Trenton Smiley may be the prototype for an accidental library marketer. He started out in radio, progressed to big business, and then transitioned to his present career of promoting Michigan libraries. From winning millage campaigns to recruiting Millennial library users, Smiley shares the secrets he’s gleaned on his circuitous and successful journey to library marketing professional.
Trenton, tell us about your educational background.
I have an M.B.A. in marketing from Baker College. I also have a bachelor’s of business administration and 2 years of study in media communications. I also gained a great deal of business experience from Sears, where I held a number of management positions and conducted sales promotions for stores in the Detroit metro area.
Initially, I wanted to work in radio, so I began taking courses at Lansing Community College with the intention of transferring to Michigan State University. While in school, I held positions at three commercial radio stations. I co-hosted The Smart Shopper, which was the radio equivalent of QVC, and hosted a popular rap show. I also produced several sports shows.
When a great opportunity opened up with Sears in the Detroit area, I placed both my radio career and studies on hold. While at Sears, I held various management positions over businesses that generated more than $9 million in annual sales. I also was the point person on several promotions and public relations projects on behalf of 16 company stores in the Detroit metro area and parts of Ohio. Through these projects, I first began working with the Detroit Public Library.
Then, clearly with a different career path, I earned a bachelor’s in business administration, and, once I began marketing libraries, my M.B.A. in marketing from Baker College.
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
My marketing experience spans 17 years. I have been in my current position with Capital Area District Libraries (CADL) since 2014. (I had also worked there from 2004 to 2009.) Prior to that, I held marketing positions for the Genesee District (Mich.) Library (GDL) and Detroit Public Library (DPL). I have won numerous honors, including the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award and the Michigan Library Association’s Award of Excellence.
While with Sears, I got the company to sponsor a number of Detroit Public Library programs and advertisement campaigns. This partnership continued over a few years until a marketing position opened up at DPL, which I applied for and was offered in 1998.
The position was marketing project planner, which helped manage the day-to-day operation of the marketing department, as well as generated corporate support for library events. I held the position for 3 years. While I loved the job, it was a daily commute of 3 hours, so I took a marketing specialist position at the Genesee District Library, which was closer to home. I was responsible for marketing for 19 branches, which included a brand-new location opening inside a large regional mall. At the time, it was one of the first locations of its kind in the country. The project was referred to as a “Marketing Demonstration Location” since it provided GDL with the opportunity to promote its brand and offerings to a large volume of people using the mall. The project, including a related awareness campaign, won a John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award in 2003.
I then returned to Lansing to become the marketing director for Capital Area District Libraries. I was in charge of marketing 13 branches and a bookmobile.
After being at CADL for a year, I was honored with the 2005 Michigan Library Association’s Award of Excellence. The award recognized my marketing efforts to date, including a special event that featured personal finance guru Suze Orman. Under my leadership, we raised $30,000 in sponsorship fees for the event and another $10,000 worth of media support. This ticketed event drew over 2,000 people. My team also won a variety of other state and national marketing awards.
What was your most successful library campaign?
Our most successful library campaign was the 2014 millage renewal campaign. The renewal passed with 77% of the vote, the highest percentage in our 15-year history and a six-point increase over the 2010 results. The entire CADL team had a role in this historic victory. As part of our marketing strategy, we began running a series of radio and television spots featuring high-profile media personalities promoting library services. We ran these ads alongside our informational campaign for the election. This was a nice lead-in for a regular election campaign. Too many times, libraries struggle to educate the public about their mission and services just prior to an election.
How large is your department?
My team consists of a graphic designer, social media/public relations coordinator, and a part-time marketing and communications assistant.
How many staffers are at your library?
We have a total of 222 employees throughout the system.
What percentage of the total organization budget is dedicated to marketing?
The marketing budget is less than 1%, however, each year, we generate between $75,000 and $100,000 worth of in-kind support. One of the foundations of our marketing strategy is to leverage our resources in order to do more with less. This is accomplished by getting added value on each and every media buy.
We also create sponsorship packages in which media and outside organizations can gain exposure to our members for exchange for goods, services, and access to their customers. For example, we just secured an in-kind deal with a media group for our Summer Reading program. In exchange for providing us with $5,000 worth of radio ads, the media company’s logo will appear in selected library publications and digital campaigns. We mark up the assigned value of inclusion in our publications just like for-profit companies do in order to generate greater return for the library.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
The biggest challenge continues to be changing the perception of today’s libraries. Although libraries have evolved, there are still many stereotypes and misperceptions among the pool of potential patrons. I learned that positioning and evolving your library’s brand is the key. If you aren’t actively educating the communities, then their perception of the library is based on outdated experiences or assumptions. (See examples of our Everything Right Here campaign. Audio: http://bit.ly/1UsVUyC; Video: http://bit.ly/1PFAiHh)
While we want to market to everyone, our circulation and program data shows that women between the ages of 25 and 64 are the primary demo for our services. After we conducted focus groups of non-users, we expanded our focus to include the 18–24 demo. During the focus groups, many within this age group did not see our value since many of the services they want are online. Libraries must understand that marketing is a process that includes research and not just fliers or ads.
Like corporations, we use celebrities or special events to help position our brand and to get our services noticed. Our goal is to tap into the celebrity’s base of followers, as well as the norms and values that are identified within the target group. We have a tough time connecting with Millennials so our new Everything Right Here marketing campaign is featuring a local singer who is part of that generation. She will help us demonstrate ways our services link to the lifestyle of that generation.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
To generate awareness of our digital collections, we have added homepage takeovers to our advertisement mix. Takeovers provide us with a 100% share of the voice on popular media websites. Over a 24-hour time frame, visitors to that site will only see ads from us. We normally receive 750–1,600 clicks on the link to our digital collection.
CADL conducted some marketing research of current and potential users, as well as Millennials. We found across the board that many weren’t aware of our digital offerings, and 70% got their news and information online.
We also place ads on The Weather Channel app, one of the most popular mobile apps in America. We have the ability to target ZIP codes around our branches. More importantly, a weather-prediction option allows us to set temperature ranges and weather conditions that will trigger our ads. For example, we ran ads during heavy snowfall days that encouraged people not to venture out in the cold and snow, but instead to check out our digital collection. Ad clicks are tracked through a dashboard provided by our media contact. It costs $12.50 per 1,000 impressions. Our library is working on a secondary element to this concept that will feature web banners and videos that feature local weather personalities promoting their station capabilities like Doppler Radar and of course our digital resources.
Discuss some of your productive partnerships.
Over a year ago, one of our local movie theaters asked to place some fliers in our branches for a free family movie festival. We agreed and asked to be added as an in-kind sponsor. We used the free movie festival as a way to provide our cardholders with added value, as well as a way to connect with potential new patrons.
This agreement led to other partnership opportunities, including the creation of a coloring book featuring the mascots of the two organizations and an in-theater holiday drawing that provided us with a list of non-users to target through an email marketing campaign. Near the end of last year, our theater contact entered us into a company contest that honored businesses providing great customer service. Through a public vote, we won the contest in January and a prize package valued at $30,000. The package includes free cinema advertising for the entire year, a staff VIP party, and movie passes for our staff. (Here’s the video that was created by our partner, Celebration! Cinema, and played on all screens in our market for an entire year: https://youtu.be/mveXsUMm92w.)
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
As a library marketer, you must continue to communicate how your services add value to the lifestyle of the potential and current patron. More importantly, put your patron first in everything you do.