem solvers identifying what the problem was. That’s probably a conclusion for campaigns that I work on in the future. Identification of the actual problem, instead of what you think the problem is, puts you on the right track to asking the right questions up front.”

Market research didn’t simply answer the team’s questions. It allowed the team to ask better questions.

When the team started asking the right questions, the biggest factor preventing switching seemed to be a lack of trust in energy suppliers in general due to poor customer service. For many, staying with the current (and sometimes more expensive) supplier is a case of  ‘better the devil you know’ than taking a leap into the unknown.

Fletcher says this lack of trust can be challenged by demonstrating how clean energy suppliers operate differently from the big companies. “The trust issue is increasingly affecting the Big Six, and one reason so many people are moving away from them is due to customer service failings. Our campaign has definitely been helped by the fact that many of the 100% renewable suppliers are cementing a market position around customer service.”

Reframing clean energy for the better

Big Clean Switch is avoiding climate change clichés, instead using selling points that align with the more immediate concerns of target audiences.

The team used market research into the barriers preventing people from switching to explore ways of talking about clean energy. Climate change is clearly a good reason for switching to clean energy but it’s often seen as something happening elsewhere, someone else’s problem, or simply too complex for an individual’s action to have meaningful impact.

Traditional methods of communicating climate change issues — emphasising global impacts or throwing out a rallying cry to join a protest movement — often fail to resonate with general audiences or provide the motivation needed to shift behaviour. To overcome this, the team explored ways to make clean energy relevant to personal values and, through that, influence decision making.

An example of a consumer-facing form on the Big Clean Switch website. The form asks users for location and email address before they can receive quotes.

Research showed that where energy comes from is important to many people. Most clean energy used in the UK is also produced in the UK. Energy, it seems, is like food. Buying local is a selling point. This provided an opportunity to explain clean energy’s benefits to the UK economy and industry. Locally produced energy creates jobs in the clean energy sector.

With the idea that clean energy could be a positive selling point, the team had a way to distinguish the suppliers’ tariffs from what the Big Six offer. Research found that customers don’t differentiate between energy products except on the basis of price and customer service. Explaining the added value of clean energy and juxtaposing it alongside ‘dirty energy’ conventional tariffs allowed the campaign to position their offering as a better product.

There is also a wealth of evidence that people will change behaviour if they see that (or even just think that) other people are doing the same thing. Some energy companies have introduced subtle nudges on customer billing, using smiley or sad emojis to show how households compare to their neighbours in terms of energy efficiency. We all want to fit in. It’s a simple psychological technique that works. One UK study showed a 8% drop in energy usage when these nudges were used.

How messages may help or hinder (and why testing is so important)

Language can help convince people to switch. It can also become a barrier if it doesn’t match up with the customer’s thoughts about the switching process. Fletcher points to the Big Clean Switch Guarantee as an example of messaging that can be counterproductive. The Guarantee aims to reassure customers that switching will be easy by promising to resolve any problems with their chosen supplier.

“I wonder if we’ve given it the right name,” says Fletcher. “The Big Clean Switch Guarantee doesn’t really mean anything to people. The terms that resonate with people are ‘we’ve got your back’ or ‘safety net.’ Some customers start the process worried and are comforted by a guarantee. But there is a larger group of consumers who don’t start with concerns. Pointing out the need for a service guarantee may create a barrier where none existed. It comes down to testing to understand how we communicate it, when we communicate it, and who we communicate it to.”

The campaign has used simple but effective methods of nudging. The website homepage prominently features testimonials from customers explaining how easy they found the switching process and the benefits to them. Numbers are also very useful, and campaign materials frequently mention how many people have used their service to switch suppliers.

This customer testimonial appears on the Big Clean Switch website. The customer’s words reinforce the fact that switching is a quick and positive process.

Finding the right path on the user journey

An ongoing testing programme has proven essential to striking a balance between gathering contact information for follow-up communications and empowering people to compare energy suppliers.

comparison website sits at the center of the public campaign. The site allows customers to compare tariffs from many clean energy providers and guides them through the switching process once they make a decision.

Getting the user journey right requires constant testing. The main focus of the homepage is currently a form that lets the user request a quote. Email address is a required field. The advantage of this is that the campaign can follow up by email even if the customer doesn’t choose to switch.

Clean energy suppliers listed on the Big Clean Switch website. Users can explore costs and options for switching to available providers.

The team knew from initial research that most people need follow-up communications before switching. Many people, for example, talk the decision over with a partner. In fact, half of switches through the site happened on the second visit or later. Creating a user journey that brings people back to the site has enabled the campaign to significantly increase the number of people switching to clean energy.

A mandatory email field lowers the number of people generating quotes and providing an email address in the first place. Around twice as many people begin the switching process by requesting a quote when providing an email isn’t mandatory. As a result, the team is exploring how to remove friction in the user journey while also bringing people back to the site so they can finish the switching process.

‘The testing never stops,” says Fletcher. “As a user, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m getting yet [by providing my email address], why am I giving you permission to contact me?’ We’re currently looking at the data to work out which is the optimal mechanism. This would mean not necessarily asking for email upfront but making it more desirable to give an email address on the quote result page.”

The user journey also needs to provide more detailed information at the right time so it’s available for those who want it but doesn’t become a hurdle preventing people from switching suppliers. Technical information should be supplied when it’s most useful for the right audience. For instance, testing showed that customers found background information on energy suppliers most instructive at the point of sale after they had selected an individual company, rather than earlier on in the comparison process.

Pitching the message right: Using research insights to convince potential partners

Partnerships with other organisations and companies are key to campaign success. The team used market research insights to construct convincing business cases that brought partners on board.

Partners may provide access to email lists and networks of customers, supporters and employees to promote the campaign. The partnerships currently in place — including WWF, the Big Issue, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Ikea — provide potential access to at least seven million people.

Market research insights helped build strong business cases showing that, with the right messaging, 84% of people would switch to a clean energy tariff. More importantly, the team could demonstrate benefits to partners. Communications tests included branding from potential partners to explore the impact on people’s perception of their brands. Results showed that association with clean energy significantly increases the positive impression people have of a brand.

Solid evidence of the brand-building potential enabled the team to approach people in the marketing departments of potential partners.

However, the task of switching stakeholders to clean energy rarely fits neatly within any one role, and often straddles multiple departments such as corporate sustainability, marketing and communications, and human resources. As a result, the team adapted their pitch to reflect different priorities — a human resources team would be more interested in the potential financial savings they could offer their staff, rather than brand-building.

Another good tactic has been to create a set of case studies to convince larger organisations to get involved. The team did this by running successful campaigns in partnership with smaller organisations. This allowed them to show proof-of-concept and helped overcome the inevitable situation of being an unknown quantity as a start-up.

As with any relationship, developing partnerships has taken time – longer than the campaign team anticipated. Initial contact with a potential partner is often with one enthusiastic person but a larger team needs to be engaged and support the partnership. Market research insights help secure buy-in, and time, from partners and their larger teams.

Building on initial successes

The Big Clean Switch seeks to switch 250,000 homes by the end of 2019. This will double the number of UK households on clean energy and an ambitious target given the huge gap between public opinion and customer actions.

The team is putting into practice the insights from understanding motivational triggers and the barriers to changing energy supplier. They’re also emphasising beneficial collaborations between partner organisations and energy suppliers. The partners see how the campaign supports their mission or brand. Energy suppliers are attracted by promotion to millions of people.

This practice of uncovering behavioural insights and repeated experimentation is working. Recent campaigns have shown significantly higher conversion rates than the team saw in pilot campaigns. Energy customers rarely move between suppliers making these results extremely promising. The team expects the conversion rate to improve as projects with partner organisations roll out the door.

Learn more with the Big Clean Switch case study prepared by Purpose Climate Lab.

Want to keep up on Big Clean Switch messaging? Check out Big Clean Switch online or follow the project on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

This article was made possible in part through support of Purpose Labs’ commitment to providing global campaigners with innovative ideas and strategies to help them win bigger.