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Spinning the Web in Your Favor

Here's how to make sense of the Internet companies who want your time, money, or commitment

Here's how to make sense of the Internet companies who want your time, money, or commitment

Pets 911. Petfinder. PuppyCam. Few folks in the animal sheltering field had heard of any of these companies or organizations even two years ago. But just as other "dot com" companies like Yahoo and eBay have become household names to many Americans, Web sites devoted to helping homeless or lost pets—and the shelters that care for them—have become familiar names to many in the animal care and control field.

Dozens of for-profit and nonprofit entities are vying for animal shelters' attention, each promising to harness the power of the Internet for the benefit of your shelter and its animals. New Web sites spring up seemingly overnight. Some enable shelters to post photos of animals available for adoption. Others offer national lost-and-found databases that reunite lost pets with their owners. Still others offer both services, or different services altogether.

Perhaps your shelter has signed on with one or more of these sites. Or perhaps you're wondering whether you should. How do you make sense of these online companies? And how do you decide whether to become involved with them?

Embrace Opportunity

Don't be afraid to explore the Internet and learn how it can help you in your work. As advocates for animals and public safety, local humane societies and animal control agencies can benefit from a wide range of new technologies. From the mobile link that helps the ACO check on stray licensure status while she's on the road, to the digital camera that helps volunteers include photos of animals on a shelter's Web site, new technologies can make the work of animal care and control personnel easier and more effective.

In the case of companies and organizations that pitch their Web-related services to your shelter, "easier and more effective"can take many forms. Adoption sites like Petfinder and Pet Shelter Network bring photos of homeless animals into the dens and offices of people who might otherwise have overlooked your shelter as the source of their next pet. Other national sites, such as Pets 911, serve as clearinghouses of pet-related information and services, helping connect people in your community with your organization or agency. In some cases, companies can even help you raise a small amount of revenue—through the sale of advertising banners or other profit-sharing arrangements.

Not every shelter can be an "early adopter" of new technologies. But don't be so wary of companies' claims that you fail to take some risks; used wisely, the Internet can help your shelter reach new horizons it could never reach by itself.

Exercise Caution

That said, however, it's important to be aware of all the potential pitfalls before deciding to devote your shelter's scarce time and resources to a program sponsored by an Internet company. With cash running out for "dot coms" that have yet to show a profit, and with some companies following business plans that are questionable at best, the site you sign on with today may not be there for you tomorrow.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) accepts money from several of the companies and organizations mentioned in this article in exchange for advertisements in publications (Animal Sheltering and Shelter Pages) and booth space at the annual Animal Care Expo. The HSUS has no other contractual relationships with these companies and organizations. 

It's a lesson some shelters have learned the hard way. Two years ago, PuppyCam.com burst onto the scene with a great concept: a video camera installed in a shelter dog kennel that could broadcast-via the Internet-live, "real-time" images of an animal available for adoption. Within a year the company had nearly 30 shelters with "puppy cams" up and running, and requests for cameras from hundreds more organizations. The cameras were a godsend for many participating shelters; not only were featured animals being adopted out rapidly, but the shelters were getting great press and seeing more visitors to their Web sites.

But several shelters experienced technical glitches with the video cameras provided by PuppyCam.com. Then, last spring, the company recalled some of the cameras, ostensibly to update the technology, and never returned them. Worse, PuppyCam.com stopped responding to letters and phone calls from increasingly frustrated shelters. Some shelters assert that PuppyCam.com still owes them as much as $1,400 for phone lines and other charges the company had promised to cover. And all these shelters have had to explain to their communities why they had to halt such an exciting program.

The lessons? First, do not spend any money to participate in a Web-based program unless your shelter can accept the possibility of losing those funds. Second, don't assume the company has the financial reserves and management wherewithal to be around for the long haul; in today's economy, seemingly bulletproof companies and alliances come and go at a moment's notice. Fortunately, many Web companies provide their services to shelters at no cost, or don't ask for payment until they can show results. But regardless of whether a company asks for a monetary commitment, you're still investing staff resources and your shelter's credibility when you sign
on with any new program.

Evaluate for Yourself

It's hard to determine how deep any young company's pockets are. (You can always ask, but few will tell you.) But you can judge a company's business model for yourself and assess whether the company has the knowledge of the animal care field it needs to succeed.

The best Web companies and organizations test-market their programs with a limited number of shelters before introducing them nationally, making necessary modifications based on the results of these pilot tests. (That's essentially how the Pet Shelter Network developed; begun in Washington state as a small network of shelters posting pictures of animals on the Internet, it later grew into a nationwide service.) Before deciding to sign up with any Web company, ask for the names of shelters that are already participating, and then give them a call.

As you research a potential online partner, keep in mind that successful Web companies tend to include staff who are knowledgeable and passionate about the field they are targeting. Ask any company that wants your time or commitment about its interest and background in protecting animals. Be wary of any company that has hung out a shingle for animal shelters but doesn't appear to have any roots in the field; it may lack both the commitment and the knowledge necessary to deliver what it promises. And stay away from any company that uses aggressive marketing tactics or has trouble explaining in plain English what it actually does.

Finally, even if you have a good comfort level with an Internet company, be aware that sometimes the services it offers may be marginally useful, at least in the short term. For example, some national Web sites include lost-and-found listings but have few lost pets in their databases; reunions facilitated by those sites are rare. Because most lost animals don't stray more than 50 miles from home, your organization might be better off following the lead of shelters that post images of lost-and-found pets on their own Web sites. (To learn more about shelter Web sites with lost-and-found listings, click on the November-December 1999 issue of Animal Sheltering.)

Or you might consider participating with one of the national Web-based services, while also working locally to get as many pets registered with that service as possible. After all, national sites have to start somewhere, and they will reach the critical mass they need to succeed only if shelters work with them and give them a chance. And by helping them succeed, you may be helping your shelter go places it couldn't go on its own.

Geoff Handy is the Director of Communications and Campaigns for the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.

 

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