Electric cooperatives have a strong sense of community that, if emphasized, can greatly benefit efforts to communicate with members on priority issues, according to new research conducted for NRECA.

That finding comes from the "lexicon project," nationwide research conducted for NRECA by maslansky + partners. The project aimed to develop a shared vocabulary for communicating with members.

The research represents a strategic evolution for co-ops to consider adopting when communicating about co-ops in general, the co-op advantage, rates, renewables, beneficial electrification and cybersecurity.

Findings came from in-person focus groups of co-op members in LaGrange, Georgia, and Billings, Montana; an online focus group with co-op members in Pennsylvania; and a national survey of 500 co-op members.

Here are five takeaways from the research on what language works, what doesn't and why:

1. Co-ops Start From a Position of Strength

The research finds that consumer-members have positive feelings about their local co-ops: 89 percent feel very or somewhat positive about their own co-op.

"The idea of electric co-ops as community focused and local organizations rose to the top and resonated more strongly than any attribute," said Scott Peterson, NRECA's senior vice president for communications. "Focus group participants reacted most positively when they were told that cooperatives are deeply invested in the communities that they serve."

2. Community, Community, Community

Because the idea of community resonates so strongly among members, the research suggests that that co-ops focus on community aspects when engaging with members.

"The findings clearly show that the cooperative advantage starts with community—the fact that we are invested in our communities, that many of our employees come from the community, and that each co-op is different based on the unique needs of their community," said Peterson.

3. Language Shift: Democratic Member Control

Co-ops are democratic organizations governed by their members, who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. But research showed that the idea of democratic control is not consistent with members' experience.

In fact, research found that just one in four members voted in a co-op election and 21 percent attended a meeting.

4. Ownership an "Oversell"

Participants valued the local decision-making and control of co-ops, and they were drawn to the fact that they have a voice in the co-op, according to the research.

But consumers think the word "own" is an oversell because they don't see themselves as "owners" exercising their influence over the co-op.

In fact, 80 percent of those surveyed in the national poll said they consider themselves a consumer, consumer-member or member.

5. Making History Matter

Member-consumers agreed that co-ops should celebrate their unique history, but forward-looking messages resonate better, the research found. Responses showed members prefer that co-ops acknowledge their heritage while focusing on what it means for them today and how it can benefit them in the years ahead.

To read more about the research findings, download the handbook: A Common Language for a Shared Cooperative Story: A Working Communication Guide to the NRECA Lexicon (PDF).

NRECA will sponsor a free webinar on June 13 for co-ops to learn more about the lexicon project and how to apply findings among members.