Without an advertising or marketing budget, Fort Bend County Libraries (FBCL; www.fort bend.lib.tx.us) in Texas had to find a way to conduct marketing research with limited manpower. Partnering with the local university’s business school turned out to be a win-win solution for
everyone, and it was free!
|Results of the study revealed that patrons weren’t fully aware of the
nontraditional materials available for checkout, including digital collections,
Launchpads, and magazines, or about resources such as online
homework help. [Photo courtesy of Fort Bend County Libraries]
|Survey responses for “How would you prefer to be notified about library programs,
events and services? Please check all that apply.”
|Survey responses for “How do you learn about updates about FBCL? Please check
all that apply.”
About Fort Bend: County and Library System
Situated just southwest of Houston, Fort Bend County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. The 2016 Census Bureau population estimate is 741,237, and growth has continued to outpace projections for the past 10 years.
With a combination of urban and rural communities, the county is recognized as one of the most diverse in the U.S. Its proximity to the Houston metropolitan area makes Fort Bend County an ideal location for young, upwardly mobile citizens who appreciate easy access to the professional opportunities of the city as well as a safe, culturally rich community in which to raise their families. While part of the county includes highly educated, financially stable residents, there are other areas with low-income populations who live paycheck to paycheck. Farming and trade predominate in some areas.
The county is known for its excellent schools: five public school systems, several private schools, and a strong homeschool community. It is also the location of the University of Houston–Sugar Land (UHSL), which offers some classes from the University of Houston–Victoria (UHV) and has a satellite Wharton County Junior College facility on-site.
FBCL’s marketing and communications department consists of five people: a full-time public information officer (PIO), a media specialist, and a graphic artist/webmaster and two part-time print-shop staffers who produce and distribute necessary operating documents and marketing materials.
The community avidly uses and supports FBCL, which currently has 10 locations. Ground has been broken for the 11th location, and yet another library is on the books for near-future development.
With such a rapidly growing population, we knew our public library system had an extensive untapped market, and we needed to know if our marketing methods—sending press releases, creating materials in-house, and using social media—were effective and what other marketing tools might work better.
Did people know about the things the libraries offer? Were we reaching the market we needed to reach? Or were we only reaching the people who already loved and used our services regularly? Do people prefer to use the library in person, or do they prefer online services and resources? These were some of the questions we wanted to address with a market-research study.
FBCL Partners With UHSL
During summer 2015, FBCL’s PIO, Joyce Kennerly, called a friend at UHSL—associate vice chancellor Dick Phillips—and asked if the university had a business class that might take on a marketing survey as a class project. He directed her to associate marketing professor Jun Yang, Ph.D., at UHV, who wanted to conduct a survey course using email to carry out the project.
According to Jun, the university often receives similar requests from organizations and community members, and the business school strives to contribute to the community by incorporating such projects into the classroom. It is not always easy, however. The instructors have to align these projects with their courses’ learning objectives so students’ performances can be appropriately assessed. In addition, such real-life projects require both parties (the instructor and the organization) to devote significant time and to work closely together. Oftentimes, the organization has to adjust its project goals to make them fit the class project, which can be a big challenge.
In early August, Joyce and FBCL media specialist Michele Pettigrew met with Jun to explain FBCL’s objectives. We had three basic goals for doing a market-research study:
1. To determine how our users viewed the libraries’ resources and services. Were they aware of how much was available to them?
2. To better understand the demographics of our users. This would also provide insight into who we were not reaching in the community.
3. To determine which marketing efforts were effective and where we needed improvement. How were people learning about our services? How would they prefer to learn about them?
The three of us developed an outline for the project and initiated a plan of action for the semester, which would begin on Aug. 24. We established a tentative timeline for potential focus groups and/or interviews and questionnaire distribution. Because we wanted to include both focus groups and an online survey, Jun suggested a two-part research project: Phase 1 would consist of small focus-group studies, and Phase 2 would incorporate a survey questionnaire.
Jun’s graduate-level course, MKTG6372: Marketing Research, was taught completely online, so her students had varying personal schedules, with some even holding down full-time jobs and a few living a considerable distance away. This made it challenging for the 14 MBA students to meet for the focus-group part of the study.
Jun introduced the Fort Bend County Libraries’ project to her students, who had a choice to participate in this study or one of the other options for the class. Joyce and Michele researched sample surveys, compiled a list of possible questions for their own, and submitted their wish list to Jun.
Phase 1: Focus-Group Studies
In a series of emails on Sept. 1, Joyce and Jun discussed starting with small focus-group studies that would take place at FBCL’s Cinco Ranch branch library (CR) in Katy and the University branch library (UB) in Sugar Land (a joint-use facility with UHSL, combining public and academic services). Both locations were chosen because of their high usage and their representation of different parts of the county. The focus groups would meet on two Saturdays, Sept. 19 and 26.
Jun’s goal was to have eight to 12 participants for each focus group, but felt the study would still work with five to 15 participants. The sessions were limited to 1 hour, and refreshments were available. Michele developed an FAQ and talking points about the marketing project and the focus-group meetings for library staffers at the branches so they would know what to tell the public. They placed signs throughout both buildings asking for volunteers and posted sign-up sheets at the checkout desks. Michele posted a call for volunteers on the FBCL Facebook page. We didn’t consider any incentives or gifts for participants; we had very limited preparation time and funds and did not want to influence participants’ opinions. (We may reconsider that decision to improve future focus-group studies.)
Jun gave detailed instructions to her students on how to generate discussions among focus-group members (see them at bit.ly/2ncdmLo). She also suggested a list of questions. She attended both focus-group studies and recorded each session. She stressed the importance of recording focus groups or interviews, because it’s easy to forget some of the important issues addressed.
Although Joyce met the students at both locations to help coordinate logistics, no library employees were present during the discussions. On Sept. 19, the focus group at CR had eight participants and four UHV students. Two students acted as facilitators, while the others took notes. On Sept. 26, the focus group at UB had four participants, with seven UHV students in attendance.
Jun notes that participants in the CR group came from various backgrounds in terms of education, work experience, and ethnicity, and they generated great discussion. Conversely, the demographics of the smaller group at UB represented only one market—Anglo women older than 50, with similar education/career backgrounds—which was not representative of the general patrons at UB and in the community. If time had permitted, Jun would have tried conducting a few more focus groups with different demographics (such as young parents, seniors, homemakers, and college students—populations that use the library services the most).
The UHV students submitted their reports to Jun on Oct. 19. She and her students then submitted revisions to the survey draft, emailing back and forth with Joyce, preparing to send a final version in November.
Phase 2: Survey Questionnaire
Jun notes that a quantitative study such as the survey we designed together involves statistical analysis, which is always a challenge to teach online. She gave her students a detailed step-by-step Excel manual and project requirement (bit.ly/2DF3La2) to teach them how to use the existing data file to conduct regression analysis, cross-tab with chi-square test, etc. Several survey tools are available, but Jun chose SurveyMonkey because it is easy to design and edit questions on its interface, and the name is well-known by the general public.
We worked hard to keep the survey short enough that people would actually fill it out. It ended up being 15 questions on two pages (see it at bit.ly/2n9pLj7).
Our email database was much too large to use without culling, so we worked closely with our technology department to fine-tune the email list to a usable (but still representative) target market. We excluded anyone younger than 18, in case any parents might have an objection. We included only people who had used their cards in the previous 2 years and selected ZIP codes only in Fort Bend County. This way, we pared it down to 64,000 patrons. Tech staffers were somewhat concerned about sending so many emails because our bandwidth was limited, especially at certain times of the day. They calculated the rate at which we could send, and once they were fully rolling, we were sending at the rate of 120 emails per hour on two servers, for a total of 240 emails an hour.
Tech employees had considered adding a third server to facilitate sending more emails out faster, but they were concerned that we could be blacklisted as a spammer. The threshold for spammers at that time was 300–500 emails per hour. We wanted to keep sending the emails continuously while we were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday (Thursday through Sunday), but we could not risk being blacklisted and having the project shut down while we did not have staff members available to fix the issue. We decided to let them continue to run on the two servers until the list was completed, which took a total of 13 days.
The survey link went live on Nov. 20, and tech staffers began emailing it to cardholders on Nov. 23. We were all concerned about the timing of the emails, since they would be going out over the Thanksgiving holiday when people tended to travel and disengage from email. So we also printed hard copies for all of the branches and made the survey available online, on Facebook, and as a link on public computers at all branches to reach those who might not have library cards.
We had hoped to get at least 300–500 survey responses to have a valid pool for analysis. The response, however, was incredible! Within 24 hours, we had 200 responses. By Nov. 25, we had more than 450. By Nov. 30, we had 3,000; by Dec. 4, almost 6,000; and by Dec. 14, 7,000. As of Feb. 1, 2016, we had received 7,264 responses, which included about 160 hard-copy surveys collected from the branches.
Jun and her students were especially surprised by the immediacy and quantity of the responses. When they had received 3,000, the students began their analysis. (After the semester was over, Jun compiled the information from the entire collection of surveys and found that the results were consistent with those drawn by the students in their smaller pool.)
Survey Results and Surprises
Jun delivered the project’s results to us in December. The students’ reports (bit.ly/2DDnGXO and bit.ly/2DG1Qlp) confirmed things that we suspected:
- Most people were simply not aware of many of the free resources and services available, but were eager to try them.
- Residents appreciate their library system.
- Respondents wanted the libraries to be open more hours and on Sundays.
- Respondents wanted us to get more books.
We also learned that patrons wanted services that we already provide but that they didn’t know about, such as ILL and suggesting a book for purchase.
The biggest surprise to us was that patrons wanted to receive emails about what’s new and available at the library. We had been worried that they might feel we had violated our email agreement to only use their addresses for information about their accounts and library materials. This finding gives us a whole new way to expand our publicity.
Jun presented the final PowerPoint report (bit.ly/2DxQyN3) to the library’s administrative council and board in February 2016. They were very impressed with the amount of data we had received and shared our astonishment that patrons wanted library promotional information by email. They were chagrined about patrons’ lack of awareness but excited that we now knew what we had to tackle. Since that time members of our administration have redefined the focus of our department to include more marketing components. Although we did not add any new positions, we restructured and hired a marketing professional to bring in and implement new ideas. FBCL’s administrators have also increased the emphasis on outreach efforts by branch employees, who are now participating in community fairs to reach people who may not already use our libraries.
We believe that this library/university class partnership on a marketing survey was an enormous success. We got much-needed information (for free!) to use as the basis for developing marketing plans for at least the next 3 years. Working with the university was a pleasure: Jun and her students were so thorough, so enthusiastic, and so pleased to be involved with a project that they felt helped the community. Conversely, librarians were able to help publicize the university, and we hope we’ve laid the groundwork with the University of Houston for future collaborative projects.
Primary Lessons and Our Advice
For our next survey project, we will build in far more lead time and concentrate on better use of the focus groups. We feel that the focus-group aspect of the project was not fully realized, partly because of the short time frame we had to work with. We didn’t have enough time to fully develop marketing and publicity to draw people into the focus groups.
In the future, we will also concentrate more on marketing the project to our staff. Without understanding the significance of the project, frontline staffers were not adequately prepared to promote it to patrons. We might also try recruiting known frequent library users, taking care to build in more diversity.
If you decide to try this project, we advise that you find an area college that teaches marketing. Don’t worry if you don’t have a personal connection with someone at the college; contact the community outreach department to find a marketing class for the project. Also, establish your goals and the survey parameters in writing. Finally, build in a long lead time, so you can develop the project properly. Hopefully, after learning from our effort, you too can get valuable market research to help your library face its marketing and promotional challenges.