One of the first announcements the library posted on its Facebook page.
When your student body is spread across the world, how do you get students “into” your library? For online institutions like Walden University (www.waldenu.edu), this is especially challenging. A common way that brick-and-mortar libraries bring students in is by hosting an open house, yet searching the professional literature on library outreach rarely offered us options to replicate. Instead, Walden librarians sought ideas that we could repurpose and adapt to meet our unique needs. When we Walden staff members began planning our first open house in 2018, we started by trying to imagine how this would look in an online environment.
We knew we wanted an event that would highlight resources, information, and services for our students, with a larger goal of helping them feel more comfortable using the library. We envisioned an open house that was fun, social, friendly, and stress-free. To make this happen, we had to answer some questions:
- How will we promote the event to our distant students?
- Will the open house be a teaching opportunity or a fun event?
- What kinds of activities can we do online?
- How long should it be open?
- How will we staff it without taking time away from other regular duties?
Early Planning Decisions
Walden’s approximately 50,000 students are primarily working adults spread across time zones worldwide. We would inevitably exclude many students if we hosted an event that only spanned a few hours or even a full day. Ultimately, we decided to hold our open house for a week to give students enough time to participate.
To avoid pulling staffers away from regular job duties for a full week, we planned a mix of live and asynchronous events. The live events were intended to give students an opportunity to interact with the librarians so they could see that there are real people here to help them. The asynchronous events would give all of our students the opportunity to participate as their schedules allowed. After some debate, we chose to make the events fun to differentiate the open house from our instructional webinars. They would still provide information about the library, but in a less formal manner.
Initially, we considered asynchronous versions of simple games, but each posed various challenges that made them unsuitable. We chose to do two asynchronous events that would be easy to create and not demand much technical development from our lone IT librarian. Our primary event was a library scavenger hunt, made up of a list of questions that would lead students to important resources and services we wanted to highlight. We also developed individual hidden “Easter eggs,” but changed the name to “treasure hunt” after discovering that some staffers and students weren’t familiar with the term “Easter eggs” in this context.
In addition, we made a list of people and departments that would need to be involved as partners in this event. We’d need help spreading the word, since the library does not have an internal marketing staff. The university delivers communications through the marketing-brand support department, which includes a social media team, and through the student communications department.
The library’s liaison and outreach manager looked for ways to connect our outreach needs with the university’s communications strategy. That partnership was in its infancy, and the learning curve of how to most effectively work with marketing to deliver our messaging became evident with this event.
In order to reach students, staff, and faculty, we contacted the university’s marketing-brand support and student communications departments several months before the open house. Since we had not previously worked with the people in marketing, we met by Skype to explain to them the purpose of the open house and the groups that we were hoping to reach. They determined that they would post to the Walden Facebook account a week before the event and again 2 days before the event.
The department distributes messaging to students via email. The library designed a message with text and a link to the open house website, to be deployed to students the Friday before open house week.
To attract students to the open house, we offered Walden-branded USB drives as small prizes and one Amazon Kindle as a grand prize. We offered prizes for both live and asynchronous activities and would hold a drawing for the Kindle at the end of the open house week.
Setting Up the Online Activities
The scavenger hunt was built in LibWizard as a LibForm. There were 10 required questions designed to lead students to specific places on the library website, such as their subject research homes or subject guides. There was one optional question: “What is at least one thing (resource, tool, fact, etc.) that you discovered during this scavenger hunt that you think will be useful to you?” We included that to gather some qualitative assessments of the activity. We agreed that anyone who correctly completed the scavenger hunt challenges would be entered into the drawing for the Kindle and that the first 12 people to complete it would win a USB drive.
Our IT librarian helped with hiding 13 images and links throughout the library website for the treasure hunt. We ensured that they’d be easy to identify because they clearly did not belong. For example, we added a link to National Ice Cream Day on our Hours and Holidays page.
Six liaison librarians support their respective subject areas within the university, and each librarian developed a live event to interact with students. They came up with a variety of games such as Stump the Librarian and a trivia game. The live liaison activities were the only things that required staff time during the open house week. We offered these events at a variety of times during the week to try to give more students the opportunity to participate at a moment that would be convenient in their own time zones.
The opening page of the 2019 scavenger hunt
Student Response to the Open House
Despite offering our live events at multiple times, we did not get more than 15 total participants. That low response highlighted our marketing challenges. For the most part, these challenges stemmed from our inability to reach students on our own.
The university’s marketing-brand support department discourages messaging about individual live events due to concerns about flooding students with emails. So we’d pushed messaging about the entire open house week through the student communications department emails and social media and hoped that students would find and register for the live events on the event website. That clearly had limited success. As the event drew nearer and registration remained low, we couldn’t deploy additional messaging due to the lead time required by the marketing-brand support department for scheduling emails.
Our library’s own social media reach was low, by comparison, and so our own prompts for the events had little impact. Despite these marketing shortfalls, we believe the biggest factor in low attendance was simply the challenge of offering a live event for an audience that lives in a wide array of time zones and prefers to spend their academic time on course work.
The scavenger hunt and hidden treasures activities got more engagement. The optional scavenger hunt question resulted in positive feedback:
“I’ve been sitting here laughing at my desk for several minutes because I found your newest staff member, Sir Peppercorn. Brilliant - and such a refreshing break in my day on this dreary Wednesday morning. :)”
“Enjoyed the scavenger hunt and finding the treasures!
Next plan is to attend some live events. This open house was a great idea.”
“Thank you so much, all of the games and activities have been very enjoyable! Plus I learned or relearned a lot!!”
“Yay, and I thought the virtual scavenger hunt was a really cool idea!”
This library liaison answer was posted on Instagram for students to discover during the scavenger hunt.
At the end of open house week, the liaison and outreach manager reviewed scavenger hunt submissions to weed out the ones that hadn’t followed our rules. After that, all qualified participants’ names were put into a website randomizer to pick the winner. Then the library director mailed all the prizes to the winners. Since the rest of the library staffers are all remote, this task fell to the director, who could use the university’s main office for mailing. Surprisingly, shipping the physical prizes proved problematic. One prize was lost in the mail, and another was returned due to an incorrect address.
Changes for Our Second Open House
In autumn 2019, we planned our second open house, incorporating changes based on what we’d learned in the first one. In 2018, the liaison and outreach manager had taken on too much of the work alone, so for 2019, a team of three people shared the planning tasks. This not only spread out the work but also assured that more voices and ideas were presented. The group kept the main activity of the scavenger hunt. We changed the questions in case there were attendees who had also participated the previous year, and one of us created the scavenger hunt as a tutorial in the Springshare platform.
We decided to abandon the live activities, since the time each liaison had spent creating and delivering them was not worth it, given the small attendance. We still wanted to offer a way for students to see and hear from their liaisons, so we asked them to choose their favorite resource and make a video, no longer than 1 minute. In the videos, the liaisons shared their names, which programs they work with, and their favorite resources. These videos were then placed around the website as hidden treasures, with clues on the open house webpage to help students find the videos. To be entered in the drawing, students filled out a form that was linked on the page with the video. The form asked their name, email address, and the favorite resource they found.
Our marketing approach changed as well. In 2018, the liaison and outreach manager had asked our student communications and marketing-brand support departments for their help in promoting the open house. Despite the marketing team laying out a social media communication plan, there was no evidence that it had been enacted. Marketing the university is their priority.
In 2019, the liaison and outreach manager reached out directly to Walden’s social media team. This made us closer partners in the process, and our messaging did get deployed. We librarians promoted the open house via our own Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages, but the reach of the Walden University Facebook page is much greater than all of the library’s social media accounts combined. More than 1 million people follow Walden University’s Facebook page compared to the library’s 4,600 followers. Walden University also has a LinkedIn profile with 133,546 followers.
This is how the library website invited visitors to play live games during its open house week.
Despite our second open house being promoted on Walden University’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages, by email via the student communications department, and on the library’s social media accounts, attendance did not grow as much as we had hoped. The number of visits to the open house webpage increased by 523 over 2018, and the number of completed scavenger hunts only grew by two. Despite the attendance being a very small amount of the total student population, we still had good engagement and reached students who may not have otherwise interacted with the library or interacted with certain information available on our website.
Participation numbers from both years show that the asynchronous activities were more popular with our students than the live events. Live events only saw about three participants per event, while the scavenger hunt saw more than 30, and the hidden videos scored more than 20 viewers. We did gather positive comments again:
“The scavenger hunt was fun and to be a winner is extra !! I suggest the library do this again sometime as it really provided a deeper look into the services. Prizes are fun but don’t have to be so extravagant...even so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the Kindle.”
“Fun and educational- more events like this for new students would be awesome!”
“Navigating the system to find the various videos made it fun, yet it helped me to understand a variety of ways to get to different places in the library.”
To avoid the problems we’d had with mailing prizes, in 2019, we offered a choice for small prizes of either a $25 e-gift card to Amazon or to our Walden store. We did offer the Kindle as a grand prize again, but we had it sent directly to the winner from Amazon.
Looking Toward the (Virtual) Future
We would love to dig into data about the demographics of our student attendees. Were they new students? Were some programs more heavily represented than others? Our web traffic analytics didn’t offer us those insights, and by collecting only anonymous interactions, we couldn’t connect that data to demographic data. We plan to collect more information this year by allowing students to indicate their program and progress.
We are in the process of planning our 2020 open house, using lessons from the previous two. Our student communications department recently made significant changes to the way it functions, which created a new communication outlet that we will explore. We might be able to add a message to all students on their student portal, which they would see when logging in to Blackboard, and in their Blackboard courses themselves.
For future open houses, we plan to create three to four new activities so we will have enough to mix and match, to ensure that if students attend multiple years, they will not see the same events repeated.
Over the past few months, we have all watched COVID-19 change the way we interact with the world. For many, this has been the first time they have been forced to move normally live services to online environments. We know it can be challenging! While our peers won’t be able to use free food to draw people into any virtual open houses they hold, we are seeing more and more that, with some creativity, we can shift many of the things we enjoy into an online environment.
We believe that virtual open houses can showcase libraries as strong resources that have real people working in them, ready to help. We can say from our experience that a virtual open house can still be fun, include prizes, and be enjoyable for patrons.