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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > March/April 2010

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Judy Hoffman Keeps Illinois Buzzing
by Judith Gibbons

Interviews With Marketing Masters provides a personal glimpse into the work life of behind-the-scenes experts who orchestrate marketing efforts in a library setting. This new series will appear in MLS three times a year, in the March/April, July/August, and November/December issues.

Name: Judy Hoffman
Title: Marketing communications specialist
Library: North Suburban Library System
Location: Wheeling, Ill.
Type: Regional multitype library system
Population Served: About 200 libraries that serve a population of 2.05 million


Judy Hoffman is an ideal person to start our series. With 11 years at North Suburban Library System, Judy works full time, primarily with the staffers and trustees of 49 public libraries that serve 83 communities, 24 academic libraries, 132 school districts, and 70 special libraries. She has also done marketing consulting and education throughout Illinois as well as with organizations throughout the U.S.


Judy, tell us about your educational background.

I have a B.A. in speech communications from the University of Illinois.

What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training or are you an accidental marketer?

I’m 100% accidental. After college, I pursued a career in music and theater, supporting myself for a number of years as a copy cataloger at the University of Illinois and then New York University. As my music career evolved, I needed the flexibility of temporary work. Every job I landed in was either in advertising, marketing, or public relations. As the years progressed, the lure of a steady income with health benefits was too hard to resist. I worked for more than a decade in the corporate world but always had an eye to return to libraries.

How large is your department?

Variable. On paper, we look like a two-person department, but there is a great deal of flexibility at NSLS when it comes to responsibilities and contributions. For example, we have active social media contributors from multiple IT staff as well as a gifted administrative assistant. All staff have been trained in word-of-mouth marketing and are expected to practice the art. My job also goes “cross-border” to a variety of support services for our members.

How many staffers are at North Suburban Library System?

Eighteen months ago, NSLS had 26 full-time staff. After this week’s layoffs [Jan. 22, 2010], we are down to 19 full-timers; part-time staff is currently at five.

What percentage of the total organization budget is dedicated to marketing?

Less than 3%.

What was your most successful library campaign?

The one that keeps on ticking, or kicking, is the Buzz Marketing project. NSLS assistant director Mary Witt keeps close watch on successful practices in the business world. In 2006, she pointed us in the direction of word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) because of two key factors: It had proven to be extremely effective and can be successful with a marketing budget of zero.

The moon and stars aligned for us with the 2007 LSTA grant categories. We invited our colleagues at the DuPage Library System to partner on the grant, greatly expanding the number of libraries that could soon see the benefits from WOMM. The grant provided for introductory programs open to all member libraries, and then individual guided projects for 35 libraries of all types.

Over a 6-month period, each library developed and implemented a buzz marketing project that fit their immediate needs. The results were amazing. Participants were surprised to learn that an informed and engaged staff can work all kinds of magic. Once trained, introverts turned out to be super salespeople. Use of electronic resources can skyrocket if you talk one on one with a potential customer. Meeting with teachers will result in increased use of online homework help. The list goes on and on, and truly, all it takes is a clear plan of action (aka marketing plan) and empowered staff and trustees.

What has been so exciting is to see the participants continue to think in terms of WOMM, and many have made it part of their standard marketing plans. Libraries that were not able to be part of the core project have also gotten on the bandwagon, educating themselves through professional literature and our Buzz Marketing website (

Along with our members, NSLS staff and trustees are continually involved in WOMM. At our monthly staff meeting, we pick a different service or program to buzz for that month. Everyone who reports back gets in the drawing for 2 hours comp time (a very popular prize). We have been invited to present on this topic at conferences and library systems, and it is clear that library staff and trustees continue to be excited by the possibilities and affordability of WOMM.

What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?

The most recent challenge was with our foray into the world of staff-produced video. NSLS has a long history of using video for promotion. We recently closed down a successful, long-running monthly cable television program, What’s New in Libraries, which featured unique services and people at all types of libraries. Production of that series was primarily in the hands of a professional producer and videographer. But now we’re on our own to shoot, edit, and post compelling and/or entertaining short-form video to promote NSLS services and our member libraries.

To my mind, there were four distinct challenges: making sure the technology was working (“oops, forgot to turn on the mic”), the amount of time needed to learn, plan, film, and edit, the differing views on what constitutes video worth watching, and finding people willing to be in front of the camera (and hopefully comfortable to watch).

I’d say we had mixed success with the staff-produced videos, but it was a great learning opportunity. It did take a great deal of time, and in the long run, there was not enough return on investment to make this a regular part of our marketing efforts. From discussions around NSLS and at conferences, it appears that many other library video newbies found it to be the same experience. But we all agreed the experience expanded our skill level so that we could work with video when needed.

What technology has helped you reach new audiences?

Twitter and Facebook have been particularly effective for us this year during our campaign to sustain funding for Illinois’ nine regional library systems. We are funded by annual grants by the Illinois General Assembly. Our state budget is down in the gutter with California’s, and systems are suffering. Since July 1, systems had received none of our funding (should be at 50% by now). So we set up an email campaign directed to our governor and state comptroller through Within 36 hours, 10,000 people had sent 20,000 letters through the website. It was all over the social media sites, library websites and blogs, etc. It was a success! On the first day, our systems were informed that partial payment was on its way.

The work continues with Innovation Experts ( This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping libraries of all types save money, optimize current technology products and services, implement new technologies, communicate more effectively with customers, and learn how to promote themselves more effectively.

Discuss some of your productive partnerships.

The Daily Herald, Illinois’ third-largest newspaper, has been a tremendous partner in a number of capacities. The paper has run a column by our director Sarah Long since 2001 ( That kind of exposure is priceless. For a number of years, the paper sponsored a summer reading incentives program. In tandem with that program, the Herald provided NSLS and participating libraries with free advertising space for whatever we wanted to promote. In addition, we have a long-standing reading program sponsored by the Chicago Wolves hockey team, which has the most organized and generous marketing team on earth. And, for more than a decade, the Ravinia Music Festival has provided free lawn passes for all public libraries in the Chicago metro area. People go crazy for these!

What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?

At my first temp marketing job in New York, I worked for an amazing marketing pro (and friend) that I’d like to give a shout-out to—Dan Rappoport. He taught me many valuable lessons, always with kindness and humor, including one deceptively simple one: “Never assume.” When it came to production deadlines, he never took it for granted that everything would just show up on his doorstep, in perfect order, on the due date. Dan always checked in with copywriters, printers, fulfillment houses, etc., at appropriate intervals during the process. This lesson alone has saved me from any number of potential marketing and PR follies.

Judith Gibbons is a library consultant and freelance writer based in Versailles, Ky. She is retired from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, where she coordinated the public library program. She holds an M.L.S. from the University of Kentucky and a master’s in public administration from Kentucky State University. She has won a John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award and is now a member of the JCD committee and of the ALA Council. Her email address is
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