November 5, 2015
Categories: Research, Marketing, PR, and Social Media, Adoption

When animal shelters and rescue groups talk about “promoting” pets available for adoption, or adopting “two for the price of one,” does that choice of language reduce pets to the level of a commodity?

At a daylong workshop presented by Maddie’s Fund® at Animal Care Expo several years ago, Bonney Brown, then Director of the Nevada Humane Society (NHS), was firm that the answer is no. “Shouldn’t we give the best of everything we have to help pets get into homes?” she asked the audience. “If retail-inspired approaches work, doesn’t that mean we should use them? Don’t we owe that to the animals?”

During her years at NHS, Brown was famous — and occasionally infamous — for never having met an adoption promotion angle she didn’t like. Independence Day, the new television season, sporting events, local fairs, even Arbor Day, she turned every one of them into an excuse to get her shelter’s available pets some publicity. Her efforts doubled NHS’s adoption numbers in the first three months after she took over the shelter, and helped make Washoe County one of the nation’s first no-kill communities — an achievement it’s maintained to today.

But not everyone in the animal welfare world is on board. “I frequently see huge push-back on this issue from people in the sheltering and rescue world,” said social media consultant Christie Keith. “They think using the language of retail devalues pets. But I think not using what retailers know about how to get people’s attention and persuade them to take a desired action in the service of finding pets homes devalues them far more.”

Consider a study done at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) in Colorado, testing to see if the retail phenomenon known as “the paradox of choice” applies to pet adoption.

That paradox refers to the fact that shoppers are less likely to make a purchase if they are presented with too many options; for example, when offered 24 kinds of jam, shoppers in one study only purchased jam 3 percent of the time. When offered only six kinds of jam, however, they purchased 30 percent of the time.

HSPPR rotated the cats on their adoption floor so only half of them were there at a time — and doubled their adoption rate. It’s a simple psychological trick that uses a concept developed in the world of retail to boost sales to instead help pets find homes. And it works.

Maddie’s Fund surveyed adopters at its Maddie’s® Pet Adoption Days events, which featured a retail-inspired fee-waived adoption process. They found:

  • More than half the adopters adopted that weekend instead of some other time because of the free adoption promotion
  • One-third had never adopted from a shelter or rescue group before
  • 82 percent had never adopted from that organization before; 97 percent said they’d do so again
  • 99 percent of all adopters said they would recommend adoption to their family members and friends

Some shelters and rescue groups will be doing Black Friday promotions this month, capitalizing on the buzz of the holiday shopping season. Some of them will be featuring black pets, while others will be having “BOGO” promotions or discounting and waiving adoption fees. And many of those organizations will meet objections from their volunteers, staff and even community members that pets aren’t boxes of cereal and shouldn’t be promoted the same way.

“In terms of the value of animal lives, of course pet adoption isn’t retail,” Keith said. “But in terms of activating the well-worn pathways in people’s minds? That’s exactly what it is. The process is the same. And when we use the language and concepts of retail, we’re able to activate those pathways and get our message out to people in a way that motivates them to attend our events or consider adopting a pet. Isn’t that what we want them to do?”

Also of interest:

Shelter cats and jam: A free, easy trick to get more cats adopted

Why you shouldn’t resent high-profile rescue pets