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Saving pets’ lives by getting social media right

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2016

You probably know that social media can be critical to increasing lifesaving rates and building a community of adopters and volunteers. But are you maximizing your social media potential?

These 15 simple strategies will help you create a standout social media program—one that helps you meet your goals and will cost your organization almost nothing. These easy tips can help you create an engaged community of social media followers inspired to share, adopt, donate, foster and volunteer. Whether you’re a small, home-based breed rescue or a large shelter with thousands of animals coming through your doors, these guidelines will help you save lives and have a social media program that stands out from the crowd.

1. Have a plan. Creating a useful strategic communications plan doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Start with your agency’s vision and mission, then identify goals, desired outcomes and a few key messages you want to convey. Every social media post should connect to one of these strategic messages and goals. This is especially crucial for large, fast-paced organizations where several people may be contributing social media content. Messages should be simple and easy to understand. For example, at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (FCAS) in Virginia, one of the key messages is: “The shelter relies on volunteers, foster families and rescue partners to save lives. We are always in need of foster families and volunteers.” Having this as one of its strategic messages helps the shelter remember to communicate it frequently.

2. Motivate people to act. Make sure every post or tweet has a call to action—something for the reader, fan or follower to do. You likely want your followers to adopt, volunteer, foster, donate, attend an event or engage with you on social media. When your organization needs something, just ask! A couple of years ago at FCAS, the dogs were lying on hard platform beds. After the shelter used social media to ask people to donate a Kuranda bed for a homeless pet, it received more than 200 donated beds, enough for all the kennels.

In the past, when an animal didn’t do well at the shelter and no foster or rescue placement could be secured, the organization was left with few options. Now shelters and rescues share those animals’ photos and stories on social media. Many adopters are found this way! When you ask for help and people respond, be sure to thank them. Even better, tell them thanks from the animals, and include a cute photo.

3. Be spontaneous. The things that happen every day in your shelter or rescue group may seem commonplace to you, but they’re often just the moments that help you connect with your audience. Your smartphone has a camera for a reason. A litter of 2-week-old kittens coming through your door might be a regular Tuesday to you, but those kittens being weighed and fed for the first time is a social media gold mine. Snap a few photos or a short video. Then use the opportunity to tell your followers how they can apply to be foster parents or how to donate for the kittens’ care, and bam! You’ve got a winning post.

4. Innovate. Come up with new, creative ideas to catch your audience’s attention. A good motto to adopt is: “Do something amazing. If it works, do something different the next time.” That’s because in the lightning-fast world of social media, repetition results in diminishing values. Looking for inspiration? Follow your favorite organizations’ social platforms to see what’s working for other groups. If you’re not following at least 50 other animal shelters and rescues on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you’re missing out on a whole world of new ideas. You don’t have to limit your following to animal groups—there are lots of other savvy companies and nonprofits out there, and they may be doing things that will give you your next big idea.

5. Inspire joy. People may have negative feelings associated with your work, because the idea of homeless pets makes them sad. To catch people’s attention and move them to act, you need to make them feel happy, excited and inspired to be part of the great stuff you’re doing and the lives you’re saving.

At the Austin Animal Center, we regularly ask our adopters to send us photos and updates about their pets. These follow-up stories are some of our most popular posts, and we get tons of comments, thanking us for sharing these happily-ever-afters. Other happy news to share regularly? Stray pets reunited with owners, people doing extraordinary things to help animals and shelter pets being absolutely adorable are three things that will make your viewers’ days brighter!

6. Use volunteers. Volunteers with the right skills—and given the right guidance—can take your social media program from bust to boom. They can take photographs, tell stories about the animals they interact with, write animal biographies and share information that you can use for content. When a volunteer or foster parent takes a pet photo or writes a story that you share, they’ll see that they’re contributing in a big way to finding that animal his new home, and they’ll be inspired to come up with new ideas.

Let your volunteers know the kinds of things you want them to share—well-lit, expressive photos, unique stories and short videos. (You’ll notice some of the pictures in this story were taken by professional photographers. Guess what? They’re all volunteers!)

7. Create community. This starts with something as simple as the language you use. Since you’re representing an organization that you’re a part of, use the first-person pronouns “us,” “we” and “our.” The reader or viewer may not be part of your community yet, but you want them to be, so refer to them using the pronoun “you.” For example, instead of saying, “The Big Dog Rescue wants to thank people who came to their adoption event on Saturday,” say “Thanks so much to all of you who attended our adoption event on Saturday!”

8. Share great photos. If it’s blurry or too dark or makes a pet look less-than-adorable, don’t use it. More than ever, people are looking at images of available pets before visiting or contacting your rescue group or shelter. It doesn’t matter if they end up adopting the animal whose picture first caught their attention. What matters is that the image helped guide them to your door. (Check out and, two great groups helping animal welfare organizations find homes for more animals with captivating, high-quality images.)

Take pictures of pets interacting with people and other animals. Use photos taken in real-life situations. Show animals in homes, snuggling with volunteers, eating treats and rolling in the grass. Use one or a few high-quality images instead of several poor-quality pics. Let your pictures tell a story.

9. Don’t focus solely on the hard-luck cases. Rescues and shelters sometimes do this because they want more than anything to find a home for the older cat with litter box issues or the depressed dog who has been at the shelter for months. The problem is, if you mainly feature harder-to-adopt animals, you’re sending a message to the public that this is the kind of animal they’ll be able to obtain from you. Make sure you’re also sharing images and stories about your organization’s most adoptable pets—the puppies, kittens and purebreds.

The adorable 3-month-old Yorkie somebody bought for $1,500 at a pet store and surrendered to you after they realized they didn’t want a puppy can be an incredible marketing tool to help get other pets adopted. Get pictures of the Yorkie with one of your medium-size or large dogs, and use that image to get people in the door to adopt.

10. Make all posts relevant to your agency. That picture of Grumpy Cat in Paris is cute, and that infographic showing how two cats can multiply into thousands is informative, but if something isn’t directly related to your shelter or rescue, don’t use it. Sure, you can share a graphic about why older dogs are great pets, but be sure to tie it back to the older pets you have available for adoption. You can take just about anything and make it your own. Remember, information unique to your group will always be most interesting to your followers.

11. Tell a great (and full) story. Tell your followers as much as you can about your featured animals. Where were they found? How did they come to you? What had they experienced before they arrived? What has your team done to help that animal? What does the animal now enjoy doing? Details make the story come alive.

Imagine you’re trying to find a home for a young cat in your shelter who has stitches and a missing leg. Sure, you’ll get a lot of interest if you just share a picture of this kitty staring sweetly at the camera. But imagine how much more interest you’ll get if you tell your followers the whole story of how she was found emaciated and unable to walk after she was hit by a car. That’s what we did with this kitty (pictured at right) at the Austin Animal Center, explaining how she received emergency care from our vets and recovered in a loving foster home.

12. Stop worrying about the rules. You may have heard that in order to get the maximum possible engagement, you need to limit your posts to three a day, or use certain tags in your tweets or time your posts to exactly the right moment. But social media is changing almost daily, and when you focus on following the myriad rules about maximizing exposure, you may lose sight of what’s really important: Creating content that is interesting, inspiring and helps you build a loyal, motivated community of followers. Poll your adopters, volunteers and foster families. If they tell you social media inspired them to engage with your shelter or rescue, then you’re doing it right. On our adoption forms at the Austin Animal Center, we ask people how they heard about our shelter. Guess what more than half of them say? Facebook!

13. Know your audience. When you create social content, your goal should be to constantly reach new potential adopters, foster families, donors and volunteers. Sometimes organizations forget this and use language that doesn’t make sense to the average person. Acronyms like “TNR” and phrases like “resource guarding” might make sense to animal welfare insiders, but they won’t to most people outside of the industry. Always imagine that the person reading your posts doesn’t know anything about animal welfare.

14. Be consistent. Once you commit to a social media platform, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or something else, share content regularly. If you want to create a loyal following, build trust by sharing compelling content and sharing it often. Some organizations find once a day works best. At the Austin Animal Center, we post four to five times a day on Facebook and about three times per day on our other platforms. Whatever you decide, have a consistent presence. When we have a pet who is having a hard time getting adopted, we share information, pictures and stories about that animal several times over days, weeks and sometimes even months. Most people have to see something several times before it sticks in their mind. Don’t be afraid to share a story more than once.

15. Put your experts in charge. One common mistake many organizations make when starting a social media program is to identify the youngest person in the group and to put that person in charge of managing it. After all, young people grew up with social media, so they must be the most equipped to manage it, right? Not necessarily. The person in charge of your social media can be any age, but they must have some basic marketing skills and be familiar with your agency’s vision, mission and goals. Whoever is doing your social media program should understand the organization and have strong written communication skills. Social media is no different from other types of marketing, and its impact is potentially huge, so make sure the right person is speaking for your group.

About the Author

Kristen Auerbach is the deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center in Texas and the former assistant director at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia. She has managed the social media programs for both organizations. Read her full bio at