Recently, Buzzfeed published a story called “How The Internet Is Changing The Way Dogs Find Homes.” It details how animal shelters and rescues have adapted to the age of social media and found innovative, creative ways to find homes for dogs. Animal shelters, even those with limited resources, have utilized social media to shift how the public views shelter dogs and find homes for dogs that would otherwise be overlooked. From taking photos of pit bull-type dogs in handmade flower crowns to videos of dogs romping in pajamas, these groups think outside the box and do whatever it takes to save the lives of the dogs in their care. Several nonprofits, such as Shelter Me Photography, have even been created to support this shift in how animal shelters promote adoptions.

Photo by Sophie Gamand

There are a lot of great lessons in this piece, even for nonprofits doing work totally unrelated to animals. Here are the top takeaways.

1. Think Like a Marketer

A key part of how animal shelters have managed to increase the number of lives they save is that they have embraced marketing as a necessary part of their work. As detailed in the Buzzfeed piece, they have begun hiring social media coordinators, working with volunteer photographers, and learned to experiment with different techniques to find what’s most effective. Even small shelters and rescues work to market the dogs in their care to help find them homes, boost their visibility and build an online network.

This can be a hard thing for nonprofits, especially small nonprofits, to incorporate. It can be strange for a mission-driven nonprofit focused on creating transformational change to think of having a brand or a product. There can be knee-jerk resistance to thinking about what the public wants to see ahead of your mission and the demographic you serve. But smart nonprofits understand that these things are not at odds with each other; they actually go hand-in-hand.

There is only be one home for a dog video that goes viral. But that one video can lead to people contacting the shelter, clicking around their website to find other adoptable dogs (or cats), buying items off their Amazon Wish List, making a donation, following them on social media or signing up for emails. Marketing acts as a gateway to your nonprofit. And the better a nonprofit understands how to pull people in with their work, the bigger an impact they can have.

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2. Be Resourceful

The animal shelters in the Buzzfeed piece are working on small budgets, with limited resources. So, how are they getting this work done?

Simple: they’re resourceful. Their social media coordinators are taking videos on their phones and figuring out video editing. They’re working with makeshift photo studios in their office. The props are simple: a bowtie, a silly hat, a set of Hello Kitty pajamas. And they’re also working with other nonprofits (such as those dedicated to helping with animal shelter photography). These are not expensive, complicated productions. The animal shelters are just using what they have at their disposal.

What these animal shelters prove is that marketing doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a cute video shot on a staff member’s smartphone. So, if you don’t have the budget for marketing, use the tools you have available and work with what you’ve got. And if your content is interesting, you can have a big impact on a shoestring budget.

3. Embrace Social Media

It’s no secret that animal shelters are at an advantage when it comes to social media. The internet is built on cat memes. And animals will always be sympathetic subjects. So, in that sense, they have it a little easier than, say, a homeless shelter or nonprofit drug rehab center.

But the difference is that these animal shelters understand the power of social media. If diving deep into doggo-speak means more animals will find homes, they do it. And if a bowtie makes a dog more adoptable, they put the bowtie on the dog. They do what it takes to make their animals stand out on social media.

Social media can be an afterthought at many nonprofits. But by making social media a priority, these animal shelters used it to make a huge impact. It’s not just an “extra” thing they do; they utilize it to further their goals as an organization. And no matter your nonprofit’s size, budget, or type of work, your nonprofit can harness the power of social media too.

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4. Consider Your Audience

What makes this type of marketing so effective for animal shelters? It’s audience-focused. They have taken the time to understand what their audience of dog lovers wants, and they deliver it. And this is a huge shift in how animal shelters market adoptions. There are no sob stories, or sad music, or blown-out pictures of sad dogs in kennels, which have been mainstays of animal shelter marketing for decades. That isn’t what people want to see. And, most importantly, that’s not what makes them adopt.

By taking into consideration how people make decisions, whether that decision is whether to share a post on social media or what drives them to adopt a dog, they’ve learned to communicate better. They talk about, photograph, and market these dogs in an honest way that speaks strongly to the audience they want to reach. Which is, of course, adopters and donors.

This isn’t to say that nonprofits should abandon their own priorities and messaging for whatever audiences want to hear. It just means that nonprofits will see a bigger impact if they consider how they can deliver a message that makes an audience more likely to listen and respond. That’s the key difference.

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5. Be Willing to Adapt

Social media changed the landscape for animal sheltering. And it goes beyond dog and cat memes. Social media allowed animal shelters to network, reach supporters, find help in emergency situations, find homes for animals, and even find volunteers and foster homes in a brand new way. And the reason they have been so successful at using this medium? They were willing to adapt. If the animal sheltering field had rigidly stuck to their old ways of doing things, and said “this is just a passing trend,” they never would have been able to utilize social media to the extent they have to save more lives.

And this is perhaps the biggest lesson in the Buzzfeed piece. Be open to change! Embrace new methods, whether it’s trying a crowdfunding campaign for the first time, using social media in a new way, or trying out a new email strategy. These animal shelters kept their high-level goals at the forefront: find homes for more animals, and save more lives. And they were willing to do whatever it took to make those goals happen, even if it meant changing up their strategies.

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