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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2021

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Vol. 41 No. 8 — October 2021
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN

Social Media Disconnect: Considering the Role of Social Media in Library Marketing Strategies
by Marshall Breeding


it is important to develop social media strategies with full awareness that the privacy models inherent in these platforms run contrary to library values and stated policies.
Libraries naturally want to improve their impact and outreach into the communities they serve. Library marketing strategies often include establishing a presence for the library on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. However, these platforms do not necessarily align well with many key library values (such as patron privacy, community service, and objective content). Libraries that include a social media component in their marketing strategies should carefully assess expected gains in patron engagement relative to the possible intrusions into patron privacy and other negative characteristics.

Dancing With the Devil

Social media has become a pervasive aspect of society. Facebook alone claims 2.85 billion active users globally. A lot of people use social networks personally and professionally, hopefully making deliberate choices about the types of information posted and with whom it is shared. These platforms can help us connect with family, friends, and colleagues. The impact social media has made on society as a whole is, at best, mixed.

The convenience and power of social media come at a cost, paid through data. Personal details, demographics, and extensive profiles of interests and online behaviors fuel advertising engines that generate direct revenues for the companies operating the platforms. Data are collected, bought, sold, and shared profusely via interconnected advertising networks. Selections made on one site quickly propagate to others, such as when I purchase an item on Amazon and immediately start seeing ads for related products on almost any other commercial website I visit. Rather than pay monthly subscription fees for social media, we implicitly accept a certain level of involvement with the advertising ecosystem, paid both through the ads presented in our feeds and in the data gathered through our use of the sites.

Many individuals rely on social networks for news and information. In recent years, these platforms have become channels for the distribution of misinformation as well as for legitimate news and content. Hopefully, libraries lend some of their expertise and perspective in helping individuals understand how to evaluate information, although this remains a problem of immense proportions. 

Social media platforms are not inclusive. A library cannot assume that its patrons currently have an account on any social media platform or that they would want to visit one. Social media sites are not private or neutral virtual spaces. Contrary to requirements that a library would have for its own web-based services, social media sites offer no guarantees for the privacy of personal information or online interactions.

Intermingling library services with social media platforms can be treacherous territory in terms of core principles such as patron privacy and community-oriented values. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms operate via a business model based on advertising, and each aggressively captures and monetizes personal information. This personal information not only includes details voluntarily provided in users’ profiles, but it also contains data created through their interactions with content on the platform. In many cases, the social platforms also tap into data that’s generated off the platform, through partner websites and via purchases made from physical establishments. 

Social Media Strategies for Libraries

The pervasive use of social media in society represents an opportunity for libraries to find ways to use these platforms to promote their services and to attract new patrons. However, it is important to develop social media strategies with full awareness that the privacy models inherent in these platforms run contrary to library values and stated policies. In broad terms, a social media strategy consistent with library values and privacy concerns would be based on guiding individuals who are already involved with social media toward the library’s services and resources.

As noted, the number of individuals using social media is vast and represents an important target for library outreach efforts. However, it seems problematic to funnel people who use library resources onto social media platforms. The direction of travel should consistently be from social media to library resources and not the reverse. This principle stands in direct opposition to what I observe in the websites for most libraries. A typical library website includes a series of badges to connect visitors to their presence on social media sites. Some offer very prominent icons or links to their Facebook page. These badges and links essentially invite visitors to exit the library’s website to enter social media. 

Depending on how the badge is technically constructed, clicking the link can also carry data that’s related to the user’s interaction with the library’s website. Should that session data include details about any resources accessed or queries performed on the library’s website, it would be inconsistent with most libraries’ privacy policies or practices. The use of trackers (such as Facebook Connect or Facebook Custom Audiences) should be carefully considered in regard to the intersection between library-provided content and social media and its associated advertising ecosystem. Also consider the lack of control regarding what advertisements or sponsored content might be presented alongside the library’s information.

Libraries can gain some advantages in increasing the churn on its social media pages. Building the number of followers or Likes can lead to better exposure of the library and its services. That may lead some individuals to its resource who may not have engaged otherwise. Strengthening a library’s presence on a social media platform seems better accomplished organically on each social media site rather than at the expense of jettisoning users from the library’s web presence. Shifting visitors from the library website to an external social media seems counterproductive.

Libraries certainly benefit from outreach programs and marketing strategies that aim to attract new community members to take advantage of their services, to promote new services to existing members, or to re-engage lapsed patrons. Library marketing has become a major area of interest, both among professionals working in libraries and in the vendor community that develops related tools and technologies. I defer to these experts in developing effective library marketing plans. These strategies should tread very carefully in this treacherous territory that lies in the intersection between library-provided services and the perilous realm of social media.

Going All In—A Note for Those Thinking  About a Full Handoff to Social Media  

While maintaining the libraries.org directory of libraries, I observe a wide range of ways in which libraries deal with social media on their websites. Almost all libraries offer outbound badges or other forms of outbound links to their presence on multiple social media brands. Smaller libraries may focus on a single social media platform—usually Facebook—and may feature the outbound link prominently. I have also come across some libraries that may not have a dedicated website and use their Facebook page as their main presence on the web.  

This latter case of essentially outsourcing a library website to social media warrants mention. These Facebook pages usually include basic information about the library, opening hours, or even photos of library events. It is understandable that some libraries may not have the technical ability or the budget to deploy their own website. Setting up a library site through some of the most basic hosting services and content management templates may be beyond the means of some libraries. The absence of local technical guidance may lead to this pragmatic way to make information about the library available on the web despite its consequences for patron privacy. It also begs the question of what portion of the library’s patron community happens to use Facebook. The main failing for these scenarios does not fall on the individual libraries that take advantage of what they consider to be an easy way to publish their information. Instead, it falls on the lack of affordable alternatives that can be easily deployed and that are more aligned with library strategies.

Do’s and Don’ts

✔   Do leverage social media to connect users to the library’s virtual and physical services.

✔   Don’t build off-ramps from the library’s own website, content, and services to social media.  

✔   Do prioritize user privacy when developing a library social media strategy.

✔   Do create firewalls that ensure no data related to patron identity or the use of library services leaks onto social media or other commercial destinations.

✔   Do focus SEO efforts on the library’s website and not on its social media presence.

✔   Do devise analytics that demonstrate the volume of use of library services generated through social media.


Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.