Colorado's Outreach Study, Strategies and Marketing Campaign
Colorado Department of Human Services, the LIHEAP grantee; Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation, and Xcel Energy, formerly Public Service Company of Colorado
To conduct a study on why so few potentially eligible people apply for LIHEAP, the effectiveness of existing outreach strategies, develop recommendations for improved outreach, and conduct a marketing campaign based on the study results.
Background /State-Related Issues
Two somewhat related issues prompted the state's outreach study. Enrollment in LIHEAP had declined in the years since the most recent round of federal budget cuts. Each year the LIHEAP grantee, the Colorado Department of Human Services, sent out thousands of LIHEAP applications to prior year LIHEAP recipients and enrollees in at least six other public assistance programs. In 1999, only 30 percent of 139,000 applications were returned.
Concurrently, the potential for energy industry restructuring in Colorado raised the possibility of new utility funding for low-income energy programs. Stakeholders in the low-income arena, the state LIHEAP office, major utilities, (especially the largest gas and electric, Xcel Energy, formerly Public Service Company of Colorado), and the Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation (CEAF), a nonprofit entity that raises funds to supplement LIHEAP, agreed that expert help was needed to address current LIHEAP outreach and enrollment problems and upcoming changes on the state's energy scene.
With financial contributions from Colorado LIHEAP, CEAF, and Xcel Energy, BBC Research & Consulting was hired in early 2000 to conduct a research study:
- To determine the awareness and perceptions of low-income energy consumers regarding LIHEAP and governmental assistance in general;
- To test various theories regarding why eligible households do not apply for LIHEAP and to identify what inhibits individuals from applying; and
- To explore the eligible populations' need for energy assistance and their level of awareness about existing programs.
The research group conducted interviews with seniors, disabled individuals, the low-income and the working poor, in person and by telephone; with social service providers, and with county LIHEAP administrators. The goal was to use the findings to refine or diversify the current program and to develop solutions and strategies for overcoming barriers to participation in the program.
Key findings of the market research
- Based upon response rates of different groups to the application mailings, the program's target populations should include seniors, the disabled, and the low-income /working poor. The lowest response rate (25 percent) came from the working poor and the disabled; the highest response rates came from prior recipients (over 50 percent) and seniors (38 percent).
- Each of the key target populations view LIHEAP in different ways. For example seniors see it as a program for other people. In Colorado, the program is called the Low-income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP. Seniors do not see themselves as "low-income". The low-income and working poor generally view it as a program they need only in a crisis.
- Each of the three target populations is best reached in different ways and is motivated to action by different messages.
- Rural counties differ significantly from urban counties; rural counties achieved much higher response rates to the LIHEAP mailings.
- There will always be a portion of the target population that will not participate regardless of program changes or outreach measures.
- The most significant barrier to LIHEAP participation is lack of awareness about the program itself as well as details of the program. (Note: a study of the Colorado LIHEAP in 1995 also addressed barriers to participation in LIHEAP. If found that the primary barrier to participation was the lack of information and that persons who were disproportionately represented in the populations that reported not knowing about LIHEAP included persons aged 65 and older, non-English speaking households (and particularly non-English/non-Spanish speaking households), African-Americans, and unmarried households.)
Outreach Activities (Public Relations and Outreach Campaign)
The state contracted with another firm, Cactus Marketing and Communications, which used the BBC research findings and recommendations to develop a public relations and outreach plan to eligible populations.
While BBC made a number of outreach and enrollment recommendations, following are those that were considered top priority and were implemented during the FY 2001 heating season:
- A television media campaign was implemented in the Denver metro area featuring a catchy promotional ad and a designated toll-free number that viewers could call for program information. In keeping with both consultants' recommendations that the program be de-stigmatized by playing down the low-income emphasis, it was billed as "LEAP: (the acronym for LIHEAP in Colorado) An Energy Assistance Fund." This ad ran for three weeks after Christmas in the Denver metro area, along with new billboards and bus benches in low-income neighborhoods.
- A postcard mailing to all households in selected low-income neighborhoods.
- Placement of program information at point-of-sale displays in selected grocery pharmacies.
These strategies were especially designed to reach the working poor – those with incomes between 150 and 185 percent of poverty. The program had increased its income eligibility levels to 185 percent of poverty effective FY 2001.
And, to emphasize that the program is a public-private partnership, rather than a government program, logos of all the three collaborating entities (the Colorado Department of Human Services, Xcel Energy, and CEAF) were featured in all the promotional venues.
Marketing Plan Results
As plans for the marketing campaign began to get underway in the fall of 2000, the state was confronted with three unexpected changes:
- Skyrocketing energy prices began to hit Colorado, and by March 2001, Xcel Energy had received three "Gas Cost Adjustment" increases and one rate increase, resulting in a doubling of residential rates.
- After three consecutive mild winters, November and December were among the coldest months in recent memory, and
- Beginning with LIHEAP emergency funding released September 23, LIHEAP funding nearly doubled. In January, the governor introduced a bill, and the state legislature passed it, kicking in another $10 million. The state funding created a great deal of free media attention.
The combined impact of increased funding, a higher poverty level, the weather, the price spikes, intensive media attention, and, last but not least, the marketing campaign, resulted in a tremendous surge in applications, especially in Denver. Local agencies were overwhelmed and were unable to process applications fast enough. The program estimated it would serve 54 percent more households in FY 2001 (75,000 versus 48,712) than in FY 2000.
While agencies were deluged with applicants, a shortage of Spanish-speaking staff was recognized. Advocates recommended that LIHEAP train staffers in Spanish and do a better job of outreach in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. The LIHEAP office responded by hiring a community-based group to develop such an outreach plan.
Despite the convergence of factors impacting the state's outreach efforts, some results can be ascribed to the media campaign:
- The call volume at the toll-free line jumped noticeably and decisively each time the television ads ran.
- A number of applicants reported hearing about the program through the various media outlets.
Future Program Changes
Colorado plans to expand the outreach campaign next year. In addition to the Xcel Energy service territory, the program will advertise in the City of Colorado Springs and Greeley Gas regions. All three companies will contribute financially and be recognized with their company logos in the ads.
The state hopes to be able to get a clean evaluation of the campaign's effectiveness next year. This year, the publicity generated by the state award to LIHEAP made it difficult to determine how much of the caseload was drawn to the program as a result of the ads. Next year, the state will maintain a toll-free number promoted only through the outreach effort. All calls to that number should be attributable to the campaign.
Also, Colorado will end its assets test next year.
Other research findings and recommendations focused on enrollment methods, that is, how the program could provide easier access for people who were already income eligible. These recommendations will be considered as part of planning for next year's program, according to state LIHEAP director Glenn Cooper. The recommendations include:
- Presumptive eligibility: Individuals currently receiving other means-tested assistance could be determined to be presumptively eligible for LIHEAP, that is, they could be given LIHEAP benefits without submitting a separate LIHEAP application. Cooper said that Colorado is unlikely to adopt presumptive eligibility at this time as there is adequate administrative funding to process full applications. This is a measure to consider more when administrative shortfalls make it difficult to work applications.
- Client self-certification: Applicants could be allowed to self certify their applications without submitting income verification. This also is a measure to consider when and if funding goes down drastically, Cooper said. For now, thorough income verification will remain in place.
- Short applications: Individuals receiving other assistance could be sent a nearly-completed LIHEAP application for verification and signature. This would encourage some who did not apply because the application was too much effort.
- Identification by tax returns: LIHEAP could work with the state Revenue Department to identify potentially eligible households based on income tax returns and then send a letter and application to all those households that might qualify.
- Name change: A name change would de-emphasize the low-income aspect of the program. The current name "Low-Income Energy Assistance Program," or LEAP, is a potential barrier to certain target populations, especially seniors who do not see themselves as low-income, or the working poor, who don't think LIHEAP is for them if they have a job. The state will probably do what it did this year – continue to call the program LEAP, but do not say what the acronym means.
- Work with appropriate employers to encourage them to inform employees about the programs. LIHEAP could send information and provide training to human resource professionals in large corporations in order to more directly reach the working poor population.
- Incentives: Provide incentives to county workers to enroll additional households, and
- Re-evaluate the LIHEAP application form in response to feedback that it is unfriendly for seniors and non-English speaking applicants. With the deletion of resources (assets) information, the form will be shorter. Also, the advertising agency will review the format of the application form to make it more "customer friendly".
For more information on Colorado's outreach studies, contact:
Mr. Glenn Cooper
Office of Self Sufficiency
Department of Human Services
1575 Sherman Street, 3rd Floor
Denver, Colorado 80203
TEL: (303) 866-5968
FAX: (303) 866-5488