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Contractor Marketing and Outreach

Abstract 

Effective consumer marketing is a significant contributor to the success of residential energy efficiency programs. Often overlooked, however, is the program marketing and promotion potential which lies within a service territory’s trade ally network.

Through thoughtful contractor recruitment efforts, training and ongoing education, and development of trade ally sales and marketing tools, Slipstream has found that efficiency programs can thrive “from the inside out”— as highly informed, engaged, and motivated trade allies actively promote energy-saving products, equipment, and incentives in the field.

It is evident that treating contractors as valuable partners in energy efficiency program implementation yields exceptional outcomes. In addition to gaining trusted, valuable advocates in the marketplace, overall contractor enrollment, participation, and retention increases—which, in turn, results in greater equipment sales and claimed incentives.

Perhaps most importantly, we have found that energy efficiency program implementers can strive for a nobler, long-term outcome in influencing trade ally behavior. By providing value (beyond incentives) to trade allies, implementers can contribute to a “transformation of the marketplace,” wherein participating and nonparticipating contractors adopt the sale and promotion of energy efficiency as part of their business. Slipstream has experienced this transformation as implementer of Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy New Homes Program.

In summary, this paper discusses and proves the value of a.) marketing an energy efficiency program to contractors, b.) effective contractor training, education, and outreach, and c.) examples of the impact of sales and marketing tools on actual residential energy efficiency programs.

Introduction 

Founded in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1980, Slipstream implements energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, and financing programs for utilities, municipalities, and businesses across the United States. Slipstream is a mission-based nonprofit with a wide range of expertise, currently specializing in residential energy-saving programs (e.g. ENERGY STAR® lighting and appliances, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, new home construction, appliance recycling, online home audit, and low-income services).

Over time, Slipstream realized the value of working closely with contractors to effectively market and deliver residential energy efficiency programs. Robust, engaged trade ally networks contributed significantly to the success of Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy New Homes Program, Minnesota Power’s Power of One® HVAC program, Michigan Electric Cooperative Association (MECA)’s Energy Optimization program, and Lansing Board of Water and Light’s Hometown Energy Savers® program.

Trade Ally Recruitment

In order for a residential energy efficiency program to succeed, a sufficient number of trade allies must be recruited to implement the program in a utility’ service territory. Trade allies can include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors, other product and equipment installers, home builders, energy raters, and more. Following are some examples of successful trade ally recruitment strategies.

Focus on Energy New Homes Program 

Wisconsin’s statewide energy efficiency program, Focus on Energy, launched the Wisconsin ENERGY STAR Homes (WESH) Program as a pilot in 1999. The Program helped provide Wisconsin residents with homes approximately 25 percent more efficient than those built to the Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code. Builders worked with third-party energy raters to test and document various aspects of the home’s performance.

Slipstream took an innovative approach to recruiting builders and raters for the WESH pilot, commonly referred to as the “market-based consultant model.” The strategy was to grow the Program—and provide economic development for the state of Wisconsin—by helping energy raters start new businesses. To begin, the Program covered the cost of RESNET® training to assist individuals in becoming certified energy raters. Next, consultants were provided with sales training and marketing tools to help them attract new clients (builders) to participate in the Program.

Over the next 17 years (WESH was redeveloped and named the New Homes Program in 2011), the energy raters remained primarily responsible for recruiting new builders into the Program. It was a win-win situation: The more builders the energy raters recruited, the more business they acquired; and, when more builders participated in the Program, more energy was saved.

The table below shows the exponential growth of the WESH Program throughout its first six years. As additional energy raters were enlisted, the number of active builders in the Program—and the number of energy-efficient homes completed—grew at a rapid, comparative rate.

Table 1. Number of energy raters, active builders, and homes certified per year.
Year # Energy Raters # Active Builders # Homes
1999 10 20 25
2000 22 95 184
2001 29 238 575
2002 30 253 789
2003 32 283 1,120
2004 43 383 1,959

 

To assist New Homes Program Building Performance Consultants, or BPCs (previously referred to as “energy raters” in earlier years) in recruiting new builders into the Program, a promotional flyer was developed which outlined the advantages of Program participation. It also featured a detachable, personalized business card with each BPC’s contact information. The flyer served as an effective leave-behind piece following a conversation with a builder, and was also designed to be mailbox-ready (see Appendix 1–A). BPCs found this tool extremely useful when discussing the Program with non-participating builders. Proof positive: A builder survey conducted in late 2015 revealed that nearly 60 percent of builders learned about the New Homes Program from a BPC.

To supplement BPC builder recruitment, Slipstream periodically reached out to builders by hosting various training sessions at local building supply stores. This scenario proved beneficial to all parties involved:

  • Building supply stores: Builders visited the store and were exposed to their products.
  • Builders: Received free training and continuing education credits (CEUs).
  • Program: Opportunity to recruit non-participating builders; no cost for training venue and refreshments.

Additionally, a proactive approach to builder recruitment was taken in response to the demise of the housing market in the late 2000s. In 2010, through a partnership with the Wisconsin Builders Association (WBA), Slipstream delivered education and training opportunities which, in turn, increased Program awareness and credibility. Slipstream also worked with the WBA to promote the Program, offering incentives to the WBA for each builder they recruited. These strategies undoubtedly yielded a positive effect: Active builders in 2010 completed 371 more new homes compared to the previous year. This is remarkable, considering the continued instability of the housing market.

The New Homes Program’s market-based consultant model is a proven method of trade ally recruitment, overall network growth, and economic development. By cultivating a core group of consultants/BPCs, and providing them with the tools and motivation with which to pursue builder recruitment, the New Homes Program has undoubtedly grown “from the inside out.”

MECA's Energy Optimization Program 

Slipstream has administered and implemented MECA’s Energy Optimization program since 2012. The portfolio includes residential (efficient HVAC, ENERGY STAR products, appliance recycling, low-income services, online home audit), business (custom and prescriptive rebates), and farm programs offered by twelve cooperative and municipal utilities throughout Michigan. MECA utilities are located in small, rural communities—more than half of which are found in the Upper Peninsula.

Trade ally recruitment for programs in rural communities can be challenging, as the pool of potential contractors is relatively small. A comprehensive approach to trade ally recruitment included the following methods:

  • Trade Ally Account Representatives: Trade Ally Account Representatives were hired to assist with recruitment and retention. These individuals performed a wide range of activities, including cold calls to contractor lists, reference of rebate forms and identification of non-participating contractors, and development of partnerships with equipment distributors to promote the program to area contractors. 
  • Advertising: Print ads were placed in various contractor publications, such as Michigan Plumbing & Mechanical Contractor magazine (see Appendix 1-B). Advertisements provided an overview of the program, trade ally benefits, and how to enroll. 
  • Website and email: A dedicated trade ally page on the Energy Optimization website (michigan-energy.org/tradealliesoverview) featured the benefits of enrollment, instructions for joining the program, and an online application. Email blasts were sent to acquired contractor lists in territories where participation was lacking. 

While enrollment in the Energy Optimization program was not required in order for contractors to participate, it was highly encouraged (and promoted) through benefits such as: a listing in the Energy Optimization program's online contractor directory, access to program staff for support, and program newsletters with sales tips, rebate information, and industry best practices. 

These strategies resulted in impressive growth within the Energy Optimization program's enrolled trade ally network, achieving a 154 percent increase from 2012-2016. 

Table 2. Trade ally participation summary for MECA's Energy Optimization program, 2012-2016
Year Total # Enrolled Trade Allies # Newly Enrolled Trade Allies Annual % Increase Annual % Increase Since 2012
2012 177 177 n/a n/a
2013 240 63 36% 36%
2014 343 103 43% 94%
2015 389 46 13% 120%
2016 461 72 19% 160%

 

Minnesota's Power of One HVAC Program 

Minnesota Power’s Power of One HVAC program rewards residential customers with rebates for energysaving equipment such as air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, furnaces with electronically commutated motors (ECMs), and more. Based in Duluth, Minnesota Power provides electricity to a 26,000 square mile service area in northeastern Minnesota.

In addition to other strategies, contractors were recruited for the Power of One HVAC program by requiring trade ally enrollment prior to servicing customers pursuing rebates for qualified equipment. In fact, the contractor must file the rebate for his or her customer. To enroll in the program, contractors must meet program and product performance standards (including trade-specific training and exams).

Table 3. Trade ally participation growth in the Power of One HVAC program, 2013-2016
Year Total # Enrolled Trade Allies # Newly Enrolled Trade Allies Annual % Increase Annual % Increase since 2012
2013 94 94 n/a n/a
2014 127 33 35% 35%
2015 143 15 13% 52%
2016 166 23 16% 77%

 

Education, Training, and Outreach 

While trade ally education and training is undoubtedly necessary during program launch, there is also tremendous value in providing ongoing training, education, and outreach opportunities for builders, energy consultants, contractors, and retailers. Requiring continuing education in order to maintain enrollment can also be an effective strategy to ensure program success.

Focus on Energy New Homes Program 

To provide exceptional service through the New Homes Program, participating BPCs must acquire and maintain accreditation as a certified RESNET energy rater (completion of 18 continuing education credits, or CEUs, is required every three years to sustain certification). To keep BPCs up-to-date on the latest energyefficient building practices, to assist them in maintaining certification, and to add value to the Program, multiple technical training opportunities were provided each year—most of which offered RESNET-approved CEUs. These trainings, conducted by the Program’s Technical Director—a nationally-regarded building science specialist with more than 30 years of industry experience—were generally informal in nature, fostering open discussions between BPCs and Program staff in regards to installations, guidelines, and technical issues.

As an additional Program benefit, BPCs received a one-on-one building science training session each year on a topic of their choice. These trainings were also provided by the Program’s Technical Director. Finally, three webinar trainings were held each year for BPCs, typically focused on sales and marketing strategies, in order to help BPCs better market their businesses to recruit additional builders into the Program.

For the most part, BPCs were relied upon to train participating builders in energy-efficient methods for new home construction. However, Slipstream periodically offered relevant building science training to builders, as well as sales and marketing education, to help builders effectively sell the value of the Program to their customers.

In 2016, Slipstream reached out to builders across Wisconsin (non-participating builders were also welcome) by offering regional training sessions in regards to updates to the state’s residential energy code. Most sessions filled to capacity, with attendance totaling nearly 500 builders, raters, HVAC contractors, and code inspectors.

Table 4. Wisconsin energy code training attendance (New Homes Program), 2016
Date Location Number of Builders
April 12 Waukesha 116
April 13 Wausau 60
April 14 Green Bay  92
April 15 Eau Claire  66
April 23 Woodruff 105
July 15 Verona  50

 

Minnesota's Power of One HVAC Program 

Ongoing training and information sharing amongst Minnesota Power trade allies was a cornerstone of the Power of One HVAC program. To facilitate this objective, an annual meeting was held each January in Duluth wherein contractors had an opportunity to discuss best practices and learn from one another. Contractors also received technical training on various topics, and top-performing trade allies were honored with a special breakfast event.

To maintain status as a Power of One HVAC contractor, trade allies were required to pass technical exams every two years. Slipstream helped contractors prepare for the exams at the annual meeting in Duluth. For contractors unable to attend the in-person meeting, training videos were posted online. The biennial exam requirement ensured trade allies were knowledgeable about and qualified to properly install energy-efficient equipment.

To keep contractors in the loop regarding program updates and information, email newsletters were sent on a regular basis. These communications included information and reminders about rebates, upsell strategies, talking points, and sales tips specific to the heating and cooling seasons. Within the past few years, most newsletters achieved an open rate of at least 50 percent—even exceeding 60 percent in January 2016.

Retailers

Similar to providing proper training for trade allies and contractors, educating retail sales staff about energy efficiency, the significance of ENERGY STAR, and available rebates is essential to ensure success in residential appliance and lighting programs.

To assist in the implementation of these programs across the United States, Slipstream employed field outreach staff who visited participating retail stores on a regular basis. When new big-box stores were added to a program, outreach representatives coordinated formal trainings to help sales staff understand the various rebates and the fact that the savings were offered/funded by a local utility. Staff members also received education in regards to energy-efficient appliances and lighting, how to assist customers with purchase decisions and, when necessary, how to qualify a customer and complete rebate applications.

Informal trainings were also held throughout stores on a weekly basis as outreach staff engaged associates in the aisles during routine visits. Outreach reps also arranged lunch-and-learn meetings and educational presentations during regular store employee meetings. To assist store associates, reference materials, such as “pocket cards,” (See Appendix 1- C) were created and disseminated, which contained quick facts about ENERGY STAR and energy-efficient appliances and lighting. Lists of qualifying products were also provided to store employees.

In the first half of 2016 alone, Slipstream trained more than 1,000 retail sales associates on the benefits of replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs and LEDs as part of Iowa’s Be Bright residential lighting program.

Marketing Tools for Trade Allies 

To effectively grow a residential energy efficiency program “from the inside out,” implementers must capitalize on trade allies’ proximity and accessibility to the customers within a utility’s service territory. Contractors have the opportunity to directly influence customer purchasing decisions; therefore, implementers must provide contractors with effective marketing materials they can use to promote efficiency programs in the field.

Focus on Energy New Homes Program 

For 17 years, Slipstream assisted builders with promoting their participation in the New Homes Program as a means of gaining new customers. Builders could request a majority of the following marketing materials (at no cost) via an online order form: 

  • Builder sell sheet: This two-sided Program overview presented the benefits of building or buying a Focus on Energy Certified New Home, the basic steps in certification, and how to get started. This go-to piece was used by builders when discussing the Program with their clients. It was also translated into Spanish to help reach Wisconsin's Hispanic community. 
  • Testimonials: Case studies provided a first-hand account of another homeowner's experience with the New Homes Program. Testimonials were useful for builders in showing customers real, relatable results when discussing the Program. 
  • Partner signs: Desktop signage, placed in a reception area or in a builder partner's office or window, displayed his or her participation in the New Homes Program. These signs were also placed inside Focus on Energy Certified New Homes featured in a builder's local Parade of Homes. 
  • Yard signs and window clings: These large, visible signs and clings were placed inside/outside homes under construction, or those recently certified through the Program. The signage was intended to capture the attention of potential home buyers passing through the neighborhood. 
  • Website content and logos: Boilerplate content about the Program, as well as Trade Ally-specific Focus on Energy logos, were provided to builders to enhance their websites. 
  • Builder annual report: Distributed annually in January, this piece summarized each builder’s Program activity over the past three years. Builders received multiple copies of their reports, which compared their individual achievements in overall efficiency, air tightness, etc. with the overall Program average amongst all builders.
  • Co-op advertising program: Builder advertisements approved by the Program Administrator qualified for up to a 50 percent reimbursement through the New Homes Program (typically $500 maximum per year). Builders could design their own ads, or utilize a provided template.

Providing builders with marketing materials helps remind them to discuss the Program with their customers. A 2015 survey revealed that 60 percent of builders “always discuss the New Homes Program with their potential customers.” Additionally, 56 percent of builders said they feature information about the New Homes Program on their business’ website.

MECA's Energy Optimization Program

Energy-efficient equipment and technologies can be complicated and difficult to understand for many utility customers. To provide education and assistance in making purchase decisions, a number of fact sheets were developed for trade allies to use when discussing various energy-saving products and equipment with their customers. These materials were distributed to trade allies via the following methods:

  • Email blasts/newsletters: Email communications were sent periodically with links to electronic versions (PDFs) of fact sheets trade allies could print on their own. Professionally-printed copies of fact sheets were also mailed to contractors on request.
  • Traditional mail: Letters were sent to trade allies on a seasonal basis with copies of fact sheets enclosed to help them sell energy-efficient products and equipment.
  • Field staff: Trade Ally Account Representatives and other field outreach staff hand-delivered fact sheets when meeting in-person with contractors in the field.

Lansing Board of Water and Light's Hometown Energy Savers Program

The Hometown Energy Savers program provides a variety of in-store and mail-in rebates for its residential customers throughout central Michigan, including incentives toward the purchase of ENERGY STAR lighting, efficient heating and cooling equipment, appliances, and more.

To assist trade allies with promoting energy-saving products and equipment in the field, Slipstream created postcards and flyers contractors could mail or hand-deliver to their customers, including:

  • HVAC sales card: This card explained the value of energy-efficient furnaces on one side, and featured a table of available rebate amounts on the reverse.
  • HVAC tune-up sales card: This piece explained the importance of annual tune-ups for heating and cooling equipment on one side, with available HVAC rebates on the reverse.

Results

The value in treating contractors as valuable partners in energy efficiency program implementation is undeniable. This is accomplished through thoughtful trade ally recruitment efforts, training and ongoing education, and development of in-field sales and marketing tools.

Slipstream has demonstrated that this approach results in outcomes beyond merely achieving annual savings goals. For example, Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy New Homes Program provides financial incentives to participating builders. While builders appreciate the incentives, they continue to participate in the Program for other reasons:

  • Value of working with a Building Performance Consultant (BPC)
    • The BPC “keeps the builder out of trouble” by minimizing/eliminating customer call backs and issues.
    • Ultimately, the BPC helps builders construct better homes.
  • Ability to prove they build a better home (BPC produces a report based on extensive testing).
  • Opportunity to market their participation in the Program.
    • Commitment to energy efficiency/competitive edge in the industry.
    • Other advantages such as improved safety, comfort, durability, and peace of mind.

These benefits undoubtedly played a part in continued builder participation throughout the economic downturn of the late 2000s. In fact, the market share of Focus on Energy Certified New Homes throughout the state of Wisconsin continuously increased during the height of the recession.

Table 5. Focus on Energy Certified New Homes market share in Wisconsin 2007-2011
Year Market Share
2007 12.61%
2008 21.12%
2009 23.55%
2010 29.53%
2011 31.54%

 

This theory was further proven by a survey of builders conducted in late 2015, in which 60 percent of builders cited the “ability to market myself as a better builder (through enhanced credibility)/attract more business” as their top reason for participating in the Program.

Most importantly, an evaluation (including a utility bill analysis) of the New Homes Program was published in 2016. The study revealed that standard homes, or those not certified through the New Homes Program, were also being constructed as more energy-efficient than required by the Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code (the current baseline for energy savings for the New Homes Program)—which is indicative of “spillover, or “market transformation,” in the home building industry. In other words, the evaluation proved that the effects of the New Homes Program (energy efficiency training/building practices, value of working with a BPC, and competitive edge of marketing energy efficiency) have proliferated throughout Wisconsin’s building community in the past 17 years—raising the bar statewide in energy-efficient home building.

While the results of the evaluation necessitated redevelopment of the New Homes Program once again, the long-term goal of influencing participating and non-participating contractors to adopt energy efficiency as part of their business—whether participating in an energy efficiency program or not—was achieved.

Conclusion 

It is well-known that strong trade ally networks are vital to any residential energy efficiency program. However, in addition to relying on contractors to simply perform installations and complete rebate forms, implementers must tap into the marketing and promotional potential which lies within a service territory’s trade ally network.

By working side-by-side with contractors, and treating them as valuable partners in energy efficiency program implementation, programs can thrive “from the inside out.” To achieve this, an implementer must:

  • Develop creative contractor recruitment strategies/ effectively market energy efficiency programs to contractors.
  • Provide ongoing training and education.
  • Create effective sales and marketing tools for trade allies to use in the field.

By employing these strategies, trade allies are empowered to become trusted, invaluable advocates in the marketplace. They are the “boots on the ground” of the program, with the most direct access to ratepayers— and when their marketing efforts are tapped to supplement traditional outreach and promotional strategies, exceptional results can be achieved.

Finally, energy efficiency program implementers can strive for a nobler, long-term outcome in influencing trade ally behavior. By providing value (beyond incentives) to trade allies, implementers can contribute to a “transformation of the marketplace,” wherein participating and non-participating contractors adopt the sale and promotion of energy efficiency as part of their business. Though often overlooked, this is the ultimate goal of any residential energy efficiency program.