What I know about how marketing can help libraries in a nutshell

It’s always difficult to determine the return on investment in a public library setting. To a large degree, it’s subjective. Decreased circulation doesn’t necessarily mean that your library isn’t important to your community. High or low program registration and attendance can be chalked up to weather, other community events, or the time of day. I think the main question to ask is how your organization determines success. Is it, indeed, circulation? Is it program attendance? Is it database usage? Is it bodies in the library? Is it the passage of a building referendum? For the Eisenhower, it’s how people feel about the library. We know we won’t get everyone to visit or even use our virtual resources, but we do want every person to know that the Library is an integral component of the community. Part of making that connection is helping people recognize us and who we are. That’s where marketing comes in.

Based on that concept, it is obviously important to define your organization. What is your focus? Of course as a public library, our primary focus is getting people information in whatever form that takes, but what is it that makes you unique as a library? For us, it means establishing trust on an individual level with members of our community. We want people to know our librarians by name. The communities we serve cover a relatively small footprint, and community members rely heavily on word of mouth to inform their decisions about everything from the plumber they call to the flowers they order for weddings or funerals. It takes quite a bit of time with repeatedly positive contact to make that kind of impression but once someone is positively disposed towards someone or something in our community, they are loyal. We definitely strive to establish a trusting relationship with members of our community. The question then becomes how to establish that trusting relationship with people who visit infrequently or never.

For us, it has been all about creating a recognizable brand and making sure that every marketing piece, every contact, every outreach effort conveys that brand and supports the image we want to convey. This is even reflected in the furnishings we selected for the building. We want people to think of our library environment as a well-appointed den – comfortable, inviting, clean, and esthetically pleasing without being ostentatious. It sends the message that books are still the focus here, but we also want people to feel comfortable hanging out and enjoying the company of fellow community members. We felt it was important that our brand conveyed the same message – smart yet accessible, idiosyncratic yet self-aware, classy yet comfortable.

A good branding and marketing message can effectively convey these things in print, virtually, and through staff representation outside the building. Even the contacts you make and the ways in which you decide to present your institution outside the library should be driven by your brand. If you are defining your institution accurately and – more importantly, in my opinion – if how you define your library is a reflection of the community you serve at its core, then you should be able to move easily between chamber events and farmers markets without anyone becoming confused about your message. The most important thing is to be authentic. If you try convey an image that your institution simply does not “own,” people will know and it won’t be effective.

Our marketing strategy has done many positive things for our organization. A few of these benefits have been:

  • It helped us organize our communication efforts both internally and externally.
  • It has provided us with a clear message to convey to the local press.
  • It helped us create a recognizable brand that truly reflects what makes us unique.
  • It informed the redesign of our website into an online presence that matches our image and gels with the feeling of the building.
  • It has driven our outreach efforts and encouraged creative thinking with regard to where we place ourselves in the community outside of the building and the ways in which we do that.
  • It guided the redesign of our newsletter, which is still the primary source of information about the library for our community.

Ultimately, what is our return on investment and how do we measure it? Truthfully, we are still figuring that piece out. However, I can tell you anecdotally that I have had more people approach me in the last year and say something to the effect of, “I didn’t know what a great library this was until I saw the newsletter/your website/you at the farmers market/you at the mall” etc., than I have in the previous 7 years I worked here. That cannot be a coincidence. The number of times our local newspaper has featured a story about the library has gone up. Definitely, that can be directly credited to our marketing strategy.

We recently established a “How are we doing?” box for people to give us feedback. Nearly every comment we’ve received – and we’ve received many – mention a staff member by name and how deeply appreciative the writer is for all of the help that staff member provided. In the end, that tells me that we are succeeding in sending the right message.

We’re here to help. We want to know you. We can’t wait for you to come back.

Stacy Wittmann is the Library Director at the Eisenhower Public Library District.

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One Response to What I know about how marketing can help libraries in a nutshell

  1. Elizabeth S Neill says:

    Thank you, Stacy, for sharing your experience with marketing at your library and for demonstrating how library marketing should be “woven into” the experience the patron has at the library, and be integrated into everyone’s work at the library.

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