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What’s jam got to do with cat adoptions?

Looking for new ways to market pets for adoption or to raise money? Find inspiration by looking outside the animal welfare bubble.

I consult with animal organizations all the time on writing adoption listings, event promotions and donation pleas. I’ve helped them come up with ideas for campaigns, recruit foster homes and thank their volunteers. Only rarely have I met anyone in the organization who has looked outside the shelter/rescue world for marketing ideas.
Now, it’s true that pets aren’t appliances, so it makes sense we don’t readily seek pet adoption marketing ideas from businesses that sell refrigerators. But shelters and rescue groups are nonprofits, and these groups usually seem just as unfamiliar with how other nonprofits market their cause or raise money as they are with how car dealers sell cars.
This matters because the way humans make up our minds, choose when to make an acquisition or allocate time and money are all similar psychologically, regardless of what we’re deciding to do or acquire.
Since June is Adopt a Cat Month, let’s take look at a feline case of the so-called “paradox of choice” as an example of what I’m talking about.
Back in 1995, Columbia University conducted a study of how people responded when confronted with either 24 or six kinds of jam.
While more people stopped at the larger display, ten times as many people purchased jam when offered fewer choices. That’s the paradox of choice, that when given fewer options, people are far more likely to decide to purchase.
What does jam have to do with cat adoption? Glad you asked – because those research hounds at the ASPCA wondered the same thing, and ran a pilot study at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado.
After tracking how many cats were adopted for two weeks, they removed half their cats from public view, and tracked again. As cats were adopted, they moved others out into the adoption area, keeping the same limited number of cats available throughout the whole period.
I’m sure you can see this one coming: By limiting the number of cats on the adoption floor at any one time, they more than doubled the total number of cats who were adopted in the two-week period.  
Now, it took those of us in animal welfare just under two decades to start using that retail marketing tip—and it’s not the only one.
Haven’t you noticed there’s a lot of urgency in retail marketing? How often do you see ads blaring things like, “Today only! While supplies last!” They do it because it works—but why?
In a 2010 article in the Wall St. Journal (how’s that for an unlikely source of pet adoption tips?), Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business said it all boils down to something Las Vegas has known for decades: feeling lucky. People, he said, like to feel they’re part of an exclusive group who got to take advantage of something others didn’t.
This works for fundraising, too—you’ve probably seen it in a lot of nonprofit donation letters. In a study comparing two different fundraising appeals, fundraising expert Jeff Giddens of found that the one that had a “countdown clock” conveying urgency increased donations by more than 50 percent.
Then there’s the well-established marketing concept of scarcity. If you’ve ever found yourself begging people to adopt because your shelter is overflowing with pets, consider this landmark 1975 study.
Two different groups were asked to rate chocolate chip cookies (my kind of research). One group was given a jar of 10 cookies. The other was given a jar containing just two. The cookies themselves were identical, and yet, the group given the jars with only two rated them twice as highly as those who got the 10-cookie jars.
Finally, look at the waning but still fairly common resistance to fee-waived, discounted or “BOGO” (buy one, get one free) adoption promotions from within our field. When I suggest them, I still often hear things like “people who can’t afford to own a pet will respond to them,” or “people don’t value what they get free or at a discount.”
Setting aside the classist assumption that people with limited means can’t provide wonderful homes, since that’s a problem not related to marketing, ask yourself this: If only people without means are attracted to promised savings, then why do all the platinum-card jet setters stand in line to get into Nordstrom’s massive invitation-only annual sale? Is Mercedes-Benz just wasting a ton of money advertising its year-end savings events?
And if you think people don’t value what we get free or at a discount, how do you explain the constant humble-brag response to a compliment on a new pair of shoes, “Aren’t they great? Half-off!” And not to keep bringing up Nordstrom, but did you know they give you free stuff when you show up at that annual sale? Ask me to show you my favorite Chanel makeup bag sometime—I got it for free!
I’m honestly not equating a Chanel makeup bag with an animal (although I think we all love the animals we adopted “for free” just as much as those we paid an adoption fee for, right? I know I do). What I’m saying is that if we in animal welfare spent more time studying the human psychology of marketing, and following retail as well as nonprofit marketing publications, we’d find there are a lot of great ideas there we can implement to help animals.
I haven’t even touched on the tip of the tip of the very tippiest-tip of the iceberg here. There are thousands of studies out there on the psychology of marketing, persuasion, and conversion (the act of purchasing, donating, signing up or agreeing to something). Short of going back to school for a degree in psychology or advertising, how can your typical beleaguered shelter or rescue staffer get out of the animal welfare bubble?
First, pay attention to the messages being aimed at you. Large nonprofits and companies don’t waste money on ads and appeals that don’t work, so if you notice a certain similarity in the language they use, consider it a little free market research and imitate them.
Second, read what marketers read. In the nonprofit field, read the blogs of Nonprofit Tech for Good, Network for Good, Beth Kanter, and Cause Marketing. (Bonus: Read some of these nonprofit fundraising marketing reports.)
Over on the for-profit dark side, check out the blog of the American Marketing Association, along with Ad Age and PR Daily.
Finally, and I say this with love—get over it. Even if you absolutely hate using retail strategies to promote pet adoption, console yourself that you’re really just using human psychology to accomplish your goals. After all, don’t you owe it to the animals in your care to use what works, even if it also works for a shiny set of new tires?
Inspired? Overwhelmed? Still worried? Let me know in the comments!


About the Author

Christie Keith is a communications and social media consultant for a number of animal welfare and veterinary clients, including The Shelter Pet Project, Maddie's Fund, the Million Cat Challenge, the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and Dr. Marty Becker of "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show."