[This is Part 2 of a detailed success story. In the September/October 2023 issue, Kelly Sitzman wrote about how Pioneer Library System adopted a new strategic plan, which led to personnel reorganization that resulted in a new marketing and communications (M&C) department. The new M&C team then wrote a marketing plan and a communication plan, resulting in award-winning campaigns. In this continuation, Sitzman details how Pioneer changed its approach to developing, offering, and promoting programs. —Ed.]
Pioneer Library System (PLS) is made up of 12 branches across three counties in Oklahoma. One of the goals in our recently completed strategic plan was to unify programs and services to make them accessible across all PLS libraries, allowing customers to identify programs and services of interest quickly and easily at any location for a deeper and more consistent impact across our service area.
To us in the marketing department, this was important because streamlining programming would enable us to promote our services in a more effective way than ever before. It would allow us to market our library programs more strategically, without oversaturating our audience, serving them content that is relevant to them. It would also help us to highlight the library as an entertainment destination, rather than focusing on individual, one-off events.
Libraries try to offer everything to everyone, so we are expected to market everything to everyone. We end up getting lost in the noise. By narrowing our scope to identify some key areas of focus, we are better able to tailor our messaging in a more effective way.
Through our work in the strategic planning process, PLS identified five areas of focus that would drive our programs, services, and resources. Our programming was then centered around these five topics. Rather than deciding what five areas were important to PLS, we instead turned outward and examined what critical issues Oklahomans faced. Here are just a few of the studies we looked at and the decisions they led us to make within these five areas.
1. Community Conversations: According to a 2021 study from IMLS, public libraries play an increasingly critical role in promoting equity, inclusion, and community conversations. This confirms a Pew Research Center study that revealed that 94% of Americans believe public libraries improve the quality of life in a community. As a trusted community resource, PLS fosters healthy engagement and authentic connection through safe spaces for community conversations that welcome a diverse array of experiences and perspectives.
2. Health: The United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings lists Oklahoma as 47th in the nation for overall health, revealing a critical need for improvement. As a trusted partner in supporting our community’s well-being, PLS serves an essential role in helping the physical, mental, social and emotional, and environmental health of our community members. As indicated in a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73% of Americans who visited a public library did so looking for answers about their health. Recognizing the library as a credible source for health information, PLS invests in the health of our communities by providing access to a variety of opportunities and resources to strengthen overall well-being.
3. Upward Mobility: According to Oklahoma Works, in 2014, the state set a goal that by 2025, more than 70% of jobs in the state would require training and education beyond high school. As of 2019, only 42% of our workforce met that demand, with nearly 13% having not yet obtained a high school diploma. This reveals a critical need to align our talent pipeline with the growing and diversifying economy of Oklahoma by supporting the continuing skills development of all ages across our service area. With a concentration on upward mobility, PLS decided to build on traditional workforce development efforts by equipping people in our communities with the skills and knowledge needed to not only become gainfully employed, but also to advance and thrive in modern society.
4. Early Literacy and School Readiness: Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that children who are exposed to reading early in life tend to both read earlier and excel in school, as compared to those who are not introduced to books from an early age. Students who are not reading at grade level by fourth grade are more likely to fall further behind in all subject areas moving forward and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. As of 2019, only 29% of fourth graders in Oklahoma were proficient in reading, revealing a critical need for support in this area.
5. STEAM/STEM: STEAM education cultivates our ability to think critically and creatively solve problems. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM careers are expected to grow at more than double the rate of all other occupations by 2029. Furthermore, STEM workers earn up to 26% more than those outside of the STEM field. In Oklahoma in particular, there’s a substantial deficit in the number of skilled workers and an increasing number of STEM career opportunities. As a hub of innovation and learning, PLS serves an essential role in equipping our community with the STEAM skills needed to thrive in a complex world.
Timeline of Changes to Our Program Planning Process
This strategy of reworking the way we handle programs really began with our strategic planning process in 2018. When our strategic plan rolled out in 2021, we began to develop a pathway to achieve components related to programming. Foremost was reorganizing human resources to hire a director of community engagement and learning who would supervise a newly formed programming staff of two and create a cross-functional team of staffers to develop a programming framework.
Once the programming team developed the framework, they shared it with library leadership and supervisors, then previewed it with everyone else through virtual staff meetings. At this point, branch managers were encouraged to begin implementing the program planning process: identifying community needs, developing outcome statements, and brainstorming potential programming through these virtual staff meetings.
Uniquely Unified Programming
Based on the five areas of focus, PLS developed a slate of “signature services,” or signature programming. In fall 2022, we rolled this out to the public. Signature services programs have the same names, descriptions, and outcomes across the system. We decided that each signature service should be represented in branch programming each month. Each branch’s workers can determine what theme or special focus that program features, but overall, they are the same.
Previously, branches had offered similar programs but with different names. For example, children reading with therapy dogs could be called “Books, Buddies, and Barks” in one location, but “Sit, Stay, Read” at another. By aligning our programming, this event became “PAWsitive Reading Buddies,” and all of the outcomes were made consistent as well. Staff members work with their respective presenters to explain the end goal and to ensure the experience is similar across our counties.
Branch employees are invited to create unique programming when a community-specific need is identified that signature services programs do not meet. All programming should be developed using a new planning process (see the image at right). It took some adjusting once we rolled this out. Planners asked, “Where does my [program on XYZ] fit in?” To work within this new framework, we asked planners to instead reflect on the outcomes of the event they wanted to have, determine if it met the needs of the community, and see which focus from the signature services menu it most closely aligned with.
There are always exceptions; however, by aligning all of our events, we have been able to say yes to community partners to come together on projects that move our missions forward. In other cases, we have had to retire certain traditions or decline offers to partner on events or projects that simply do not meet our common goals.
Redefining Events and Ages
The programming department and team defined what programming meant at PLS, sorting events into three categories: programs, experience centers, and outreach and networking. Our experience centers are defined as what many libraries refer to as “passive programming.” We redefined this with an active title because these setups should not be passive. Instead, PLS’s experience centers are a come-and-go, self-guided, educational experience for customers to engage with any time the library is open. The experience centers mirror programming, cycling through the five signature services areas. For example, a 3D printer may be placed on the floor with instructions on how to use it and educational tips on STEAM. Customers are encouraged to interact with it, asking staff for help if needed, but it truly is a self-guided learning experience. This helps us educate and engage with customers all of the time, not just when a program or outreach event is scheduled.
Our events calendar went from nearly 30 event types to our five areas of focus, making it easier for customers to filter. It also helped staffers really think through what audience and event type their potential programs were geared toward.
Additionally, we redefined our age groups. Previously, we planned and promoted services to children (0–11), teens (12–17), and adults (18-plus). We realized through this process that the range for children was very broad, but their needs are much different. Early literacy and school readiness really focus on the 0–5 age range, so we created a new age filter for our system, Early Literacy (0–5). Now we are able to better market to families with babies and toddlers whose needs differ from those with children ages 6–11.
Easy to Find and Market
With consistent names and descriptions, customers are able to easily find programming from branch to branch. This consistency has enabled the M&C department to market resources and programming more holistically. For example, we can promote “Creativity Unleashed” and highlight the different topics at different locations, but really stay focused on that high-level-awareness part of the marketing funnel. This leveled the playing field in terms of what offerings we provided to the public and reinforced quality programming at every location.
We are also able to refer people to a similar program if they are unable to attend the one they originally chose. In addition, we are simultaneously marketing all events all of the time, but can zoom in on specific events as needed, rather than doing what most of our peers face: fielding last-minute requests for social media promotion for events that nobody has signed up for (not effective, as marketers know!).
We built our new website around these five areas of focus. There are menu items for each service type and event type on our website, further reinforcing these topics and helping customers find what they need more quickly than having to search endless menu hyperlinks.
Deeper, More Measurable Impacts
By identifying outcomes for each signature service and using those outcomes to develop programming, we aim for deeper and more measurable impacts across our service area.
In 2021, PLS implemented event tracking systemwide after piloting it for a few years. Scanning library cards at events is not required, but it allows us to track attendance, create active cardholders, send program evaluation surveys to a percentage of attendees, and send marketing emails to customers about relevant library services. Perhaps most importantly, event tracking has helped us see the big picture and what types of events are being offered in each signature service area for each age group across our 12 branches. We created an events dashboard on the Savannah platform with our OrangeBoy partners so we can track attendance by total numbers, unique customers, age, category, title, location, and more. This can be viewed at the system level or filtered by branches.
Our signature services programs are carried out year-round, even throughout the Summer Learning Challenge. In 2023, Summer Learning Challenge event attendance increased 28% from the year before. Branch employees are able to see which types of programs are being offered more regularly and which types we need to increase offerings for. In addition, our M&C department can see which signature services areas might need boosting. (Spoiler alert: Storytime never needs boosts!)
We continue to refine our signature services offerings. While PLS has talked about them for years now, it’s important to remember this is still a new concept in some pockets of our organization, and it’s certainly new to customers. Branches are still able to exercise creativity with their programming; the signature services approach just provides the framework. We continue to experiment with offering a variety of program dates, times, themes, locations, and more.
We know there are many more factors than just a flier or a social media post that determine event success. Nearly 2 years’ worth of data is available for branches to analyze attendance and the number of events offered per category as well as by location, cardholder age, or cluster. The data is much richer than “No one showed up for my program because there wasn’t enough marketing.” While we do still hear this phrase, it allows our team at all levels to gently push back and prompt reflection on the community needs that were met, what time/date the program was offered, and whether this is something that is truly of value to the community.