Leaders at Inland Power & Light were ready to go full speed this year on a strategy to promote electric vehicles to their members.

Then they hit the brakes.

Turns out that while EVs are important in their territory in and around Spokane, Washington, other things like weatherization and emergency power are more pressing interests to the residents they serve.

“EVs are just not top of mind for them,” says Andy Barth, the co-op’s government affairs and community relations officer.

The critical insight came as part of a segmented research study the co-op commissioned in late 2021, which they got the results of in January. That data is now driving a program to refine Inland Power’s member services initiatives going forward.

“Weatherization programs and extreme weather generators topped the list,” Barth says. “Plans for EV promotion won’t go away, but we have certainly taken our foot off the accelerator on them since our members rank them low on their list of priorities.”

He says the study saved the co-op time and money promoting a program that wasn’t likely to gain much traction with members.

“Being able to correct our course before we’d expended the resources is really invaluable,” Barth says. “The quality of the segmented data we got made a huge difference.”

What is segmentation?

Consumer segmentation is the practice of dividing a customer base into groups of individuals that are similar in specific ways, such as age, gender, interests, values or spending habits.

Segmented studies like the one Inland commissioned are part of an emerging trend among electric cooperatives, who are working to respond to new member interests in technologies like distributed generation, beneficial electrification or EVs, says Mike Sassman, NRECA’s director of consumer analytics and market research.

“As electric co-ops evolve beyond distributing electricity, it becomes critically important that they develop and maintain deeper understandings of their members,” he says.

In the past, co-ops might work with their G&T to do what was called an “appliance survey,” where they would ask members about the number of refrigerators, TVs, electric clothes dryers and other consumer products to build an understanding of the load that might drive. Now, Sassman says, they want more detailed data about which parts of their membership might be interested in a community solar project or EV charging or rooftop solar and how certain members think about and use electricity.

“Segmentation information really gives you that deeper understanding,” Sassman says. “If, for instance, you have a large segment of members that is skeptical of the urgency of climate change, the interest in energy efficiency, EVs and renewables will be very different than if there is a large group that is concerned about the immediacy of climate change. It can mean the difference between member buy-in and success of a project and failure.”

Between 2015 and 2020, Sassman’s team conducted just six segmentation studies for co-ops. In early 2021, they managed a broad segmentation project involving 19 cooperatives. They’ve since signed up four more co-ops for projects. Touchstone Energy® Cooperative even included segmentation in its 2021 Cooperative Difference survey.

“It’s more important today than it’s ever been to know your members,” he says. “And the best way to know your members is to give them the opportunity to provide you with that feedback.”

Startling insights

For decades, Red Lodge, Montana-based Beartooth Electric Cooperative has conducted self-managed surveys of its members every three years using prepaid mailers. But in 2021, leaders there decided they wanted to get a more nuanced picture of the co-op’s 6,000 members.

“Over the last two years, BEC has experienced a dramatic increase in new construction,” says Kaaren Robbins, the co-op’s member communications and services systems analyst. “We were very curious how this new population may change our rather consistent data over the past decade.”

BEC is also working on several beneficial electrification opportunities and programs for its members, and the heating and cooling data commissioned through the segmentation study has helped with strategic planning.

Among BEC’s findings was a startling revelation that more than a third of the co-op’s members saw their monthly electric bill as having a “somewhat serious” or “extremely serious” impact on their household budget.

Based on the data, BEC implemented a prepaid metering service called takeCHARGE! last year to ease the burden of deposits and fees and has streamlined its low-income-rate processes to speed approvals, including adding online applications.

The study also found that the co-op’s members are receptive to efficiency advice, with 74% saying they adjust their thermostats, 62% saying they’ve checked for air leaks around windows and doors, 55% saying they’ve weatherized their homes and 30% saying they’ve replaced major appliances with Energy Star units.

“Our member-owners listen to energy efficiency tips and implement them,” Robbins says.

Other new programs based at least in part on the segmentation results include a new cold climate heat pump rebate program, a new texting communication service and a more member-oriented e-newsletter.

“Understanding BEC member-owners’ general satisfaction and rating performance guides our everyday work approach,” Robbins says. “We frequently refer to study data as our compass to meet member-owners where they are.”

Mining the results

Sioux Valley Energy also conducted a segmentation study in 2021, one of five different surveys the Colman, South Dakota-based distribution co-op undertook last year.

“Sioux Valley Energy conducted more surveys than usual in 2021 because we were presented with the opportunity for research that we believed would help the cooperative set strategy moving forward,” says Carrie Vugteveen, the co-op’s vice president of public relations. “In a typical year, we will conduct one, possibly two, annual surveys and then our regular monthly survey. These often focus on member satisfaction, quality of service and some energy and technology use research.”

In addition to a segmentation study, Sioux Valley conducted a monthly satisfaction survey and participated in two American Customer Satisfaction Index surveys and Touchstone Energy’s Online Focus Group.

“We decided to take part in the market segmentation survey and focus group to help us learn more about our membership’s thoughts on beneficial electrification and renewable energy,” Vugteveen says. “This research will help us develop strategies based on things like member perceptions, adoption of beneficial electrification technology and desire for renewable energy.”

She says segmentation research is helping the co-op “bring a more individualized energy experience to the co-op’s members.”

For example, about 36% of Sioux Valley’s members are categorized as “complacent consumers” who lack strong opinions on beneficial electrification or renewable energy.

“They have the potential to be motivated to make changes to save energy,” Vugteveen says. “We see this segment of our membership as potential future cost-conscious supporters who are looking to save energy.”

A new beneficial electrification department is now working with members on renewable energy load management, energy efficiency and new and emerging technologies like EV infrastructure.

Back at Inland Power & Light, CEO Jasen Bronec says segmentation is simply a way to give modern consumers what they’ve come to expect from vendors: a customized experience.

“By understanding who our members really are, instead of making assumptions, we are able to ensure they receive their desired communication methods, programs and services,” he says.

Bronec adds that the research they’ve done has also helped them reach an often elusive goal: engaging a growing and diverse urban and exurban membership.

“Today’s methods help decrease costs and enable us to reach a broader audience,” he says. “The process shows members that Inland Power really cares about what they think and that we truly want to offer things that make a positive difference in their lives.”