February 17, 2018

The LibraryAware Community Survey: Marketing our Libraries

This is the second 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. 

When I started my blog in 2006, I named it The ‘M’ Word, because marketing was considered to be taboo for many in the library field. While the latest survey by Library Journal would indicate the needle has moved a bit, there is little doubt that many libraries still have a long road ahead of them. In that survey, fewer than 20 percent of all libraries have a marketing plan in place, and only 11 percent report that it is up-to-date. If that number doesn’t shock you, let’s talk about what it means not to have a marketing plan.

The GPS for Marketing

A marketing plan is the “big vision” document. It outlines who your library serves and how you want to serve them, and provides the roadmap for both implementation and evaluation. Without a marketing plan, you have no clear direction for where you are going or what you want to achieve, and, in turn, no way to tell if and when you get there. If you don’t know where you’re going, the chances are really good that no one else does either.

The good news is that most libraries (64 percent) have a strategic plan in place. So the work of knowing your community and creating strategic goals to meet their needs is already done. You still need to create a marketing plan, though. Without it, your library could be vulnerable to marketing chaos, filled with a multitude of programs and services that don’t support the library’s strategic goals. Staff time could be wasted on conducting outreach activities, never culminating in partners or advocates; media relations reduced to pitching a calendar of events rather than communicating the value of the library. And the public’s perception might fall back to the iconic image of the library—a place that stores books.

Kathy Dempsey, author of The Accidental Library Marketer, conducts workshops throughout the country, and has found that many libraries need to be convinced it’s worth the time to create a plan. “I help librarians understand that without a plan that prompts them to study users, guides them to offer the products and services people need, and helps them evaluate and improve their efforts, they’re sort of adrift. Having staffers do bits of “marketing” here and there wastes their precious time and money. It’s much less effective than having everyone work toward the same goals in an organized fashion.” A comment by one of the participants from the LJ survey summed it up when she said, “We probably should have one, but we only have one person on staff capable of carrying it out, but they’re overworked already.”

Who’s Marketing Libraries?

For the most part, marketing is considered an extra duty that staff members take on in addition to their other responsibilities—79 percent of those surveyed said it wasn’t their main responsibility. While that probably doesn’t surprise anyone in the library field, it does make the point of how essential it is for libraries to take the time to make sure they are offering a strong marketing plan for their road map. The surveyed revealed that 33 percent of the libraries have a dedicated public relations/marketing staff and 2 percent contract out the work. A few indicated that their city had control over the marketing; others indicated that the entire staff was responsible.

When libraries choose to bring in people with a marketing background rather than an MLS degree, the marketers are sometimes faced with staff who are resistant to change. Of course, there are ways to get past any challenge. Anne Peters, Director of Library Communications at the University of Texas San Antonio, advises that the best approach is to make sure you’re in at the planning stages and then use the art of attraction to gain buy-in. “The key for us has been to create a collaborative environment, offer to lessen their burden, and do really good work so people actually ask us to help them.” They create a yearly marketing plan and check in with it every three months to make sure they are on track. If something comes up that isn’t in the plan but would be too good to pass up, they’ll consider adding it, as long as it supports the strategic goals.

Why Market Anyway?

In a nutshell, libraries need to market to ensure they are meeting the needs of their communities, and are letting those communities know about their programs, products, and services. What makes the whole process a little more complicated is that marketing doesn’t start with making a flyer. It begins by getting to know customers and understanding their needs, then building the programs, products, and services that meet those needs. From there, we need to create processes to communicate those offerings. All along the way we need to evaluate the offerings and the processes.

Where libraries often get it wrong is that they want to create programs first, then hope that if they tell enough people, they’ll fill a room or increase circulation. Even in those situations where a library hires a person with marketing experience, the danger is creating a steel door between the marketing and program/service development processes.

Robin Klaene is the Public Relations and Development Director for Kenton County Library. After her library created its strategic plan, she went through each goal to identify those that involved her department. From there, she created a PR plan for internal, external, and online actions. She said that coordinating programming to reflect the goals of the organization can be difficult, but is achievable. Her method was to meet with staff, explain what they were doing, and ask them to plan programs that fit into their themes. “I have influence but not the final say. We have over 200 programs every month, so it’s pretty easy for us to find enough programs that meet our needs,” she commented.

They keep it fairly straightforward. Each month, they designate a theme that ties into a strategic goal. If a strategic goal were to increase usage of eresources, the monthly theme might be Traveling Around the World. Her team would pull the appropriate programs and resources and create cross-promotional opportunities throughout the building, in the media and online. They might create video and print promotional materials to display in the library. They’d pull together programs, and pitch different stories to newspapers. Then they’d cross-promote all the resources online on the Library blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. It’s simple and effective.

It’s All About Creating a LibraryAware Community

Whether you are marketing your library full time or an hour a week, the end goal is to ensure your community is aware of your value. Over the next 11 months, I’ll share more stories of how libraries are meeting that challenge.

I’d love to hear more about your role in marketing your library and experiences you have around working with or without a marketing plan.

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.