Everyone knows that times are tough now, especially in America but also in other countries that are feeling the effects of the faltering U.S. economy. I’m tired of hearing and thinking about it, as many of you probably are too. But I wanted to address it here in Marketing Library Services because there’s an important message you should hear: When you’re low on money, marketing is one of the last things you should cut from your budget.
|You need a good
marketing plan for publicizing
You might be shaking your head right now and thinking that either I just made a mistake or that you read that sentence wrong. But no, I meant it. This is the time to do more—and more careful—marketing and promotion than ever before. In fact, if done right, these actions can even help your library save money. Let me explain how.
Marketing and Promotion Done Right
First, let me remind you what marketing really is: It’s using strategies to move products or services from the producer to the consumer. You also need to be clear about what promotion really is: It’s building demand for something; making people want it by explaining what benefits it will bring them. It’s important to remember that promotion is just one part of the marketing process. Christie Koontz devoted a whole column to this distinction in the Jan./Feb. 2006 issue of MLS (“Promotion Is Not the Same as Marketing,” pp. 1, 4–6).
The final thing to remember is that true marketing is a circular process with many steps. You start by studying your customers (and potential customers), segmenting them into groups, studying their habits, and asking people from each group what they really want from you. Once you know more about them, then you can create the products and services that each group wants (if you don’t have them already), release (or relaunch) them, then publicize and promote them so people know they’re available. Later, evaluate your work by asking the customers if they’re satisfied with your offerings. Finally, you use their feedback to improve your services, then relaunch and re-promote, thereby continuing the cycle of constantly offering services that your constituents really want. This is a short version of the marketing cycle, but it will do for purposes of this article. (Note that promotion is just one of the steps in this cycle of true marketing.)
With these definitions and steps fresh in your mind, you can begin to see how proper marketing and promotion can help you save time and money. I’ll enumerate five tips and tactics that you might not have thought of.
Five Ways Marketing Can Cut Costs
Here are five ways that using true marketing processes can actually save your library’s money or at least help you get more bang for your precious buck.
1. Use customer input to confidently determine which services to keep and which to cut. I know that most librarians bristle at the thought of ever giving up any product or service, but they shouldn’t. Part of the worry comes from the fear of getting rid of something that will upset your customers. So you sit in meetings and ask, “What if we did away with this?” and one staff member explains why that might be bad. You suggest a different service you could end, and another staffer pipes up with scenarios about why eliminating that one might be bad. So for every service you might consider cutting, you have someone guessing and offering opinions about why that could be disastrous. In the end, there is not one line item that seems safe to live without, so you cut nothing.
This is bad business practice. Other organizations end or alter offerings all the time; it’s a simple fact of life. You need to be able to continue with whatever is the most-used and most-necessary and jettison the rest. But how can you make those tough decisions? Marketing! Remember, one of the first steps in the marketing cycle is asking customers what they want and need. When you combine actual customer feedback with statistics about attendance or usage, then you have solid data to base your decisions on. And you can’t argue with data. (Well, people do, because they let emotions get involved, but you need to remember that data is data.)
This is how business owners make decisions that keep their companies afloat. When you have a product that’s not selling or a service that’s not used enough to return any benefit to the company, it has to go. And if you’re resisting thinking about your library as a company, sorry, but you’ve got to, especially now. You have a budget, and managers, and customers. You need to operate in a way that will keep your organization solvent, just like everybody else does.
You can apply this rule not only to services but also to things like collection development. Are you still buying what you usually buy, or are you asking people for their requests? Remember, the economy might have delivered many new users to you; have you reached out to them to ask how you can fulfill their needs?
2. Use better marketing and promotion to tell folks about what you’ve already got. More than once, studies and focus groups have shown that people who are unfamiliar with current library offerings constantly ask for “new and innovative” things that the library already offers. It might be packaged differently than they expect, but whatever they want, you’ve probably already got it.
In one focus group I conducted a few years ago for non-users of a large library system, I asked participants what things their libraries could offer that might entice them to visit. Some of their responses included “a place to get coffee” and “a list of everything the library has that’s online so I can see it before I get there.” These were things that this system already offered. But people who didn’t pay attention to libraries had no idea. This public library system, like many others, already had some great things that people wanted; it simply had not publicized them enough.
Oftentimes, brochures already say things like “We have an online catalog,” but that language doesn’t translate to laypeople, who want “a list of library books on the internet.” By studying your user groups, you can also learn how they speak and think so you can communicate with them more clearly. You might think you’re telling them what you have, and if they don’t use it, they don’t want it. The truth might be that they want what you’re offering but don’t understand what you have because they don’t speak your language.
3. Save training time by creating quick tutorials or videos. New users have been flocking to public libraries lately to take advantage of services they can no longer afford to pay for on their own. Your staff might be stretched thin by trying to help people who don’t know how to use a word processor or apply for jobs online. Doing the same training over and over again can also lead to burnout. But you can avoid some of those challenges by creating tutorials or videos that will allow at least some of the people to accomplish tasks on their own.
Of course, you don’t want this to take up too much of your precious money or time, but it can be simple and quick. Just choose one librarian who’s not camera-shy, grab someone’s trusty digital camera, and shoot a 3- or 4-minute video of the person uploading a resume to an online job-hunting site. Make one video for each popular site (i.e., Monster, CareerBuilder, local sites, etc.), since each one works a bit differently. It doesn’t have to be filmed perfectly or professionally; it just has to show the instructions and actions very clearly.
Once you have such videos, they can not only cut down on the time that staff members need to devote to the task, but they can also be used as promotional tools. Spread the news that your library has automated assistance for uploading resumes. (Some people would probably be too embarrassed to ask for help doing this.) Tell the local newspaper or television reporters, see if the local cable channel will run the video, use it as part of the loop that you show on your lobby’s video screens, take it to job fairs or business meetings. Not only will you be serving customers more efficiently in their time of need, you’ll also be touting your organization’s usefulness, tech-savvy, and service principles.
4. Make your website work for all it’s worth. If you’re feeling the crunch of having more users visit in person when your staff budget has stayed flat or declined, make sure people know how your website can work for them. It’s old news to you that people can search your catalog, place holds, and even use your electronic journals from outside the library, but that info might be shocking to many of your customers, especially new ones. It’s very unsafe for you to assume that the public understands everything they can do online. I have never had a librarian tell me that, when she taught people about her library’s website capabilities, everyone yawned. Believe me, everyday people do not know this stuff. It’s up to you to publicize these facts, again and again.
So, OK, maybe you list your web functions in your brochure. How many people actually read it? And do they just read it once and toss it in a drawer? You bet they do. Maybe you list all your possibilities on your website itself. First, look at the irony here. If I don’t know that your website can do so much for me, why would I be looking at it in the first place? Second, if you do have great tutorials or “did you know you can ...?” lists on there, where are they? Are they prominently displayed on the homepage or buried in an About Us section? Are they in a spot that a layman will find intuitively? And once he does find them, are these wonderful web instructions in layman’s terms or in library-speak?
Well-respected writer and speaker Marshall Breeding makes a similar plea in the March 2009 issue of Computers in Libraries magazine. This installment of his column The Systems Librarian is titled “Library Automation in a Difficult Economy,” and he mentions library buildings being closed. On page 23, he talks about using technology to offset reductions in open hours or open buildings: “The survival of the overall business [in the commercial sector] often means increased reliance on ecommerce at the expense of the number of physical retail facilities. Libraries likewise can help sustain their strategic role in their communities to the extent that they can increase the impact of their services delivered through their websites.”
You know how much time, effort, and money go into maintaining a high-functioning library website that lets users access many amazing resources from their homes or offices. But unless you are promoting your sites loudly, proudly, and often, you are wasting those resources. You need a good marketing plan for publicizing your website to many different user groups, and that plan needs to include the types of publicity that will reach each of your target audiences where they are.
5. Lean more on your colleagues and consortia. When you’re trying to save money and resources, one obvious place to turn is to your colleagues and consortia. Librarians have long excelled at working together to save time, money, and effort. However, your colleagues are among the most-overlooked groups when it comes to marketing. How much time do you spend promoting your goods and services to other librarians around you? None? Think about it—how can you share resources when you don’t know exactly what each other has? Even if you’re part of a union list or if you can access each other’s physical and virtual resources online, that’s not all you have to offer. Think about staff expertise and knowledge. How can you exchange intangibles like these to the best advantage of everyone involved?
Maybe you have the luxury of employing someone who’s a great designer and makes your brochures beautifully, but you just lost one children’s librarian who was a really riveting storyteller. Would you know if a neighboring library had a fantastic story time staffer but nobody to do good PR? If you realized that, could you swap services for a few hours a month to make both organizations better? (Damn the red tape involved with paid hours—this is the time to be open to trying things you’ve never tried before.) Likewise, having one library organize a major program to share with surrounding ones just makes good fiscal sense, and you might get more media coverage for a more widespread program as well.
Or you may own tangible items that are not officially cataloged. Do you have a set of Guitar Hero games that you use only a couple of times a month? Could you let nearby libraries borrow them in exchange for something you don’t have?
You know that it’s important to cooperate on new levels these days. Don’t overlook your own colleagues as an important target market to work with. If your overall marketing plan includes this group, you’ll always be ahead of the game.
It’s Time to Take Bold Steps
Now is not the time to cut back on your marketing, promotion, and publicity work. I know it seems counterintuitive to spend time and money on these “soft” items if your book budget is shot and you’re laying off employees. But when you use these strategies correctly, they can actually save you money and even help you to get more when it’s available. And, as always, helping people to help themselves allows your remaining professionals to work more efficiently.