Case Study: Animals and Their Owners: Our Partnership with AHS - Part 2
In this interview with Paul Sorenson, Director of Brand and Communications for Animal Humane Society (AHS), we talk about their long-standing partnership with TEN7 and the paths their journey has covered as both organizations have grown. AHS cares for 23,000 companion animals in transition at their shelters each year and thousands more through their services for animals, including training, boarding, spay and neuter, lost and found, and the Pet Helpline.
MADELEINE LOWRY: How did your working relationship with TEN7 start out?
PAUL SORENSON: The beginning of our partnership with TEN7 predates my time with AHS by about five or six years. In 2007, AHS merged with two other local humane organizations, and TEN7 created the first website for the combined organizations. One of the big innovations was automating adoptable animal listings in real time by linking the website to our shelter care software. The automation of that process relieved staff of manually updating the adoption listings, a full-time job. Instead they were freed up to focus on the animals and telling their stories.
Over the years, we’ve built many websites together, including the current Now Boarding and Kindest Cut sites. Some of the other sites we worked on had a limited lifespan, like Sit Stay Shop, which was a shopping website, and Law of the Paw, which supported a specific initiative. Those have since been retired.
MADELEINE: What was the situation when you came on board?
PAUL: I came on board in 2013. At that time I was in charge of digital marketing. We had just launched the Now Boarding website, and with all our focus directed toward those great supporting sites, our main site (animalhumanesociety.org) had been a little neglected. It was also time for us to invest in making the whole site mobile-friendly, since only the adoption pages were user friendly on mobile devices.
During my first year at AHS, we identified the need to do significant work on the website. We didn’t have a budget to match the size of our wish list, but Ivan was willing to get creative and figure out how to move the website forward utilizing both organizations’ expertise.
MADELEINE: What did that involve?
PAUL: TEN7 set up a Drupal server for me to work on. In another life, I was a front-end developer [grins], and I set out to learn Drupal and helped to build some of the features we needed. TEN7 and the Drupal community were excellent teachers. It was a non-traditional approach, but we made it work. I think that’s a good example of how we’ve worked in flexible ways and found creative solutions throughout our relationship.
MADELEINE: Tell me about the current state of the website and how you see it in the context of all of your marketing channels.
PAUL: The website is absolutely the most powerful marketing channel we have. It’s our front door. Our goal is to engage people and get them to visit our shelters, use our services, and support our work. Most people find us online. We have high online credibility, because of the depth of our content and its freshness. Our content is shared everywhere, and our natural search ranking is very high. All of our other marketing channels -- digital, social, outdoor, print ads, radio and TV -- point back to our website.
And it’s not just marketing. The website is the hub of our fundraising and advocacy efforts. It’s the gateway to all of our programs, events and services -- a veritable swiss army knife! [laughs]
That said, our current site is a Drupal 6 site with a lot of Drupal 5 code. We’ve been making tradeoffs because we didn’t have the funds to invest in a new site until now. We started planning for a new site in 2014, shortly after the current mobile site was completed. At the time, we decided that it didn’t make sense to go to Drupal 7. We decided, in consultation with TEN7, to wait it out and go straight to Drupal 8. That’s the project we’re embarking on now, and we know that there will be tradeoffs with that too, because even though Drupal 8 has been out for almost a year modules are still being developed, and we’ll be on the leading edge.
MADELEINE: How did you decide to build your mobile site on Drupal 6? That version of Drupal didn’t include features for mobile.
PAUL: Again, it was about getting the best possible site within our budget constraints. It required thinking outside the box. We worked with TEN7 to explore options and develop creative approaches to get the most out of our existing site, knowing that we’d have to wait to rebuild it on the new platform. Even though our site is on old technology, it has never been stale. TEN7 has supported it and we keep the content updated. For us it’s about evolution, not revolution. Our site and what it needs to accomplish will continue to evolve as our programs and services evolve.
MADELEINE: How do you feel about the Drupal platform after using it for years?
PAUL: I did not have experience with Drupal before this role, but I’m solidly in the Drupal camp now. [laughs] I know firsthand the value of the Drupal community because of the work we did on the mobile site. There are very committed members of that community, at TEN7 and all over the world, that provided the know-how than enabled our work. AHS participates in DrupalCamp and we know and trust that community. And I appreciate how involved TEN7 is with it as well. There’s something special about an open source community where everyone contributes to the common good.
MADELEINE: What makes TEN7 a good partner for AHS?
PAUL: First, I’d have to say that they know a lot about our organization. There’s a huge amount of history and a track record of building great things together. We’ve been able to circumvent problems because TEN7 knows what we’re trying to achieve and they often bring new ideas to the table. Sometimes we make requests and they tell us, “No, you don’t really want that and here’s why.” That’s invaluable. There are lots of places that will blindly build what you tell them to build. I feel like we can count on TEN7 to think through the implications and offer better options.
However, the road has not always been smooth. It’s like a marriage. When I arrived here in 2013 the relationship was going through a rough spot, but we worked through it. We were able to build from there--we’ve stuck with them and they’ve stuck with us. It’s a true partnership.
MADELEINE: How do you think about the impact the site has had on your organization?
PAUL: Our site allows us to reach people outside of our shelters’ neighborhoods in Minnesota and beyond. The mobile site we launched in 2014, in particular, has helped us stay connected to people whose primary access to the internet is through their smartphone. Through our site, people can easily search for adoptable animals, schedule appointments, make donations, find behavioral information, register for classes and events and share content -- no matter what device they are on.
Our website has become increasingly important as a fundraising channel. AHS is funded entirely through donations and the fees we collect for adoptions and other services. Over the past five years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in online donations and engagement.
PAUL: We have a strong presence on social media. We have 100,000 followers on Facebook and they actively share content from our website. We have 11,000 followers on Instagram. And adoption searches have increased to 10 million annually from half of that five years ago.
MADELEINE: What’s coming up in the future? How is AHS evolving and how will the website help you you accomplish your goals?
PAUL: One of the things that has changed dramatically over the past 10 years is our ability to help more animals than ever before. Last year we found homes or placement in the community for 95 percent of the 23,000 animals we took in. Ten years ago that number was closer to 60 percent. Today we have the capacity to treat even the most challenging medical and behavioral problems. We place cats who aren’t suitable as pets in barns and businesses to help control rodents. We can even help animals facing terminal illness find homes through hospice adoptions.
AHS never stops innovating. Our goal is to be not just an adoption source, but a resource, an authority, an advocate for all things animal. The new website will be a big part of that. We hope it will inspire people and make it easier for them to engage with AHS, to help them find a pet, to get help with their pet, and to help other animals in the community.
We want to include even more information to support pet owners and animal lovers, and that includes more photos, videos, and shareable content. The Drupal 6 site limited our content choices, because we couldn’t embed video and images weren’t naturally responsive. The new site will make it easier to produce and share more compelling content.
Author’s Note: Read Part One of this post, an interview with Ivan Stegic from TEN7.