7 insights to boost engagement with smart water portals

In Blog by Iranzu Monreal

20th April 2022

By JingKai Ong and Ondrej Kacha


7 insights to boost engagement with smart water portals

We recently worked with American Water Works Association (AWWA) to help water utilities test communications to increase sign-ups and engagement with smart water portals. These portals enable customers to easily access and monitor their water consumption data via a secured online platform. When used effectively, they can make water conservation initiatives more successful and efficient in many different ways. 

Any potential benefits promised by smart water portals, however, require customers to sign up and use the portals in the first place, which often require customers to overcome several psychological barriers and behavioural frictions. Through our work with AWWA, we learned that the application of behavioural insights and experimentation can help utilities make their portals more attractive and engaging for their customers. In this blogpost, we discuss seven evidence-based principles that utilities can use to increase customer enrollment and engagement with smart water portals.

1. Simplifying portal registration and communications

A utility can attract more customers to the portal by making it user-friendly. For example, utilities should automate the sign-up process as much as possible. They can remove the need for their customers to create a new set of usernames and passwords entirely with the Single Sign-On (SSO) technology which enables access to the smart water portal conveniently from the billing portal that customers already use.

In addition, utilities should automate enrollment to portal features that help customers save water, such as leak alerts and threshold alerts. Having customers opted-in by default and allowing them to modify or opt-out anytime can eliminate the behavioural frictions in signing up for these features manually while preserving the freedom of customer choice. Where this is not feasible, an alternative is to prompt the users to set up the water-saving features when they log in to the portal for the first time.

While detailed feedback is generally helpful, more information is not always better. Utilities should make sure the portals provide actionable information that is highly intuitive. Easy-to-read consumption graphs and statistics are highly valued by consumers and tend to generate greater customer engagement. 

2. Incentivising portal use

Utilities can reward smart water portal usage to make it more appealing to customers. Incentives can include monetary and symbolic rewards, as well as pro-environmental incentives. For example, a field experiment we conducted in collaboration with AWWA and the City of Bend found that customers who were incentivised to sign up for the portal (with a lottery of $100 bill credit) were more than twice as likely to do so. Correspondingly, another study we ran found that a provision of small financial incentives increased uptake of a user portal designed by WaterSmart for customers in Glendale, California. 

3. Tailoring the portal to the needs of different customer segments

Utilities that employ a personalised approach with their customers are more likely to increase the uptake of, and engagement with, their smart water portal. A fundamental prerequisite to such an approach is to regularly research which portal features resonate the most with different customer segments. For example, a utility might find that commercial customers are more attracted to the prospect of continuously saving water and money, whereas residential customers often seek to avoid leaks and manage their water consumption as effortlessly as possible. To gain a deeper insight into how customers behave and better understand their motivations, goals, and emotions, behavioural personas can help create more accurate user models. These models can then help utilities develop multiple strategies that highlight different benefits to promote the portal to different customers.

4. Maintaining continuous and timely communication with customers

Utilities that maintain regular communication with their customers are more likely to be successful in maintaining customer engagement with the portals than utilities that promote the portals via occasional email blasts. Following up with customers who did not initially register in the portal is a simple yet effective strategy to increase portal uptake. Field experiments we conducted found that the simple act of sending an invitation and a reminder to sign up for smart water portals is very effective. When compared to the control group who did not receive any communication, the emails led to at least an 109% increase in sign-ups among customers who received the emails.

Reminders can take the form of an email, a prompt delivered via a customer billing portal, or a call from a customer service representative. The effectiveness of such reminders can be further enhanced when they are timed well. From our interviews with utility managers, there are several circumstances under which customers are more likely to be interested in smart water portals and water conservation, and therefore more likely to respond positively to a prompt to sign up. Specifically, reaching out when customers are experiencing a potential leak, paying their water bill, calling a utility customer service representative, or facing an upcoming drought in the region offer the highest chances of success.

Once the customers are on board, utilities should continue to maintain communication. Portal notifications can be used to inform customers about events such as leaks or when a customer is about to move to a higher pricing tier. They can also inform individuals about their progress towards their personal targets and warn customers when they are not on track. Finally, providing customers information about their water usage on a regular and near real-time basis can help them understand how their actions are directly linked to the amount of water consumed. Developing such understanding may, in turn, increase customer motivation and ability to save water.

5. Using social proof

Individuals are strongly influenced by the expectations and actions of others, including in the domain of resource conservation (Allcott, 2011; Farrow et al., 2017). Utilities can leverage social proof theory to promote the use of smart water portals and water conservation.

One way is to foster the development of community champions among customers who promote smart water portals in their community. Community champions can be either locally known figures (e.g., local council officials and celebrities) or members of the general public who engage with their neighbours and friends about the benefits of the portals.

Another approach is to incorporate social cues into the design of the portals themselves. For example, a portal may show how a customer’s monthly consumption compares to that of water-efficient neighbours to motivate water savings. Similarly, a portal interface can feature a leaderboard of households who managed to reduce their water consumption in the past month. A number of trials found that adding a social comparison element to water bills or customer postcards reduces water consumption by approximately 5% (Brent et al., 2015; Datta et al., 2015; Ferraro and Price, 2013).

6. Leveraging goal setting and commitments

Setting smart conservation goals can help consumers save water more effectively. Using high-resolution data, portals can be programmed to automatically suggest optimal and personalised conservation targets to customers. By enabling customers to commit to such targets and set goals in the platform (either symbolically or involving real stakes), utilities can effectively nudge customers to conserve water (Abrahamse et al., 2007; Vivek et al., 2021). Importantly, the goals must be realistic – when people set a realistic goal (e.g., 0-15% in savings), they save more energy compared to those who chose unrealistically high goals (Harding and Hsiaw, 2014). Moreover, individuals may be more likely to succeed if they commit to achieving their goal publicly like on a website that everybody can access (Epton et al., 2017).

7. Making portal uptake an organisational priority

Utilities that set clear internal objectives, such as achieving a certain proportion of active portal users by the end of the year, can help their employees stay focused and motivated to promote smart water portals to customers in the long run. The goal should be collaboratively pursued across different levels of the organisation. For example, top management may want to regularly review the current portal registration rates. Further, Customer Service Representatives should adapt their call checklists to prompt customers who call in to sign up for the portal. The company could also provide incentives to motivate employees to become more successful in promoting the portals to customers.

Consumer behaviour plays a vital role in global water conservation. Through our work with AWWA, we found that applying insights from behavioural science can help utilities nudge consumers to be more conscientious about their water use whether it is through smart water portals or other channels.

Are you interested in helping your customers consume less water? To learn more about our work with AWWA, check out the recently published guidebook for practitioners! Or get in touch to explore how we could collaborate and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to receive updates on our work!