Thursday, December 8, 2016

Library Marketing and Public Relations

Why Should Libraries Care About Marketing and Public Relations?

Schools, colleges, and libraries are not businesses, but we can learn something from business practices. [1]  Many times we can’t even convince the administrators that the library, while part of the school, is not the same as the classroom part of the school. Public relations is aimed at all the stakeholders – supervisors and library patrons.  Since students and faculty are hit with so many electronic or screen messages, the library has to stand out and give them something of value that they can use.

Library marketing is about getting people into the library[2] and informing them about programs and services. Public relations spreads a positive image about the library and its services and programs. Cataloging and other areas of technical services[3] are the foundation of the library and its collection and should be viewed as part of its public relations message. Public services such as circulation, library instruction, knowledge commons, building and grounds are the ways that the public interacts with the collection. Without a catalog, acquisitions, skilled professional librarians, and buildings, there is no library. Without marketing, no one knows what is happening or planned for the library. Both marketing and technical services have the goal of connecting collections, information, and programs to the users.

Marketing is the active promotion of your brand.  Public relations is how you interact with the various publics. Marketing and public relations go hand-in-hand and are part of the same plan in disseminating the library message. The line between them is blurry, especially in small libraries or organizations.  Businesses need to differentiate their product from their competitors. Marketing is concerned with advertising and promotions of products and services.  Public relations is a management function that is concerned with the “brand” and creating a positive public image and awareness of the library’s role in the school and community. This article is not even going to make a clear differentiation between marketing and public relations.

Libraries do not compete with each other.  They co-operate on local, national, and international levels including professional associations[4], districts[5], consortia[6], and cooperative ventures.  The competition is 1) Not going to the library; 2) Not getting the best information; 3) Not learning how to find reliable sources; and 4) Not having a mentor in the learning process.[7]  Libraries compete with other organizational interests or departments for funds from the sponsoring agencies.  They must continually defend their role and tell the people who control the finances about the value the library adds to the community (read -- school, college, city or any organization that has a library.)

Marketing requires a plan.  Creating the plan is part of figuring out the role of the library in the school, organization, or community.[8]  The mission statement is part of the public, written message that becomes part of the branding of the library. Everything becomes part of the image and branding.  That includes the physical features such as the building, the grounds, the furniture, the art on the walls, etc. and the non-physical such as the programs, procedures, and ideas. How the books are presented and the directional signs are part of the message given to patrons.  At any given moment one could ask, “Is this part of our mission?” or “Is this the message we want to give our public?”

Here’s a sample mission statement for a college library:

We bring together knowledgeable staff, information resources, welcoming spaces, and leading-edge technology to promote reading, learning, and information seeking.

A business may use its mission statement as part of its advertising and merchandising.   For example, a store says its mission is “To sell merchandise that doesn’t come back—to people who do.”  They want to treat their customers like partners who will come back for more purchases and tell their friends to shop there, too.

Marketing has two parts – 1) Figuring out what people need and want from the library and 2) Telling people about the products, services, and activities of the library. Public relations creates the image and writes the information that is useful for the library users.  If a brochure is prepared for instruction in the use of a library service or tool, it has both a public relations and marketing component.  Many librarians have a great difficulty stepping back and examining what the people really need or want.  Directed patron research may help determine the differences between "needs" and "wants?"  

Differentiating a Library from a Business

After seeing how retailers pushed  “Black Friday” or “cyber this and that” I would like to put this in some perspective for a library.  While the story is contrasting a school and a business, just change the word “school” to “library” and you will understand the message.

I heard a story of a businessman[9] who gave a speech before a large group of teachers and
administrators on the topic making the running of a school more like a business.  He was in the food business and his company had won awards for their ice cream.  He told the audience how every step of the process from the purchasing of raw materials to the final quality check before sending the product to be sold was under strict quality and financial control.  They made a good profit on their quality products.  The audience was appalled at his conclusions that schools can produce better qualified and prepared students if the administration followed strict quality control and acted more like a business.

The teachers politely listened, but were very uneasy.  Here is the dialog of the questions posed by an English teacher.  

English Teacher (T): Thank you for allowing me to ask a few questions that are on all of our minds.  First: You mentioned that you control the raw materials.    Do you have selection criteria for raw materials? Do you choose which blueberries go into the ice cream?  What happens to the rejected raw materials?

Businessman (B):  Of course we carefully decide if the raw materials meet our standards.  We send back the inferior ones to the suppliers or donate them to a food bank.

T: Is your equipment maintained at a high level to be able to obtain the best results?  Do you have the latest equipment in both the office and production areas?  What kind of procedures do you use to purchase new office or production equipment?

B:  We have a very efficient system.   Managers control their own operating budget and can order what they need quickly.  The IT department is always making sure we have the latest and best equipment for our company.

<Annoyed> What is your point?  Everyone who purchases our award-winning products is happy and even praises our products.

T: As a public school we have no control over who comes to us.  We have to take everyone including those who have special needs, those who are members of special or protected groups, those who are gifted and those who struggle to learn.  We have to deal with their parents who can be supportive, combative, unknowledgeable, or who are wiser that you and me put together.

We have to answer to a local school board, state school board and several state and federal agencies. The board members are elected and have to work with the political organizations to get elected. We have board members who understand us and those who are totally new the understanding the education process.

We don’t have all the equipment or tools that we need to do our jobs or to help students.  Teachers have been known to reach into their own pockets for supplies. Ordering supplies that are not in stock requires filling out many forms and getting many approvals.  If we run out of something before the end of the fiscal year, we may not be able to get it.

You are right. Schools are not run like businesses because education is not a tangible product that can be controlled with precision or machines.  Education is dynamic and must last a lifetime and it does not melt like ice cream.
<Audience cheers>

Make Your Library Stand Out

You have to constantly present your message to make sure the public (students, faculty, patron and other stakeholders) does not take you for granted.  Too often people enter the library and think collection building is magic. They see people working in the library and have no idea of the education, training, and continuous professional development it takes to be a librarian.  With thanks to Devorah Kaufman who shared her thoughts on marketing[10] here are some ideas for making your library stand out. 

1. Build cooperative arrangements.  Build partnerships with faculty, administration, students and anyone else who will help.  In the business world this is would mean co-branding.  Recently for an exhibit I received help from the nursing department.  They gave me ideas for the display that were beyond just showing books. I would have never thought of the ideas just by looking at the collection and using my usual sources. The nursing department even thanked me for asking them to help.  Co-branding is a cooperative message. The Library and the academic department have a common goal in the education of students. The viewers of the exhibit saw the book and the non-book content demonstrate that the combined effort was bigger than the sum of the parts.  If a person or group helps the library, the viewing public will be drawn from a bigger base.  The public may get hit from both sources of messages that will reinforce each other.

2. Don’t just give stuff away.  People like giveaways because they think they are getting something for nothing. We offered golf pencils for people who forgot to bring a writing implement.  People just took them like they were candy.   We have given away bookmarks with a library message on them and brochures to help use library services.  There is no evidence that either giveaway helped.   Make sure you have goal(s) in mind whenever you give away anything.  At least in your plan make sure everything you give away has a connection to the mission and goals of the library.

3.  Make the library fun.  Some libraries have imaginative holiday decorations.  People dress up with a holiday theme.  Other libraries have dress ups connected to books.  While these promotions are fun for K-12 schools or public libraries, as an academic librarian this activity does not support our mission.  The school or academic library should be more than a warehouse of books.  Have decorations, art work, exhibits or objects to show a more human side to the information seeking processes. Tell stories about the people who work in the library and use it.

4. Have integrity.  Make sure that all of your promotions and contacts with the public are the best that you can offer. Make sure that all your behavior is ethical according to your institutional and professional ethics.  Dress appropriately, smile, say “thank you,” and remember that you are on stage.  Even if you don’t feel like being nice, remember you are on stage and act appropriately. Make sure all your actions show that the library has integrity and honesty. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.  Precision editing and showing the library in a favorable light is honest and professional.  Promising the world and delivering nothing is a kind of lie.  Don’t lie.  Dance around the truth if you have to, but don’t lie, mislead, or act unethically.

Call to Action

Getting people to change is hard work.   The inertia of doing the same thing is very strong.  That is why some companies send weekly flyers, email or have ads running every day. TV ads may hit the consumer multiple times within an hour. Organizations send multiple reminders for events and programs to make sure no one forgets to come.  A few companies send me advertising promotions every single day.  That does not mean I purchase something any more often, but it does mean when I need their products I am more likely to purchase from them.  A good ad does not annoy the reader.

Examine what behaviors we are trying to change.  Do we want more visitors or do we want visitors who have a better understanding of what the library has to offer?  What do we want to promote given limited resources? Remember what we are competing with – ignorance of library collections and services, not learning how to differentiate sources
for reliability and appropriateness, and not having professional guidance in the search, creation and editing of documents. Remember part of the library mission is to bring together the reader with the correct information[11].  If the library sends out too many advertisements, people will tune them out.  The ads will have a negative effect. Library ads must inform the public in a gentle, professional way not like a store pushing low prices. When the public sees companies that promote only by price, the public thinks the company has nothing else to differentiate them from other companies. Libraries should advertise sparingly with mostly informational type ads.  Ads must address one of the library’s goals.

Patrons want an experience in the library.  If you don’t know what they want, ask?  Do they come for a place to use a computer, find books, read periodicals, attend a class, or what? Does the physical plant match what the patrons want and need? What do they need to change? (Of course “change” has multiple meanings.  One may need to change themselves or the library may need to change to meet the patron needs.)  If a student is writing a paper the “change” could mean going from a blank screen to a finished paper and then printing the results.  To enhance the experience, the library needs to produce documents to guide the readers.  Documents may be “how-to” or informational.  These kinds of documents differentiate the library from a computer lab or book storage room.  They add value to the experience and change how readers perceive the library.  This change is slow.  Don’t expect immediate results.

Documents, both electronic and print, should promote the library brand and follow the intentions of the missions and goals.  The connection should be obvious.  A library with a computer printer should have signs and documents on how to print. The signs should be clear and easy to follow[12].  Make sure to test the signs on a non-librarian.  To support an academic program (such as subject or department specific), produce research or resource guides, or create bibliographies or how-to documents.

Newsletters, blogs, and other publications should be content oriented as opposed to announcing and promoting events.  Give the reader value for their time.  Give information about the collection, tell a story about the library or its users, or teach something.  Be aware that people have a short attention spans.  Do something to grab their attention.

In conclusion, don’t try to do everything.  Pick and choose what to promote, what to offer, and what stories to tell.  Be great at something that will cause your library to stand out.  Everything else will fall in place because people will remember the greatness.

[1] The stimulus to write this article was a webinar on library marketing that attended on November 17th.  The webinar showed me some new aspects of marketing that can be used as part of a marketing plan. Departing from my usual blog article practice, this one was read by several people before publication and I thank them for their suggestions.  This article is a continuation and update of my 2003 article: "Think like a business, act like a library: library public relations"  Information Outlook, v. 7:9, September 2003.   I hope that you will find it useful and share it with others.

[2] I am not just talking about being physically in the library building.  Electronic and virtual visits are included, too.

[3] Technical services include all services required to get books on the shelves – from collection development to labeling and preparing books for the reader.

[4] Examples are American Library Association, state library associations, and library associations connected to a subject or special interests such as law, ethnicity, or medicine.

[5] Examples include: school districts, regional districts, college, or university districts.  Districts have some kind of financial or legal control and/or responsibility to their members.

[6] Consortiums are groups of libraries that voluntarily agree to cooperate because of common interest.  They may share bibliographic resources, physical resources, and/or negotiate deals with vendors. They may be based on geography or common interests such a group of academic libraries.   CARLI (Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries) in Illinois is an example.

[7] There is an article in Inside HigherEd November 10, 2016 “Smartphones Can't Replace Libraries” by Julie Todaro and Irene M.H. Herold Todaro that discussed the importance of school and academic libraries.  It refutes the idea that Google and “smart phones” replace the need for libraries and librarians.  The media and methods to transmit information and knowledge have changed with Internet, but the need to select, curate, interpret, store and retrieve knowledge it still a necessary role for the library.

[8] Mission statements are an important starting point for public relations and marketing, however, creating mission statements is beyond scope of this article.  I suggest the book: Wallace, Linda K. Libraries, Mission & Marketing : Writing Mission Statements That Work. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004.  It is also available as an e-book from Ebsco.

Another useful book is: Mathews, Brian. Marketing Today's Academic Library a Bold New Approach to Communicating with Students. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009.  It is also available as an e-book from Ebsco.

[9] The picture is just for illustrative purposes from a source without copyright restriction.  It is not the picture of the person in the story.
[10] Kaufman’s ideas are based on a visit to a car show in Los Angeles. I only borrowed the ideas based on her section titles.  Most of what applies to selling cars does not apply to marketing of libraries, non-profits, or companies that market only services.  Published November 28, 2016 in her LinkedIn feed: Kaufman, Devorah.  “Insights into great marketing: a drive by view of the Los Angeles Auto Show.”  Retrieved December 3, 2016 from:   .

[11] One lesson we need to teach is critical thinking concerning sources so that “fake” news, satire, and hyperbole are not confused with truthful and honest reporting.

[12] No matter how carefully one creates signs, there are always people who simply ignore them and then wonder why things don’t work.  If this happens and you are sure the sign is correct, just laugh it off and send me the amusing story. If sign can be improved, improve it.


Minnowonsay said...

I was pleased to learn about this post from your link in Autocat. Here in the UK many librarians are very interested in this subject and Ned Potter has become the guru of us all in this respect, see and, to misquote Slade, we are all Marketers now.

Anna Martin
Cambridge University Medical Library

Hannah said...

Thank you for this informative blog post. I am currently doing my Teacher Librarianship diploma and I found your blog post in a search for more information on library advocacy. I also like how you outline two parts of marketing, figuring out what people want from a library and telling people about new things happening in the library. When I think of marketing I imagine advertising and getting information to the people but it is important to remember to ask for feedback as well.