|Happy 2021! Now that we are starting a new year—hopefully one in which libraries will be able to reopen fully and restore in-person services—it’s a great time to think about marketing and customer engagement strategies. And one of the best ways to think about engagement is illustrated by the Library Marketing Funnel.
I first began speaking about this concept in 2018, during the President’s Program at the Library Marketing and Communications Conference (LMCC) in St. Louis. I had been thinking about this idea for several months, going back to my time as director of marketing and communications at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina. Specifically, I was looking for a way to illustrate how libraries gain and lose customers.
That’s when I remembered the marketing funnel. The concept has been around for a long time. It was created in 1898 by Elias St. Elmo Lewis. Lewis’ model described the stages of a customer’s relationship with an organization. While the original model had four stages, it was eventually expanded to include more. The version I use for libraries has nine stages. They are as follows:
How the Funnel Works
The way the marketing funnel works is simple. Picture a common funnel, with a wide opening at the top and sides that narrow in the shape of a “V.” Outside of that funnel are all of your potential customers. Your ultimate goal is to move these potential customers into the top of the funnel, starting at the Awareness stage. You want them to continue moving down through the funnel, in stages, until they become customers at the Action/Transaction stage. You need to work to retain these customers (i.e., get them to come back and use more services) until they move to the Repeat and Loyalty stages. Finally, you hope they will be so satisfied with their library experiences that they tell their friends and family about you, thereby becoming your advocates.
A funnel works due to the force of gravity. A marketing funnel works due to the force of your marketing strategy. In other words, what you are doing (intentionally or unintentionally) can either move people down your funnel until they become customers and advocates, or it can push them away.
Unlike a common funnel, which channels all of its contents all the way down and through its bottom, the marketing funnel assumes that you will lose some potential customers as they move down. That’s just natural. Not every potential customer will become a user, no matter how hard we work. But the goal is to move as many people down the funnel as we can, as smoothly as possible, and to grow our impact by serving more people.
The problem that I was trying to solve back in 2018 was this: Libraries don’t operate in a way that is designed to move people down the funnel smoothly. The journey down the Library Marketing Funnel is bumpy. Our funnel has holes in it. In fact, it looks more like a sieve. When I brought this up at LMCC, a conference filled with library marketers and communicators, heads nodded. Once these professionals thought about their own funnels, it became evident to them that their libraries had the same problem.
So what’s the solution? Library marketing professionals have to understand two things: 1) what’s wrong with the funnel and 2) their role in fixing the funnel. This is what I’ll address in the rest of this article.
Part 1: What’s Wrong With the Funnel
As I mentioned, the inside of the library funnel is bumpy, and the whole thing is full of holes. But why? It’s simple: Libraries didn’t originally evolve to move people down such a funnel. They evolved as repositories of knowledge, universities of the people, and community-serving institutions. For the better part of a century, libraries had a monopoly on information access. They didn’t have an image problem, and they had enough customers to justify their funding and footprints.
Today, the story is very different, and we all see the need for libraries to grow, gain customers, keep them, and increase usership. In other words, we need a working funnel. And whether we want the task of fixing it or not, it is up to us. We library marketers need to educate our fellow employees about the funnel and why it’s so important to fix it.
I think we also have a moral imperative to fix the funnel, because the bumps and holes in it are actually barriers. These barriers stop people from using the library, and they often impact the people who need libraries the most. Libraries exist to help people better their lives, and these barriers stop people from benefiting from our services. So let’s fix the funnel!
Of course, before you can fix a problem, you need to see the problem. Here are some common Library Marketing Funnel issues, including the stages at which they typically occur.
Evaluation Stage: At this stage, potential customers have moved from simply being aware of your library to being interested in it to considering using it. Now they are evaluating whether or not to get a library card or attend a program. But there are problems:
- Person #1 looks at your program schedule and finds that your programs aren’t offered at convenient times. As a working parent, they can’t get to a storytime on a weekday.
- Person #2 went to your website and encountered outdated information and overly complex navigation to find what he needed. The banner ad on the homepage is for a program that happened last week. This makes the library seem outdated.
The solution to these problems is to look at your hours, services, programs, etc., from the point of view of a potential customer. What is your image? Does your library appear relevant, welcoming, current, convenient? How are you getting that across to potential customers?
Decision Stage: This stage comes right after Evaluation. Now the potential customers are ready to get a library card or register for a program. But wait!
- Person #1 can’t sign up for a card online. They have to do that in person, but it’s not convenient for them.
- Person #2 calls to register for a program, but gets stuck in a phone tree. She hangs up.
- Person #3 takes the bus across town to the library, only to find he didn’t bring the right form of ID. He leaves empty-handed.
The solution to these problems is to ensure that your processes are designed to make it easy for people to use your offerings. How easy is it to get a library card, and how can you make it easier? What is the experience for someone who calls a branch? Revisit your policies and procedures to see if you can simplify them. Really think about why some of these rules and restrictions were created and discuss changing or eliminating them. Then ensure that your staff members are trained to consider the customer experience in every interaction.
Action/Transaction and Repeat Stages: These stages occur after someone has decided to become a library customer. Congratulations, you (and they) have cleared the first hurdle! Now they want to use your library services. Unfortunately, this stage is when they can encounter a lot of barriers.
- Person #1 wants to use the online tutoring service you offer, but it requires her to create a separate account and password. She tries repeatedly to log in, but she has to reset her password. She eventually gives up because she’s run out of time.
- Person #2 wants to place a book on hold, but their card isn’t working. It turns out that they forgot to activate it or it auto- expired. Now they are stuck, so they go to Amazon and order the book for $10.
- Person #3 comes to the library to use a study room and finds that the room is dirty. When he mentions it to a staff member, he is given a terse reply that makes him feel bad. He decides to go study at a nearby coffee shop instead.
- Person #4 wants to log in and use a computer, but she has fines. The staffer at the desk uses a workaround and lets her get on the computer today, but warns her that she will have to pay the fines or she won’t be able to use the computer next time.
To begin solving these problems, we need to take a long, hard look at our services and how we offer them and/or block them. Is there a way to offer a single sign-on to all of your online resources so customers only need to remember one username and password? Do you really need to auto-expire library cards, or is it a procedure that was designed to stop a few people who moved away from wrongly using the library, while actually preventing a large number of perfectly good customers from rightly using the library? What benefit does your organization really derive from blocking people with fines from using the computers? If they can’t pay either way, why not let them benefit from computer access? These examples show how vital it is to bring empathy and compassion to your customer-facing policies and procedures.
A library director once came up to me after I gave a speech about the marketing funnel to his group. He said, “It seems like we’ve put a lot of time and effort into finding different ways to say ‘no.’” He was so right. Why not get to yes instead?
These are just a few examples of the problems with the current Library Marketing Funnel. Each library is unique and will have its own challenges. The first step is to understand your funnel and why it is important. From there, you can begin to work on fixing it.
Part 2: Fixing the Funnel
As I mentioned previously, one great approach to fixing the funnel is to look at your customer-facing policies and procedures with empathy and compassion. I think we all gained a lot of perspective in 2020, between the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement. Today, people are more open to conversations about privilege, economic mobility, unequal wealth distribution, social justice, disability rights, and other topics. We have seen how much these issues affect people’s lives. So it’s a great time to consider how your library’s policies and procedures can be rethought and even reinvented to empower more people and to provide greater access to more people. Fines and fees disproportionately impact people with economic struggles. Inconvenient open times can negatively impact people who work long hours. Transportation challenges can make it harder for people to reach the library and benefit from its services.
Each library’s conversations about fixing the funnel will be different, but one good place to start is with the basic act of obtaining and using a library card. How can you remove barriers to getting a card by making the process easier, simpler, and more accessible? How can you get library cards (or accounts) to the people who need them the most, without making them jump through hoops?
Here’s a great example. My former library system, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, implemented a program in 2015 called ONE Access (cmlibrary.org/oneaccess). It automatically gave all 150,000 public school students in the county library cards using their student ID numbers. In its first year, more than 100,000 students used the service. This program renews annually to make sure that new students are included as well. Academic libraries have been doing this for ages, so why not public libraries too? So think about ways you can get more library cards into the hands of your potential customers.
Another great way to identify problems in your funnel is to work a circulation desk. Even if you are a marketing pro who works in a back office, take an afternoon and volunteer at a desk. You will learn so much about the customer experience. You will see how your staffers serve customers, what workarounds they have had to invent to leapfrog over cumbersome policies and procedures, and what challenges your customers face when trying to use the library. You may learn more about your ILS and how customer account information is managed and stored. You will also develop a greater appreciation of your colleagues and likely gain more credibility with them for having stood in their shoes.
Also, talk to your co-workers who interact with customers the most. They may have lots of ideas for improving the customer experience and were just waiting for someone to ask them.
Finally, I encourage you to go straight to the source—your users. You can survey them, read online reviews, and even talk in person. Ask them what would help them use the library more, and ask them about their biggest frustrations. You are likely to hear a lot of love for your library, but you will also get some constructive criticism.
Taking the First Steps
I know it can seem overwhelming to think about fixing all of the issues, so give yourself time to investigate your funnel. And don’t try to tackle everything at once; start with the most glaring problems.
One of the most important tasks you can take on is to educate your fellow employees about the funnel concept and why it’s so essential. While it may be challenging, I encourage you to speak up on these issues to your leaders and to the staffers who control the customer experience. You can do this collegially and collaboratively if you take time to ask questions, listen, and build relationships with the right people. Fixing the funnel is everyone’s job, but you can be a champion for it. And once your funnel has been repaired, you will achieve what we all strive for—seeing more customers visiting more often and urging their friends and family to do the same. So, isn’t facing the funnel a New Year’s resolution we can all get behind?