Have you ever had that feeling of excitement and dread all at once, with your stomach in your throat, heart pounding, hands sweaty, mouth dry, mind racing, not exactly sure how all of this is going to work out? Well, that’s what it feels like to stand on the side of the highway and look up at a billboard that reads “Spoiler Alert! Dumbledore dies on page 596.” knowing that you’re responsible for it.
I’m a member of the creative team at Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library, and we have the privilege of feeling that way on a fairly regular basis. From a YouTube comedy series (www.youtube.com/publiclibrary1) to the ridiculous Facebook covers (www.facebook.com/ccjpl) to the billboards and posters around town, we are constantly looking for new and creative ways to sell the library to the people of Craighead and Poinsett counties in Arkansas.
We Convinced the Board to Upgrade
Given the unconventional publicity that we’ve become known for, the main thing that most people in the library community want to know is how we get away with this sort of thing. That’s been an evolutionary process that began about 3 years ago. In 2009, we gently explained to the library board that we had to change the way we operated as an institution or we were going to fade into antiquity, or something like that. Our website had been built in 1999 and was maintained by our reference librarian. While she did the best she could, she was a reference librarian, not a web designer. So we submitted a proposal to the board to have a new website designed. Our objective was to provide online access to as many library resources as possible. We also kinda wanted to build a site that was easy to navigate and didn’t look like crap.
A screen from our mobile site
The board decided that this whole internet fad was probably here to stay, so they agreed to let us do it. The new site, at www.libraryinjonesboro.org, was a considerable step forward and gave us an online foundation to build on.
The following year, we went back to the board and told them that we wanted to build a mobile website. Then we showed them a whole bunch of statistics that said that smartphones and mobile devices were gonna be real popular, and they said OK. While we were at it, we told them that we were going to set up a “text a librarian” service, since texting was really popular too. We told them it would be a good idea to start investing some of our collection budget into emedia and showed them a whole bunch of other statistics, and they said OK to that as well.
Feeling lucky, we suggested that our patrons would absolutely love it if we let them download free music. The board members agreed, because they liked free music too.
During this time, we also proposed to the board that we hire a full-time PR specialist and graphic designer. These roles had been filled for years by a revolving door of paid college interns, to limited and varying degrees of success. While hiring college students in the library is a great idea, putting them in charge of your public image is not. We wanted to focus on consistency of brand and message and bring in people who were going to play key roles in growing the library. With all of the new services we had available to our patrons, the board agreed that maybe this was a good idea too.
So we had spent 3 years building a pretty decent digital library and along with it a foundation of trust with the library board. The library had transformed into a completely different institution. None of it would have been possible without an administrative team (director Phyllis Burkett and assistant director David Eckert) who embrace change and allow their staff the freedom to innovate. Finally, with a host of resources, services, and entertainment available on virtually any platform, it was time to introduce this shiny new library to the community.
Getting Edgy and Getting Away With It
This was when the creative team was born. Its members are Joe Box, IT systems administrator; Valerie Carroll, reference librarian; Melloney Dunlap, graphic designer; Brandi Hodges, PR specialist/virtual librarian; and me, Ben Bizzle, director of technology. It was time to come up with a new ad campaign. Since there’s always been a close relationship between IT and PR due to the overlap of technology, social media, PR, and marketing, we started meeting and brainstorming about putting together a marketing campaign that would actually get people’s attention.
We’d already been doing a YouTube video series for a couple of years and had been getting very positive responses. That series started on a whim. A couple of years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to create a comedy series on YouTube about a fictional library. It was really just a passing idea, but I happened to run it by our director, and Burkett said: “Yeah, Genealogy Night Lock-In is coming up in 2 weeks. Do one to promote that.” Given that I’d never written a script, directed anyone, edited footage, or done anything else that had to do with making a video, I was a bit concerned with the timeline. But hey, how often do you get to make a comedy YouTube video at work? So that’s what I did. Some of us threw a script together, recruited staff and patrons, and filmed “the library” Episode 1: Genealogy Night on a home video camera and a flip cam. It was the story of an employee spiking the punch at a genealogy function; a bunch of older patrons getting drunk, dancing, and partying; and the library director making out with a page.
People loved that first video, and we’ve made five episodes since. The latest episode was a parody of the Fight Club movie trailer. Our version was called Book Club (“The first rule of Book Club is, you do not talk about Book Club.”). People started sharing it, and it got reposted on the official Facebook and Twitter accounts of Chuck Palahniuk (author of the original Fight Club novel) and has gotten more than 5,000 views. We knew from this experience that we could be a little edgy and get away with it.
Since all of us use Facebook, we were all familiar with the e-card trend that had taken off on the internet, spawned by the website www.someecards.com. We decided to come up with our own e-cards; turn them into posters, postcards, and bookmarks; and use them as our print marketing. We also wanted to use them as cover photos on our Facebook page, thereby tying the meme into our social media presence. All of our 2012 marketing has been built around what we casually refer to as our “meme the library” campaign.
It wasn’t just the idea of making cute jokes that was appealing. Since making the cards only involved coming up with a joke and a picture to go along with it, this made for a very adaptable platform. We realized that we could basically promote anything with this theme and maintain continuity while still creating unique content. Not only that, but those who were familiar with the “someecard” meme would appreciate the “cool factor” of applying it to the library. Even those unfamiliar with the internet reference could still appreciate the charm of the cute pictures and humorous quips. It was a campaign that could work on several levels and appeal to multiple demographics, particularly the 16-to-40 age group that’s so elusive to libraries, since they are the ones most likely to get the reference. That was our logic, anyway. And nobody was knocking the door down with any better ideas.
But let me back up and discuss a comment from that last paragraph, that making the cards “only” involved an idea and a picture. Coming up with a joke is not as easy as you think. Try it: Give me five jokes of fewer than 15 words each about biographies. See? That’s basically how we come up with our creative content. If we’re talking about our series of concerts on the library lawn, then each member of the creative team will come to our meeting with at least five ideas for concert posters. And it’s a brutal process. The funny thing about this is that you never really know whether you’ve got a good idea or not. Most of our ideas are terrible. “No, that sucks” is the most common phrase in our creative meetings. And then there are those ideas that would be so great, except we just can’t decide if they push the line too much, such as “Concerts on the Lawn ... We’ve got the best grass in town.” We eventually, inevitably, come up with something, but it’s a bloodbath, and at the end of each meeting there are dead ideas and egos strewn everywhere.
We’ve had four different billboards around Jonesboro over the past several years. We get them at a good rate and have used them as part of our public awareness campaign. Recently, it was time to renew our contract, and we’d been trying to come up with something new. We were initially going to go with a picture of a library card with the web address on one side and the slogan from a credit card company on the other but decided we didn’t want the potential copyright headaches. We were already pretty excited about the e-card idea, so we decided to create e-cards for the billboards as well.
Our goal was to make billboards that didn’t look like billboards. We didn’t see the point in wasting money on a billboard that looks just like every other billboard that’s trying to sell you a burger for 99 cents or a motel room for $49.99 a night. We wanted to design billboards that would get people’s attention because of their simplicity.
We felt that if we could catch people off guard, get their attention, and make them chuckle, then just maybe they’d go to work that morning and mention the library’s billboard to a co-worker. And that’s what we wanted: one person talking to another person about the library.
Coming up with the content for the billboards was a nightmare. We were constantly struggling to be funny enough to get people talking without going too far and winding up being offensive. Billboards offer a great way to anger a bunch of people at once because they’re kind of hard to miss. It finally came down to taking 30 or 40 ideas and just voting on them until we narrowed it down to four, one for each billboard.
Our director looked at the ones we’d come up with and loved them. She presented them at the next board meeting and explained the marketing strategy. The board enthusiastically approved the campaign. Then came the 5 weeks of waiting until the billboards were ready. But damn the board’s approval—what was the public going to think?
That brings us back to where my article started: standing out there on the side of the highway, lamenting poor Dumbledore, and wondering whether or not this was such a good idea. Billboards look a lot bigger when you’re the one who made them. But in the end, everyone loved the campaign. Community response has been overwhelmingly positive. People mention the billboards all the time, with a grin.
The Rest of the 2012 Campaign
In addition to the billboards and other edgy promotions, we now have 22 posters that are awaiting artwork so we can frame them and hang them on the ends of the stacks. Each one is original and reflects the genre on the stack: mystery, romance, westerns, biographies, etc. There are also a few more events this year that we’ll promote. In total, we’ll wind up producing between 40 and 50 original pieces for our 2012 marketing campaign.
We also place our posters in local restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and anywhere else that’ll let us put a poster in a window. When election season picks up, we’re going to use the meme to create yard signs that say “Your Public Library, We’re Not Running for Office,” and will place them among the political signs at intersections and so forth, perhaps even giving them away to patrons and library neighbors to place in their yards.
The Philosophy and the Results
We’re always looking for different ways to catch people unexpectedly and just get them thinking about the library. We aren’t always trying to promote a specific service or event. Our primary marketing objective is to make people curious about the library. If they just get curious enough to check us out, they’ll see a lot of cool stuff we have to offer.
Indications are that it’s working. Virtually every program this year has had record attendance. The Summer Concert Series drew more than 400 people to each of four performances, more than double last year’s attendance. We had 60 people attend a showing of The Help and more than 80 at a murder mystery party. Whereas our concerns in previous years were about whether anyone would show up to a given event, now we’re concerned about having enough space for everyone. Our Zumba classes on Monday and Tuesday nights always have more than 60 attendees and would have more, but there just isn’t enough room.
Our traffic has increased over last year’s in virtually every metric: foot traffic, checkouts, new patrons, emedia downloads, music downloads, web traffic, and mobile traffic. These results aren’t just because of a singular marketing campaign. Public relations plays a huge role in the growth of a library. We also take our Facebook presence very seriously and are constantly working to increase our social media reach. But those are subjects for other articles. The fact is, there’s no denying the impact that a consistent promotional campaign has had on the library, and we’ve got the data to prove it.
In case you’re wondering, we do have a dedicated marketing budget because that’s always been considered a vital part of the library. But that’s not why we succeed. We succeed because we’ve worked hard to build a 21st-century library, and we continue to find creative ways to introduce it to the public.
I think that you just have to have a good product and figure out a way to sell it. We don’t buy into the concept that we’ve got to be a certain way just because we’re a library. There aren’t any rules. Just go into somebody’s office and tell them you’ve got an idea and see what happens. Who knows, you might start a revolution.