In Water Conservation

wasting money that could help people actually conserveThere was a story recently on the local news about how Austin Water was spending “nearly a million dollars” on educating/advertising about the current drought stage for Austin. I started to think about this number and about what the “return on investment” that Austin and ultimately the Austin water rate payers were getting in return.

Besides the obvious question of “what kind of advertising program requires nearly a million dollars?”, I think there are some other very important questions to ask here…

What is Austin Water’s method to determine the effectiveness of their drought marketing campaign?

What is their metric to judge if the money spent for this campaign was the most appropriate way to reach the citizens of Austin?

How do they know if they got their message across to the citizens of Austin?

Austin Water also provides rebate and audit programs that must prove some sort of ROI for the utility to keep these programs going so why would they not judge the spending for this drought stage education against some ROI criteria as well. In addition, it seems to me that there are many other areas of water conservation they could fund and get a better “ROI”. Therefore, in light of the fact that I operate a local business that provides water conservation solutions for homeowners and businesses, I had to speak up and show how I believe this is a great misuse of funds.

I am not debating the use of money to provide water conservation education. I am taking issue with the fact that there are better points of contact with the users of Austin water that should be exploited first before spending “nearly a million dollars” on general advertising. While I will graphically present my ideas here in a bit, please indulge me as there is more to the back story.

The Actual News Story was a Little Fishy

One of the local news stations, KEYE TV, aired the news story and presented it as one of their “Waste Watch Investigation” reports but they really didn’t hold Austin Water’s feet to the fire.

Basically it was a fluff piece. If you read the story, did you catch that at the end? The reporter had to put out a disclaimer that stated Austin Water is one of KEYE TV’s advertisers. Oh, so really this “Waste Watch Investigation” report could have been looked at as just additional air time for their message. It could have been one of the “perks” for a spending a certain level of advertising dollars.

Maybe the conversation went something like this… (cue the dream/fantasy music and blurry movie transition)

KEYE ad sales person: “So if you spend $100,000 with us we’ll throw in a special “Waste Watch” segment.”

AUSTIN WATER: “Woah, wait a minute, that doesn’t sound good?”

KEYE: “Oh no, we won’t nail you to the wall, but all of the promos for the segment will sound great and get people to watch the news segment. Then it will be just another opportunity for you to get your message out.”

“How does that sound?”

AUSTIN WATER: “Wonderful, especially since I have all this advertising, err, education money to spend anyway.”

“Sign us up!”

All joking aside, there are some serious issues here.

Justification for Advertisement Spending

The issue here is that I believe that Austin Water has much more effective and less expensive channels to directly reach their rate payers. When you run a business you have to constantly examine your marketing and advertising efforts to see if you are reaching the customers that are in the market for your products and services. I guess when you have “nearly a million dollars” to waste spend, you aren’t nearly as careful and analytical about the effectiveness of the marketing and advertising you are buying.

Earlier this year, the Water Conservation Department of Austin Water proposed to greatly reduce their rainwater harvesting system rebate. While this decision was stayed for the time being, they used a metric to analyze the investment they have put towards the rainwater harvesting rebate program. They determined that the rebate hasn’t provided the required water savings for the amount of investment. While I questioned their method of analysis (saving this one for another blog post), at least they had criteria to analyze this particular rebate investment.

So I have to ask then, what is the criteria for proving the benefit of spending “nearly million dollars” on drought stage education? This criteria should be used to set these types of line item budgets going forward. Maybe one criteria could be the reduction in the number of fines the City gives out for illegal watering. Well, if you look that this recent news story, you could say that Austin Water’s water restriction message isn’t getting across to people.

Austin has given out 360 fines so far this year, only 208 in 2012

Sure, these increased fines could be due to the fact that Austin recently changed their water restriction stage program. So now people are a little bit more confused about when they can and can’t irrigate their lawns. Or maybe it is because Austin Water has more “spotters” out there looking for people who are watering illegally. Still, this could be a metric for Austin Water… and if it is, then their message and spending could be seen as ineffective.

While I believe that education for water conservation is absolutely necessary and I know that it takes money, a lot of money sometimes, to get the message across, but there should still be some sort of metric to judge this investment.  Otherwise, you could just keep throwing money at these advertising avenues without end.

For this general drought water restriction situation though I really feel like there are more appropriate avenues to convey their message.

Solution Focused

I am not one to just complain about a situation. I mean I did name my company, Innovative Water Solutions. Therefore, I want to offer some solutions.

In the news story, the Austin Water spokesman says, “We try to use the most up-to-date, state of the art, communication pathways to make sure that our customers get the information that we are putting out.” What if we stepped back and found some “old-fashioned” communication pathways to convey their message, maybe they wouldn’t need to spend nearly a million dollars.

Let’s start simply with Austin Utility bill inserts. Here is the most recent utility bill insert from Austin Energy that accompanies the paper utility bill in Austin. I know that this insert is from Austin Energy and covers energy related topics but I would imagine that they could at least include a sidebar box of info, alerting residents about the current water restriction stage, but as you can see… nothing!

What about providing these inserts online for people to view online. Well, the June 2012 Austin Bill Insert was the latest Water Utility bill insert I could find online at the time of writing this article. I could not find a link to a more recent bill insert, either on the Austin Energy website or the Austin Water website. This seems like a no-brainer… just upload and link the bill inserts on their websites, but I guess for this to be effective, they would need to include water restriction notices on the bill inserts though.

One drawback in this approach is that if you are like me, most of the time, I just put the insert into my recycling bin before even glancing at it. I may not glance at the insert, but I certainly look at my bill since I need to know how much I need to pay for my utilities.

So, I think we can all agree, that most people look at their utility bill payment stub. They either have to tear it off to mail in a check or they have to bring the bill to one of the various pay locations located in Austin. I have a few mock-ups of some simple additions to these bill areas that would easily convey the current water restriction level and help to ensure hopefully a near 100% “impression” or “page view” as you would say in internet-speak.

Here is the bill as you would receive it in the mail. You see they do have an announcement of the current water restrictions in the “Utility News” section, but it is in such small type.

Austin Utility bill as you receive itWhat if they did this? I think this would get more attention especially since you have to tear off the bottom part of the bill to mail in with your payment.

Austin Utility Bill with some changesI have just gone through Austin Water’s opportunities in the paper bill avenue, but what about the people who don’t get a paper bill since they have opted for the paperless option. Well, there are plenty of opportunities in the ebill/website avenue.

Below you will see the typical email you get from City of Austin Utilities, alerting you that your utility bill is ready to be viewed online and/or paid.

city of austin utilities ebill

Hmmm, I don’t see a notice about the current water restriction stage but it seems like they could squeeze it in there.

Here you go… here’s an example of an email that shows the City of Austin Stage 2 Water Restrictions graphic. Seems easy enough to get it in there.  Also, they probably paid some graphic design agency some good money to put this graphic together so they might as well use it as much as possible.

Austin Utility Ebill with water restriction graphic


If they don’t have room for the graphic at least they could put in a short blurb about the current water restrictions.

Austin Utility Bill with Water Restriction Wording

Ok, so now you click on the link to login to their system so that you can pay your bill online.  This is the login screen that you see when click on the link in your email. Even though there’s plenty of white space, nothing about the current water restrictions.

Austin Utility Website Login Screen

How about they add a little blurb on the login screen?

Austin Utility Website Login with Drought Announcement

Again, this screen shows the view once you have logged in. Again, there are no notices about the current water restriction stage. Even the “Notices” box is empty. They also seem to have plenty of room for the Parks & Library Fund announcement as well as a box advertising their utility insert. I am sure they could find some places for the water restriction announcement.

Austin Utilities Website Login Screen

Now for the Opportunity Part

I bring all this up because I believe that Austin Water could spend these advertising funds on actual efforts to get people to implement water conservation ideas and technologies that will help reduce the future demand for water and set us on a more sustainable path.

From what I have seen and heard, the advertising campaign that has cost “nearly a million dollars” has consisted of TV and radio commercials, website banner advertising, local newspaper inserts, and billboard type advertising.

While these avenues can work, it seems to me that Austin Water could implement some of the “less state-of-the-art” methods which would be cheaper AND they would know that 100% of their message will get in front of the eyes of the utility payers in the entire city of Austin.

I am not a software coder but I am sure if you give me a $100,000 or so, I can certainly learn how to code these announcements into the various spots I showed you above. How ’bout it Austin Water?

Maybe I am asking too much… for a city department to be run like a business and have some basic metrics to know they are getting the best ROI for their investment. I guess that could lead to a whole other discussion. Maybe later.

So what about when Austin Water moves to Stage 3 Water Restrictions (which could be in the coming months)? Are they going to spend another $1 million dollars to tell everyone about that change?

While I have your Attention…

I might as well provide some free education/advertising for Austin Water. Check out the chart below to learn what day is your day to water. See that didn’t cost Austin Water anything.

Austin drought restriction graphic

For the local peeps, have you seen Austin Water’s water restriction advertisements? If so, did you actively go and make sure your irrigation system controller was set correctly?

So where could this money be spent? Well I have a few ideas but they will be in my next blog post. Please subscribe to my blog below to get my blog updates.

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