I work at Anchorage Public Library (APL) in Alaska, which is made up of five locations (a main library and four branches). APL serves a population of about 300,000 people in a city that is the fourth-largest by area in the U.S. and is larger than the smallest state, Rhode Island. Our locations are spread out—58 miles (by car) separate our furthest branches. Our service area includes a major suburb, a metro area, and a small resort town. This geography contributes to patrons sticking close to their neighborhoods’ branch libraries. Each branch serves a different population with varying degrees of internet connectivity, literacy levels, culture, and lifestyle. This adds a layer of complexity to our system’s marketing, because one size does not fit all for messaging, even if the same service is available at all locations.
Before coming to APL, I spent 15 years developing marketing plans for clients, using every tactic except direct mail. Direct mail was the thing I talked people out of because it’s expensive to produce, hard to quantify, and, by all accounts, considered outdated and within the realm of Labor Day furniture sales and appeals from used-car dealers. So when I started at the library in February 2018, I developed a multi-platform marketing plan that relied heavily on targeted social media and email. Both platforms allowed APL to reach narrow demographics and to get trackable metrics. Then the pandemic happened.
The Digital Divide Is Deep and Wide
In the beginning, we thought COVID-19 would just be a quick 2-week life event and we’d get back to normal. But as COVID continued to spread, the world quickly realized the size of the digital divide and how much we’d come to rely on electronic connections. In Anchorage, our libraries have traditionally provided that connection with in-building Wi-Fi and access to computers. On March 13, 2020, all APL buildings closed, and that access was severed.
Our main Loussac Library had become home to the city emergency operations center, which meant staff had no access to materials, so patrons who had valid library cards were only able to access digital items, further deepening the digital divide. All library buildings would remain closed, with staff working from home, until June 1. In June, we were able to offer curbside service primarily by having users place holds and setting pick-up appointments online, which again left disconnected patrons with limited services.
On July 1, when library buildings reopened for partial in-person service, patrons could finally access desktop computers for limited hours. However, after 4 short weeks, COVID spiked in our community, and we were forced to shut down computer access and in-person service again, moving back to exclusively curbside. We would remain in this state until November 2020.
As we tried to communicate APL’s continual service changes, we knew patrons who needed our services most wouldn’t receive our electronic messaging because they didn’t have reliable access to the internet, which of course included social media and email. They were also unable to enter our buildings to see signage.
At the same time as we were limiting access to computers, community support organizations were making applications available exclusively online. If someone wanted to apply for CARES Act rent relief, they had to do it online. Entrepreneurs applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans also required internet access, and many of them had previously brought their laptops to the library for Wi-Fi connectivity. So just when people needed our internet service the most, we were unable to provide it. We had to come up with a solution, quickly.
Building a Bridge Over the Crevasse
Thinking it over, our staffers realized that MiFi devices would be the perfect solution to bridge the crevasse. Because the MiFi’s could provide internet service anywhere there was a cellular connection, we knew they would work for our broad geography. Also, a single MiFi could connect multiple personal devices, meaning a family could connect a student’s Chromebook for school and also support a parent’s iPad or laptop for work or for filling out assistance applications. So we had a solution, but then we had to figure out how to get the word out to a disconnected public.
The ever-changing service levels were contributing to a drop in patron visits, and we were sure many patrons would come back if they knew we were open and could help them. During the height of the pandemic, APL staff members were holding regular strategy meetings to work through the constantly changing challenges that COVID was presenting. At one of those meetings, I asked to brainstorm on ways to reach our public that were not digital. Our primary focus was to get the word out about the new MiFi devices and also to let patrons know that other library services (getting cards or materials) were available to them and that staffers were here and ready to help. We needed an outreach tool that could be targeted to specific user groups and could be customized easily. Enter direct mail.
Creating a Postcard Campaign
While the idea for the postcard came from groupthink, I was the one responsible for all aspects of implementing the campaign from the design stage to the final review. The process took about 2 weeks from concept to mailing.
Libraries’ core mission of serving everyone often conflicts with the necessity of targeting certain messages to reach only specific people. But that campaign customization is crucial to success, so I looked at our audience in detail before beginning. And although I ultimately created five different postcards, they all shared the same recognizable branding.
I knew we wanted to reach out to patrons who had previously used the library but had not been back since we had resumed partial services. For this direct mail campaign, we used library data from OrangeBoy’s Savannah community engagement platform to select patrons older than 18 whose cards were currently inactive (not used in the past 12 months) but who had used their cards between Jan. 1, 2019, and Nov. 17, 2019. This was possible because Savannah tracks patrons’ library card usage and assigns them into clusters, with names like Page Turners (people who borrow mostly adult print materials) and Digitations (those who borrow mainly digital items). This allowed me to remove people in the Digitations cluster from our mailing list because a high use of ebooks and audiobooks indicated a high level of internet connectivity, and for this campaign, we specifically wanted disconnected users.
Once we pulled the raw data, we had to correct inaccurate information and remove duplicate addresses as well as addresses for shelters or group homes. This became one of our lessons learned as it took quite a few hours of staff time to manually correct and scrub up the address lists to prepare them for a clean mail merge. While time-consuming, this was an important step because we were paying by the address and did not want to waste limited funds on undeliverable mail. (This process also brought to light some corrective measures we could take when new patrons sign up for cards, in order to ensure the ease of future communications.) The final list had 14,233 addresses set to receive the postcards.
I designed five versions of the direct mail piece in-house using our Canva Pro account. Pro access means APL’s brand standards are incorporated into Canva, so designing something that meets them is quick and easy. I set up a 6-inch by 11-inch card, the maximum size that still qualifies for letter-rate postage. I also chose 100# glossy card stock. These specifcations allowed plenty of space to make messages eye-catching and easy to read.
We had Savannah sort the mailing list according to the last library location each patron had used, since that was likely the most convenient location for them to start visiting again. To further this campaign’s customization, I selected diverse photos that would resonate with each community that would get the postcards. Each of the images showed different people using technology at home to reinforce our message of getting and staying connected. Each postcard had the contact information for the last-used branch to help patrons reconnect to their familiar places.
Once the postcards were designed, I worked with a nearby vendor that was able to print, address, and mail them all in one order. By working with a local business, we had faster communication and were able to ask for flexible pricing and timelines. This was crucial when pandemic service changes in November 2020 forced us to move our mail date back a week to accommodate staffing needs. When direct mail works, it drives additional patron activity, meaning staff members would need to be ready to respond accordingly. The original mail date for the postcards would have had them in mailboxes during the same week that staffers were implementing an increased service change and preparing to get their first COVID vaccine doses. This would have put added strain on staff resources. While we wanted the messaging to get out, the delay was worth it to ensure that employees weren’t overwhelmed. Our local print shop was happy to accommodate this date change for us.
As we were launching our campaign, Anchorage was launching an effort to get the first round of community members vaccinated. Appointments had to be made online, so we at APL were glad we had taken a step to bridge the digital divide. In fact, shortly after the postcards were sent and MiFi’s started to circulate, we heard directly from a patron who was able to make her vaccination appointment thanks to the MiFi device she’d recently gotten from us.
In late November 2020, more than 14,000 postcards hit mailboxes. Our final hard cost for this campaign was $6,800. Printing was $3,050, including five separate setup charges, and postage and handling cost $3,750.
How We Measured Impact
With this campaign, our expectations were low because direct mail has a normal response rate of between 0.5 and 2%. For our run of 14,233, that would mean between 71 and 284 people re-engaged.
Because we selected people who had inactive library cards, we were able to keep track of when those cards became active again through circulation use in Savannah. We were particularly interested in library cards that moved from the Inactive Savannah cluster to the Unknown cluster. “Unknown” meant a patron had used their card for something Savannah didn’t recognize. MiFi devices would not have been sorted into a category the way books, movies, or other items would be, so they would trigger the Unknown status. We were able to take the original cardholder list and have an automated, custom report built that would show us how the library cards moved through clusters, which branch location each patron re-engaged with, and what part of our service area they lived in.
Within the first month, we re-engaged approximately 50 users, with 32 falling into the Unknown cluster, indicating they’d borrowed a MiFi. We also had anecdotal evidence of postcard impact because people were calling on the phone with questions. We continued to track the postcard campaign until we fully reopened buildings in April 2021. At that time, we considered the campaign complete, and I could review the final impact and ROI.
Within those 5 months, we had re-engaged more than 500 cardholders, giving us a 3.5% response rate, which was well over national averages. This would break out to a cost of $13.60 per re-engaged patron. While that may seem high compared to the lower cost-per-person reach of social media, we also gave weight to the community impact of the service. It was worth us investing a higher cost per patron to ensure that these high-needs users knew their library was there for them.