Since the beginning, electric cooperatives have thrived on our strong sense of community. Now, new research shows that this longstanding value may be the key to unlocking engagement among today’s members.

As part of an ongoing effort to help co-ops promote the cooperative advantage, NRECA recently completed the “lexicon project,” a nationwide research initiative aimed at identifying industry words, phrases, and issues that resonate most deeply with consumer-members.

“We are seeking to understand the gap between what we are trying to communicate versus what your members hear. Ultimately, we are trying to take these different [co-op] voices from across the country and create a language that will resonate with your members and the broader public,” says Michael Maslansky, CEO of Maslansky + Partners, which conducted the lexicon research. “There are unique attributes of each co-op, and even as we recommend coming together around a common language, we don’t suggest that you alleviate the differences that are so important to your local co-op. This is about finding the common approaches that can maximize our impact.”

This research and resulting lexicon are based on input from NRECA member co-ops, findings from consumer-member focus groups in Georgia, Montana, and Pennsylvania, and a nationwide survey of electric co-op members. The focus groups employed a technology called “dial testing,” which measures in real time an individual’s reaction—positive or negative—to certain words and phrases in a given message.

The goal of the project was to develop a common story, including specific terms and phrases, that helps cooperatives connect with consumers while articulating the benefits of being a co-op member. Research focused on six priority areas:

  • What is a co-op?
  • The co-op advantage
  • Electricity rates
  • Renewable energy
  • Beneficial electrification
  • Cybersecurity

Community is King

When you say
Members hear
A co-op doesn’t just serve a community. It’s part of the community. “Those in the community are in the same boat as you. Changes affect them just as much as they affect you. When their power goes out, mine does too.”

The findings show the cooperative advantage starts with community—the fact that co-ops are invested in their communities, that many employees come from the community, and that each co-op is different based on the unique needs of its community. Responses were particularly positive when the topics of democratic governance, nonprofit status, and heritage were reframed to highlight this community focus.

“It’s a shift in the language many co-ops are accustomed to using,” Maslansky says. “But these small changes can have a big impact over time if we communicate consistently.”

The study also found that members appreciate their local co-op for the help they provide in understanding energy options and how to use energy more efficiently. They view their cooperative as more than just an energy company. It’s a trusted resource and partner that collaborates with other organizations to improve services, strengthen local economies, and support community needs.

The project also identified two iconic facets of electric co-ops that would have more impact if we modify our language and focus: our history and the way we refer to our consumer-members.

History and Heritage

Consumer-members agreed that co-ops should celebrate their unique history, but the research shows forward-looking messages resonate better. Consumers prefer that co-ops acknowledge their heritage while focusing on what it means for them today and how it can benefit them in the years ahead.

When you say
Members hear
As recently as the 1930s, the countryside of the United States had no electric power. “I love the fact that there are details about the history, but is it necessary? I am not sure how many people today will care about how this impacts them today.”

‘Ownership’ and Oversell

Participants valued the local decision-making and control of co-ops, and they were drawn to the fact that they have a voice in the co-op. Despite appreciation for those core principles, participants said the term “owner” felt like an oversell. In fact, 80 percent of those surveyed in the national poll said they consider themselves a consumer, consumer-member, or member.

The research showed strong signals that the word “owner” isn’t consistent with how they see themselves or how much influence they feel they have over the co-op.

“I think it is a misnomer. I am one person in this co-op, but my vote or voice is no more important than others. I don’t see myself as an owner … I guess I am more like a member user.”   

—Montana focus group participant

Language Matters

Maslansky noted that in a broad, diverse industry like ours, speaking the same language and using terms that reinforce the connection of consumer-members with their co-op helps distinguish us from other energy providers and makes the benefits of membership more real.

“When we all communicate about issues consistently, it maximizes the impact of our message,” he says. “It amplifies our voice in state and national conversations and makes it easier for our members to understand the evolving energy landscape and engage with us.”

Each co-op is different and must consider how to adapt these research findings into their messaging. To help members evaluate this lexicon, NRECA has developed a playbook and will be presenting the findings of the research to CEOs, general managers, communicators, and others in the coming months. Lexicon resources also are available at cooperative.com.

Scott Peterson is NRECA’s senior vice president for communications.

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