Using Online Communities to Reduce Energy Consumption: A Field Experiment
Geoffrey N. Soutar
Tim W. Mazzarol
University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway
Crawley, WA, 6009
This research is conducted with the support of an Australian Research Council Linkage grant. Our linkage
partners are the Office of Energy, Western Australia and Synergy, Western Australia
Keywords: self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation, energy-saving, online intervention.
This study investigates the potential of an online intervention, namely an online community, to
reduce energy consumption among consumers. The study model, underpinned by Self-
Determination Theory, explores how such an intervention can enhance consumer psychological
needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness in the energy saving context. This would be
highly beneficial to energy providers, such as our industry partner, for two reasons. First,
satisfaction of these psychological needs drives intrinsic motivation to perform the behaviour and,
subsequently, the performance of the desired behaviour and further that such behaviour is more
likely to be sustained over time compared with extrinsically motivated behaviours. Second, this
approach, if supported, represents a relatively low-cost communication approach compared to both
traditional media at one extreme and one-to-one interventions at the other. The study involves an
online field experiment across four time periods. Data is currently being collected and preliminary
results will be presented at the conference.
Prompted by concern for the environment,
natural resource conservation is receiving
considerable attention at global, national,
industry and society levels. Indeed, organisations
across many sectors including private, non-
government and government
exploring ways to bring about more sustainable
energy consumption behaviours (Kong et. al.
2002; World Economic Forum 2012). The
utilities sector is a good example, with numerous
initiatives designed to reduced customers‟ energy
use. Many such initiatives use extrinsic
motivational inducements, such as financial
rewards, discounts and
Extrinsically motivated strategies can motivate
change, as suggested by Skinner (1971).
However, drawing on the work of others, Moller
Ryan and Deci (2006) warn of several potential
downsides to such strategies, including reduced
psychological health (Ryan and Deci 2000) and
defiance and resentment (Assor, Roth and Deci
2004). More to the point, where the desired goal
is sustained behaviour
motivation strategies are relatively inefficient
over the long-term (Deci and Ryan 1985). A
further downside to a reliance on extrinsic
controls is that they require ongoing promotion
and implementation to remain effective.
In practical terms, this represents a potential cost
burden to organisations that few can afford,
particularly not in times of extreme financial
pressure. Indeed, most organisations, including
government energy utilities, are experiencing
increased infrastructure costs, and consequently,
are striving to balance these effects by seeking
efficiencies in other areas. One area targeted is
customer communication. Organisations are
turning to online social networks and online
communities to communicate with customers,
often developing their own online communities
to do so (Porter et al. 2011). Indeed it seems
consumer interest is better generated through
online discussions, such as forums, than through
marketer generated information (Bickart and
Government agencies, such as energy utilities,
which are trying to promote sustainable energy
conservation, are likely to be particularly
interested in the effectiveness of such online
communities because of their durability and cost.
This raises the question of how an organisation-
sponsored online community can be effectively
used to promote consumers‟ long-term energy
saving. Self Determination Theory can provide a
foundation for the design of such a website and
community as well as a theoretical model that
can be used to test the effectiveness of the
Previous long-term behaviour change studies
have focussed on intensive
involving a significant educational component,
including regular follow up meetings and
discussions (Williams et. al. 2002; Williams et.
al. 2006). Such interventions are typically one-
on-one and restricted to a small group of
recipients and thus would be expensive for
agencies to implement across a large group of
people. The present study investigated the ability
of a less intensive communication approach
involving the participation
consumers as members of an online community
to motivate long-term reductions in household
energy consumption [Footnote 1]. No study, to
technology‐based communication approaches in
place of human interactions in promoting greater
self-determined energy conservation behaviours.
The Role of Self-Determination Theory (SDT)
SDT suggests motivation and, subsequently,
behaviour are shaped by people‟s satisfaction
with the fundamental psychological needs of
autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci and
Ryan 2000). The theory suggests people are
autonomous when they do something they find
interesting and personally important and that
autonomous motivation is derived from a sense
of freedom of choice and volition as that person
fully endorses their own actions. This is in
contrast to controlled motivation and choice,
where a person feels an external pressure to act.
The need for competence reflects a desire for
mastery in the physical and social worlds and
comes from a “human desire to efficiently
interact with one‟s environment so as to feel
competent in producing desired outcomes and
preventing undesired outcomes” (Vallerand and
Ratelle 2002, p 48). Relatedness is a person‟s
desire to feel related to significant others, to care
for others and to feel cared for (Deci and Ryan
Moller et al. (2006) argue that, when people have
greater autonomy, their behaviours are likely to
be consistent with their own competencies and
continue significantly longer than under
controlled conditions. Thus, fully autonomous
behaviours that involve choice and in which a
person feels competent and a sense of relatedness
to others are most likely to be sustained in the
long-term (Green-Demers, Pelletier and Menard
The availability, rather than a lack of availability
of conditions that support the satisfaction of an
individual‟s needs for autonomy, competence
and relatedness, is a core factor affecting a
person‟s well-being (Deci and Ryan 2000). Thus,
people pursue goals, relationships and activities
that contribute toward this needs-satisfaction
goal. Further, Deci et al. (1991) argued intrinsic
motivation is closely associated with autonomy,
competence and relatedness because intrinsically
motivated behaviours are based in people‟s needs
to feel competent and self-determined. Thus
intrinsic motivation is the prototype of self-
determined activity (Deci and Ryan 2000).
Given these suggestions, the effectiveness of an
online energy saving intervention, such our
website and forum, can be examined by
measuring changes in people‟s autonomy,
competence and relatedness and seeing whether
it leads to an increase in people‟s intrinsic
motivation to save energy as well as their energy
saving intentions and behaviours. This view led
to a model that can be seen in Figure 1.
The model suggests:
a) The environmental stimulus of the
website, which is designed to engage
energy consumers, enhances perceived
autonomy, competence and relatedness
in this context.
b) These needs enhance intrinsic or self-
determined motivation to save energy.
c) Such motivation
saving intentions and behaviours.
The model follows Vallerand‟s (2000) causal
sequence of the environment influencing
relatedness, which leads to motivation which, in
turn, leads to outcomes. While the online
intervention plays an indirect and distal role in
generating energy saving behaviours, we are
interested in the extent to which the intervention
has a direct effect on people by improving their
satisfaction of these psychological needs, leading
them to save energy on their own volition.
An online experiment, which included an
experimental group with access to an online
intervention and a control group which did not,
was used to test the suggested model. Energy
users in Western Australia were contacted
through two online panel providers and invited to
participate [Footnote 2]. Online panels are
commonly used for market research. Such
panels are increasingly representative of the
population because of the greater incidence of
Internet access (Poynter 2006) and the response
quality of such respondents is well established
(Deutskens, de Ruyter and Wetzels 2006). As the
Figure 1: Study Conceptual Model of a Technology Intervention on
Enhancing Energy Saving Behaviours
wider study, which includes the present project,
is being conducted across four time periods
during a calendar year and because we expected
a drop-out rate of over 60% over the study period
(e.g. Grégoire, Tripp and Legoux 2009), 2000
panel members were recruited so that more than
200 respondents would
experimental and control groups at the end of the
study. At the end of stage 2 (March 2012), over
400 respondents remained in each of the groups.
To enhance response rates, respondents who
complete the four surveys will be entered in a
prize draw and have a chance of winning one of
four $400 shopping vouchers.
remain in the
Those responding to the initial invitation to the
online survey were qualified in terms of their
willingness to complete four surveys over a 12-
month period. Those in the experimental group
were also required not to be involved in any
other study being conducted by the State‟s
energy provider and to give permission to the
research team to track their online activity,
including their postings on the forum, through a
screen-name developed for this study.
The website and forum were designed in
conjunction with an industry partner to reflect
best practice of government energy utilities
across the world (e.g. in Canada, the UK and
Europe). The website was designed to engage
energy consumers to think about energy saving
and the community forum designed to encourage
participants to interact and share experiences
about their energy use. The online intervention
was also designed to enhance autonomy and
competence through access to and knowledge
about energy saving products and education.
Online calculators that can be used to understand
possible energy saving opportunities are a
specific example of this, as were expert case
studies and educational videos about household
energy saving. Relatedness was facilitated
through respondents‟ ability to discuss and share
energy „stories‟ with others, to take part in the
polls and such as the temperature at which a
fridge is set.
Both groups completed an initial questionnaire
about their energy attitudes, intentions and
behaviours, as well as their perceptions of
autonomy, competence and relatedness with
respect to energy, and their motivations towards
energy saving before the website was opened.
Measures used in the survey were derived from
well-established scales. Basic psychological
relatedness) were measured using items from
Ilardi et al. (1993) and Deci et al. (2001).
Motivations or behavioural regulations were
measured using items from Pelletier et al (1998)
and intentions were measured using items from
Perugini and Bagozzi (2001). Energy saving
behaviour was collected through self-report
items, while actual
retrospectively) will be obtained through our
industry partner for respondents who give
(i.e., autonomy, competence and
The experimental group was then invited to visit
and take part in the website and forum for the
duration of the project, while the control group
did not have access to the website. Both groups
will have responded
questionnaires at two monthly intervals by the
end of the study. Website and forum analytics
are also being collected for each member of the
experimental group (e.g. number of visits, length
of time on site, number of comments posted,
content of comments, plus other site activities).
These data will enable the model shown in
Figure 1 to be tested cross-sectionally and
longitudinally. The web analytics will also
enable us to develop a more nuanced
understanding of how the use of various aspects
of the online intervention enhance people‟s
autonomy, competence and relatedness, as well
as their motivation to save energy and energy
saving behaviours. As the study is in progress,
some initial results will be presented at the
to three further
The present study followed Press and Arnould‟s
(2009) argument for
marketing stimuli to see if people‟s demand for
energy and energy saving devices could be
influenced. With the support of our industry
partner, an energy utility in Western Australia,
we are investigating how an online intervention,
rather than one-on-one
traditional mass media promotional approaches
competence and relatedness and, subsequently,
their intrinsic energy saving motivation and
behaviours. If the suggested model is supported,
it is likely the study will lead to a relatively cost
efficient way to promote and enhance sustained
1 The use of an online community to
enhance energy saving enables the
integration of resources
individual and the focal organisation in
the co-creation of value and, thus, this
research is consistent with the Service
Dominant Logic paradigm (McColl-
Kennedy et al. 2012).
2 The significant increase in population in
Western Australia, largely due to the
present resources boom, the associated
increase in demand for energy and the
State‟s dependency on carbon intensive
energy sources makes this state a
particularly appropriate environment for
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