Researching Our Way to Animal Liberation
from No Compromise Issue 25


As most of us know all too well, changing public opinion in order to improve conditions for animals is almost always an uphill battle. Influencing the perceptions and behaviors of people with longstanding, entrenched and often indifferent attitudes toward animals requires a deep understanding of their motives and the barriers to change. That’s where social marketing and research come in-- to help establish goals, understand audiences, and craft effective messages.

Fenton Communications, one of the leaders in social marketing, lists three “must-haves” for a successful campaign:

1) Clear, measurable goals
2) Extensive knowledge of whomever you are trying to reach and what moves them
3) Compelling messages that connect with your target audience

For animal activists, so-called “marketing research” helps provide a starting point for the successful development of each of these must-haves.

1) Clear, Measurable Goals

Setting goals is an obvious first step in any campaign. There is no way to otherwise know if you are succeeding or just wasting precious time and money. As the animal liberation movement becomes more sophisticated in its approaches, it is essential to set clear objectives and understand how our efforts succeed or fail to meet those objectives. Encouragingly, in a recent survey of national animal groups, the Humane Research Council (HRC) found that nearly half of the respondents measured their outcomes and conducted follow-up evaluations for a majority of projects and campaigns. If your organization hasn’t already established clear goals and ways of measuring success or failure, stop what you’re doing and go back to the beginning.

Marketing research provides the tools necessary to developing goals that are aggressive but attainable. It also helps to measure our success against those goals.

2) Know Your Target Audience

Animal activists should start by picking a target audience rather than simply using the same message with all members of the general public. Before we activists can reach people effectively, we have to whittle down the audience to groups small enough that we can understand their unique motives for and barriers to change. As author Joseph Conrad put it, we need to find a way to “say something to somebody instead of saying nothing to everybody.”

Once you’ve identified a reasonably sized, potentially receptive target audience, you have to do everything you can to understand those people. A pitfall for many activists is to assume they know what will work for the target audience. But that’s a dangerous assumption. Animal activists live and breathe compassion toward animals, while for most people it’s only a peripheral issue (at best), and the same approaches will not work with both audiences. This is where marketing research can really provide some help. Research methods like interviews, focus groups, and surveys enable animal advocates to put aside their personal biases and understand how non-activists think and feel.

Ultimately, what matters most is not what animal advocates think will work, but what is proven to work with the as-yet-unconverted target audience. As Chris DeCardy of Environmental Media Services says, “If we weren’t so hung up on winning for ‘our’ reasons, we’d be smarter about listening to everyone else’s reasons and appealing to them.”

3) Develop Compelling Messages

Once animal activists have a good understanding of our target audience, we can also more effectively develop and test messages to see how well they resonate and lead to changes in opinion or behavior. HRC and our clients have used marketing research to refine advertising concepts, identify children’s materials that were perceived as too controversial, evaluate vegetarian literature to understand what content was most influential for readers, and so on. The value of such information is evident: It can inform the design and content of a publication, as well as identify primary audiences or missed demographic groups.

For instance, HRC recently conducted a project that involved over a thousand surveys from people who had read a certain piece of pro-vegan literature from a client. The respondents skewed heavily female and young, confirming the client’s beliefs about its current audience. Somewhat surprisingly, respondents placed a high value on recipes and an article about animal suffering, and a low value on an article about the environment. Most importantly, more than half of the respondents claim they are moving in the direction of vegetarianism or veganism after having read the literature.

The bottom line is that animal activists need more information about what works with our target audience, and marketing research can help. Collectively, the top ten animal protection groups in the U.S. have a combined annual budget of less than $150 million. Only a fraction of that total budget is spent on marketing research. On the other hand, research (and promotion) groups representing industries that abuse and slaughter animals are comparatively well funded. In fact, the primary national dairy producers’ association by itself has an annual budget of more than $165 million.

In the face of such overwhelming opposition, it is paramount that animal activists make every dollar work as hard as possible for the animals. We can ill afford to waste money and person-hours on ineffective campaigns, and marketing research can help identify those campaigns before they’re even launched. Strategic use of the research tools employed by the “big guys” will move us much closer to our goal of reaching people in ways that prompt them to consider compassion toward animals.


Che Green is Executive Director of the Humane Research Council, a nonprofit organization that helps to maximize the effectiveness of animal advocates by applying professional, cost-efficient, and informative consumer and market research methods. For more information, visit

§ “Marketing Social Change,” Caryn Ginsberg, GWSAE, May 2004
§ “Engaging the Next Generation,” Ad Council, 2003
§ “Marketing Research That Won’t Break the Bank,” Alan Andreasen, Jossey-Bass, 2002
§ “Now Hear This,” Fenton Communications, 2001
§ “Understanding Youth: What Works and Doesn’t Work When Researching and Marketing to Young Audiences,” Harris Interactive, 2000 (PDF File, 119k)
§ "Selling Your Organization's Messages," HSUS Animal Sheltering, Jan-Feb, 1999
§ Article Library (free do-it-yourself research articles)