Business Outreach: A Few Tips and Some “How-to”

Public librarians must show a long-term commitment to developing relationships with the business community in order to keep the momentum of business outreach flowing. Before launching a business outreach strategy, librarians need to identify existing community connections already established with key staff at their respective libraries.  Approach senior managers within the library and learn who they know; become familiar with the longevity of the ties they have, the background and tone of the relationships.

As public librarians, we carry the image of the library with us, so we must engage in an authentic manner. Cultivate genuine and professional friendships, and be prepared to stay involved at a steady pace with ongoing projects and community plans. Invite the local chamber, village departments, municipal authority, business decision-makers, or nonprofit organizations to a tour of library facilities, give special attention to your business collection, and host meetings at the library, if space allows.

Business decision makers should expect to see their public librarians at community meetings. Go confident with the gifts and talents you bear, and be prepared for lively discussion at the table. The business community and commerce development leaders should know that public librarians are exceptional listeners. We are not passive, nor too meek to be heard in a strategic discussion; however we also don’t come with a pressured Glengarry Glen Ross sales pitch.  We tilt conversations to what we can offer and come with a key contributor’s approach. We share knowledgeable and relevant options with demonstrated uses of our sources to find concrete answers.

Move forward to rally community leaders and emphasize the benefits of our involvement, not because it’s a feather in our caps, but because we share the common ground of investment in our neighborhoods. The attraction and retention of residents, patrons, shoppers, business owners, and commuters sustains and supports economic development, and boosts residential and commercial community pride.

Some recommendations:

Become familiar with chamber events and make every effort to attend after hour events, grand openings, and outings. Even better, offer to assist chamber staff with setup or prep work, especially to offset a registration fee if there is an event cost that the library can’t afford.

Check the SBA/Small Business Development Center site to locate the nearest center to assist small businesses. Enroll in one of the free workshops and gauge interest with SBDC instructors in working together on a co-presentation.

Host a table or booth at the farmer’s market, concerts, expos, festivals, mayoral breakfasts, etc.

Attend open village meetings for business plan development; if they’re not open, ask to be included.

Express interest in plans for economic growth. Stay in the minds of decision makers so they remember what the library has to offer.

Include a library promo piece in village welcome packets to new businesses. Attend or initiate a monthly welcome meeting for businesses with multiple community organizations.

Ask the village to share which businesses received new licenses (make it on ongoing monthly practice). Reach out to entrepreneurs and introduce the library to them when their schedules allow. Be patient and understanding if they’re not able to receive you in their early stages of opening because it’s an incredibly hectic time for them. They’ll likely welcome a visit from you soon after, and will appreciate your patronage and interest in their success.

Prepare sessions on business services related to solve specific owner or manager problems.

Highlight library services and call upon local businesses, banks, and agencies to explain what you can deliver.

Pair up with a colleague and bring just a few promo library pieces to nearby transit or high traffic areas. Don’t bombard passersby with information; be visible and ready to answer “what do you do?”

Partner with a business, organization, and local community college extension or business division to attract interest in shared community events.

Listen carefully to the struggles of small business managers. In these conversations you may find how an existing source may help alleviate this problem, or how a new resource should be added to the library’s collection.  Pairing a resource with an expressed patron need lends itself to a warranted budget item. Also, some keen program ideas come from maintaining a pulse on business obstacles and hurdles.

Public library business outreach doesn’t necessarily require a high budget allowance, but is dependent on senior management support. Administration needs to see results to recognize the value. Be prepared to explain the tangibles for your efforts (i.e. increased interest, visits, circulation to business stats/collection). Document outcomes of outreach events attended and comments received. We need to be consistent with our community presence so we’re not just occasionally visible, but actually woven into the cooperative fabric.

Patricia Smolin is the Business Liaison Librarian at Schaumburg Township District Library.

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