Christopher Zinn: Power to the people

One Big Switch campaign director Christopher Zinn
One Big Switch campaign director Christopher Zinn

Energy Source & Distribution talks with One Big Switch campaign director Christopher Zinn about how the largest consumer campaign in Australia’s history is empowering energy users to take control of their bills and to change the energy market.

Australians are paying some of the highest electricity prices in the world, and they know it. What’s more, new research commissioned by AGL Energy has put on paper what networks have surmised for some time; that two out of three Australian households are worried about increasing energy costs, with only one-third feeling in control of their electricity bills.

It’s a climate that breeds contempt. However, One Big Switch is turning these feelings of dissatisfaction and distrust into a major consumer engagement opportunity – one that is unprecedented in Australia’s history and getting stronger by the day.

Established to build real and meaningful consumer power, One Big Switch describes itself as the “next generation consumer network”. The campaign operates on the simple premise that consumers don’t have to accept the electricity landscape as they find it and instead, can demand more from their energy networks.

Launched in June 2012, the Big Electricity Switch immediately resonated with consumers, with more than a quarter of a million households having since jumped on board to cut the cost of their power bills.

The campaign’s director is Christopher Zinn, a prominent journalist and former director of communications and campaigns at consumer watchdog organisation CHOICE. For Christopher, the initiative helps combat a feeling of powerlessness in consumers.

“Look at Queensland for example, where we have around 136,000 registrants overall. They are reaching out and saying, ‘We feel like we’ve been thrown to the wolves and we don’t know what to do about it’. They have already looked at energy efficiencies within the home and they have already made lifestyle changes to reduce their energy usage, but their bills continue to rise,” Christopher says.

“Certainly we can’t control 22 per cent price increases, but we can do something to moderate part of the increase and see benefits in the short term. By giving consumers the tools to make decisions, you take away the feeling of powerlessness and frustration and, as a result, they are able to say, ‘Okay, it’s not too complicated, it’s not too difficult for me to find a better service and I can do something about my bill’.”

Consumers have traditionally struggled to grasp the complexities of Australia’s energy landscape and as such, One Big Switch’s easy-to-use platform has undoubtedly been a major draw card. Switching is easy; individuals simply complete an online form, detailing their energy usage and bills. With this information, One Big Switch assesses and compares electricity supply contracts in local markets, defines the benefits to consumers in cost savings and negotiates directly with preferred supplies to get better offers for members.

“The campaign is truly a child of the internet – one can join very quickly and at no cost. We built an online switching engine and a savings calculator, so should members choose to take in another offer, they can compare potential savings,” Christopher says.

“We haven’t made it overly simple however, as we believe if you make things too simply you actually rob users of valuable information. Nonetheless, the process is very straightforward.”

While Christopher was delighted to find a 93-year-old woman among One Big Switch’s new members, he is the first to admit a wholly online service won’t suit everybody. However, by energising a central mass of people – a core group who can see benefit in the system – Christopher says consumers will in turn engage others in their network.

“You can have all sorts of poster campaigns saying, ‘do this’ and ‘do that’, but at the end of the day you can’t tell people to be engaged. Engagement is not like cod liver oil given at the end of a spoon – you can’t say, ‘you need to be engaged because it’s good for you’,” he says.

“There is no substitute for companies putting forward an exciting and simple offer with rewarding incentives for taking part. In turn, individuals will see their family and friends saving money on their electricity bills and start to think, ‘They did this, I can as well’.”

As a consumer-centric enterprise, One Big Switch will always have a leg up on industry when it comes to gaining the trust of the Australian people. However, Christopher is quick to admit consumer advocacy groups and energy networks don’t have to work in opposition.

“Networks can take a leaf out of consumer groups and learn to engage with the public in a meaningful way – and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful sense. Networks simply haven’t had the experience of dealing with consumers because historically, they’ve been totally taken for granted in terms of the services they provide,” he says.

“However, there are great things they can do. Network is the biggest buzzword in the world at the moment. Everyone wants to be a network and if you are a real network, with $75 billion invested in it, show customers how they will benefit from it.

“It would be great to see the networks come out of the trenches, to tell people more about what they do. We hear so much about poles and wires, but this doesn’t cut it. Wire costs about 10c a metre, but it’s the technology that goes with it that is fascinating. There is scope to talk about this infrastructure and what it means for our future and a lot of consumers will find it both interesting and relevant.”

By intervening and shaking up the market, Christopher and his team at One Big Switch have raised the competitive tempo for the Australian energy industry. And while it’s difficult to pin point the exact motivating factors that have led to networks and retailers offering a new scope of benefits and discounts, there is no denying the industry is starting to engage with consumers like never before.

AGL Energy recently launched a new online energy-monitoring tool to help consumers better manager their bills and to track their usage. In an Australian mass-market first, Origin Energy’s Victorian customers will soon also receive access to an innovative in-home energy monitor that displays real-time information about their energy usage within seconds.

While Christopher is encouraged by these efforts, he says consumers are still waiting for an answer to a seemingly simple question: “How much electricity am I using and how much is it costing me?”

“Technology such as smart meters allows this type of information, but we are still waiting for it to arrive to consumers, rather than just to retailers and networks,” he says.

“Australian networks have a lot of catching up to do, particularly with networks in the UK and the US who are feeding energy usage data to consumers to drive better efficiency and engagement with the market.

“The expertise of our local networks is profound in many areas around electricity, but perhaps it’s not so profound regarding finding new ways to engage with consumers, such as generating apps for smart phones.

“Those companies that are prepared to take risks around developing products and services that make the best use of data will be able to engage with consumers in a new and exciting way.”

With the Australian Energy Market Commission suggesting Australia will move out of an era of high price rises in the near future, Christopher says now is the time to act, before consumers lose their appetite for information.

“If there is one good thing to come from the price hikes in recent years it’s that people have woken out of their stupor regarding electricity,” he says.

“The groundwork has been laid. People no longer flick the switch, leave it on and pay the bill. Australians are far more critical of services and are more prepared to scrutinise their bills. As a result, we have their interest and we have their attention.

“This gives all utilities – gas and water included – an unprecedented opportunity to educate the Australian people and to engage with them around electricity, networks and technology.”