Two University of Montana faculty members recently won a nearly $1 million grant that allows them to significantly grow a concept that uses marketing techniques — including "microtargeting" — to advance conservation interests and reduce pollution.

With the $999,942 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, faculty members Alex Metcalf and Justin Angle will take an idea they've been working on for about seven years to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the largest on the Atlantic Coast.

"There's a pressing need there," Metcalf said Thursday. "There is a big scale to the problem, and we saw an opportunity to demonstrate how these techniques could be effective."

Metcalf said the project also represents a burgeoning collaboration between the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and the College of Business. Metcalf is assistant professor of human dimensions in the College of Forestry and Conservation and Angle is associate professor of marketing in the College of Business.

A news release from UM notes the Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to 18.1 million people and is the country's largest estuary, with "vital habitat" for more than 3,600 plant and animal species.

"Local conservation groups have long worked to engage farm operations — the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the watershed — to encourage practices that can simultaneously help farmers and reduce pollution," UM said in the news release.

Metcalf identified some of the fixes, such as streamside trees and shrubs that filter out pollution and stabilize banks; "no till" agriculture that doesn't disturb soil; and management of manure and poultry litter, which account for nearly 50 percent of nutrient pollutants entering the bay.

To help move the dial, the faculty members will use social science and marketing concepts to encourage conservation behaviors.

"Instead of merely selling people things, we're using modern marketing tools to inspire people to make better choices and move the needle on conservation outcomes," Angle said in the news release.

UM noted the goal is to deliver custom messages to farmers who own critical pieces of property and are open to conservation, "as predicted by a statistical model rooted in consumer analytics," or "microtargeting."

"It's the same type of technology that businesses use to identify likely customers, but instead we're using it to deliver individualized conservation appeals and incentives," Metcalf said in the news release.

"This approach is exciting because it can help achieve more restoration per dollar invested."

The project will unfold over three years, with phase one focusing on collaboration with conservation and agricultural partners, phase two including a pilot study to test messages, and phase three providing assistance to "tens of thousands of farmers in the watershed."

The faculty members said they were excited about using interdisciplinary partnerships at UM "for maximum effect."

"We live in a time of extraordinary conservation challenges, and we need innovative social science collaborations to help find solutions," Metcalf said in a statement. "We're excited to combine our marketing and conservation expertise to see how we can help."

Said Angle in a statement: "This collaboration is particularly exciting because it strikes at the core of our motivations as researchers. Using the tools of our trade to help people make better choices and affect conservation outcomes is a tremendous opportunity."

In a phone call, Metcalf said the concept he and Angle will use in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been in the works for some seven years. He received an earlier grant to do a similar project in Pennsylvania, and he and Angle worked together on that problem.

The current project offers them an opportunity to test the idea on a much larger scale, and it also is relevant at home.

"We're working with farmers and landowners in the Chesapeake, but there are all sorts of conservation challenges on private land in Montana that these techniques could help enhance, from forest management to wildlife habitat management to conservation easements," Metcalf said.

The grant was awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the EPA's Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants Program.

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