If only we could clone Rebekkah Smith Aldrich and send her to every library that needs a marketing startup or makeover. Her stories and statistics vividly illustrate the value-added benefits of a forward-thinking marketing professional who continuously integrates the library into the community. Take her words to heart: “Be brave, be bold, and remember—your community is depending on you.” You will feel empowered after reading this interview with a marketing master.
Rebekkah, tell us about your educational background.
I have a master’s in library science from Southern Connecticut State University and hold an advanced certificate in public library administration from the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University.
I am also a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Accredited Pro-fessional (LEEDAP; www.usgbc.org/leed) and a certified Sustainable Building Advisor (cSBA; https://sbaprogram.com/sustainable-building-advisor-certification).
However, my true education comes from working with the 66 public libraries and the communities that they serve in my role at the Mid-Hudson Library System (MHLS). I have the privilege of working side by side with public library directors and thousands of public library trustees and Friends. We’ve learned a lot together over the past 16 years.
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
I am most definitely an “accidental marketer!” I’m an “on the job learning” kind of person. I am lucky enough to work with a set of brave, forward-thinking library directors who are open to trying new things. My position is a nontraditional one, the innovative idea of Joshua Cohen, the former executive director of MHLS. He wanted a position on staff that was flexible and responsive to the development needs of member libraries. As we learned more about what challenges members were facing, we crafted services and pursued education that would help us help our libraries.
How large is your department?
We don’t think of ourselves as a department, but I do have the opportunity to work with the fabulous Kerstin Cruger, MHLS’ marketing and program assistant. Half of her time is dedicated to helping me with all the ideas we come up with. So in terms of size, I guess you would say 1.5 FTE. Our efforts are supplemented by the awesome MHLS Marketing Advisory Committee, a group of member library directors that are our partners in crime—or probably a better descriptor, our think tank—when it comes to marketing strategies.
How many staffers are at your library?
Our system has the lowest staff:member library ratio in New York state. We have 17 FTE, serving 66 member libraries.
What percentage of the total organization budget is dedicated to marketing?
There is no dedicated funding for marketing in the budget, just the time and energy of 1.5 FTE who are also committed to other areas of the plan of service.
What was your most successful library campaign?
My title, coordinator for library sustainability, is a strange one, pretty unique, possibly one of a kind. My job is to ensure our member libraries have the capacity to endure. Therefore, all of our “campaigns” are designed to that end—to connect libraries more completely with their community, to build good will and inspire financial investment. Libraries that behave as part of the community rather than separate from it have a higher degree of viability and resiliency.
Our thinking on this evolved as we learned we had started at what is essentially the end. One of the first things we tackled was the need for more of our libraries to have public votes on their budgets. In New York, and across the country I would imagine, public libraries have more stable and reliable funding when the public has a direct say on the library’s budget. We developed the Public Library Vote Toolbox (http://vote.midhudson.org) based on lessons we learned from the political arena, translating proven techniques for electing politicians to strategies for public libraries to “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV).
Through that effort, we learned that it is difficult to get the vote out if there are no votes to get out. We needed a stronger base of support to mobilize when vote time rolled around. Our next program was called Building Your Base (BYB; featured in MLS back in 2010; www.infotoday.com/mls/jan10/index.sht+ml). We started by using information from focus groups held with non-library-users to find ways to connect with unreached areas of a community through programming. We learned how to use social media to connect with our communities, we fine-tuned library websites to become virtual branches, we coached directors on how to knock on doors of other community leaders to build bridges to the library’s brand. Each iteration of the BYB program strengthened our libraries and my knowledge of how marketing works in the real world.
Since the BYB era, we’ve continued to try new things. We did a Word-of-Mouth Marketing Experiment to fine-tune messaging amongst insiders, users, and the community at large (This program resulted in a phenomenal uptick in usage of databases, 200% in some cases!) and a non-user survey outreach project, which resulted in trained survey teams going out into the community to connect and learn with those that haven’t walked through our doors. Currently, we’re working on a brand/rebranding development process for small libraries, learning how to build your brand from the inside out of your organization, how to live your brand and manage your brand. We think it is critical that libraries get incredibly good at talking about who we are and why we do what we do. We spend a lot of time itemizing what we do, but what truly resonates with users and non-users (and therefore voters!) is the emotional explanation of the critical nature of the work of public libraries: to ensure equal access, to empower individuals and communities, and to protect the unfettered access to information and ideas. We’re on the frontlines of an empowerment revolution, and that is incredibly exciting to me.
Each “campaign” builds on the one before it, so they all contribute to our libraries’ success. When our libraries win at the polls, and our win rate is 92%, that is the definition of success to me. When people vote to tax themselves more for library services, even during the recession, you know we’re doing something very right.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
I’ve learned that losing a vote is not the end of the world. The first campaign I was deeply engaged with that lost was a complete heartbreaker. The team that poured their heart and soul into getting the vote out was crushed, demoralized, and, frankly, kind of angry. I’ve learned that you have to pick yourself up, be graceful in defeat, and understand that the story isn’t over. We get to write that next chapter. You have to be transparent and accountable, admit defeat, and be humble. Go back out there, talk to people about the library’s reputation, find out what went wrong. And then fix it. It may take more time than you’d like it to, but most of the time, you can identify where things fell down. Do you have a customer service problem? Is a member of your board a bit too controversial? Did you ask for too much? Did you fail to get the vote out? Diagnose, learn from that, and move forward. Always move forward. Libraries are too important to leave them hanging in the wind without the support they deserve, and it is our job to ensure good things happen for the good people we serve.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
I have to say, in smaller communities, tech plays a small role. The truth of the matter is that old-fashioned word of mouth and—I’m completely serious— signs by the side of the road have the biggest impact. Facebook helps us extend good word of mouth into the e-world, but it’s still word of mouth and has varying degrees of impact. The influence of tech to improve our ability to quickly and affordably have professional-looking PR pieces has certainly simplified things. [Tools like] LibraryAware (www.libraryaware.com), Canva (www.canva.com), and eLance (www.elance.com) help libraries “look good for less.” Image matters, and those libraries who are not investing in quality graphics, print promotional pieces, and routine contact with those they serve are going to get lost in the shuffle.
Discuss some of your productive partnerships.
I see everyone as a potential partner, from legislators to business owners to anti-tax groups. Libraries are a core American value and appeal to a phenomenal cross-section of our communities. I encourage my libraries to do environmental scans to identify who is out there, what they value, and how the library can best serve them. I’ve seen businesses offer up their storefronts to help advertise a library’s capital campaign, a legislator leverage special legislative funds to promote summer reading programs in libraries, a constitutional law group that now meets in the library and quieted their opposition to the library’s tax levy as they learned more about how efficiently the library uses public tax dollars, businesses that banded together with a library to promote Library Card Sign-Up Month by offering discounts when you show your library card, contractors that donate services to build a new library for the community, and the state’s civil service union underwriting the production of bookmarks to build up usage of our state’s online advocacy center for libraries. I have dozens of examples of how my libraries have partnered with others who care about the community to make good things happen for our neighbors. It makes you realize there is hope for our future. When we find ways to work together, the impossible can become possible.
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
Try new things. If they work, awesome. If not, learn from it. Do a “joyful funeral” when something tanks: A) Stop doing it. B) Identify what worked, what didn’t, make a note, and move on. Marketing is about library user acquisition; PR is about building a buzz. Understand what success looks like, evaluate your efforts, and infuse energy into everything you try. Be brave, be bold, and remember—your community is depending on you. You don’t want to let them down, do you now?