December 14, 2017

Sharing The Story | LJ 2017 Marketer of the Year Award

With its current levy due to expire at the end of this year, Medina County District Library (MCDL), OH, began plotting the strategy for its ten-year ballot cycle early in 2016. A yes vote would renew the existing 1.25-mill levy with a 0.25-mill increase, generating about $5.6 million annually for the six-branch system, allowing the district to maintain operations and expand services.

MCDL community engagement manager Tina Sabol saw the campaign as an opportunity not only to mobilize voters but also to reinforce ties to the library by enlisting community members to work on the campaign. The result: secure funding for another ten years, a robust relationship with all corners of the community, and the well-deserved honor of LJ’s 2017 Marketer of the Year award, sponsored by Library Ideas, LLC.

STRATEGIC APPROACH

MCDL, LJ’s 1998 Library of the Year, serves a diverse population of 150,000 some 40 miles south of Cleveland. In addition to its library buildings, the system maintains a bookmobile and outreach services at facilities such as the local juvenile detention center and county jail. The levy, last renewed in 2007, comprises more than 60 percent of the library’s revenue.

Sabol began campaign prep in January 2016, engaging a marketing firm to help design phone and online surveys to help MCDL find out more about users’ opinions. The library hosted a series of town hall meetings, inviting both patrons and nonusers. “We gave the community many ­mediums and many chances to tell us what they wanted,” explains Sabol—“we didn’t just assume.”

The board approved Sabol’s plans to wage a campaign over the following eight months that would promote the levy—and the library. MCDL and its employees could not legally advocate outright for the levy, but they could provide information through social media and outreach. By mobilizing volunteers, the library found an effective voice.

Sabol took a deep dive into researching her strategy, gathering information from large and small libraries, marketing firms, and “every Ohio Library Council thing I could find that had anything to do with levies…. I wanted to take what I saw as the best in all the other libraries…and try to figure out what would work for our community.”

STAYING ON MESSAGE

MCDL’s marketing push featured the standard components of a library campaign: print advertising and postcards, yard signs, T-shirts, newsletters, and car signs. But it was Sabol’s four-pronged strategy—a robust social media effort, ­YouTube videos featuring library users, strong outreach led by a speakers’ bureau made up of library administrators and managers, and an all-volunteer Citizens for the Library political action committee (PAC)—that ultimately won the day.

Once MCDL’s community engagement team—Jessica Giurbino, Connie Stanton, Jennifer Ransbury, Monica Heath, and Stephanie Sanford—had settled on the strategy, Sabol organized the library’s social media messaging efficiently. The team put together a Word document with every point prioritized. A billboard, which could support the least amount of information, would list the top three items. A brochure would have the top five on the cover, more inside. For Facebook, Sabol would choose one item per week and post details throughout that week.

“It was very much a formula,” she explains. “We were not going to rewrite one word of anything. We were just…going to say the same thing over and over, in as many ­mediums as possible.” While that may sound redundant, Sabol notes that the average library user probably saw library messaging four or five times over the whole course of the campaign. Instead of repetition, they would see consistency.

DISCOVERING STORIES

The YouTube videos, titled “#DiscoverYourStory,” ­featured prominent community members and patrons of all ages talking about what the library means to them. Featured ­users included Outreach Services members. Christi Watts, who is blind, spoke passionately of MCDL’s home delivery service: “Having somebody bring me books and ­music…. It’s a wonderful thing. I love it. To lose that would be ­devastating.”

Members of a local Girl Scout troop earned their library badges by appearing on the videos. Job seekers who found work through MCDL’s Job Search Group related their experiences, as well as business owners, authors, seniors, two mayors, school superintendents, the head of Medina’s hospital, and Sabol herself. These were members of the community whom everyone knew—and to make sure of the fact, their photos were blown up and displayed on the library’s vehicles.

“We wanted to do a campaign that started out soft, real warm and fuzzy, and didn’t say anything about the levy,” says Sabol, as the video campaign launched before the library had shaped its message or even finalized the millage numbers.

The videos were promoted as part of MCDL’s social media efforts links to the library’s YouTube site and the levy information web page. Library supporters shared the videos as well, garnering more than 1,800 views.

THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE The Medina County District Library marketing campaign created by Tina Sabol (here with her Community Engagement Team) was instantly recognizable in any format, such as (l.–r.) vehicle magnets promoting the library’s Discover Your Story campaign, including Mayor Dennis Hanwell; special levy editions of the MCDL Library Live newsletter; multiple print ads touting the value of the library; and billboards on
three major state roads in Medina County.
Top photo ©Keithberr.com. Bottom photo courtesy of MCDL

HOMETOWN TIES

The logic of Sabol’s shared advocacy effort was simple: distributing the work according to people’s strengths and enthusiasms made everyone’s load lighter. “There’s no way one person can run a campaign like that countywide,” she says. “I think the benefit in having been working for the library system for 14 years was that I knew a lot of people, I knew who to go to, because I know who the workhorses are. I just thought, who would be perfect for this job?”

Playing to community members’ strengths not only broke a complex process down into manageable parts but gave constituents a sense of ownership—and made ­Sabol’s work easier. “When you ask someone to do one specific job and you keep it simple and let them run with it and trust them with it, which I had to—I was not going to micromanage—that’s pretty empowering. I mean, they’re running a whole section of a levy campaign. And I didn’t have to baby-sit anybody.”

The MCDL community is one that Sabol knows well: she was born and raised in Medina. After a ten-year hiatus earning a journalism degree and working as a reporter and anchor in Beckley, WV; Youngstown, OH; and Charleston, WV, she returned to her hometown—and to the ­library—in 2003, where she started out as community relations ­coordinator.

Those ties served her well when she began looking for volunteers in fall 2016. Sabol started with her personal contacts, asking everyone she knew who enjoyed volunteering or was a fan of the library to follow MCDL’s Citizens for the Library page on Facebook and come to organizational meetings. Similarly, she encouraged employees to reach out to people they knew, or groups they were involved with, whose mission aligned with that of the library.

“She knows the politics of the area,” says MCDL assistant director Theresa Laffey. “She knows the value of volunteering for the school, for the church…they all go hand in hand.” A little over 100 people eventually volunteered in some way: making calls, posting yard signs, and helping run the library’s informational campaign.

STAFF BUY-IN

Sabol made sure that she knew her community inside the library just as well. As MCDL’s advocacy work began, employees expressed concerns about being included in the loop when it came to the library’s message.

“The one thing I heard was, ‘We need…talking points, so that we can feel empowered and we’re all saying the same thing,’ ” recalls Sabol. “Before we finalized the wording on a brochure, or before we had a checklist of things the library levy will bring to you, I would always walk it around our buildings and show it to our staff.” This kept everyone at ­every level informed and—because staff are Medina County voters, too—also helped Sabol refine her messages. “I’d ask them, is anything about this confusing? Does anything about this make you pause and say, ‘I don’t get this,’ or…‘Could this be misconstrued?’ ”

Simplicity was key, she adds. “You need to make it simple enough so that everyone can understand it—and they can pick up a piece of information and share it with their neighbor and get it right, in as few words as possible.”

For the speakers’ bureau, library administration and management passed around a spreadsheet listing all the organizations MCDL partners with or serves. People would put their initials next to the ones they felt comfortable speaking to, or where they served on a board or volunteered. When no one chose a speaking engagement, Sabol went.

CONNECTEDNESS WINS

The results of the May ballot were a clear success. The levy won by 66 percent—and even more significant was the improvement over 2007’s vote. Of 99 voting districts, 92 approved the levy by more than 50 percent, with only one district evenly split. In 2007, only 33 districts showed the same approval levels, with more than six districts split.

“Tina’s a leader,” says Laffey. “She had been thinking of [the campaign] for a long time. She presented us with plans and worked closely with the director and the administration team, and…it worked out beautifully.”

Much credit for the win, says Sabol, should go to the library’s determination to connect with its community in a meaningful way—a direct outcome of the last levy campaign in 2007, when MCDL was in the middle of a major capital project and was not as embedded in the community as many felt it should be. Since then, Director Carole Kowell has emphasized that administration and management should make it a point to be out at county functions and form ­strategic partnerships.

“When you do that for ten years,” she notes, “the library is so immersed in the community, and so many people work with us so closely, it was easy to reach out to groups. You didn’t feel like you were just asking for support because you had to—these were people you know, and you know they respect what we do.”

Honorable Mentions

MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS TEAM
Poudre River Public Library District, Fort Collins, CO

The library district serves more than 187,000 people across 1,800 square miles in northern Larimer County, CO. Craft brewing and artisan tea and coffee are staples of the local economy. To promote the first Fort Collins Book Fest, the library’s marketing team—including full-time communications manager Paula Watson-Lakamp,
full-time communications assistant Katie Auman, and
part-time graphic designer Laura Carter—dreamed up
the theme “Brewin’ Up Books.” Goals of the event
included attracting the 20- and 30-year-old demographic and establishing new local partnerships.

With a budget of a mere $3,000, three staffers effectively got the word out about this new event through a combination of staples (bookmarks, website, social media, advertising, signage, and posters) and innovations, such as working with three local businesses to create and name special promotional brews: New Belgium Brewing’s FoCo Book Fest Read My Lips; Bean Cycle Roasters’ Book Buzz 641.3373; and Happy Lucky’s Teahouse Free Verse Cinnaplum.

The team also developed a marketing toolkit for sponsors and supporters and worked closely with other library staff to create in-library marketing such as themed displays, reading lists, and teaser programs, seamlessly connecting partners and patrons to the events’ multiple themes and venues before, during, and after—and “tea-ing” them up for a repeat performance, on tap for 2017.—Meredith Schwartz


MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DEPARTMENT
Los Angeles County Public Library, Downey, CA

In February 2017, the L.A. County Library launched a grant-funded DJ lab program called Compton Turns the Tables. The marketing team (Geraldine Lin, Karol Sarkisyan, Jessie Towers, Pamela Broussard, and Tamera Tarver) took the grant requirement for a culminating showcase and developed a live concert to raise awareness of nontraditional services.

Because the local community is not digitally focused, email and social media wouldn’t get the job done. Instead, the team worked with a graphic designer to create colorful, eye-catching materials, then papered the area with posters and handouts. The campaign invested heavily in radio ads. By partnering with the L.A. County Department of Public Works, the library negotiated free advertising placements at 33 bus shelters. The marketing team also negotiated for the city to cover the costs of two Clear Channel digital billboards along the freeway. The library engaged local celebrities to participate in the concert and film a promo video. The GRAMMY Museum and local eateries made in-kind donations.

Approximately 300 community members attended the concert, and within six weeks the library had reengaged infrequent users and increased teen use. L.A. County Library will be expanding the Turns the Tables series to two more locations this fall.—Meredith Schwartz

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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