Do Surveys Matter?

online_surveyI’m often asked if a library should conduct a survey of its community.  The simple answer is yes.  How can a library develop a solid strategic plan or marketing plan if it does not have reliable data on how the community and patrons regard and use the library? The fact is that while libraries think they know their community, they often have misconceptions that may lead to ineffective marketing.

Library staff and trustees tend to believe that patrons are familiar with most services libraries offer.  A survey frequently paints a different reality.  For example, one survey showed that just 22% of a library’s patrons were aware of interlibrary loan, and just 13% used it.  Yet, the few people who used it rated it very favorably.  So if interlibrary loan is viewed positively, why weren’t more patrons using it?  Despite the survey data, the librarian in charge of interlibrary loan assured us it was a well-used service.  We asked a few more questions. Are there fees associated with it that might discourage patrons? Nope, no fees. How is it publicized? The library’s newsletter featured the service one time three years prior to the survey.  Hmm…one article does not equal an effective awareness building effort. How does the library’s website promote the service?  It doesn’t.  It neither mentioned the service nor provided a link to request materials from another library.

The good news.  Based on the research and our conversations, the library undertook a sustained communications effort to increase awareness of interlibrary loan.

Here’s another misbelief we’ve run into repeatedly: the visitor to the physical library is different from a digital library user.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In several dozen surveys, we find that most physical library users also visit the library’s web site to access various digital services. In fact, many of the digital library users also frequently visit the physical library.  Exclusive digital library users? They account typically for just 1%- 2% of community residents.  The marketing implication?  Creating marketing strategies for digital services is no different than for other services.  Segment patrons, consider their needs and continually communicate the library’s growing digital offerings.

Never assume that your community knows all about the library. Evaluate what your community knows and doesn’t know about library. With this knowledge, you can create a communications plan that will increase awareness of and respect for your library’s services.

Donna Fletcher is the president of Donna E. Fletcher Consulting, Inc., a business that offers advice and consulting on marketing research, marketing strategy and strategic planning. She served as a public library trustee for six years and has consulted with numerous public libraries east of the Mississippi www.librarysurveys.org.

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