Last summer, I had an opportunity to chat with Tina Thomas after the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award presentation. Tina made sage comments about the importance of visible, consistent, and fun library marketing. She and her colleagues didn’t just talk the talk; the team went home with a 2011 JCD Award for rebranding Alberta, Canada’s Edmonton Public Library (EPL).
Tina, tell us about your educational background.
I have a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Al berta, an M.B.A. from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Certified Management Accounting Designation.
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
I am a bit of both. My education gives me more formal training than many library marketers, however I didn’t specialize in marketing during my undergrad or graduate degrees. Much of my marketing and business training came through my career, where I had the tremendous opportunity to build a diverse base of experiences in areas such as marketing communications, market analysis, and product and solution marketing.
How large is your department?
Including me, I have a staff of 11. We have four positions focused on marketing and marketing communications, three others focused on design and production services, two on fund development, one part-time events and administrative assistant, and I operate across the core functions.
How many staffers are at your library?
What percentage of the total organization budget is dedicated to marketing?
Including salaries and benefits (which not surprisingly is the largest component), approximately 3%. To put it in perspective relative to large private industry, my budget for a single event at my previous employer was more than the total annual marketing and fund development project budget I currently have. This is the reality of the public and nonprofit sector and means that we have to be both really smart and really focused on where we spend our time and resources.
What was your most successful library campaign?
We’ve had the good fortune of developing and implementing some fabulous campaigns over the past 3 years at the Edmonton Public Library. The largest and most visible campaign was our rebranding: a large-scale, comprehensive, and ambitious project to dramatically change the perception and image of our library system. The project was multiphased and is ongoing, but let me outline the key components.
Phase One: Navel gazing. We started by understanding what our stakeholders (customers, noncustomers, staff, donors) thought of us. With that knowledge, we then looked internally to understand the unique value we provide. Only after we had these foundational pieces were we able to effectively develop our brand to showcase who we are, what we do, and our unique value to our customers.
Phase Two: Creative development. Only after we had a good understanding of the message and personality our customers were searching for and we identified our key messages did our consultant develop the creative to support it. Our new mission statement is “We share!” which summarizes what we do better than anyone else in simple, clear, memorable language. Our brand promise is “Spread the words.” which makes our mission statement a call to action. Our brand creative leverages smart language and bold color to showcase how fun, fresh, and modern this library truly is.
Phase Three: Internal rollout. We knew that our staff needed to both understand and champion our brand for it to be successful. Staff are the ambassadors of our brand. If they aren’t passionate and committed to it, they can’t share that excitement. So we spent equal time on our internal rollout as we did on our external. Brand ambassadors visited every branch and division in our system and walked staff through the development of the brand, answered questions, and took feedback. This approach allowed us to touch most of our staff in a 2-week period. We also developed additional print, electronic, and multimedia tools to help them understand how our brand was a reflection of all of us. This approach helped ensure we had happy, informed, and engaged staff prior to our rollout.
Phase Four: External rollout. We launched our brand in April of 2010. This included a series of guerrilla marketing stunts pre- and post-launch, a media launch, an extensive amount of outdoor and TV advertisements, in-branch materials, and a series of launch events, including the largest MP3 experiment in western Canada (a giant game of Simon Says conducted via participant MP3 players), and our first-ever audience-participation movie. You can view several of the components at our branding website www.spreadthewords.ca.
There are many more phases to come as well. Branding isn’t a one-time project. It is who we are and what we value. It needs to encompass all we do. We are currently looking at how to better integrate our brand into our branch experience as part of signage, wayfinding, merchandising, and customer service. Our brand ... positions the library as a desirable place to be and to be associated with. It does what all great brands do: It takes control and influences what people think about us.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
We had a few challenges. First, there was some concern about launching a high-profile marketing campaign during a time of economic downturn. We made the case that libraries are needed most during economic downturns, so what better time to showcase all the great things available to our customers? We also were clear that while the project seemed “flashy,” it was smart use of public funds. This project was developed and implemented using the existing marketing budget. Instead of executing a large number of small-impact projects, we focused on a single, high-impact project with the goal of more significant results. It was the right decision.
The second challenge was to give projects the time they need. This project was conceived, developed, and executed in 7 months. It may have been the most challenging 7 months of my life. Part of the urgency was to capitalize on available budget between 2 years, and part of it was to share the results of our work as quickly as possible. In hindsight, there were a few components that may have had better results if we had delayed the launch. For example, our MP3 experiment was well-attended, but June in Edmonton would have been much warmer and more appealing for an outdoor event than April, when we still had to wear our winter coats.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
It seems cliché, but social media has been a great tool for us, allowing us to communicate with a technology-savvy, vocal audience. Large numbers of participants heard about specific events via social media. The people who actively participate in social media continue to be a smaller, niche group, however, we’ve had great success using it to tap into a solid base of supporters and advocates.
Our enewsletter has allowed us to communicate with customers and staff directly and frequently. According to our email service provider, we could consider the initiative a success if 5–8% of our subscribers signed up for our newsletter. Within the first several months of our launch, we had over 21,000 people subscribe. Today, we have almost 90,000 subscribers—approximately 40% of our email base—with a read rate of 35–40% on a monthly basis. Stories in our newsletters have resulted in increases in borrowing of showcased materials, donations, attendance to programs and events, and most recently, the best single-day results for our new ebook service, “Freading.” Our customers clearly want to hear from us.
Discuss some of your productive partnerships.
While not a partnership in the traditional sense, our marketing team is tightly integrated with our public services department. Our marketing priorities are developed in conjunction with public services priorities. This wasn’t always the case, and I know is not common in other libraries. While marketing still has corporate responsibilities that are outside the day-to-day priorities of most public services staff, we are an integral part of teams championing the key public services initiatives.
Marketing at its best is done when it is part of the building process. Encouraging marketing and public services staff to work together from the beginning—figuring out who we are targeting, what our compelling value and service are, and then developing the marketing campaign and tactics to meet those objectives—will always lead to better results than adding the marketing components of a new service or initiative at the end.
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
I have a few thoughts to share.
Focus. It is better to do a few things really, really well than many things in a mediocre way (or worse, poorly). We are better off pooling [our limited] resources, both financial and personnel, and focusing on a few great projects that will have an impact on our target customers rather than doing a lot of small campaigns or projects that will have marginal impact.
Marketing is important. We all understand the power of marketing in our everyday lives. Marketing influences what we wear, where we shop, what we eat, what we watch, who we vote for, and so much more. Most of the time, a great product isn’t good enough. We shouldn’t think that the library is any different. Marketing can help us tell our story and share our value in a compelling and desirable way.
Word of mouth is the best form of marketing for the library. Word of mouth is marketing done on the personal level by a trusted source. Who do you believe, a billboard telling you that something is great, or your friend? While we may not have big budgets from a traditional sense, we have hundreds of staffers with hundreds of connections between them. We also have thousands of customers and other supporters with thousands of connections. Better still, we aren’t selling a product; we’re sharing a great service. How do we tap into our advocates and get them to “spread the words” for us? This is an area EPL is starting to explore.