09/17/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Want to Cut Energy Usage? Try Using Social Media

If there was ever a time for consumers to get serious about conserving energy, it's now.

July was the hottest month ever in the U.S., according to the federal government, and we've all seen pictures of parched farmland as the drought spreads to two-thirds of our nation's farm fields.

Unfortunately, most consumers don't know enough about their energy use to even start cutting back.

In fact, according to an IBM poll last year of 10,000 consumers, more than 30 percent of respondents had never heard of the term "dollar per kwh" and more than 60 percent didn't recognize the terms "smart grids" or "smart meters."

Utilities have provided lots of information and services designed to help consumers understand the difference between, say, drying clothes on a line versus in a dryer. We've been advised to turn off a dishwasher when it hits the dry-by-heating cycle. We have programmable thermostats in our hallways. Yet, there hasn't been much of a change in individual behavior when it comes to energy savings.

That's where social media can play a bigger role. Social media is custom made for bringing conservation front and center.

It's now clear, based on studies by IBM and behavioral researchers, that money isn't the biggest motivator in cutting energy use. Instead, it is a sense of belonging, achievement, competition, ease of use, sustainability -- all these factors play crucial roles.

That's why social media, with its connections, sharing, comparing, and real-time updates, can motivate people the way that won't happen if the same information is communicated via a website, pamphlet in the mail, or advertisement on a bus. Social media can accomplish a few crucial tasks. It can:

Create a way to compete: An app on a phone or Facebook loaded with each individual's home energy consumption data allows consumers to compete with their friends or family about who can cut the most energy use. Another approach is to load the apps with data from a neighborhood so folks can see how their energy usage compares with their neighbors. Some utilities are also sweetening the pot with prizes.

Share Tips Smartly: Our research found that the way a choice is framed and presented can make a big difference. For instance, people tend to get stuck if they're bombarded with too many conservation tips at once, such as a list on a website. Using updates on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can give consumers the option to navigate tips the way they want to and to dig into the ones that interest them or that other people found helpful.

Target a message: Age groups are motivated by very different factors. Our research found that people under 25 are galvanized by the environment and are two and half times more likely than folks over 55 to follow the lead of people in their networks. Big data and analytics lets you ramp up the impact of your messages by creating personalized tips on a massive scale, pinpointing influencers on Twitter or Pinterest, and tracking the tenor of discussions.

Utilities have more information on cutting energy use than consumers could ever use. They've just never had a way to get that information to customers in a way that motivates people to act.

Until now.

Social media is exactly the opportunity utilities have been looking for. And the leaders are already jumping on board.

For more information about IBM's energy and utilities solutions, click here.