Using social marketing to protect Wisconsin’s lakes

Wisconsin’s lakes are one of its many treasures. However, the lakes and their surrounding ecosystems are fragile and susceptible to change. Over the decades, more lakeshore property owners have developed their shorelines by removing natural vegetation to take advantage of their lakes’ recreational opportunities, as well as added lawns and beaches to achieve the look they want. Unfortunately, these actions may be harmful to water quality and wildlife habitat.

Lake shoreline

A shoreline that would benefit from being more natural. Photo courtesy of Bret Shaw.

Life Sciences Communication associate professor Bret Shaw has been working with University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to find the best ways to encourage shoreline property owners to adopt more natural shorelines.

Natural shorelines are beneficial because they contain more native species than unnatural shorelines, which can have little to no native vegetation along with sandy beaches and fertilized, highly manicured lawns. Natural shorelines are important for the health of Wisconsin’s waters and wildlife because they serve as habitat, as well as buffer zones that filter out contaminants and help prevent erosion and flooding.

“A natural shoreline is one that features native plants and animals in a setting that would occur absent human presence,” Shaw said. “But to me, it’s not a dichotomy of being natural or unnatural. That way of thinking can be counterproductive. It’s better to think on a scale of more natural and less natural.”

This allows a “meet in the middle” approach that Shaw has been trying to foster between natural resources educators and lakeshore property owners.

“Let’s say I want to get some of my friends to be more fit,” Shaw explained. “I could ask them to walk three or four days a week for an hour or I could ask them to do an intense workout with me every day for two hours. I’m going to have much more overall success asking the first option. It’s important to provide people choices that are achievable and consistent with their current lifestyle habits.

Bret Shaw, LSC associate professor

Bret Shaw, LSC associate professor

With this philosophy, Shaw and his partners conducted research and outreach to understand what lakeshore property owners think about natural shorelines. This work produced useful findings for how to help natural resource professionals promote natural shorelines more effectively.

One important finding was about landowners’ perceptions of their own property versus their neighbors’ property. Most landowners perceived their shorelines as more natural than their neighbors property. They thought they were doing a good job and their neighbors needed to do better.

“It seems like common sense but it’s an important insight to know that people aren’t seeing what others may be seeing,” Shaw said. “It’s human nature but how do we work with that? We are seeking ways to get them to reassess their own land management decisions and personal priorities so they are motivated to adopt more natural shorelines.”

The work has led to many messaging recommendations. One of them is the importance of emphasizing social norms or the sense that neighbors are also doing their part to protect the lake. By utilizing language such as “Your neighbors are protecting your lake. Are you?” or “Join your neighbors in adopting a natural shoreline to protect your lake,” outreach specialists can help establish a positive social norm.

Other techniques involve emphasizing outcomes that people want from their shorelines, such as a particular aesthetic or attracting desired fish or wildlife.

A new field campaign will be implemented in spring 2015 that uses insights from Shaw’s research to promote natural shorelines on a statewide basis.

“It’s been exciting to see this research get picked up by our partners throughout the state, which embodies the missions of Extension and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences to promote healthy ecosystems in Wisconsin,” Shaw said.

Want to learn more about this work? Check out the full set of recommendations for promoting natural shorelines.