February 16, 2018

Marketing Libraries Is like Marketing Mayonnaise

Ned Potter headshot

Ned Potter

If you make one small change to the way you contextualise your marketing efforts, it can yield big results. It’s subtle but important, and here’s how to go about it.

Marketing libraries is a tough business, for all kinds of reasons. Lack of time, lack of funds, lack of other resources. The fact that public perception of what libraries actually do is about 15 years behind the reality in a lot of cases. But also the fact that there’s often a fundamental misunderstanding about what marketing should actually achieve.

People will often run a small marketing campaign—perhaps some posters, some leaflets, some emails—and are disappointed when the return on investment isn’t what they hoped. We told people all about our new service, so why didn’t more of them show up? But think about how much it takes to make you, as a consumer, take any actual action. Think about last time marketing ‘worked’ on you—was it a one-off promotion? Did you see an advert for a car, then get your coat on and go out and buy a car? Almost certainly not—most marketing works over a long period of time. A lot of library marketing expects people to see, for example, a promotion for a session on genealogy, then rush out there and then and book place to start researching their family tree. Of course, it’s possible to achieve this on occasion, but you need to be some kind of marketing genius to do it regularly!

In marketing workshops I like to use the example of Helman’s Mayonnaise. Helman’s (which, Twitter reliably informs me, is also known in different parts of North America as Best Foods Mayonnaise) advertises in a lot of places. The company advertises in magazines. It advertises on the subway. It advertises on television. It even advertises on the bonnet of the racers in NASCAR. They key thing to remember, which I’ll return to in a moment, is this: no one ever rushed out from a NASCAR race to buy some mayo…

Here’s one of Helman’s TV adverts in the UK:

Now, as it happens, I don’t find the folky, cutesy tone of this advertisement particularly appealing—but here’s the thing: I do have some Helman’s mayo in my fridge at home. Why? Because when I was in the supermarket and I needed mayonnaise, they were the first brand I thought of (because of all those ads across all those different platforms)—the jar was there on the shelf, I’d heard of the brand, I associated it with what I needed, and I’m not some kind of mayonnaise expert who can make extremely discerning choices…

Now think about your library marketing. How are you expecting people to respond? One-off promotions expect too much of our users and potential users. It’s more important (and more realistic) to build up awareness of the services we offer to relevant groups over a period of time, so that when they DO require something we provide, we’re the first thing they think of. When that person eventually gets round to researching their family tree, they think ‘Ah, I know the library can help me with this.’

This is why strategic marketing works so well—a joined-up approach, rather than a series of unrelated promotions. It’s ‘a series of touches at key times,’ as marketing guru Terry Kendrick would say, in the way the users live their lives. It’s different versions of the same message across multiple formats (traditional marketing, social media, and so on) to reinforce the message and to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise hear what you have to say. If everything you do works together and builds on what you’ve done before, it creates an ambient awareness of the services the library provides, and enables us to be what people think of when they need what we do.

Is your marketing the equivalent of trying to make people rush out of the NASCAR race early to buy the mayonnaise? If so, you may be disappointed. But if, over time, you position the brand of the library to be the authoritative source of the kinds of services you provide, then people will think of you when they need you, and then they’ll walk in through the door—and from there you can build a more meaningful relationship and introduce them to what else you have to offer.

A great way to increase access to digital content

Finally I wanted to mention what New York Public Library is doing with digitized collections. To quote the press release:

“The NYPL Digital Collections API not only provides access to the digitized collections of the NYPL, but provides access to over 1 million objects and records that can be searched, crawled, manipulated and integrated into websites and applications. This advanced programming capability has been made possible due to significant portions of the digitized collections being made available as machine-readable data.”

This is FANTASTIC. I don’t want to get into the technical details of what API means, but there are two useful examples to illustrate why this is such a good idea. First of all, it was the fact that Twitter opened up its API which allowed third-party developers to create the useful social media dashboards and apps which in many cases improve the Twitter user experience—it’s what helped Twitter grow to the second biggest social network in the world. And the iTunes App Store’s massive popularity (and, therefore, that of apps in general) is almost entirely down to Apple opening up the production of apps to all, rather than limiting them to their own proprietary creations. In both these cases, massive popularity and growth has come from making a platform available and letting others come in and use it, just as the NYPL is doing. I can only imagine this is going to be hugely successful, and I think it’s a fantastic example for others to follow. We spend an enormous amount digitising our collections, so let’s make sure as many people have access to them, and benefit from them, as possible.



  1. Nice article – thanks for it.
    Key is having your library administration seeing the value. Libraries have an cautious culture, which is both good and bad. We thoroughly investigate before we spend $10,000 on a product for our students. However, when it comes to promo/communications activities, where you don’t have immediate, quantitative evidence of the value, we struggle.

    Part of the value is that it builds authenticity. In an academic library, your primary touchpoints with users are online, via your OPAC, e-tools etc. We know that users want to connect with real humans and make real connections. Promotional/marketing activities can replicate this connection. Have you built a ‘personality’ in your online and promotional presence? Are you human or are you talking to other library types? Our publics aren’t stupid. They recognize authenticity when they see it, taste it, hear it. Best to be it. They don’t want to be your best friends but you are actually building a relationship and yes, building a relationship takes time.

    Now, off to the store for some mayo….Hellmans I think!