March 17, 2018

No More Viewbooks: Higher Ed Marketing is Headed Inbound | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellThe days when our colleges and universities did mass mailings to huge numbers of high school students is coming to an end. As with many other things, the Internet and social media have changed everything.

Think back to your own days as a high school sophomore or junior. Chances are you received a hefty envelope in the mail. It was chock full of information sent from a college in hopes that you would submit an application. Higher education institutions would use purchased mailing lists to cast a wide net in hopes of catching a few future students. Many of our parent institutions still use this and other traditional methods to get their message out to students. Public transit riders are all too familiar with buses and trains plastered with college ads. Every ad touts that college’s convenience and success rate. The ad for a relatively small private college shown during the Super Bowl took me by surprise, but it’s quite common to see television ads for local colleges and universities—especially online programs. These media may work for adult learners of a certain age, but as a new generation of students emerges, with noticeably different media consumption behaviors, higher education needs to rethink its marketing channels.

Out With Outbound

Most of what’s described above is referred to as outbound marketing. It encompasses all the types of traditional advertising methods with which we are familiar: radio, television, newspapers, direct mail, billboards, sponsored sports, and even those coupon circulars that come in your mail. Just like that collegiate mailing packet, all this advertising is being sent OUT to you. Their commonality is that they are grounded in interruption. They interrupt your reading, viewing, or listening, and when they robocall your phone it goes beyond interruption into invasion. Librarians can be guilty of some of these infractions with their own marketing efforts, particularly when using email blasts to announce new resources and programming. When we do this we’re part of the marketing system that believes it can generate consumption by going out and grabbing people’s attention. We probably dislike it as much as the recipients of our outbound marketing do, but what else can we do to get their attention?

Shift to Inbound

What we might do is follow the lead of some higher education institutions that are finally ditching their snail-mail information packages. They are making the switch to inbound marketing. It’s an approach that’s been gaining popularity in the marketing world since it was introduced several years ago by a firm called Hubspot, which also sells software to support its methodologies. Instead of reaching out to forcibly grab attention, inbound marketing is predicated on gaining permission to provide information after connecting with people because they want what you have to offer. In higher education the goal is to bring prospective students who want to learn about your institution IN to your physical or virtual space and have them request information about your college. How does it work? It mostly involves using Internet resources to put the institution into the information stream where potential students will find it, want to know more, and enter the website seeking more information. It makes use of blogs, video, podcasts, e-publications, social media marketing on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and search optimization. By strategically placing yourself where your potential students are looking for information, they are drawn in, as opposed to pushing information out to anyone and everyone. If your college is focused on professional programs with a career orientation it’s counterproductive to mail information to students seeking a traditional liberal arts college. That’s a bit of a simplification, but it serves to show the difference between traditional outbound methods and the more contemporary inbound strategies.

Relationships Make a Difference

While the transformation of marketing from pushing out ads to pulling in those who want what you have is interesting, I’m not sure how well this works for academic libraries that want and need to promote their people, resources, services, and programs. It makes perfect sense to avoid bombarding community members with promotions that interrupt their work flow. Who wants to be a spammer? What is different for academic librarians is the relationship with community members. It’s one thing to push content to strangers. It’s another to reach out to faculty members where there’s an established librarian liaison connection or with students who previously attended an instruction or consultation experience. Where personal relationships exist, some level of permission is established to allow for outbound techniques. That creates more possibilities for targeted marketing. You send the psychology faculty a list of new acquisition in that discipline, not every book being acquired—although a savvy subject specialist will know when to include materials from other fields based on a personal knowledge of research interests. What about everyone else in our communities with whom we’ve yet to establish a connection? What’s the best way to market library resources to those individuals?

Library Marketing in Balance

To look for answers I dove into our library marketing literature. There’s no dearth of it, and it contains much good advice and many good ideas. There may be some promise to new emerging technologies that support inbound marketing. Library Journal reported on a few libraries that are experimenting with beacon technology. It’s a true permission-based strategy since community members must opt in to receive targeted marketing messages on their mobile devices. Though it also requires an app, it has the capacity to establish a connection with someone who is already in or near the library. That still leaves a gap in reaching out to those who are nowhere near the library. My take on library marketing is that any and all strategies are fair game and situational. Some will work better than others and depending on the situation, outbound may be more effective than inbound. Whatever we do, getting good results requires forethought and intentional design going into a strategic approach to library marketing. If the library staff lacks marketing expertise consider the following:

  • Get to know your campus marketing guru. Pay attention to what that person does, and engage in a conversation about marketing. Pick up tips. Learn more about your institution’s marketing methods.
  • Talk to a faculty member in the business school who teaches marketing. Get to know what the research has to say about effective methods and the latest technologies. There may be an opportunity to have students develop a library marketing plan.
  • Does your library already have a marketing/communication specialist? Often it’s the larger ones that do. If you have that talent on staff be sure to develop a marketing strategy with your specialist’s guidance.
  • If your library doesn’t have a marketing specialist, there are more than a few librarians offering their services on a consultant basis to help you develop a marketing strategy. Read their newsletters and blogs and see what advice you can pull from those resources.

If your library is paying little or no attention to marketing, take time to find out what’s happening in higher education marketing and what you and your colleagues can learn from it. Your community members are waiting to hear from you. How are you going to reach them?

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Jill Wilson says:

    One thing I did when doing outreach is I worked with the established connections and relationships to find out what worked for them. In other words, how did they hear about events and other relevant happenings? What was their preferred way of getting information? When I found out one of our graduate student departments relied heavily on an email list serv just for them, I made sure to either get on that list to post there, or have the list owner post on my behalf. It helped bring our numbers at events up and establish even more connections. Also, assessment is key -asking where students/faculty hear about events, library services, etc.