Suzanne Shelton
Suzanne Shelton

After eight years studying Americans’ thoughts on environmental and energy issues, researcher Suzanne Shelton has learned a few things about how best to engage consumers on green topics. She’s also found that many home builders often make big mistakes when marketing their high-performance homes.

Mistake No. 1, she told attendees at the recent NAHB National Green Building Conference in Nashville, Tenn., is that builders assume consumers prefer green homes. Her research has found that while a large amount of buyers—about 40%—are interested in a green home, an even larger amount—62%—are interested in an energy-efficient one.

“You definitely want to skew your marketing toward energy efficiency,” she said, adding that the top energy-efficient features that buyers look for in a home are: Energy Star appliances (47%), high-efficiency windows (44%), and high-efficiency HVAC equipment (30%). “Even for most green-leaning consumers, at the end of the day the draw is that they want to save money on their bills.”

Nevertheless, the CEO of the Shelton Group cautioned against relying too heavily on energy, saying that efficiency is not always a “slam dunk” with buyers, noting that many are either apathetic or angry about their utility bills. “Be aware of this when you talk about energy efficiency, you may see some people yawning, and some others get really angry.” 

She suggested managing buyers’ expectations of how much money energy-minded features can save them. For instance, many Americans mistakenly believe they can cut their energy bills in half by spending just $4,000 in upgrades. “Manage their expectations so they don’t make up a bigger number in their minds that’s unrealistic,” she said. “Make it very specific, such as: Save 5% on your energy bill by setting your thermostat back 5 degrees for eight hours a day.”

Connecting your marketing message to the environment is rarely a good idea, Shelton cautioned, since the majority of Americans are not ultimately driven to green products for that reason. Her research has found that they will consistently choose their own comfort or convenience over products or strategies that will help the planet.

Some other strategies to consider when putting out your green message:

--Don’t overdo it. Keep your advertising copy short and to the point. “Don’t talk to them about everything in the home,” but instead choose one or two key features.

--Don’t assume that all home buyers are the same and one marketing approach will fit them all. “There’s no universal way to motivate everyone,” she said, so know your client’s motivation before pitching them. Are you dealing with the husband who likes to brag about having a more energy-efficient home than his neighbors or the young mother who is concerned about indoor air quality for her children?

--Don’t be vague. Phrases such as “Be Energy Efficient” or “Save Money” are not specific or prescriptive enough for most consumers. Instead, provide a few key points about how your homes are energy efficient or money saving.

--Don’t forget to let clients know about rebates and other financial incentives for Energy Star appliances or high-performance products such as renewable energy systems. Shelton said that less than one-quarter of Americans eligible for a rebate take advantage of them. “These types of incentives are not largely being leveraged today,” she said.

--Don’t assume that your clients know how best to run their high-performance homes. For example, many homeowners think an efficient home allows them to set their thermostats higher or run more loads of laundry. “If you don’t talk to them about modifying their behavior and train them to use this high-performance machine that you built for them, they’re not going to save money,” she said. “Keep an ongoing relationship with them as they manage their energy use in the home.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor for EcoHome.

HOW HAS THE RECESSION CHANGED CONSUMER PREFERENCES?Suzanne Shelton explores the four characteristics of American consumers that influence how builders should market their green homes and products.