« Back to Media Room

Programs that Motivate: VEIC and the Psychology of Engagement

Nikki Kuhn -

At VEIC, a team of program designers is successfully motivating customers in diverse markets by tapping the strengths of a social science. By strategically applying principles of engagement psychology – a field that identifies optimal conditions for involvement – VEIC is creating programs that engage new customers and deepen the engagement of existing ones.

Case in point: Vermontivate, an online, competitive game designed to increase the general public’s involvement in sustainability. The development team based the game’s design on two central tenets of engagement psychology: 1. People are eager to take actions that they perceive as challenging but not beyond their abilities, and 2. When people can devise their own solutions to challenges, they’ll increase their level of activity and gain mastery, which will inspire further involvement.

With these two concepts in mind, the Vermontivate design team created a menu of challenges, at different degrees of difficulty, to enable players to participate at their perceived level of ability. The challenges were specific enough to focus participants’ efforts while sufficiently broad to demand independent solutions. A player might choose a simple challenge, like getting a bike in shape for commuting, or a more difficult challenge, such as determining how to reduce personal transportation energy use by 10%.

The team drew initial interest in the game from people with varied degrees of efficiency awareness, through two conventional approaches: Marketing promotions and the lure of a prize. It was Vermontivate’s engagement design, however, that shaped the ensuing depth of participants’ personal investment and sustained involvement. For example, when given facts on efficient lighting and a simple challenge to find one inefficient bulb to replace, numerous players went further. They swapped out multiple bulbs, invested in light-emitting diodes (LEDs) over compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), encouraged local businesses to use efficient lighting, and posted testimonials on the Vermontivate site about their savings and the quality of new lights.

While an ad campaign might, by contrast, suggest a single course of action – such as buying CFLs – that a consumer will either accept or reject, Vermontivate’s options prompted a single action and more by framing a task as a personal choice, at an individual level of ability. This inspired a broad range of people to increase engagement, whether previously uninvolved with or experienced in efficiency activities. In the five-week competition presented this past year, the game drew competitors in 62 towns and eight schools to tackle 4,682 challenges.

Recently, VEIC applied the same engagement principles used to create Vermontivate to design a decidedly different program, to engage a group of employees in sustainability efforts at the request their employer: A large Midwest hospital. In contrast to Vermontivate, which motivated a diverse customer group by providing many levels of entry, VEIC’s approach with the hospital took the opposite tack: VEIC first identified the customer’s optimal level of involvement and then designed a program to match.

VEIC started by designing a survey to learn what the hospital’s employees cared about, their knowledge of energy efficiency, and the biggest opportunities for energy savings in their personal lives. Results revealed that 90% of respondents felt that working for an environmentally responsible employer was important to them, and 76% were interested in taking actions to improve the sustainability of their community. Less than half of the respondents, however, were aware of the hospital’s existing sustainability initiatives.

Informed by these results and by goals of the hospital, VEIC recommended that employees form working groups to identify ways to improve sustainability at the hospital, in their lives outside of work, and in their communities. The response from hospital administration was enthusiastic; the efforts were aligned with the hospital’s sustainability goals and with its aims to attract and retain talent through staff engagement.

To aid the working groups, VEIC provided information about the energy sectors where staff could have the biggest impact, and ideas on how to make that impact. VEIC also gave each employee a confidential report about his or her personal energy use in comparison to the household average usage of colleagues at the hospital, residents of their state, and the nation. The report served as another motivator for self-initiated and designed action.

This effort, still in early stages, is increasing energy-saving actions by motivating customers to rise to an obtainable challenge requiring independently crafted solutions. Like Vermontivate, this program exemplifies the ability of VEIC’s engagement designs to gain new participation from both previously uninvolved and committed consumers in distinctly different customer sectors.

Read more about VEIC's engagement perspective through the VEIC-operated energy efficiency utility Efficiency Vermont.

Newsletter Sign-up