The Journal of Extension - www.joe.org

October 2017 // Volume 55 // Number 5 // Feature // 5FEA7

Activating Opinion Leaders Across the Nation to Increase Water Conservation

Abstract
Water conservation is an area Extension has emphasized nationally to enhance public engagement in protecting water resources. The findings presented in this article are from a study that addressed regional water conservation opinion leaders' demographic characteristics, water use behaviors, water conservation information sources, interest in learning about water-related topics, and preferred learning channels. The intent behind the study was to provide insight into how Extension professionals can engage the power of opinion leaders in different regions of the United States. The findings revealed that opinion leaders are not using Extension as a source, and the article includes recommendations for strategic efforts Extension professionals across the United States can use to activate opinion leaders.


Pei-wen Huang
Research Coordinator
Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences
agnespei@ufl.edu

Alexa J. Lamm
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural Education and Communication
alamm@ufl.edu

University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Introduction

As the global population continues to grow, humans are facing issues of increased competition for water and food (Foley et al., 2011). Unfortunately, the general public is largely unaware of and unconcerned about water issues broadly (Borisova et al., 2013). Extension has attempted to engage the public in water conservation education through various channels, including face-to-face programs, partnerships in the development and implementation of government restrictions, and informational campaigns (Huang & Lamm, 2015a; University of Florida IFAS Extension, 2014). To ensure and even expand the impact of these programs on target audiences, communities, and environments, researchers have been studying various approaches to enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of communication in an attempt to increase the adoption of new water conserving ideas, practices, and policies (Cantrell, Warner, Lamm, & Rumble, 2016; Huang & Lamm, 2015b; Mains, Jenkins-Howard, & Stephenson, 2013; Monaghan, Ott, Wilber, Gouldthorpe, & Racevskis, 2013; Pratt & Bowman, 2008; Robinson, 2013; Warner, Lamm, Rumble, Martin, & Cantrell, 2016).

One of these approaches has been to use opinion leaders (Lamm, Lamm, & Carter, 2015). Opinion leaders are individuals "who influence the opinions, attitudes, beliefs, motivations, and behaviors of others' (Valente & Pumpuang, 2007, p. 881). Due to the level of persuasiveness these individuals have in their social networks, tapping opinion leadership has been suggested as an approach for enhancing and accelerating target audiences' adoption of practices or behaviors" (Dalrymple, Shaw, & Brossard, 2013; Keller & Berry, 2003; Rogers, 2003). By capitalizing on opinion leaders' ability to persuade individuals in their social networks, Extension may communicate with the public about environmental issues more effectively (Dalrymple et al., 2013; Howell, Shaw, & Alvarez, 2014). Given that opinion leaders may be valuable as an information conduit, Extension professionals need to understand their characteristics (Lamm, Lamm, & Carter, 2014; Lamm et al., 2015) so that programs can be targeted to their needs specifically.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2016b), different regions face different water issues. For example, drought is California's primary concern, the water system of Michigan was found to be contaminated with lead, water quality has been a concern in the Chesapeake Bay area due to nutrient pollution, and many southern states have been affected by extreme weather events such as increased drought events and severe rainfall (EPA, 2016a, 2016b; Fears, 2016). Individuals' experiences with and exposure to different water issues may lead to different responses to learning opportunities related to water conservation strategies (Borisova, Smolen, Boellstorff, McFarland, & Adams, 2013; Mahler et al., 2010). Therefore, with more information about water conservation opinion leaders in different regions across the nation, Extension professionals can take advantage of their influence on their associated peers to expand reach and increase impact on individuals' engagement in water conservation.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study described in this article was to examine the characteristics and behaviors of water conservation opinion leaders in different regions of the United States to better target and activate their opinion leadership power within their circles of influence. The objectives were

  1. to describe the demographic characteristics of water conservation opinion leaders in four regions of the United States;
  2. to describe the water use behaviors of water conservation opinion leaders in the four regions;
  3. to identify the organizations that water conservation opinion leaders use for water conservation information in the four regions; and
  4. to identify the water-focused subject matter and preferred information channels that water conservation opinion leaders in four regions are most interested in learning about and using.

Methods

The study was descriptive and involved use of an online survey design. Through a collaboration with the public opinion survey research company Qualtrics, the survey was distributed nationwide to respondents who were at least 18 years of age and representative of the U.S. population. The study was embedded in a larger study involving a survey instrument developed by researchers on the basis of existing instruments, including the 2012 Royal Bank of Canada Canadian Water Attitudes Study (Patterson, 2012), the National Water Survey Needs Assessment Program (Mahler et al., 2013), and the Government Style Questionnaire (Green-Demers, Blanchard, Pelletier, & Béland, 1994). Six sections of the instrument were used in the study reported here: opinion leader identification, respondent engagement in water conservation practices, organizations respondents use to obtain information about water issues, water-focused subject matter areas respondents are most interested in learning about, respondents' preferred information channels, and respondent demographics.

Before the survey was administered, a panel of experts reviewed the instrument to ensure validity, and approval was obtained from the University of Florida's Internal Review Board. A pilot test was conducted with 50 respondents representative of the target population to ensure that the instrument was valid and reliable. A nonprobability opt-in sampling method was used for data collection. A total of 2,703 people were invited to participate in the survey; 1,050 complete responses truly representative of the population were obtained, resulting in a participation rate of 39%. Due to the use of a nonprobability sampling approach, selection, exclusion, and nonparticipation biases may exist in the study (Baker et al., 2013; Kalton & Flores-Cervantes, 2003).

For the purpose of measuring opinion leadership, participants were asked to respond to six questions associated with how they discuss water conservation using a 5-point semantic differential scale (Table 1). Respondents were asked to select where their perceptions aligned best when discussing water issues. An opinion leadership construct was developed by averaging the scores of responses to this question series. The construct was found reliable through the use of Cronbach's alpha (α = .89). Respondents with an average water conservation opinion leadership construct score one standard deviation above the mean (M = 2.51, SD = .97) or greater were identified as the water conservation opinion leaders to be used in further analysis. A total of 196 respondents were identified as water conservation opinion leaders; 12% lived in the Northeast (n = 32), 13% in the South (n = 49), 15% in the Midwest (n = 39), and 32% in the West (n = 76).

Table 1.
Opinion Leadership Survey Question Descriptions

Survey question Opinion-leader-oriented option Non-opinion-leader-oriented option
During the past six months, how many people have you told about water issues? Told a number of people Told no one
In general, do you talk to your friends and colleagues about water issues? Very often Never
In a discussion about water issues, which of the following happens most? You tell your friends about issues including new developments Your friends tell you about issues including new developments
When you talk to your friends and colleagues about water issues, do you: Give a great deal of information Give very little information
Compared with your circle of friends, how likely are you to be asked about new information relating to water issues? Very likely to be asked Not at all likely to be asked
Overall, in all your discussions with friends and colleagues regarding issues surrounding water, are you: Often used as a source of advice Not used as a source of advice

For the purpose of measuring engagement in water conservation practices, participants were asked to respond to 10 questions using a 5-point Likert-type scale (Table 2). Respondents were then asked to identify the organizations they used to obtain water information by selecting all that apply from a list of nine options, the subject matter areas they are most interested in learning about by selecting all that apply from a list of 14 options, and their preferred information channels by selecting all that apply from a list of 13 options (Table 2). Lastly, respondents were asked to respond to a set of demographic questions. Data were analyzed through the use of SPSS 23.

Table 2.
Water Conservation Engagement Survey Question Descriptions

Survey question Response options
Please mark how often you do each of the following activities:
 A. I avoid watering my lawn in the summer
 B. I let my sprinklers run when it has rained or is raining
 C. I let my sprinklers run when rain is predicted in the forecast
 D. I leave the water running in the kitchen when washing and/or rinsing dishes
 E. I allow oil from cooking to run down the drain
 F. I turn off the water while brushing my teeth
 G. I shower for no more than five minutes each time I bathe
 H. I hose down my driveway
 I. I allow soapy water to run down a storm drain
 J. I allow used motor oil to run down a storm drain
A. Never
B. Almost never
C. Sometimes
D. Almost every time
E. Every time
F. Does not apply
What organization would you contact to learn more about water issues in general? Please check all that apply. A. City or town government officials, including the mayor or city council
B. County government officials, including the board of county commissioners
C. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
D. Department of Health, including my local health department
E. State Department of Environmental Protection
F. Local University
G. Cooperative Extension Services, including state or county personnel
H. Other
I. None of the above
Please indicate which of the following water topics you would be interested in learning more about. Please select all that interest you. A. Watershed restoration
B. Water issues related to forest management
C. Irrigation management
D. Fertilizer and pesticide management
E. Private well protection
F. Septic system management
G. Community actions concerning water issues
H. Fish and wildlife water needs
I. Home and garden landscaping ideas
J. Restoring fish and aquatic habitat
K. Shoreline clean-up
L. Fracking
M. Other
Where do you get your information about water in the United States? Please check all that apply. A. Newspaper
B. Social media
C. Internet
D. Magazine
E. Farming organizations
F. Family/friends
G. Attending events/activities
H. Governmental website
I. Self-observation
J. Television
K. Radio
L. Other

Results

Demographic Characteristics

The demographic characteristics of water conservation opinion leaders were different across the regions (Table 3). In the Northeast and Midwest, water conservation opinion leaders were more likely to be male than female. The age group with the most respondents identified as water conservation opinion leaders was 20–29 in the Northeast, South, and West and 30–39 in the Midwest. Water conservation opinion leaders were mostly Caucasian/White in the Northeast, South, and Midwest and Hispanic in the West. Water conservation opinion leaders also tended to be moderate in political beliefs and most likely to report being a Democrat in all four regions.

Table 3.
Demographics of Identified Opinion Leaders, by Region

Characteristic Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
Sex
Female 36.5 54.1 35.9 49.6
Male 63.5 45.9 64.1 50.4
Age
18–19 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
20–29 35.2 25.1 14.3 35.7
30–39 28.2 16.3 33.5 15.9
40–49 12.8 22.8 25.5 24.7
50–59 14.1 16.7 14.5 18.5
60–69 9.7 11.9 12.1 4.4
70–79 0.0 7.3 0.0 0.8
80 and older 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Race
African American 11.0 16.6 29.6 9.7
Asian 25.1 6.0 0.0 18.9
Caucasian/White (Non-Hispanic) 63.9 75.6 43.6 25.4
Native American 0.0 0.0 3.4 0.0
Other 0.0 1.8 23.4 46.0
Hispanic ethnicity 16.8 7.4 7.1 49.0
Political beliefs
Very liberal 18.3 15.2 5.1 22.0
Liberal 21.6 21.9 38.0 19.9
Moderate 48.4 38.9 42.4 32.2
Conservative 8.0 19.2 9.6 23.2
Very conservative 3.7 4.9 4.8 1.7
Political affiliation
Republican 8.5 28.2 17.0 27.8
Democrat 51.8 51.6 50.0 48.1
Independent 28.7 16.1 23.8 21.4
Nonaffiliated 10.9 4.1 9.2 2.1
Note. Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

Water Use Behaviors

The respondents were asked to indicate their levels of engagement in 10 listed water use behaviors. The results are displayed as high-consumption water use behaviors (Table 4) and water-saving behaviors (Table 5). More than half of the water conservation opinion leaders in all four regions never or almost never performed the listed high-consumption water use behaviors, with the exception that only 31% of opinion leaders in the Midwest never or almost never left the water running in the kitchen when washing and/or rinsing dishes. More than 70% of the opinion leaders in all four regions never or almost never allowed used motor oil to run down a storm drain, let their sprinklers run when rain was predicted in the forecast, or let their sprinklers run when it had rained or was raining. Of the three water-saving behaviors, "I turn off the water while brushing my teeth" was the only behavior that more than half of the opinion leaders frequently performed in all regions. Moreover, only 25% of opinion leaders in the West reported that they frequently shower for no more than 5 min each time they bathe.

Table 4.
High-Consumption Water Use Behaviors Opinion Leaders Never or Almost Never Engaged in, by Region

Behavior Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
I let my sprinklers run when it has rained or is raining 70.6 84.5 86.4 91.1
I let my sprinklers run when rain is predicted in the forecast 71.6 80.1 90.4 82.8
I leave the water running in the kitchen when washing and/or rinsing dishes 58.6 56.6 31.3 63.8
I allow oil from cooking to run down the drain 67.2 75.7 76.6 51.2
I hose down my driveway 70.9 61.8 67.8 70.5
I allow soapy water to run down a storm drain 53.4 57.9 81.6 77.0
I allow used motor oil to run down a storm drain 73.1 84.5 92.3 88.4
Note. Responses of "Does not apply" were excluded from the analysis.
Table 5.
Water-Saving Behaviors Opinion Leaders Engaged in Every Time or Almost Every Time, by Region

Behavior Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
I avoid watering my lawn in the summer 43.2 50.2 49.9 51.3
I turn off the water while brushing my teeth 75.8 74.4 85.4 78.9
I shower for no more than five minutes each time I bathe 40.7 49.6 46.3 25.4
Note. Responses of "Does not apply" were excluded from the analysis.

Organizations Used for Water Conservation Information

Data for organizations water conservation opinion leaders in different regions used for water conservation information are shown in Table 6. Water conservation opinion leaders living in different regions used different organizations as their information sources. Of the listed eight organizations, EPA was the organization that the most opinion leaders used for water conservation information in all the regions except the Northeast. Other than the EPA, city or town government officials and state departments of environmental protection were also used by many opinion leaders. However, in the Midwest, opinion leaders preferred to use information from the departments of health, including their local health departments, instead of city or town government officials. Surprisingly, more than 20% of the opinion leaders in the West indicated that they did not use any of the listed organizations for information.

Table 6.
Organizations Opinion Leaders Used for Water Conservation Information, by Region

Organization(s) Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
City or town government officials, including the mayor or city council 69.3 58.3 37.0 42.8
County government officials, including the board of county commissioners 41.5 33.9 35.6 18.8
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 60.9 67.4 86.8 56.8
Department of Health, including my local health department 44.0 44.8 68.7 16.0
State Department of Environmental Protection 41.5 56.4 67.7 42.7
Local University 30.5 14.9 50.4 29.9
Cooperative Extension Services, including state or county personnel 22.0 22.8 15.9 4.6
Other 2.8 2.8 0.0 5.4
None of the above 0.0 2.1 0.0 21.0

Water-Focused Subject Matter

Information related to the water-focused subject matter that water conservation opinion leaders in different regions were interested in learning about is displayed in Table 7. Overall, opinion leaders in different regions were interested in different topics. Among the 14 options provided, the topic of fish and wildlife water needs interested many opinion leaders across three regions; the South was the only region in which less than half of the opinion leaders were interested in this topic. The topic that most Southern opinion leaders were interested in learning about was home and garden landscaping ideas. In general, opinion leaders in the Northeast, South, and West were interested in community actions concerning water issues, and many opinion leaders in the South and West also were interested in learning about shoreline clean-up. More than half of the opinion leaders in the Midwest showed a specific interest in learning about septic system management.

Table 7.
Water-Focused Subject Matter Opinion Leaders Were Most Interested in Learning About, by Region

Subject matter Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
Watershed restoration 49.7 24.3 36.6 50.7
Water issues related to forest management 44.2 34.2 29.0 28.7
Irrigation management 46.9 33.6 20.9 45.1
Fertilizer and pesticide management 41.5 38.9 34.8 43.7
Private well protection 43.3 32.4 20.5 15.0
Septic system management 30.9 31.4 52.3 18.7
Community actions concerning water issues 53.5 43.7 34.8 54.2
Fish and wildlife water needs 54.0 39.1 72.0 55.2
Home and garden landscaping ideas 47.3 45.9 30.3 41.1
Restoring fish and aquatic habitat 34.6 26.4 35.1 35.4
Shoreline clean-up 37.9 45.5 29.1 52.6
Fracking 20.5 20.5 29.2 28.3
Other 0.0 0.0 3.3 1.6
I am not interested in any water-related topics 0.0 3.7 3.3 2.3

Preferred Information Channels

Data related to the information channels opinion leaders preferred to use in the different regions are shown in Table 8. In general, the Internet and television were the two information channels that more than half of the opinion leaders in all regions preferred to use to receive information about water. Although newspaper was a channel that more than half of the opinion leaders in the Northeast, South, and Midwest used, it was not widely used by western opinion leaders. Social media was reported as an information channel used by more than half of the opinion leaders in the Northeast and West. In addition, many opinion leaders in the Northeast showed a high reliance on family and friends for water conservation information.

Table 8.
Preferred Information Channels Opinion Leaders Were Most Interested in Using, by Region

Information channel Northeast
(n = 32)
%
South
(n = 49)
%
Midwest
(n = 39)
%
West
(n = 76)
%
Newspaper 63.2 50.2 77.1 30.9
Social media 51.6 41.4 31.6 53.9
Internet 84.6 63.7 73.6 87.6
Magazine 29.4 7.3 31.3 33.8
Farming organizations 15.7 9.4 8.7 10.8
Family/friends 56.4 33.1 32.6 33.4
Events/activities 14.8 7.3 16.0 7.9
Governmental website 31.2 24.2 28.5 44.9
Self-observation 44.9 28.2 55.5 30.9
Television 54.0 51.4 76.7 64.2
Radio 21.9 14.0 9.5 25.6
Other 0.0 3.3 0.0 15.0
None of the above 0.0 4.3 0.0 0.0

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

The characteristics of the water conservation opinion leaders in different regions revealed regional differences in terms of gender, but the opinion leaders were similar in age, political beliefs, and political affiliations. As for age, opinion leaders tended to be younger, a finding that aligned with previous research (Rogers, 2003) indicating that individuals who are more willing to take risk and are more innovative in nature tend to be younger. The water use behaviors listed on the study survey instrument included both conservation-oriented behaviors and high consumption–oriented behaviors, and most water conservation opinion leaders seemed to engage in water conservation across the regions. However, opinion leaders' levels of engagement in water conservation behaviors differed by region.

Water conservation opinion leaders seemed active in learning and searching for information about water conservation. This finding is consistent with previous research that has shown that opinion leaders tend to have more exposure to an innovation (Rogers, 2003), which is water conservation in this case. Opinion leaders' high reliance on the EPA for water conservation information implies that they may see the EPA as the most credible and trustworthy information source for water conservation information. More than half of the opinion leaders in the Midwest used their local university as a water conservation information source, but local universities were used much less by opinion leaders in other regions. However, the Cooperative Extension Service was not largely used as a water conservation information source by many opinion leaders across all regions. Even though the Cooperative Extension Service was used by relatively more opinion leaders in the South, such a finding implies a need to promote Extension services regarding water conservation to opinion leaders across the nation. The finding that 15% of western opinion leaders did not use any of the listed organizations for water conservation information, coupled with the fact that they did not provide other information sources they used, implies that they may not have a source of water conservation information.

The water-focused subject matter water conservation opinion leaders were interested in learning about also varied by region. Southern water conservation opinion leaders' responses about their interest in home and garden landscaping ideas aligned with Huang and Lamm's (2015b) finding about southern residents' high engagement in landscaping activities. The finding that shoreline clean-up was the topic many opinion leaders in the South and West were interested in learning about aligned with the fact that these are the two areas with major coastlines. Midwestern opinion leaders' interest in learning about septic system management may imply that there is a special need for associated information in the Midwest and that septic system management is critical for residents living there.

Water conservation opinion leaders' preferred use of information channels differed by region. However, because the Internet and television were largely used by opinion leaders in all regions, it is recommended that Extension use these channels nationwide to promote water conservation. Whereas social media was reported as a preferred information channel for water information by more than 50% of the opinion leaders in the Northeast and West, it may not be as influential for opinion leaders in the Midwest. Interestingly, this finding resonated with the demographic characteristics that the opinion leaders in the Northeast, South, and West were relatively younger than those in the Midwest. Extension professionals need to consider this and reach out to younger audiences through social media if they want to activate the power of opinion leadership in the area of water conservation.

While the key finding of the study was that water conservation opinion leaders differed by region in their demographic characteristics, water use behaviors, most used sources for water conservation information, interest in learning about various water-related topics, and preferred learning channels, the study also revealed the need for Extension to engage in additional efforts to enhance its visibility and status as a credible and trustworthy information source. By understanding water conservation opinion leaders' characteristics, Extension can strategically develop water conservation educational programs to target water conservation opinion leaders to extend community influences on the general public's engagement in water conservation (Lamm et al., 2014).

Given the differences that existed between water conservation opinion leaders in different regions, Extension in each region should develop programs specific to the topics the regional water conservation opinion leaders are interested in using their preferred information channels. Additionally, Extension can strengthen its collaborations with public organizations (e.g., city or town governmental officials and state departments of environmental protection) to gain access to this important target audience.

As a result of the findings of the study reported here, future research is recommended. Further analysis exploring factors influencing opinion leaders' engagement in water conservation can provide Extension professionals additional understanding of how to effectively engage more opinion leaders in water conservation. As Extension professionals improve their approach to engaging opinion leaders using the findings of the study, future monitoring of the effectiveness of opinion leaders' use of water conservation information and adoption of water conservation practices is recommended. Extension professionals should track whether the information provided through opinion leaders' preferred information channels (e.g., the Internet and newspapers) is truly used by opinion leaders and what opinion leaders have done to influence their associated peers' engagement in water conservation as well as their level of influence on their associated peers. Such monitoring would help Extension examine resulting impacts related to increased sustainability of water resources.

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