Most dog buyers don't want just any mutt. But they'll take a goldendoodle or a puggle – something trendy and recognizable. Something comfortable.
A shelter dog is more likely to get adopted if it's called a golden retriever mix, said marketer and blogger Seth Godin. It's basic marketing. By calling some mutt a “golden mix,” you are telling potential adopters what they want to hear.
What about selling to people's emotions with those sad dog pictures?
Godin points out that although shelters are very good at selling to people's emotions, this is not the best way to market to dog buyers.
Most dog buyers just aren't motivated to get a dog for the sake of saving her, Godin said. Instead, dog buyers want cute puppies and they want to see them in warm, comforting environments like pet stores, magazines and breeders' kitchens. They don't want to see the puppies emaciated, tied outside or in photos with concrete floors and bars. If shelters can play to what the buyers want, they'll have more success adopting out animals.
In my own experience, most rescues try to play on people's emotions, using the sense of urgency to get dogs adopted.
I play a role in this myself.
With dogs that have been in the rescue system for a long time, like Georgia (above), I'm more likely to encourage anyone to adopt the dog. And that's not the best way to go about it. Most of these dogs were impulse buys in the first place, and that's how they ended up in shelters.
Impulse buying is something responsible pet owners know not to do. It's a problem shelter and rescue workers understand very well. Yet, they might adopt their own shelter animals out a little too quickly sometimes.
Marketing ideas for dog shelters
I asked my boyfriend Josh Whitford for some marketing ideas for dog shelters. Josh runs the Unconventional Marketing Blog at JoshWhitford.com where you can find marketing ideas on pretty much any topic. Contact him if you want marketing advice or consulting for your business or web site.
Josh came up with several marketing ideas for dog shelters:
1. Offer half off for newlyweds.
Couples who have just gotten married are often considering buying their first dog together. Take advantage of this and advertise half off on adoption fees for those who have gotten married within the last four months. Dogs are cheaper than kids, right?
2. Get on Facebook and Twitter.
These networks are easy ways to get your name and brand out there. With Twitter, you can send updates out to be viewed instantly by thousands. People will click on links back to your site from your messages that say “Red-colored hound accepted into the rescue today” or “Five lab puppies available.”
3. Put adopted dogs in the newspaper.
Fargo's newspaper started a new section in the “Celebrations” pages where people can submit photos of their newborn babies. Well … why not work out a deal with the paper to put in photos of all the recently adopted pets? This could go on a pet page in the paper or perhaps even next to the human babies!
The rescue will benefit by getting its name out there, and the paper will benefit because crazy dog people will buy papers just for that section. We all know the dog's new owner will buy several copies of the paper. When people see their friends and family members adopting dogs, they are going to think about rescuing a dog as well.
4. Hire a dog runner or find a volunteer dog runner.
The dogs can't help it. If they are spending day after day in a kennel, they are going to have pent-up energy. It's a big event to them if someone comes to meet them, and they don't understand that if they're calm they have a better chance of getting a home.
But the reality is, even experienced dog people are turned off by a large dog jumping, panting wildly, choking itself or barking. I've thought twice about fostering certain dogs because I saw how much energy they had.
If you can find someone willing to run the higher-energy dogs before they meet potential adopters, their chances of being adopted will be higher. Work something out with professional or volunteer dog runners (a college cross-country team?) so someone can be there to run the big dogs shortly before meeting potential adopters.
I try to run rescue dogs in the Fargo-Moorhead area at least a few times a month.
5. Do 30-day trials.
Shelters and rescues usually offer a two-week trial period where people can return the dog if it's not working out. Why not advertise this a little more and make it 30 days? What you will really have is a more extensive fostering program in disguise, and most people will probably end up adopting the dogs anyway.
At the very least, you will be getting more dogs out of the shelter and into temporary homes. This will open up room for saving more dogs.
6. Give dogs away to volunteers.
Set up a system where people can work so many hours to receive one of the animals for free. Sure, rescues and shelters depend on adoption fees. But if you have volunteers working 10, 20 or even 30 hours a week for your group, isn't their time worth the $100 or $200 adoption fee?
If you give a volunteer a dog or cat for free, chances are she will still pay an adoption fee because she understands how the shelter depends donations. However, just offering a volunteer a “free” dog might be the extra push she needs to consider adopting another pet in the first place.
7. Advertise on billboards.
Around Fargo, there are several billboards from a certain sign company that say nothing but the sign company's name because businesses can't afford to advertise on them.
Since no one is paying to advertise on the billboards anyway, work out a deal with the sign company to put up large photos of a few dogs needing homes. The sign company could still advertise its name on the bottom half or third of the sign. A cute pitbull's face on a sign is going to get people to look. This would be a good way to advertise the dogs that have been at the shelter for months or years.
8. Sell dog treats in vending machines.
Get permission from the city to set up “gumball” machines or vending machines at the dog parks. Then sell dog treats for a dollar, making sure buyers know all the money will go to your dog rescue group. If you can't find a way to set up vending machines, then set up a table at the park and sell treats yourself on a busy Saturday.
Most people will have no trouble spending a dollar on their dogs when they are out for a walk or out visiting the dog park.
9. Sell dog gift packs.
Create gift baskets ranging from the size of a coffee mug for a few bucks to large baskets for $50 or $100. Fill the gift packs with treats, tennis balls and other dog knickknacks. Businesses around town will be willing to donate items or gift cards to these baskets.
People are already buying crazy stuff for their dogs. You will be able to charge just as much as stores do, but people will be more likely to buy your gift baskets just because they know the money will go to a good cause.
10. Waive the adoption fees on certain days of the year.
If February is a slow month for dog adoptions, then choose a day (Valentine's Day?) to waive adoption fees. Advertise this day to make the most of it.
11. Hold a silent auction – and let people bid on the dogs.
I have a feeling PETA will be after me for this idea. But it can work if organized intelligently.
First, pre-approve people for adopting an animal. Then allow them to bid on the dogs in a silent auction format. The goal would be to raise more money per dog than the usual adoption fee in a friendly competition. An auction would work best when there are “higher-valued” dogs up for adoption like a litter of chocolate lab puppies, a golden retriever or a Chihuahua.
12. Tell each animal's story.
This involves more than your standard age, name and mug-shot. Profile descriptions like “Rocky is a 2-year-old, friendly rottweiler” tell the potential adopter nothing. Instead of contacting the rescue or waiting for the web site to be updated, the person will move on to another dog from another rescue or from a breeder.
Some dogs might not have much of a story. If that's the case, then make one up. Get people to relate to that dog in some way. Put a blog on your shelter's web site and get volunteers with writing abilities to tell each dog's story. Details are good.
13. You must have a good web site.
Most shelter web sites are outdated. If you can create a nice-looking web site with daily updates, people will return to the site often. 4 Luv of Dog Rescue in Fargo does a good job with updating its web site sometimes several times a day. People want to see new information. If you can give people new information often, they will come back to the site on a daily or weekly basis. I have to admit I visit 4 Luv of Dog's web site several times a day, checking for new photos or which dogs need rescuing from the local pounds.
You don't have to hire a designer or pay a bunch of money for a fancy design. Free WordPress templates are available and easy to use. This blog, as well as my Fargo dog walker site, are examples of free WordPress templates.
Find a shelter web site that you like and use its ideas.
14. Take good photos.
No one is going to be interested in a picture of a blurred pitbull with red eyes in a cage at the pound. But if you can get quality photos of the dogs outside or in a home environment, the dogs will look friendlier, happier, warmer and more adoptable.
Use large, closeup photos that capture a cute expression, unique colors or something about the dog's personality. If she's friendly with children, cats or other dogs, then get a photo of her bowing to a cat or letting a child hug her.
15. Get the dogs in front of people.
Hold planned adoption events where people come to you, but also put the dogs out there in the community where people aren't expecting to see them.
Take them to local fairs, community picnics and other events. Bring groups of dogs to the dog park. Get the dogs playing with children. Get them rolling around out in the grass. Dress them up in pink bandannas and hang out in the mall parking lot. Put bunny ears on them for Easter. Take their pictures with an Easter bunny.
What ideas do you have for dog shelters to market their animals?
Dozens of people leave comments on my blog each month saying things like “the shelter won't let me adopt a dog.” This is a shame. Let's not be so picky. Let's send these dogs home.