August 8, 2019
Categories: Marketing, PR, and Social Media, Adoption

The following post is written by Kelly Duer, Maddie’s Fund® Foster Care Specialist, and Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, Director of Animal Services at Pima Animal Control Center in Tucson, AZ.

In the 3 years since Kristen’s original article describing the difference between marketing and adoption counseling, we’ve seen progress toward the goal, but some questions remain. This blog post was written for clarification. If you haven’t read the first article, we recommend taking a few moments to do it now using the link above.

Whenever we see articles about pets with unusually long shelter stays like “Shelter Dog Has Waited 7 Years for a Family,” the first thing we do is look at the pet’s biography. It has never failed: every time we do this, we find a bio riddled with negative information.

Some would say that by putting negative information – also called ‘stop signs’- in their marketing, they’re ensuring full transparency for the adoption process. We’re practically fanatical about transparency (see Kristen’s speech on it here), and we believe it’s crucial, but its timing is just as critical. It should be done during the adoption counseling, not the marketing.

Marketing is meant to open a door and adoption counseling is meant to prepare potential adopters for the pet they are adopting.  If you look at just about any type of marketing, you’ll see nothing but positive information. In fact, the only thing we market by including the negative is cigarettes and alcohol. We put warning labels on cigarettes to prevent you from taking them home and research has proven that it works. Putting negative information in the biography of a human child awaiting adoption would be a violation of their privacy so why are we putting warning labels on homeless pets?

Consider the way we form relationships with others. We put our best foot forward when we meet someone. As we get closer, we divulge more about ourselves slowly and in a reciprocal way. Any negative information is generally discussed one-on-one, in context.

Question 1: “We had a dog that was surrendered because he jumped on the kids in the home and was way too rough with them. Shouldn’t we make sure to say, ‘no small kids’ on his listing?”

When we add text such as “no small children” to a dog’s biography, it’s impossible for the reader to fully understand why this restriction has been placed. Does it mean the dog has bitten or injured a small child? Does it mean children make her nervous? Or does it mean the dog has a little too much energy in a shelter setting and no one really knows what they’d be like in a home?

When someone reads a stop sign, the lack of detail often leads them to fill in the blanks on their own (don’t believe us? Check out this article from Real Simple magazine). Potential adopters may generalize, worrying that if a dog can’t live with children, they’re unsafe around any child, ever. Potential adopters who don’t have children could overlook a dog simply due to the presence of children in their neighborhood, as Kelly and her husband did years ago upon seeing the stop sign, “no young children,” in the biography of a dog they might have otherwise adopted.

If you’re not comfortable placing a dog with children or other pets, this is a conversation that needs to be had with potential adopters—just in the adoption counseling, not the marketing.

Question 2: “Is there any time you should use ‘stop signs’ in your social media postings?”

We don’t recommend that anyone include information such as, “no kids,” “no other pets,” or “not good with men,” in adoption marketing as its goal is to make an emotional connection between the pet and potential adopters. Stop signs can squelch that connection before it begins. Any negative information should be discussed with potential adopters during the adoption counseling, not in the marketing.

However, some medical issues, such as hyperthyroid disease or deafness, may form the basis for connecting with potential adopters due to previous experiences in their own life or the life of a pet they’ve owned. Experiment with this to see what works for you.

Question 3: “What about dogs with serious known histories of aggression towards people or animals?”

Here we are focusing on pets that have minor, if any, known behavioral history. If a pet has caused harm to humans or animals, the organization caring for them needs to evaluate the actions taken.

Question 4: “Won’t you be inundated with people who are ‘wrong’ for the pet?”

The short answer is yes, but having more people contact your organization, even if it may not be about their ideal dog, is a great way to introduce other pets that are a good fit. Keep a list of pets in your organization who have lived successfully with children or enjoy playing with other pets.  When potential adopters inquire about a pet who doesn’t share these characteristics, you’ll have a list of pets you can introduce them to instead.

We’ve also found that there’s a lot you can do to fine-tune your adoption marketing in order to target the right adoption candidate without adding stop signs.  Looking for potential adopters who don’t have children? Market the pet to adults by showing them doing things that adults enjoy.

Question 5: “Can you still be transparent AND not disclose everything about a pet’s history? Are you lying to the public?”

Transparency with adopters is critical; always disclose everything you know about a pet’s history. We’re suggesting you do this in a different part of the process- the adoption counseling, not the marketing.

This works beautifully when a pet is adopted from foster care because it often means there are two separate levels of adoption counseling: the foster caregiver and the adoption counselor. The pet’s foster caregiver can tell potential adopters about any behavioral history, in context, during a 1-on-1 conversation. The adoption counselor can read and print all of the notes and information the organization has on the pet for the adopters.

Keeping marketing separate from adoption counseling can help us reduce the length of shelter stays while being completely transparent with adopters and continuing to ensure that homeless pets are placed in situations where they can thrive.