Exit Stage Left: Shining the Spotlight on Shelter Animals

By Larissa Barnes >>>

More and more, people are starting to reevaluate the prejudices associated with shelter animals. Mangy, mutt, unwanted, ill, aggressive, old. Thankfully, those images are becoming a thing of the past, as shelter workers strive to change perceptions and shine the light on homeless or abandoned pets.

Animal advocates relish the opportunity to tell you how awesome shelter animals are. They will glow with pride at finding a home for a 10-year-old Labrador or have happy tears about connecting a kitten with a new family. They spout facts like “over 25 percent of shelter dogs are purebred” and “the average age of a shelter animal is 18 months or under.”*

But how do these pet crusaders get the word out to the wider population? How do they network animals to get them adopted?

The answer is simple and it is no different than any other marketing strategy: public exposure. The more people who see animals looking for homes, the more animals that get adopted. Achieving this is a bit more complicated than it sounds, however.

First, the shelter needs to be a happy place. Potential adopters need to feel welcome to visit, they need to feel that staff and volunteers are available to help them, and they need the shelter to be a positive experience. As a volunteer, I have heard people time and time again say they can’t visit a shelter – that it is too sad, too crowded, too chaotic. But it doesn’t have to be. Of course, to achieve a positive experience the animals need to receive the best possible care. The facility needs to be clean, the animals well cared for, the dogs walked, the cats given enrichment. The happier the animals are, the happier visitors are.

So, how do you make your shelter a happy place? The more volunteers a shelter has, the easier it is to provide optimal care and enrichment for the animals. Happy animals equals happy staff, and more volunteers equals happy visitors, and more adoptions equals more volunteers, which equals happy animals. And around and around it goes. Simple, right?????

But you need to get people through the door, and without the public, the merry-go-round doesn’t spin. So, how can you generate community interest?

Social Media has revolutionized animal networking. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are flooded with animals looking for homes, and subsequently, people looking for animals are starting to hit social media before even visiting a shelter. Creating an online presence for adoptable pets starts with a photograph, and posting a good photo that highlights the pet’s adoptable qualities is imperative. Get the dog or cat groomed, Photoshop him on a skateboard, dress her in a funny outfit – whatever it takes. Then you need a story, something to engage potential adopters, tug their heartstrings, make them smile, and hopefully make them realize they have been waiting for little “Jack” their entire lives. Doing this doesn’t just help Jack, it helps every dog that potential adopters walk past on their way to visit Jack.

Of course, the problem with social media is it gets a bit saturated. The flood of adoptable pets means yours has to stand out elsewhere. Bringing the pets to the people has always been a popular technique, often through mobile adoption centers at shopping centers and pet stores. This is about creating awareness for your shelter as much as it is about getting an individual pet adopted. Creating a presence in your community reminds people that the shelter is there and that animals need the community’s help. Of course, for these events you need volunteers, and events helps generate more volunteers, so the merry-go-round keeps going.

But, obviously, every marketing campaign needs a pricing strategy. Regularly discounted adoptions helps generate interest, it helps get social media presence, it helps get people in the door and can help you focus on pets that need a little extra help. Reducing the adoption fee for black animals around Black Friday, mother cats on Mother’s Day, two kittens for the price of one adoption fee, terrier breeds for Saint Patrick’s Day – the opportunities are endless.

Creating a database of adopters, enquirers, local media and pet store managers is a great way to send out details of special adoption events, promotions, animals with special needs and cute stories. You will be amazed how many people like “old school” communication rather than social media and will respond more favorably to an email than a tag. Someone who adopted from you in the past may not frequent your shelter website, Facebook page or Instagram account; sending them an email asking for help promoting a special needs dog, or for volunteers or donations may be the only way to reach them. Once again it helps if you have volunteers to do this for you and the more you connect with the outside world the more volunteers you will have.

Creating a presence in the community, showcasing your animals in the best light possible, communicating with previous adopters or those who have shown an interest in your shelter – these are all easy ways to maximize exposure for adoptable animals. But never forget, ensuring your one-on-one experience with shelter visitors is positive is the most important way to help animals get adopted. By providing your animals the best possible care and enrichment you encourage visitors, volunteers and adoptions. Saving the lives of animals can only be achieved by working with the public. Animal homelessness is a social problem and your shelter needs to be a social solution; shining the spotlight on that is the only way to achieve change.