Operationalization of the ecosystem services (ES) concept for improved natural resource management and decision support cannot, thus far, be rated as satisfactory. Participation of stakeholders is still a major methodical and conceptual challenge for implementing ES. Therefore, we conducted an online survey and a literature analysis to identify benefits and challenges of the application of ES in participatory processes. The results show that the purpose of stakeholder engagement is very diverse as a result of varying objectives, spatial scales and institutional levels of analysis. The complexity, terminology and (lacking) coherent classification of ES are pivotal aspects that should be accounted for in the design of studies to improve stakeholder participation.
Although limitations of time and financial resources are bigger challenges than ES related ones, tailoring communication strategies and information for different stakeholder groups are of major importance for the success of ES studies. Results support the view that the potential benefits of applying ES, e.g., consensus finding, and development of integrated solutions, cannot be realized consistently across the different spatial scales and decision-making levels. Focusing on stakeholder processes represents a means to increase the relevance, reliability and impact of study results and to move participation in ES research from theory to reality.