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Using Social Science to Encourage More Natural Shorelands and Healthier Lakes 

The science of lake management has advanced significantly over the last few decades. We better understand how lakes function and the importance of natural shorelands in maintaining lake health. Shoreland development on residential properties is a major threat to lake health, as lakeshore property owners often implement landscaping practices that reduce natural vegetation and increase nutrient inputs. Engineering and lake science are necessary to understand how to solve problems and restore healthier lakes, but they do not provide guidance on how to get people to implement these practices in and around lakes. Addressing these issues frequently require understanding barriers to individual behavior change. Social science is essential to understanding how shoreland owners’ knowledge, attitudes and beliefs interact with land use decisions and lake-friendly behaviors on their property.

Adoption of a variety of lakeshore practices, including more natural shoreland vegetation, plays a role in keeping lakes and shoreland habitats healthy. It requires individuals to take action. How do we conduct outreach that effectively encourages property owners to adopt more natural shorelines? Why don’t they take action even though they already know that natural shorelines are important for protecting wildlife habitat and water quality? Understanding people’s attitudes, beliefs and barriers to adopting more natural shorelands can help us develop tools to encourage behavior change. This site presents social science focused on how to work with lakeshore property owners to encourage them to adopt healthy lake practices.   

General Principles of Social Marketing  

What is social marketing?

Humans are creatures of habit, so encouraging people to adopt new pro-environmental behaviors is no easy task. Lake protection efforts can encourage specific lake-healthy behaviors by using a social marketing approach to promote behavior change. Social marketing draws on theories of social and behavioral psychology and shares many strategies and concepts with commercial marketing.

  • Key steps in a social marketing campaign include:

  • Select a specific behavior in which you want people to engage.

  • Identify perceived barriers and benefits of current and preferred behavior.

  • Develop creative strategies to overcome barriers and enhance the benefits of preferred behavior using a set of tools designed to modify behavior.

  • Conduct a pilot study to adjust the use of tools. 

  • Broadly implement the community-based social marketing program.

For more resources on community-based social marketing visit:


Andreasen, A. (1995). Marketing social change: Changing Behavior to Promote Health, Social Development, and the Environment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

McKenzie-Mohr, D., & Smith, W. (1999). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers. 

Marketing Materials 

Effective marketing and outreach strategies use insights from lakeshore property owners to develop multiple messages and approaches to encourage change over time. Below are examples of marketing materials developed to promote natural shorelines that received positive reviews from lakeshore property owners.

Encouraging Family Communication About Natural Shorelines

Lakeshore property owners said families and kids were and important part of their lake experience. Fun, family activities involving kids and grandkids were an important part of spending time at the lake. Two educational tools aimed at encouraging kid and family friendly lakeshore stewardship include the following:

My Lakeshore Field Journal
—a rustic-looking activity journal that engages youth to explore lakeshore life, including frogs, turtles, plants and dragonflies. Lake owners responded favorably to the journal, felt it was effective at sharing information and agreed it encouraged them to manage for a more natural shoreline. Journals are available at the UW-Extension Learning Store. To purchase copies go to:​ OR print your own copy.

Wisconsin Lakes Trivia Game
—a family, friendly game that features a variety of lake related trivia questions and answers with cards, dice and scoring sheets in a small, easy-to-store box. The game provides families with a fun, group activity and highlights facts about the history, wildlife and recreation associated with Wisconsin’s lakes with an emphasis on lakeshore ecology. Unlike many brochures and fact sheets, the game is more durable, likely to be kept at cabins and homes, and used repeatedly in a group setting to encourage group learning and discussion. Games are available at the UW-Extension Learning Store. To purchase a copy go to:


Top Ten Shrubs and Plants Promotions were designed to simplify and promote lake-healthy landscaping choices for landowners and local greenhouses by making native plants and shrubs readily available. Research indicated landowners liked seeing wildlife, particularly songbirds, along the shore, but they were also uncertain about how to succeed in planting native shrubs in the unique conditions of their watershed. Brochures addressing these perceived benefits and barriers were combined with coupon promotions. They were featured in lake newsletters and point of sale posters at local nurseries.



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Coupon Promotional Materials

When lakeshore property owners are ready to plant more natural vegetation on their shoreland, promotions can help. Brochures with coupons were mailed to lakeshore property owners to encourage their purchase of native vegetation. These brochures featured selected plants and shrubs at local nurseries. And a similarly branded point of purchase poster was included at local nurseries. In addition, the use of the word Free vs. a similar value with the word Off nearly doubled the coupon redemption rates. 



Key Insights and Recommendations

Factors Related to Adoption of Natural Shorelines

The insights and recommendations provided are derived from the outreach and research experience by the authors and others related to protecting water resources and promoting more natural vegetation among lakeshore property owners. Read the full report

Key insights

  • ​​​​Belief in importance of natural shorelines alone does not appear to be directly related to actual behavior in terms of landscaping practices. Lakeshore property owners may already know about the importance of shoreland habitats and still have overly manicured shorelines. Most agree that more natural shorelines are important for lake health regardless of how they actually maintain their own land, suggesting that changing or activating existing attitudes alone may be necessary but not sufficient to produce behavior change.
  • People have varying levels of readiness to adopt more natural shorelines. Similar to other health and environmental behavior change contexts, property owners are at different stages of considering and adopting landscaping changes. Therefore, a ‘one-size fits all’ outreach strategy may not be as effective as more tailored appeals.
  • Property owners perceive their own shorelines as more natural than do their neighbors or biologists. Two of our studies tested whether self-perception bias, a universal human tendency for overly positive evaluations of one's self and past behavior, is a barrier to the success of shoreland restoration programs. We found strong evidence that self-perception bias affects property owners' evaluations of the state of their shorelines, potentially preventing steps for remediation that might otherwise be taken. Taken into context with our other studies, this phenomenon suggests that property owners may agree natural shorelines are important and feel they are already doing better than their neighbors.
  • Understand the specific property owners you are trying to reach. It is always helpful to learn about the perspectives of property owners living around the specific lakes you are trying to improve, because the property owners of each lake may have unique perspectives and norms. This is also a way to engage with your constituents. With local or regional education campaigns, consider using a survey, in-depth interviews and/or focus groups to better understand their self-interests and concerns. Use what you learn to develop and refine more effective educational messages.    

Messaging Recommendations

  • Providing objective feedback mildly increases intention to adopt natural shorelines. In another one of our studies, paper surveys were mailed to a random sample of 1,000 shoreline property owners in Portage, Marathon and Waushara counties. All participants were asked to respond to a set of questions about 1) their goals for shoreline maintenance, 2) beliefs predicted to be related to shoreline decisions, and 3) willingness to increase the vegetation on their shoreline. Some participants received a map showing the amount of shoreline vegetation around their lake, some received a worksheet with information about how shoreline vegetation affects lake health, some received both, and some received neither. Participants reported slightly greater willingness to increase their shoreline vegetation if they received the map, the worksheet, or both compared to participants who received neither.
  • Use outreach messages emphasizing social norms. Emphasize prescriptive social norms (group-held beliefs about how members “should” behave in a given context) in outreach campaigns to promote natural shorelines. Particularly when people aren’t sure what to do, they look to others when deciding how to act. Examples of outreach messages emphasizing prescriptive norms might be, “Your neighbors are protecting your lake. Are you?” or “Join your neighbors in adopting a natural shoreline to protect your lake.” Additionally, consider developing programs that highlight positive, descriptive social norms (group-held beliefs about what other members actually do in a given context). Consider using public lands as examples, and shine a spotlight on good stewards and restored shorelands in lake association meetings, newsletters, local media, the Internet and other venues.
  • Choose words selectively in promoting natural shorelines. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that can have the greatest impact. Water Words That Work is a consulting firm that specializes in communication strategies for groups working on protecting water resources ( They recommend using words that imply ownership and inclusivity, such as “we,” “our,” “shared” and “public.” In many contexts, you should emphasize “water protection” and “preserving water quality”—people don’t necessarily see current problems, but they recognize the need to protect water for the future. They also recommend linking benefits of water conservation to “future generations.”  The Language of Conservation 2013 ( Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies (Metz & Weigel, 2013) commissioned by The Nature Conservancy) recommends keeping people in the picture when talking about water issues. A majority of people surveyed said that “benefits to people” are the best reasons to conserve nature. Benefits to people include swimming, fishing, boating, watching wildlife and enjoying scenic beauty. It is also important to avoid jargon. For example, use words like “land around rivers, lakes and streams” instead of “watershed”; “fish and wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”; and “natural areas” as opposed to “ecosystems”.
  • Subtle differences in messaging can have significant impacts on property owners’ responses to promotions aimed at improving natural shorelines. In one of our studies, we tested which of two promotional direct mail strategies would yield the most coupon redemptions for native shoreline plants—a headline reading “$5 OFF (or free pack)” versus “FREE pack (or $5 dollars off).” There was no functional difference in the messages contained within both coupon versions, as both gave the recipient $5 worth of native plants. However, a simple inversion of the messaging, focusing on “free” rather than “$5 off,” almost doubled response to the promotion.
  • Existing norms for natural shorelines of adjacent properties are very important. The amount of vegetation on a participant’s shoreline was more strongly related to the amount of vegetation on neighbors’ shorelines than it was to their property management goals or stewardship. This suggests that, when possible, it may make sense to target outreach efforts at property owners whose neighbors already have more natural shorelines to expand upon areas of the lake where supportive norms already exist.
  • Emphasize stewardship rationale in outreach promoting natural shorelines. In one of our studies, participants who had strong stewardship beliefs, measured with survey items like “property owners have a responsibility to protect lake health for future generations” and “taking good care of my shoreline is important to me,” indicated greater willingness to increase their shoreline vegetation. However, they did not differ from other participants in the amount of vegetation currently on their shorelines. Future research should explore how to convert this self-reported increased willingness to actual behavior.
  • Emphasize that native plants will produce outcomes they want and not those they don’t. Attitudes toward native plants are associated with behavioral intention. Natural resource educators should work to enhance beliefs that native plants will contribute to positive outcomes lakeshore property owners personally care about (e.g., habitat for desired wildlife, aesthetics of their property) and refute beliefs that shoreline vegetation will contribute to outcomes they do not want to occur (e.g., blocking their view, looking “messy,” decreased property value).
  • Address property owners’ goals for shoreland landscaping preferences. Our data indicate that some landscaping goals are significantly related to the amount of vegetation on their shoreline. Participants who reported that personal benefit goals, such as “presenting a neatly groomed landscape that does not look messy” and “how much I will like the visual look of an option I am considering,” were important to them when considering changes to their shoreline tended to have less vegetation compared to participants who reported that those goals were less important. Outreach should present restoration solutions that are compatible with personal use and a neat, tidy appearance. Such solutions might emphasize access corridors and aesthetically-pleasing native plants. Earlier focus groups also indicated that one reason property owners do not adopt more natural shorelines is because they wanted a direct view of the lake from their house. For people with this concern, promote the use of low-growing, native shrubs and plants that don’t block their view of the lake. Additionally, we learned that some property owners were concerned about ticks associated with more natural vegetation. Where this is the case, promote mulched pathways and mulched edges as a way to reduce tick exposure.
  • Promote native plants and natural shorelines as way to attract desired wildlife. Property owners liked the idea of seeing more songbirds on native plants and shrubs. Frogs were also considered a desirable species and indicator of a healthy shoreline, as longtime property owners remembered when frogs were present or more abundant on their shoreline. This perceived decrease in the abundance of frogs resonated as a “canary in the coalmine” for some focus group participants. The benefits of submerged aquatic plants to game fish for spawning and food may be attractive too. Highlight species that are most meaningful to the property owners you work with.
  • Emphasize the benefits of natural shorelines for preventing geese. Our focus groups revealed that, while people like to see Canada geese flying overhead, they do not like them congregating and defecating on their lawns and beaches. Let property owners know that more natural vegetation on their shoreline and less mowed lawn and manufactured beach will discourage unwelcome geese from defecating on their lakeshore. 

Other Considerations

  • Pick your messengers carefully. Who delivers your message will influence how it is received. For many, it is preferable to choose a source to deliver your message that is similar to your target audience, such as neighbors, friends or lake association members. Property owners are more likely to respond favorably to requests from peers than to requests from government workers or other perceived “authorities.”
  • A vocal minority of property owners are put-off by efforts to encourage shoreline restoration. This is well known by professionals and conservationists who have worked on this issue for years. Reactance Theory suggests that one factor contributing to this resistance may be a perceived threat to autonomy. When individuals feel they are pressured to act in a certain way, they are often motivated to act counter to it. Reactance is greatest when the pressure comes from an authoritative source (e.g., government) or some other untrusted entity viewed as inappropriately interfering with their private property rights. Communication encouraging restoration may evoke the least reactance when it comes from sources who do not have authority over property owners, such as neighbors or volunteers who are not connected to governmental bodies.  



Peer-reviewed Journal Articles 

Shaw, B. R., Radler B. T., & Haack, J. (2011). Exploring the utility of the stages of change model to promote natural shorelines. Lake Reservoir Management, 27, 310–320.

Exploring the utility of the stages of change model to promote natural shorelines       
The stages of change model (SCM) suggest that shoreline property owners adopt more natural shorelines over time as they move through several stages of change (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse). The purpose of this study was to examine whether these stages of change may be useful in identifying lakeshore property owners’ attitudes and intent toward adopting more natural shorelines. Results provide preliminary support that the SCM may represent a useful framework for understanding property owners’ propensities toward adopting more natural shorelines. The authors suggest additional research will improve the external reliability of the SCM as adopted in an environmental context.
Link to publication:

Shaw, B. R., Radler, B. T., & Haack, J. (2012). Comparing two direct mail strategies to sell native plants in a campaign to promote natural shorelines. Social Marketing Quarterly, 18(4), 274-280.

Comparing two direct mail strategies to sell native plants in a campaign to promote natural shorelines   
The message strategy tested builds on the ‘‘zero-price effect,’’ which suggests that when faced with a choice between two product options, one of which is free, people respond more readily to the free offer as if the zero price not only implies a low cost of buying a product but also increases its perceived valuation simply in its being characterized as free. Households received a coupon that read,
 “FREE pack (or $5 dollars off),” with “FREE pack” as the visually dominant element or a coupon that read, “$5 OFF (or free pack),” with the “$5 OFF” designed as the visually dominant element. Otherwise, the coupons were identical. Half of the households randomly received the first coupon and the other half received the second. Coupons could be redeemed at one of five participating nurseries. As hypothesized, results indicated the ‘‘FREE pack” coupon offer was more attractive to recipients, with almost twice as many redemptions. Link to publication:

Shaw, B.R., Radler, B., Chenoweth, R., Heiberger, P., & Dearlove, P. (2011). Predicting intent to install a rain garden to protect a local lake: An application of the theory of planned behavior. Journal of Extension, 49, 204.

Predicting intent to install a rain garden to protect a local lake: An application of the theory of planned behavior

Many lakes are degraded by urban stormwater runoff. One way to reduce these impacts is installing rain gardens that absorb water running off impervious surfaces. The study reported here explored how the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) can be used to inform storm water management outreach campaigns. Regression analyses of survey data were used to inform how Extension natural resource educators can more effectively encourage people to install rain gardens. Attitudes toward rain gardens and subjective norms were positively associated with behavioral intent. Perceived behavioral control was not significantly associated with behavioral intent. Implications for Extension educators are discussed. Link to full publication:

Amato, M. S., Shaw, B. R., & Haack, J. (2012). The challenge of self-enhancement bias for educational programs designed to encourage natural shorelines. Lake and Reservoir Management, 28, 206–211.

The challenge of self-enhancement bias for educational programs designed to encourage natural shorelines      
This study proposed and found support for a potential barrier to successful implementation of programs
designed to promote natural shorelines along residential property. This study explored how the phenomenon of self-enhancement bias may cause property owners to over-estimate the natural state of their shorelines, preventing remedial action they otherwise might take if a more accurate self-assessment were available. Results revealed that residents evaluated their own shorelines significantly more natural than did biologists. This pattern was consistent with the hypothesis that self-enhancement bias may be a barrier to educational programs designed to encourage more natural shorelines among lakeshore property owners. Based on these findings, the authors offered recommendations for lake and water resource managers to potentially improve the efficacy of such programs. Link to full publication:

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Additional Research

Steel, B. S., Soden, D. L., & Warner, R. L. (1990). The impact of knowledge and values on perceptions of environmental risk to the great lakes. Society & Natural Resources, 3(4), 331–348.

The impact of knowledge and values on perception of environmental risks to the great lakes
Citizen attitudes concerning the potential hazards of environmental pollution are believed to be influenced by various factors. Some observers focused on the level of education and policy‐relevant knowledge among the public as predictors of environmental risk perceptions. Others argued that level of education and knowledge are largely unrelated to risk perceptions. These scholars focused on the symbolic nature of environmental issues and highlighted the importance of the underlying influence of political and social value orientations on the perception of environmental risk. This study explored how public perceptions of risk associated with industrial pollution in the Great Lakes were affected by policy‐relevant knowledge and political value orientations. Findings suggested that value orientations are stronger predictors of environmental risk perceptions than knowledge.


Stedman, R. C., & Hammer, R. B. (2006). Environmental perception in a rapidly growing, amenity-rich region: The effects of lakeshore development on perceived water quality in Vilas County, Wisconsin. Society & Natural Resources, 19(2), 137–151. doi:10.1080/08941920500394733

The effect of lakeshore development on perceived water quality in Vilas County, Wisconsin
This study explored the relationship between perceived and actual water quality in a rapidly growing, high-amenity rural area (Vilas County, WI) and how this relationship was affected by shoreline development. Although the data on the relationship between shore development and aquatic environs were not conclusive, people expressed high levels of concern about the environmental impacts of this type of growth. Researchers linked databases that include water quality and lakeshore development variables with a mail survey of 1000 local property owners. Although the shoreline development levels are unrelated to water quality variables such as turbidity, chlorophyll levels, and color, this study found that lakes with higher levels of development were perceived by respondents as having worse water quality than lightly developed lakes. These findings have important implications for high-amenity rural communities that are undergoing rapid development.


Winkler, R., Schewe, R. L., & Matarrita-Cascante, D. (2013). Lakes and community: The importance of natural landscapes in social research. Society & Natural Resources, 26(2), 158–175. doi:10.1080/08941920.2013.739526

Lakes and community: The importance of natural landscapes in social research
The focus of this research was on the role the natural environment plays in shaping interactional social relationships that constitute community. This study was particularly interested in relationships between seasonal and permanent residents, because prior literature has questioned the extent to which these two groups interact with one another to promote joint community development efforts. Both quantitative and qualitative findings demonstrated the importance of lakes as a natural feature that organizes social interactions and encourages relationships across the divide between seasonal and permanent residents. Lakes appeared to facilitate community building by combining transportation and recreation, providing third places, and creating common concerns. These findings hold lessons for the field of natural resource sociology and practical implications for community development.


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