About 1.5 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year because they weren’t adopted or had health problems that concerned potential owners.
Agencies often use “Adopt, Don’t Shop!” campaigns to encourage people to adopt from or donate to shelters, but their effectiveness can be limited.
How can adoption agencies persuade people to rescue pets who need a home?
In a paper published on Dec. 26, I investigated the pet adoption problem using advertisements from the online database Petfinder. The paper quantified the language patterns of nearly 680,000 adopted and unadopted pet ads.
Concrete and analytic style
The use of articles, like “a” and “the,” and prepositions, like “above” and “on,” indicate concrete and analytic thinking.
For example, one highly analytic ad of a dog who was adopted read, “Meet Christina! Breed: Bull Terrier Mix, Estimated DOB: 8/21/18, Sex: Female, Weight: 6-8 lbs, Health: Up-to-date on vaccinations & preventatives, Rescued From: South Carolina.”
By comparison, pronouns and storytelling words such as “he,” “they” and “extremely” indicate a more narrative style.
An example of one ad that used many storytelling words read, “Look at the cuteness! This boy is adorable and he is full of love and is super playful. Make sure you have plenty of cat toys around because this boy loves his toys! Jack and his brothers are also super unique as they are polydactyl in their front paws.”
Each ad received a score from 0 to 100, with high scores suggesting the ad’s style was more analytic and less like a story.
The successful ads were more likely to contain a concrete and analytic style than the unsuccessful ads.
Animal adoption is not the only setting where such verbal patterns can have a persuasive impact. A study of HPV vaccination ads showed that parents and physicians viewed formal, fact-based messages as more persuasive than those that were less straightforward.
Related peer-to-peer lending research also suggests that people are more likely to receive money if their online ad is written in a concrete and analytic manner.
Facts and photos
A second important adoption indicator was the rate of social words in the ad, such as “buddy,” “friend” or “helper.”
The pet data revealed that social words might be red flags for potential owners. Most adopters care if the pet is healthy and has its vaccinations, and they want to learn about the adoption process.
Humanizing details — stating the pet is a “sweetheart” and will be a lifelong “companion” — might signal that the agency is hiding vital health details about the pet.
The lending study also found that people were less likely to receive money from strangers if their ad contained high rates of social words and humanizing details.
Words were not the only key features of adoption ads. On average, ads from adopted pets had more photos than unadopted pets. Photos may help to reduce uncertainty for owners whose introduction to a pet is online.
Changing how people feel about adoption
There is some evidence that language patterns can affect how people think and feel about the adoption process.
In an experiment, I had nearly 1,000 people from Amazon Mechanical Turk read an ad associated with adopted pets — analytic writing style with few social words — or unadopted pets — less analytic writing style with more social words.
Those who read the analytic and less social ad were nearly 6 percent more likely to say that they would adopt the pet and 4.5 percent more likely to say that they would visit its shelter than those who read the less analytic and more social ad.
These are small effects, but they can have a large impact since millions of pets need a home.
Writing style matters for pet adoption. If agencies are thoughtful about how their ads are communicated, pets can have an improved chance of adoption.
* David Markowitz does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.