We’ve all heard this before when someone suggests that an answer to a question might be found by checking the library: “They do that? I didn’t know the library did that!”

The service or resource being discussed has probably been available for a couple generations, so you’re left thinking, “Where has this person been?”

But consider this: maybe we, as librarians, are partly to blame. After all, we’re not exactly the world’s expert marketers. But we can do better, and we can do it without spending a fortune.

At a marketing workshop once, I heard a rather amazing comment that was as painful as it was true. The instructor said that, when libraries finally come up with both the money and the personnel to really do some marketing, what do we do? We tell them we have books and bestsellers and story hours. No kidding! What we should be concentrating on is telling (and showing) our communities what we do that they don’t already know about.

That begs the question, how can we market more effectively? While many libraries are short on money, one thing we are rich with is creativity. If you put that to work, whether you’re in a huge, multi-branch public system or even a small church library, you can get people in the door and surprise them once they’re there!

Question: How can I bring attention to my church’s library collection, hidden as it is, far from the usual traffic pattern in the building?

Great question! First, try to move it! Maybe you can’t move all of it, but what about moving part of it? The impact of putting even just one shelf — or even a single bookcase — right by a door or the coffee pot might help get everyone’s attention. Then, you can build interest in the library from there. I’d bet the house you’ll hear at least one person say, “I didn’t know we had a church library!?” It’s a start!

Another idea is to hold a book discussion to bring attention to the fact that you have more in your collection than just a bunch of dusty old concordances. Right now, for example, a major motion picture has been released that’s based on a religious bestseller. While the book (The Shack by William P. Young) has a religious theme, it also has enough mystery and drama in it to make it popular in the mainstream.

If you had a prominent place to display that book (and maybe even bring in extra copies from nearby libraries), you might be able to get a group together to go to the movie and then meet afterward for coffee and discussion. And all of that (except the movie ticket) is free!

Question: Even when we do get one of our news releases published in our small local paper, it’s buried so far back that no one sees it. And we paid a marketing person to write that!

Let’s face it — there aren’t many people who read the paper front to back like we all used to. Most people see the big headlines online all day long, and newspapers are lucky if people even pick them up, let alone read the entire paper. But, since you’re paying someone to write your news releases, why not broaden the list of places where your news is sent?

Did you know that most nonprofit organizations have a newsletter, and they’re often looking for information to put in it? So do your schools, PTA and local Chamber of Commerce. Send your news to them and see if you can attract the attention of their readers. But make sure the story is written in such a way that there is a hook that ties it to something that group cares about.

And, while you’ve got your pen or keyboard out, write a letter to the editor! In that piece, you can not only share some library news but also some library emotion, opinion and excitement that would otherwise be cut from a formal story.

Question: We’re not allowed to make our own signs or flyers anymore. We can only use what the administration’s marketing department sends us. This leaves us no opportunity for individuality or creativity. And the signs are boring!

I disagree with the statement that posting professionally created signs limits a branch staff’s individuality or creativity. That all depends on how you post it.

If it’s allowed, be as creative as you can in where and how you display these signs. For example, let’s say you want to do a “beach reading” display for the summer. Headquarters just sent you a (yawn) flyer you can use. Try asking staff to bring in old suitcases, pile them up right next to the checkout desk, put a big beach umbrella over the whole thing and hang the poster from that. You could even fill some of the suitcases with paperbacks, or have the Friends sell lemonade next to the display on the weekend.

Question: I’ve heard that marketing is everyone’s job, but at my library, every single question gets referred to our PR person, and she’s only part-time. If it’s everyone’s job, what should everyone be doing?

You’re absolutely right, marketing the library is everyone’s job, but like most jobs, we can’t do it well if we’re not prepared. One director I know responded to lots and lots of user questions about an ongoing renovation by having the marketing person put a list of quick, effective answers to frequently asked questions at every service desk. That way, when a patron asked “What’s going on with all this noise and dust?”, rather than refer them to the marketing person, any staff member could respond with, “We’re really excited about our expanded Children’s Department and meeting rooms. Be sure to come back next month for our Grand Opening!”

There are lots of ways to prepare staff to take on the responsibility of helping to market the library, both from behind their desks and out in the community. Public speaking classes, Toastmasters and media relations training are just a few ideas that might fit well into your next staff day or employee orientation program.

Question: Our library sends out a wonderful, colorful newsletter each month, but people still just don’t show up to our programs. When asked why, they say they didn’t know about them!

This statement demonstrates perhaps the most important point to be made about effective marketing: it must be strategic and ongoing. To illustrate this, I’m going to borrow from an outstanding article entitled, “Marketing Libraries Is Like Marketing Mayonnaise,” by Ned Potter. In it, he writes, “In marketing workshops I like to use the example of Hellmann’s® Mayonnaise. Hellmann’s … 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®. The 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.”

He continues, “Now, as it happens, I don’t find the folksy, cutesy tone of this advertisement particularly appealing — but here’s the thing: I do have some Hellmann’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).

“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.”

Think in terms of your library’s strategic plan. You first identify a mission, then several goals to help you achieve that mission, then several objectives to help achieve the goals, and finally, some specific action steps to help you reach your objectives.

If your mission, for example, is to market your library effectively, you might establish an objective to increase your news output and then an action step might be to create a blog, a billboard and some newspaper ads. In other words, you’ll need lots of pieces and parts (and steps) to come together to reach that broad mission. Simply put: a once-a-month newsletter just isn’t going to cut it.

With everyone involved, with lots of channels to use (from newsletters to creative displays to group contacts to staff interactions) and a constant flow of messages, you can make sure residents in your area say, “Of course you can go to the library for that!”


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