February 17, 2018

The Results Are In and They Aren’t Good | Library Marketing

This is the first in a series of articles in which Nancy Dowd will examine the results of an exclusive survey of library professionals from more than 400 public libraries across the U.S. on public library marketing. The survey was sponsored by the NoveList division of EBSCO Publishing. 

This marketing survey’s purpose was to gain information about how public libraries market themselves, the effectiveness of marketing initiatives undertaken by the library, and the resulting engagement within their communities. The results clearly indicate there’s a disconnect; a canyon between what should be happening and what is happening within the marketing schemas of public libraries. In an era when the value of libraries are under scrutiny and library budgets are under siege it is essential that libraries communicate their value to users as well as non-users. A failed marketing practice is failed communication.

The majority of the 471 individuals who responded were public library directors and managers. When asked about the marketing and communications channels their library used to sustain a presence in their communities, the usual contenders were ranked the highest—library website, printed materials in the library, the local newspaper and social media. However, when asked to relay how effective these channels were felt to be, the percentages dropped astonishingly low. For example, 95 percent of libraries surveyed reported using their website as an outlet for communication and engagement with their community; only 14 percent of participating libraries felt their website was the most effective means of reaching out to patrons. In a more extreme example, 86 percent of libraries utilize social media as a marketing tool, but only 4 percent reported it as the most effective tool.

The canyon widens as we dig deeper into the rest of the data collected by the survey. Only 19 percent of respondents reported having a marketing plan within their library, with 52 percent reporting that they need one. With over half of participants recording their need for a cohesive marketing plan, it’s no wonder that only 32 percent of libraries rate their marketing as effective. When you view this data in conjunction with 77 percent of respondents completely agreeing that library marketing increases overall community awareness of the library, one simple fact emerges; we need to build a bridge across this widening canyon.

As we delve deeper into the results of the survey, interesting insights are unearthed but further questions are raised. In the coming months, I’ll be addressing these questions; digesting the raw data provided by the survey; and uncovering solutions relevant to the challenges facing libraries and librarians in the modern era.

Nancy Dowd About Nancy Dowd

Nancy Dowd is the co-author of ALA’s bestselling book, Bite-Sized Marketing: Realistic Solutions for Overworked Librarians. She has recently joined NoveList as the product lead for the development of a new marketing tool to help libraries promote their programs, products and services. She writes the The M Word Blog and has spoken on the topic of marketing throughout the US and in Canada and Europe. As director of marketing for the New Jersey State Library she won many marketing awards including ALA’s John Cotton Dana Award.



  1. Thanks Nancy…The survey is a great idea, and I hope the bad news results will get the attention of our profession. Keep up your good work!

    • Lisa Jones says:

      I agree with Ms. Barber. I think that as information professionals we have to utilize technology to get the word out about our services, however, we cannot forget that in some cases a majority of our citizens don’t use social networking. They do however, listen to the radio, watch television, etc.

  2. Thanks for Nancy (and Library Journal) for what I hope is a good series of articles. I fear I might be just repeating what you’ve said over time, but the terrible thing about nearly all kinds of libraries is that marketing is not built into our culture. The Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 brought that into high relief and now many places are trying to play catch-up when what they’ve started with is 0 and have little to build upon. Is there any library school that teaches *at least* a one-semester course in marketing? (There might be, but I’ve never heard of one.)

    The one part of the library world where I see this happening is with some special libraries, notably the efforts of the Special Library Association. Perhaps because of its closer connection to the for-profit world, for years, SLA has tried to offer insights on how to how to sell the library – which is through its services (not its contents), a strategy that tries to place librarians and their services as essential focus of the library.

    Really, every staff member of a library should have marketing as part of their responsibility. I look forward to the rest of your series.

  3. Amanda Brown says:

    As a MSLS student I have recently finished a marketing class: Library Marketing and the Community. This is a subject that greatly interests me as I have my undergrad minor in business. As an advocate I know the only advertisements I see for my rural local library are in the newspaper or facebook. I feel as though there are so many missing opportunities, but their limited budget makes this difficult. Dowd is correct in stating that a bridge needs to be connected. Marketing is obviously beneficial, but how can an already stretched thin budget allocate room for more publicity?