Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC) conducted formative research on the attitudes and behaviors associated with home lawn maintenance and fertilizer use in order to identify the barriers and benefits associated with changing that behavior in Talbot and Queen Anne’s Counties in Maryland. MRC translated the results of this research into messages and materials that have been pilot tested and are ready to serve as the platform for a lawn fertilizer behavior change campaign. Based on the findings and research, MRC has compiled a Social Marketing Plan discussing our marketing strategies, messages, and evaluation plan for a complete fertilizer use behavior change campaign (See attached).


Behaviors: Reduce fertilizer use

Behavior Pattern: Continous

Why was this behavior selected?

The Chesapeake Bay suffers insult today from multiple pollution sources, the most pressing being the influx of excessive nutrients. Wastewater treatment plants, agricultural fertilizer, and animal waste are heavily responsible for nutrient loading in the Chesapeake Bay. However, an often overlooked and poorly understood culprit is home lawn fertilization. (An Analysis of the Total Ecology of Lawn Maintenance in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Junkin, I. 2011).

Lawn fertilizer as a source of water pollution might not be a problem if only a fraction of homeowners actually fertilized their lawns. Research suggests, however, that the majority of homeowners do in fact fertilize their lawns. in 2000 the Center for Watershed Protection found that about 70% of all lawns in the nation are regularly fertilized. (A Survey of Residential Nutrient Behavior in the Chesapeake Bay, 2000, Center for Watershed Protection.)

There are over 3.5 million acres of turf in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, receiving (research suggests) approximately 214 million pounds of nitrogen. In Maryland alone there are over 1.0 million acres in turf, compared to 1.4 million acres in crops. There is a growing common concern regarding the impact of lawn fertilizer on water quality. Recent studies suggest that with a majority of homeowners fertilizing their lawns, excess levels of nutrients in waterways can be partly attributed to home lawn maintenance. Managing nutrients applied to home lawns is becoming an increasingly urgent issue in teh watershed as suburban landscapes continue to replace agriculture across the Eastern Seaboard. (Nitrogen Input from Residential Lawn Care Practices in Suburban Watersheds in Baltimore County, MD. LAw, Band, Grove, 2004). The intended outcome of this project is a reduction in the amount of nitrogen applied to lawns, much of which runs off the land or leaches into groundwater and ends up in our rivers. To acheive this goal, our campaign will seek to engage 10% of our target market to reduce lawn fertilizer use by 50% or more within 2 years of the launch. Ultimately, MRC hopes to leverage the results of this campaign using many other environmental organizations in the Bay area to achieve a broader impact. We will contrinue the campaign beyond the life of this grant with the goal of convincing half the Bay population or more to reduce lawn fertilizer use.

What are the competing behaviors to the target behavior?

We recognize that lawn fertilizer use is a public behavior. For example, the condition of a lawn is a public statement about a homeowner's use or non-use of fertilizer, the act of fertilizing a lawn or buying fertilizer at a store is a public activity, and a homeowner's association policy to maintain its members lawns using fertilizer is public information to its members. The public nature of lawn fertilizing behavior affords opportunities for behabior change that are not always available for private behaviors. One can be held accountable for public behabior. People are influenced by their peers. What one homeowner does (or in this case, doesn't do) can influence another homeowner, can spark conversation, can support the efforts to build a groundswell of behavior change. Another opportunity to maximize in this campaign is that the behavior we advocate is one that has no costs, or even has cost savins, associated with it. The key in the research will be to determine how best of take advantage of that opportunity. Potential external threats MRC faces in a lawn fertilizer behavior change effort include objections from homeowner's associations that may feel pressure to maintain the status quo or accepted practices, attitudes of commercial lawn care providers, adn the influence of lawn fertilizer manufacturers.

Target Audiences

Audiences: Rowhome/town home/condo owners/renters, Detached single family homeowners/renters

Primary Audience: Detached single family homeowners/renters

Secondary Audience: Rowhome/town home/condo owners/renters

Demographics: Black or african american, Hispanic or latino, White

Ages: 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, 65+

Description of Target Audience

Our target audience for this project was homeowners with lawns in Talbot and Queen Anne’s Counties. Talbot County has a population of 38,098, of which 26% are 65 years and over, and the median household income is $63,399 a year. There are 19,645 housing units in Talbot County and there is a 75% ownership rate. About 84% of the county is Caucasian and 13% is African American. The 2012 census for Queen Anne’s County reflects a similar demographic. Queen Anne’s County has a population of 48,517 and 20,303 housing units with an ownership rate of 86%. The median household income is $84,483 a year. About 90% of the county is Caucasian and 7% is African American.

The population of these communities directly contributed to the planning and implementation of this project, as their primary motivations and behaviors will shape our future behavior change campaign. The community itself also influenced our planning. Talbot County contains about 25,000 acres of turf and Queen Anne’s County contains between 40,000 to 50,000 acres. Center for Watershed Protection survey work revealed that the demographic most likely to fertilize multiple times a year are older, college educated, homeowners who make an annual income of $50,000 or higher (CWP, supra, 2000). The residents of Talbot and Queen Anne’s counties reflect these demographics.


How did you research your audiences: A combination of in-person interviews or focus groups and then broader surveys


There are three barriers that MRC will address in the behavior change campaign. The first is a knowledge barrier. There are some homeowners who are ignorant of the negative effects of excessive lawn fertilizer use. Within this group of homeowners there are many misguided ideas of best management practices. Some of our focus group participants claimed to be using best practices but were not. The second barrier MRC will address is an attitude barrier. A green lawn reflects a homeowner’s values, pride, socio-economic status, and community acceptance. Maintaining one’s lawn is a public action, and people do not want to be perceived poorly because they do not have a green lawn. Finally, MRC will need to fight the influence of the lawn care industry. Scotts has a 4-step fertilizing plan, and MRC is advocating for a serious reduction by suggesting that fertilizing once in the fall (if at all) is sufficient.

External factors

The target audience reported that they would be particularly motivated by two key messages: the cost savings from no longer needing to purchase as much fertilizer, and the fear of health-related issues for their children and pets. Some indicated that they could also be motivated by the knowledge that their fertilizing practices can affect water quality if they are given facts backed by sound scientific evidence. We did not notice uniform gender differences in the way research participants reacted to lawn fertilizer issues and messages. But overall the target men seemed a bit more intransigent than the women about fertilizer use. (In some cases, women focus group participants referred to their absentee husbands as less flexible about the fertilizing practice, but that is not necessarily reliable because “I’m married to a man who hates dandelions” could easily reflect the speaker’s own opinions.) The women were more likely to respond to the message targeting the health effects on pets and children, but both sexes responded equally to the message about the wasted money from excess fertilizer use. MRC has chosen not to constrain its target market to one gender or the other.

Gaining insight into your target audience

Of the 300 respondents who took MRC’s lawn fertilizer use survey, a vast majority were homeowners who did not live on the water. The size of lawns was equally represented. Just under half of the respondents fertilize their lawn or use a lawn care service that fertilizes their lawn. Spring was by far the most popular season to fertilize, with 86% fertilizing, followed by Fall with 65%, Summer 29%, and lastly 6% of those who fertilize do so in the Winter. More than half of those who fertilize indicated they only fertilized once or twice a year, but about 40% fertilize their lawns more than three times a year.

When asked how one decides how much fertilizer to use, the most common answer was to follow the instructions on the bag. Only 11% of respondents tested their soil to determine how much fertilizer to apply. Over 70% of respondents decide when to use fertilizer based on what season it is and 50% agree that more fertilizer means a greener lawn. Finally, when asked why do you fertilize, 42% fertilize to have a green lawn, 37% fertilize to reduce weeds, 13% enjoy the ritual of fertilizing, and 7% fertilize to be a good neighbor. Other responses included fertilizing to keep the lawn healthy, because lawn care companies suggested it, and because they want the grass to grow.

MRC conducted 20 personal interviews on fertilizer use and motivation. The majority of interviewees fertilized 3-4 times a year based on suggestions from lawn care companies and fertilizer companies such as Scotts. When asked how they decide how much to apply, those who do not use a lawn care company answered that they read the instructions on the bag, which is consistent with our online survey results. Weed control in general was a major motivator for using fertilizer. Other responses include appearance and “to keep the wife happy.”

When asked why they think others do not use fertilizer, the vast majority replied that those who do not fertilize are uneducated. Most responded aggressively to this question with answers such as “They’re morons who don’t care about having a nice lawn,” “ People who don’t fertilize are just lazy,” “It has nothing to do with the environment, they just don’t care about their lawn.” Only 3 of the 20 participants said environmental issues could be a reason people do not use lawn fertilizer. Most noted that there was a relationship between lawn fertilizer and unhealthy rivers, but claimed that their fertilizer use was not contributing enough to matter. Answers include: “I think if I don’t over fertilize, then it’s fine”, “It’s like spitting into the ocean, it doesn’t really matter,” “Everything in moderation.” Three of the 20 interviewees thought there was no relationship between lawn fertilizer and the health of rivers.

When asked how one could prevent lawn fertilizer from getting into our rivers and streams, most replied: “don’t use lawn fertilizer.” Other suggestions were to not apply before a rainstorm or near a body of water (even though respondents who made those suggestions were often near a body of water and still used lawn fertilizer). Finally, when asked how they could be motivated to change behavior and through what mediums, the most common answer was “education on proper fertilizer techniques.” Multiple respondents suggested using scientific data, giving ample information, and being consistent with campaign messaging. Newspaper articles and reliable news broadcasts were the most popular mediums to get the message out, which is consistent with our post advertisement surveys.

MRC created multiple ads after initial research and surveying. These ads were then tested using additional surveys and interviews. About 90 people responded to the survey. Why expose them to chemicals? and It pollutes our rivers were by far the most popular with over 70% of the votes. Overall, the “chemicals” and “pollution” ads were ranked in the top three choices most often, with both receiving 69 votes. Don’t be duped. Once in the fall is enough was the third most popular with 43 votes. MRC also conducted personal interviews using the created messages. Most were consistent with each other, noting that each message has a strong individual theme. However, most interviewees noted they wanted more information.

MRC also used surveys to research the best distribution channels to access our target audience. Respondents ranked each source of media based on how influential that outlet is to them. Newspaper articles, social media, and billboards were the most popular responses. Additionally, MRC surveyed what incentive gift would be most popular to give out in reward for making a pledge to reduce lawn fertilizer use. Receiving a small native plant was the most popular choice.


Outreach Tactics: Feedback, Social diffusion, Social norms

What media/communication channels did you use? Direct mail, E-mail, Face to face, Online or other digital media, Organization methods (through constituents of influential community organizations), Small group or public meetings

Products and services

MRC researched tangible products or services that might be offered to homeowners to change their lawn fertilizing behavior. We asked participants what they might need to have or to know to reduce the use of fertilizer. The research showed that the core products the target audience cared most about were: 1. Money in their pockets that they otherwise would have spent on lawn fertilizer, 2. Perception of healthier pets and children because they are exposed to fewer chemicals, and 3. Cleaner waterways. The value of these three products/benefits outweighed others discussed including organic fertilizer, a lawn stake demonstrating a fertilizer free lawn, saving time, healthier seafood, and our obligation to future generations to have clean water. One additional concept surfaced from the research, given the fact that our target counties are heavily agricultural: participants appreciated that a lawn fertilizer reduction campaign recognizes that groundwater pollution is not solely caused by agriculture and that homeowners must share in the responsibility for pollution. In terms of knowledge, participants said they wanted information based on science and facts. For example, they were persuaded by the scientific information about the polluting effects of excess lawn fertilizer use. MRC will therefore incorporate the science behind excess lawn fertilizer use in all of our outreach materials where there is an opportunity to elaborate (e.g., news articles, door hanger materials, brochures, tabling events, speaking engagements, workshops, high school education program.) We asked participants what services might be helpful to homeowners to encourage them to fertilizer less. One service of interest to participants was the distribution of soil test kits that enable homeowners to determine the needs of their individual lawns. MRC will obtain these kits in bulk from the UMD Extension Service and distribute them at tabling events, workshops, in our office and promote their availability through our website, emails, and all promotional materials. MRC will promote soil sampling as a smart homeowner practice. MRC considered partnering with lawn care companies to help homeowners determine whether they need to fertilize, but given the financial disincentive to the commercial companies of selling less fertilizer and having their employees spend less time fertilizing, we were unable to engage any lawn care companies in this campaign. We will, however, suggest the use of organic lawn fertilizer or the planting of native grasses as an alternative to excess traditional fertilizer.

Cost or Trade Off

There is no monetary cost associated with adopting the desired behavior of using less lawn fertilizer. Rather there is a cost savings. MRC will provide a nonmonetary incentive for a pledge to reduce lawn fertilizer. The incentive may be a small native plant, a bumper sticker, a reusable tote bag, or an “environmental incentive card” entitling the bearer to a discount on products from environmentally friendly businesses in our target area. MRC researched preferences among the target market for these incentives and found that the most popular choice was the small native plant.The only nonmonetary disincentive is the requirement to comply with the 2011 Maryland Lawn Fertilizer Law. Provisions of the law will be disseminated in all campaign materials where there is the opportunity to provide detailed information. Examples include: news articles, door hanger materials, brochures, tabling events, speaking engagements, the high school education program, and the UMD Extension Service workshops (see more on the workshops below.)


The target audience performs the desired behavior on their own properties. The target audience will receive any pledge incentive by collecting it at MRC’s office in Easton, MD, or through the mail from MRC.

Target market participants said they made their lawn fertilizer purchasing decisions at local “big box” stores like Lowe’s. MRC was unsuccessful in engaging Lowe’s to collaborate on this campaign. There were no other local retailers mentioned where participants bought lawn fertilizer. And there is no financial incentive for these kinds of stores to reduce their sales of lawn fertilizer. MRC will concentrate on reaching homeowners while they are in their communities or at home rather than at the point of purchase.

MRC will team with the UMD Extension Service to host a series of workshops on lawn fertilizer use. These workshops will educate participants on the science, the law, and the regulations concerning fertilizer use in the state of Maryland. The University of Florida Extension ran a "Florida friendly lawn” campaign in 44 counties. Of the 1200 participants in the workshops, 50 percent have reduced their lawn fertilizer use and remained happy with their lawns (The Chesapeake Club Spring Media, 2004). The University of Maryland Extension service has its own “Be wise, don’t over fertilize” campaign and has agreed to collaborate with MRC on these workshops to extend and enhance its own efforts as well as ours. At these workshops MRC will hand out and promote the use of soil sampling kits to determine a lawn’s actual fertilizer needs.

Billboards are an effective place in our community to reach our target market. In our research, participants ranked billboards, newspaper articles and social media as the top three preferred methods of disseminating our messages. (See attached Survey Results.) MRC had rented a billboard on US 50 for six months from May to Oct, 2013 for our lawn fertilizer awareness campaign. It received between 3 and 5 millions viewers according to the audit materials for that billboard by Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement. Because billboards ranked so highly among our research participants, MRC will include that same method of reaching our target market for this behavior change campaign.

Participants also said they often kept informed about issues and learned new things from their children, so they liked the idea of MRC incorporating the lawn fertilizer reduction campaign in local school education and outreach programs.

MRC also considered the issue of intercepting consumers prior to the purchase decision, by strategically releasing our lawn fertilizing messages on a seasonal basis. For example, in the spring we will be promoting the message “Once in the Fall is Enough” to discourage spring buying. (see Message #1 on p 7, below.)

Primary Messages

MRC wants Talbot and Queen Anne’s County homeowners with lawns to view the reduction of lawn fertilizer use as a behavior that promotes the health of their children and pets, saves them money, is beneficial to water quality, and is more beneficial than excessive fertilizing or fertilizing multiple times each year. MRC wants to convey the desired behavior as smart, better lawn management, and reflective of a greater sense of caring about home and property.


How did you measure impact? Survey, Tracking

Total People Reached

MRC successfully assessed the current behaviors, motivations, barriers and benefits associated with lawn fertilizer use in Talbot and Queen Anne’s Counties. Completion of this project has resulted in a Social Marketing Plan for a behavior change campaign that MRC intends to pursue in 2015. While we have not yet released messages, we have developed a plan to assess the effectiveness of our planned messages as well as the tactics we will use to deliver them.

What worked?

Our greatest success for this project was the number of people we reached though our surveys and interviews. The ability to use nonbiased events, such as the annual Waterfowl Festival, were instrumental in gaining insight on messages from locals. By encouraging board members, volunteers, and friends to share our survey, we were able to reach our goal of respondents without distributing the survey to our environmentally biased membership. Personal interviews provided unique opportunities to gain valuable insight on not only fertilizer behaviors, but also what motivations they would need to change that behavior. Interviewees were able to talk candidly without influence from others. We received some of our most useful insights from studying and coding these personal interviews.

What were the most significant limiting factors to greater success?

Our greatest success for this project was the number of people we reached though our surveys and interviews. The ability to use nonbiased events, such as the annual Waterfowl Festival, were instrumental in gaining insight on messages from locals. By encouraging board members, volunteers, and friends to share our survey, we were able to reach our goal of respondents without distributing the survey to our environmentally biased membership. Personal interviews provided unique opportunities to gain valuable insight on not only fertilizer behaviors, but also what motivations they would need to change that behavior. Interviewees were able to talk candidly without influence from others. We received some of our most useful insights from studying and coding these personal interviews.

Advice Or Suggestions

Our greatest success was also our greatest challenge. Distributing the survey through non-environmental avenues was difficult. There were not many events we were able to table that either did not have an environmental theme or did not present MRC as an environmental group. We overcame this challenge by using more personal avenues with MRC staff, such as bringing surveys to gyms and sporting events in the area. Our advice to other organizations attempting a similar project would be to create a plan of survey distribution. Much like the Social Marketing Plan that we created for our planned behavior change campaign, a similar plan would have been helpful for this phase of the project.