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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > May/June 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 17 No. 3 — May/June 2003
How To

Marketing to Latinos: It's About Building Trust
by Yolanda J. Cuesta

It used to be that if you wanted to work with a Latino community, your best bet was to find a job in the Southwestern states, New York, Illinois, or Florida. But as the 2000 census has shown us, Latinos now live in such far-flung places as Minnesota, Georgia, and Washington. There is not a state in the country that is not being impacted by the growth of the Latino population.

As a consultant/trainer specializing in helping libraries serve diverse communities, I work with librarians who are eager to serve their emerging Latino communities, yet puzzled about how to do it. The questions I most often hear are, "How do we reach the Latino community?" and "How do we get Latinos to use the library?"

Reaching Latinos with the library message is not the same as convincing Latinos to use the library or its services. You may start reaching out by translating your library brochure and library card application into Spanish or by sending public service announcements to Spanish-language media. But to effectively market to Latinos you must not only reach them, you must also convince them that you have something to offer that will help them improve their lives, and that you can be trusted to be there for them for the long term.

Marketing to Latinos is a personal, one-on-one process that depends on building long-term relationships, friendships, and trust with members of the community. If you are interested in doing this, you should ask yourself, "How can I earn this community's trust and respect?" It is the slow building of trust and respect that will help you convince Latinos that the library is a good place for them.

Three Things You'll Need to Know

Here are the highlights of what you need to know to begin marketing to Latinos.

First, you must get an in-depth picture of your Latino community. What is it like? What countries do its members come from? Are they English-dominant, Spanish-dominant, or bilingual? Are they recent immigrants or are they second- and third-generation Latinos who have been in this country for many years? Do they spend their weekends on the soccer field or the baseball diamond?

The Latino community in the U.S. is complex and diverse, and the answers to these questions make a huge difference in what library services you develop or promote and in how you get the message out about those services. While a majority of Latinos in the U.S. are from Mexico or have Mexican origins, there are substantial and growing numbers from Cuba, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Spain, and the Caribbean Islands. Knowing where your Latino community members come from is important because their history, culture, language, legal status, political issues, and even their music, their food, and the sports they like will differ depending on their country of origin. More than likely, you'll find people from several countries and cultural backgrounds.

To market to local Latinos effectively, you must first learn about them and their circumstances: who they are, how they live, what values they cherish, what types of work they do, what their likes and dislikes are, and what they enjoy in life.

Second, you must learn what experience Latinos in your community have with libraries. Don't assume that they have the same understanding or perspective that you have. Since the public library is such a fundamental part of U.S. society, we take it for granted that others coming into this country will know what it is, what services it provides, and that the services are available to them for free. But the concept of the public library is not universal, and these people may have no experience with it.

For example, in some Latin American countries, public library materials are for in-house use only, so people from these countries might not expect to be able to "borrow" books. And they certainly will not understand the concept of loan periods or overdue fines. They also will not likely understand that they are entitled to those services as members of the community. Librarians are often amazed to hear Latinos ask whether the books in the library are for sale, but this is a common perception.

Some recent immigrants may come from a country with a history of government abuse and persecution and may view the library with suspicion because it is a government institution. Their first venture into a public library may be threatening and frightening because the first thing we ask for is identification so we can issue a library card. Public library traditions of open access and confidentiality may not be familiar to Latinos either, and may prevent them from taking that important first step.

Third, you must know the needs of people in your Latino community. Because their experience with libraries may be limited, you must be able to connect the library's services directly to their needs, life situations, and problems. Don't make the mistake of going out to the Latino community and asking them what services the library should provide for them or what it can do to serve them better. Latinos with limited exposure to public libraries might not know how to respond, or they might respond with the tried-and-true—more materials in Spanish. Instead, keep the focus on the Latino community itself and on finding out as much as possible about its members—what problems and situations they face on a daily basis, how they find out about services that are available to them, what barriers they face in accessing services, what they need to help them improve their lives and those of their children, etc.

Gaining the Community's Trust

To start the process of convincing Latinos to trust librarians you must enlist the help of the people who already have their trust and respect: their community leaders. Through interviews with them, you tap into reliable and trusted sources of information and you acknowledge their expertise.

Conducting interviews is a comfortable and non-intimidating process for librarians. The community leaders you will be interviewing are used to dealing with the political structure, bureaucracy, and administrative processes and are comfortable and eager to speak out for Latinos.

Latino community leaders will be able to fill out the demographic information that you have available in your library with real-life information. They'll be able to tell you not only what countries your local Latinos come from, but often they will pinpoint specific states, regions, or villages within a country. They will be able to tell you how Latinos spend their spare time. (For Mexicans, that's probably at the soccer field, watching either their children or their fathers play.) They will be able to tell you how Latinos get information about what is happening in the community. (For most Latinos, that will probably be the church, a critical community center.) They will tell you about the community fiestas, celebrations, and activities that draw Latinos in large numbers.

By turning to community leaders for help, you will not only get information about the attitudes, interests, and perspectives of your Latino community, but you will also start tapping into the community's reserve of trust and respect.

Finally, community leaders will start the word-of-mouth marketing that is so critical to convincing Latinos about the value of the library. Latinos rely heavily on friends, relatives, and other trusted sources for advice and information about a product or service. Because they turn to people within their own social network to get help, it is important to know who is in that social network and to use it to get into the community.

Becoming One with the Community

Once you begin the process of working with community leaders to build trust, you must be willing to support this community by integrating the library into its heart and soul. This means being willing to step outside of the library building to connect with the community at places and events where they feel most comfortable. To most of us, serving a community essentially means getting its members into the library. But in this case, before Latinos feel comfortable coming into the library they must first see you out in their community—at meetings of organizations and agencies that are working on solving community problems, at community fairs and festivals, or at the Mexican Independence Day parade. The library's fliers and posters need to be in the neighborhood grocery store, video store, and local bakery. The library's programs should be announced at Sunday Mass or service. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect with Latinos in the normal course of their lives.

Work with Your Local Ethnic Media

Another way of continuing to build the Latino community's trust is to partner with the local Spanish-language media. A recent study conducted by Bendixen & Associates for the New California Media concluded that Spanish-language media reaches 89 percent of the Latino community. While the study was limited to California, the results can be applied across the country.

Spanish-language media recognize that Latino communities have fewer outlets to deliver messages to them, so they are more willing to work with you to get important information out to their audience. Be sure to involve the media in your marketing efforts from the very beginning—TV and radio personalities, station owners, or program directors should be among the community leaders you interview during the needs assessment process.

Spanish-language media managers not only have extensive demographic information on their viewers and listeners, but they also have their fingers on the pulse of the community. Many see themselves as a voice for the community, and so they are often proactive in driving discussion of policies and issues impacting their customers.

Sell yourself as a resource to them. Show them how the library can help the Latino community. Connect with their issues and they will be willing and valuable partners.

Different Ways to Measure Success

When you start marketing to Latinos you are starting a slow, long-term process of building trust and relationships. Your traditional measures of marketing success—the number of people who attend a program, the increase in circulation, the number of people who use a service—may not be appropriate. Using them may be disappointing because it might be quite some time before large numbers of Latinos start showing up at your events.

So look for alternative measures of success: the number of Latino community leaders who are part of your network, the number of invitations you receive to participate in Latino community events, the number of Latinos who stop by your booth at the Cinco de Mayo celebration, etc.

Be consistent in the messages you deliver about the library and its services. Be persistent in your efforts to connect with Latinos out in the community. And above all, be patient and let the relationships and trust develop slowly and firmly.


Yolanda J. Cuesta is the owner of Cuesta MultiCultural Consulting in Sacramento, Calif., which specializes in helping libraries serve diverse communities. She holds an M.L.S. from the University of Texas­Austin. She is currently co-authoring a book on marketing library services to diverse communities to be published by ALA Editions, expected to be available in winter 2003. Her e-mail address is

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