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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > November/December 2004
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Information Today
Vol. 18 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2004
Marketing Before Opening San José's Dual-Purpose Library
by Spenser Thompson

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library has the distinction of being the only co-managed, city­academic library in the nation. Today's King Library is the result of an ambitious project designed to integrate services of the San José State University and San José Public Libraries into a seamless operation that would serve the information literacy and service needs of multiple communities. The marketing campaign that ran prior to the new library's opening has been widely hailed as one of the nation's best. Thomson Gale and Library Journal selected both San José State University Library (SJSU) and San José Public Library as dual recipients of their 2004 Library of the Year Award. This campaign also won more, including the 2004 Best of Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America and a 2004 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award.

This article will reveal the marketing efforts that took place behind the scenes, before the opening. It comes from conversations with two key players, Sharon Russell and Lorraine Oback, and from my own experience as a graduate research assistant at SJSU's Clark Library (1999—2001). Russell, now communications officer for the City of San José's Department of Public Works, was then program manager for the King Library and co-manager for the grand-opening campaign. Oback is the marketing communications director for the San José Public Library System. Russell worked as the lead, while Oback did communications and collateral development.

Once construction was completed in March 2003 and collections were moved in, library communications experts had significant marketing work to do to build toward the August 2003 public opening.

Facing Challenges and Forming Goals

This project is a particularly good marketing study because the library itself introduced change to two distinct library cultures that had not experienced much interoperation. In addition, the standard marketing practice of choosing a single target audience and message was complicated, because so many people with so many different perspectives had a stake in the outcome. Even trying a dual primary/secondary audience focus seemed complicated when considering a strategy for opening this library. Although this was a large project somewhat akin to a corporation launching a new product, there was no corporate-sized marketing budget to go along with it. In fact, corporate sponsorships had to be nailed down on a project-by-project basis.

Part of a competent marketing plan is polling community opinions. Although there was enthusiasm for the project from many quarters, there was also some hesitation. For example, academic library staff members (and especially faculty!) were concerned that the project would take away from the research collection, while some public librarians were concerned that a structure on the edge of college campus might be off-putting or intimidating to the community.

Another challenge was to communicate effectively what the new project was. It was commonly referred to internally as a joint library, but what would this mean to the outside world? While other dual-service projects existed, a project of this size was unique.

Settling on a clear vision of the desired outcome was an important early step. One ideal that SJSU library dean Patricia Breivik discussed with community leaders was her core belief that libraries represent an opportunity for lifelong learning. The new King Library would be a place where many San José residents would be first introduced to a library as children, take advantage of the library as SJSU students, and continue to use it as adults. This story was an excellent way of tying together a seemingly modular offering (two libraries pasted together) into a coherent and singular place in the life of the community. Although this was not a formal marketing communication, it is a good example of the kind of reframing, communication of values, and creativity that was necessary throughout the pre-launch phase.

The marketing team set goals of reaching many diverse audiences with a limited budget by explaining how this first-of-its-kind library would operate, by overcoming skepticism from SJSU faculty and other groups, and by enticing nonacademic patrons to the imposing building on the campus.

Executing the Best-Laid Plans

This huge project had many aspects that organizers had to handle.

Information Gathering: The concerns of the public were identified through a variety of activities, including these:

• naming Blue Ribbon Advisory Groups to both the university president and the San José mayor

• holding a series of public community meetings with presentations by SJSU and city staff, architects, and the artist commissioned to create the public art

• convening a special hearing of the SJSU academic senate as a forum for faculty to discuss their questions and anxieties about the new library

• studying benchmark surveys conducted by Thomas A. Childers, Ph.D., from the Office of Institutional Research at Drexel University

When the PR team and consultants began the process of creating the strategic communication plan for the event, they used the material gathered at all of these input meetings and supplemented it with informal interviews of representatives of the targeted audiences. They also conducted extensive research on approaches used by other libraries for grand-opening activities.

Priorities and Roles: Oback and Russell stress that all the aspects of a marketing plan—messages, obstacles, and goals—should be solidified early. With a project of this size, it was necessary to bring in consultants specializing in the field of event planning. In fact, two consulting firms were necessary: One coordinated and provided the support for staging, setup, food and beverage, and "having everyone and everything in the right place at the right time" while the other assisted and advised the library team in securing donors, performers, and authors; printing invitations, fliers/posters, and giveaways; arranging media coverage for San José's diverse cultures; and, finally, walking the political tightropes inherent in a joint city­university project. While it was still extremely difficult to pull everything together, this approach made pre-planning and delivering the event much easier because the logistics were divided into manageable segments, with everyone knowing where his or her responsibility began and ended.

Media and Marketing Communication: This dual approach allowed the team to establish a media mix based on in-kind and other sponsorships. These included running advertising slides at local movie houses; putting cards on buses and posters at public transportation sites, city offices, and community centers; and placing on-air public service announcements (PSAs) and articles in the San José Mercury News. Fortunately, the Mercury News had followed the project from early on and was receptive to writing articles about the opening, starting with a front-page story announcing the imminent closure of the old main library and logistics involved in the mammoth move. The newspaper's sponsorship of a 12-page editorial insert supplemented a paid 24-page event "advertorial" insert to publicize the launch. As another part of the strategy focused on print vehicles and maximizing free media publicity, local technology giant Lockheed-Martin donated printing for trilingual fliers in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

PR consultant Diane McNutt handled major media contacts like MSNBC. Oback and Nancy Stake, media relations officer at the SJSU Office of Communications and Public Affairs, interfaced with local media contacts. The local NBC affiliate sponsored a series of seven PSAs enacting various uses of the library. Non-English communications, such as spot interviews on the Spanish-language Telemundo network, were critical to reaching that important segment of the community. Two interviews were produced, one discussing collections and services of interest to the Hispanic community and one promoting activities at the grand-opening event.

Additional marketing/communication steps included an e-mail campaign to K-12 school district communications liaisons at the close of the 2002/03 academic year announcing the upcoming opening; articles in campus and alumni publications as well as in newsletters for city employees and city residents; colorful 90-foot street banners placed downtown; and invitations sent out to 6,000 librarians, educators, and other community and business leaders statewide.

A project that means massive change and that demands a high level of cooperation also requires effective internal communications. To that end, organizers established a schedule to implement things like this along the way: in-service programs every 6 months, a "shadowing program" letting public and university librarians observe each other's work, surveys, milestone celebrations, and staff input sessions just to name a few. Establishing "buy-in" and a sense of ownership was critical to bolstering other marketing communication efforts in other areas.

Design: The foundation of collateral development is having a key message and a unified look. "One of the biggest challenges," says Oback, "was communicating visually the relationship of the King Library to the two library systems that still retain their own distinct identities." In this case, a library card and logo had to be created that would capture the unique identity of the library while welcoming all of its clientele. This card was created with a title and logo that represented the broad scope of the library: an open book with rays of energy bursting from the pages and the simple inscription "San José Library." The card reflects the library's association with a place more than with any one institution or group. It showed that this would be everyone's library.

Learning from the Unexpected

Inevitably, an ambitious project like this hits some unexpected snags. The planners for San José learned a few things. First, it is hazardous to assume that an event planner can produce invitations to an event! (Clarify such details before signing a contract.) Second, extra time must be built into the entire process. Consensus-building alone takes time and has to be done for many major decisions, which delays the actual execution of strategy.

Design issues can also be pitfalls. It became apparent that a graphic designer needs to be brought on board early. Despite the multiple audiences for this grand opening, a single design theme was necessary to be memorable and to convey the identity of the project. This meant that, during the group meeting with the designer, everyone had to agree on key messages and have a clear understanding of the business problems that need to be solved and the service message that needed to be communicated.

Ten Recommendations for Readers

Oback and Russell provided a set of best practices for the project. It was originally published in July 2004 in CAPIO Communicator, the newsletter of the California Association of Public Information Officials, following the receipt of the Grand Prize Award for Intergovernmental Relations and Regional Cooperation. They agreed to share these recommendations with MLS readers as well.

1. Start earlier than you think you need to. You should have a set plan to keep you focused.

2. Spread the word about your mission, vision, and values early because this will create a positive atmosphere that can motivate employees and the public.

3. Worrying too much about money will halt the creative process; remember that donors and dollars always come through.

4. Hire consultants that are connected to the community because they have established relationships with donors, volunteers, and "movers and shakers" that can get things done that you cannot.

5. Identify your themes and messages early. It's crucial because they are the foundation of publicity, advertising, and outreach campaigns. You want to "brand" the campaign(s) so people remember the library.

6. Build community awareness by recruiting and training docents early in the process; because it will take longer than you think to get them up to speed.

7. Know all aspects of your product, because you cannot market what you do not know. This helps you manage your partners.

8. Focus on the positive because it energizes you; others will take care of the negative. You must believe before you can achieve.

9. Meet early and often with internal and external stakeholders because they can provide solutions that you may not have thought of.

10. Engage the community. It's their public building. Getting community support is based on knowing specifically what they need.

Finally, the Grand Opening Happens

Press, SJSU students and faculty, community members, and city dignitaries attended the dedication ceremony, which was followed by a day-long community celebration featuring multicultural events and community booths with activities. The planners created a carnival atmosphere that included scavenger hunts and face-to-face meetings with noted authors. Mayor Ron Gonzales was on hand, along with more than 22,000 citizens. The planners made sure that people experienced many different areas in the library by holding events in specific locations, such as the reception for artist Mel Chin on the terrace off the fifth floor and the book bingo on the seventh floor.

SJSU library dean Breivik confirms that all the planning paid off. "Because, up front, there were so many concerns about the new library, it was especially important to attract campus and community people to the library's opening event. We succeeded far beyond our expectations, and the library has been a source of campus and community pride ever since."



Spenser Thompson is marketing specialist at Innovative Interfaces, Inc. and holds master's degrees in psychology and library science. His e-mail address is
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