Opower and NRDC announced a new app that uses smart meter data to let residents compare their energy consumption to that of their friends on Facebook. Initially 16 utilities are participating.

“Social proof” is a potent weapon of influence that helps us to understand why laugh tracks are so effective, wrote Robert Cialdini in Influence, his 1984 seminal reference on the psychology of persuasion.

Social proof is also behind a new Facebook social energy app, announced today, created by Opower, an energy information software provider to the utility industry.

Screen from Opower-Facebook social energy app
The social energy app for Facebook is also available on Opower’s web site. It compares a home’s energy use to that of other homes across the country. If your utility is participating, Opower can use your smart meter data.

The idea behind social proof is simple: Rather than to investigate energy efficiency best practices (or any other behavior) for ourselves in every detail, we use shortcuts to decide how to behave. One shortcut is to see what others around us are doing. Cialdini explains: “We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.” Monkey see, monkey do.

Cialdini (a psychology professor at my alma mater) serves as Chief Scientist for Opower. Utilities use behavioral science and analytics built into the Opower platform to provide targeted energy data and advice to each customer. Opower was founded in 2007 and works with 65 utilities to motivate their customers to become more energy efficient.

Screen shot from Opower Facebook social energy app on EnergyPriorities.com
I quickly entered some typical household data into Opower’s Facebook app — it’s quite simple to do — and the app compared that graphically to statistics from other homes. The site also encourages users to share their home energy use on Facebook.

One result of Opower’s work is this new Facebook app, created with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council and used initially by 16 utilities covering 20 million residential customers. The app allows users to start benchmarking their home’s energy usage against similar homes, compare energy use with friends, enter energy-saving competitions, and share tips from Opower on how to become more energy efficient.

What does Facebook have to do with energy use? According to NRDC, improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver more than $700 billion in cost savings in the U.S. alone. Motivating consumers to take action is one key to unlocking this potential, but it’s challenging. An interesting principle of social proof is that we are more motivated to follow the lead of people who are like us. Facebook taps into that principle and many others.

It’s no wonder that Opower would want the advice of a master of psychological influence to define, test, and optimize messaging to increase participation in residential energy conservation programs.

If your utility is one of the 16 participating, the app can pull energy usage data that comes directly from your smart meter. Small but vocal groups of utility customers have fought smart meters as being too Orwellian and expensive, so not all utilities have them yet. The good news is, you can use this new app without a smart meter. You don’t actually need a Facebook account, either. And you can still use it even if your utility is not participating.

If you use the social energy app through your Facebook account, you can choose to keep the app’s automatic Facebook posts to yourself, or not post them at all.

Related stories:

On Facebook, Some Friendly Energy Rivalry – New York Times

Facebook inks partnership with Opower, looks to socially compare home energy usage – Engadget

Facebook app promotes energy conservation with peer pressure – Venture Beat