I had heard it a thousand times from patrons at Westerville Public Library: “I didn’t know you had that.” So, I made it my personal mission to prevent patrons from using that all-too-common refrain.
For more than 10 years, I’d recognized the potential of Google’s advertisements. With their flexible geolocation options, budget limiters, keyword matching, real-time results, and ability to track effectiveness, this search engine marketing (SEM) tool offers significant benefits over print advertising. And the ability to appear at the top of Google results, among our competitors, is invaluable.
Despite this seemingly limitless potential, every time I created a new ad, I was immediately frustrated and discouraged. Google’s former AdWords interface had been built for multimillion-dollar-campaign managers, which made it hard to learn quickly. I found it difficult to choose the correct settings, and more than once, I accidentally spent more than my intended budget. My marketing department often tackles projects that require specialized skills, but we just didn’t have the staff expertise or time to devote to managing Google Ads effectively without making a significant investment in staff training.
So, when I stumbled upon a mention of Google Ad Grants and the company Koios in Angela Hursh’s Super Library Marketing blog, I could not have been more excited. Her post (https://superlibrarymarketing.com/2019/09/09/googleadgrants) described how libraries can receive up to $10,000 worth of Google Ads every month (through a non-competitive grant) and that a company called Koios would apply for the grant on your behalf and then manage the associated ad campaigns for you (for a set annual fee). I pitched the idea of investigating further as a part of my 2020 goals to my executive director, Erin Francoeur, and she agreed.
At the beginning of 2020, Westerville Public Library (WPL), a large, single branch library in central Ohio, was gearing up for another busy year. We had just opened an innovation lab; we had popular authors Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, and Margaret Atwood booked for visits; and we were deep in the planning stages for a 5-day history event celebrating the right to vote, which was expected to draw visitors from across the state.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While setting up a robust Google advertising campaign was already one of my goals for the year, the project became top priority as soon as our library shut down due to Ohio’s statewide health order. Our physical collections were locked away, and suddenly our vast collection of ebooks, digital magazines, and database subscriptions was the only option available to our patrons.
Checking Out a New Vendor
On March 29, 2020, I reached out to Koios (www.koios.co) to request more information. During our virtual meeting, both Koios representatives were transparent about the process and pricing structure. Steve Owley, WPL’s operations director, and I asked detailed technical questions that the Koios reps were able to answer clearly and concisely.
The reps explained that their priority is to obtain as much ad space as possible with the $10,000 grant funds available each month. This is a delicate balancing act. In the SEM world, advertisers bid against each other on each keyword search, and some advertisers are willing to pay more per click than others. The goal is to pay the least amount per click (known as “cost per click,” or CPC) while still winning the bid to appear at the top of the results list. Koios does this in part by bidding for less-popular keywords. The reps explained that libraries will likely never win bids for popular keywords such as “morningstar,” “value line,” or “investment advice,” so they work to leverage less-popular ones to deliver the best bang for the buck.
But I was still skeptical. My colleagues and I recalled negative experiences with companies that were unable to deliver on their promises to show our collections to search engines (One we tried was Demco’s DiscoverLocal product, but we never got it working the way we’d hoped.) and to improve our rankings. At Francoeur’s request, I contacted a fellow Ohio librarian, Robert Rua, assistant director of marketing and communications at Cuyahoga County Public Library, to ask about his experience with Koios. Rua provided a thorough explanation of his Google Ads work and some thoughtful advice. He made it clear that the ROI for Koios’ services was obvious, but also helped manage our expectations regarding conversion rates.
My next step was to seek approval from the library’s board of trustees. Because it wasn’t clear how the pandemic would affect Ohio’s state funding for libraries, our board prioritized remaining fiscally conservative throughout the year. Spending 15% of our reduced marketing budget on the Koios Ads service would be a risk. However, the grant dollars available (up to $120,000 per year) far exceeded the annual management fee ($7,000 per year for a service population of our size), so our board members agreed it was a worthwhile investment.
Setting Up to Run Google Ads
Google Ad Grants are awarded to qualifying nonprofit organizations, but WPL didn’t qualify on its own because it’s a government entity. So, we needed the sponsorship of an affiliated 501(c)(3) nonprofit to apply for the program. I reached out to the Westerville Library Foundation, and board president Regan deVictoria was able to provide the necessary information, including access to the foundation’s existing Google for Nonprofits and TechSoup accounts.
WPL also provided Koios with access to its Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager accounts. Our web developer added the required HTML code to our website’s header and body segments to track the effectiveness of each ad.
Owley exported our catalog’s MARC records, and the Ohio Public Library Information Network created a CNAME record for the domain learn.westervillelibrary.org. These changes allowed Koios to develop custom, mobile-friendly landing pages for our catalog records. Now, when a patron searches Google for “watchmen,” an advertisement for the library’s copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen may appear (https://learn.westervillelibrary.org/catalog/wvle/watchmen).
One thing I hadn’t considered was that each ad should link to a landing page that’s specific to the service it’s promoting. Google restricts grant dollars from being used on ads that link to sites outside of a grant users’ domain. Luckily, I had spent the past 7 years creating individual landing pages for each of the library’s database subscriptions, digital platforms, and services like Hoopla Digital. As you can see at www.westervillelibrary.org/hoopla, the landing page includes a basic description of the service, links to download the app, and an instructional video.
Since Westerville Public Library is a school district library with only one location, I chose to limit our ads so they only appear for searches within a 15-mile radius of our building. (Other options include limiting by city/county boundaries or ZIP codes.)
On May 18, 2020, Koios launched 23 different ad campaigns for us, with keywords related to our virtual storytimes, summer reading challenge, genealogy research tools, ebooks, and language-learning options. Within 13 days, these ads generated 2,321 visits to our website. This same traffic would have cost the library $3,398.83 in advertising dollars without our Google Ad Grant. (Koios provides access to these stats via client dashboards.)
Since launching, our average click-through rate (CTR) has been 13%. A very unscientific Google search implies that a normal CTR for search ads is 1.9%–3.17%. Our average CPC has ranged from 5 to 10 cents. A very unscientific Google search implies that the going rate is closer to 25 cents.
Pros and Cons of This Ad Strategy
There are some negative aspects to consider. Because Google is so ubiquitous in the search engine landscape, it didn’t immediately occur to me that these ads won’t ever be seen by patrons or potential patrons who use Bing, Yahoo, or another competitor as their preferred search engines.
I also realized that our ad potential is only as good as the data we can gather. For example, I’ve struggled to promote our digital newspapers because the provider, PressReader, has ignored my requests for a current title list.
Ongoing maintenance has been minimal on the WPL side, since we have an automated process for updating our MARC records. Koios staffers, with their training and certification from Google, do the heavy lifting of managing our ad campaigns, adding and adjusting keywords, ensuring continuous grant compliance, and communicating about outages. Once a month, I check our Koios dashboard to see which campaigns are most successful and to record statistics. And I’ll send a quick email to our rep whenever I want to add or remove an ad campaign. The company has been extremely responsive and usually makes changes within 48 hours.
My original goal with Google Ads was to focus on popular digital services like LinkedIn Learning and specialized services like 3D printing. I wanted to reach people who might not think of the library when researching options for these nontraditional offerings. I was less interested in sharing our catalog holdings, because people already associate the library with books. But Koios helped manage my expectations regarding our ability to spend $10,000 a month by promoting just a handful of services that have active bidding competitors, such as Audible, Khan Academy, and Consumer Reports. I have since embraced our Catalog Awareness Campaign as a way to remind existing patrons and potential patrons that the library is here for them.
These ads have helped us get the word out about database content too. During March 2021, we received numerous click-throughs to our NuWav Legal Documents page for searches such as “simple room rental agreement.” Typically, this database is difficult to promote because patrons don’t often think to come to the library for legal forms. The ability to appear in the right place at the right time is crucial, and this ad on Google made that possible.
I have also let go of my perfectionist tendencies regarding relevancy rankings for our catalog campaign. For instance, since “minecraft” is a very popular search term, Koios has set up keywords that match searches like “minecraft play for free” to lead searchers to Minecraft-related books and movies they can borrow.
I was concerned that an ad linking to results far afield from a searcher’s expectations might be frustrating and result in a negative perception of the library. But I eventually decided to embrace the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity.” Reminding people that we’re here, even if we can’t provide the exact thing they’re looking for in the moment, can only help WPL’s long-term goal of increasing awareness of our offerings.
Measuring Success and ROI
Here are the three WPL campaigns that have won the most bids (and therefore received the most advertising and exposure):
- The Catalog Awareness Campaign matches keywords from our MARC records with Google searches to make people aware of the breadth of our holdings.
- The Digital Media Campaign publicizes such services as Acorn TV, Freegal Music, and OverDrive to people who are searching for things like “download music” and “watch TV.”
- The Smart Library Campaign generates advertisements for people who search for “public library,” “library hours,” “sign up for a library card,” etc.
The efforts that have consistently delivered the highest CTRs are the Virtual Events, Coronavirus Library Reopening, and Smart Library campaigns.
Our ROI is still clear. By spending $7,000 on a 1-year contract, we have already received $117,484.19 in Google Ads for free (as of March 22, 2021, less than a year into using the ads). This resulted in 601,319 impressions (the times that patrons and potential patrons saw our name appear at the top of their search results) and 74,535 click-throughs to our website. That means WPL spent approximately 9 cents and minimal staff time for each website visit. In advertising terms, this is a very low cost for a high ROI.
Given the significant changes to our marketing strategy and service models throughout the pandemic, it is difficult to say how much our Google Ads alone contributed to the success of our digital services. However, digital checkouts and database usage did increase by 40% in 2020.
Even more telling is that, despite an extended closure, reduced hours, shipping delays, staffing shortages, limited budgets, and the quarantining of returned items, our total collection usage only decreased by 20% in 2020. I attribute this in part to our marketing efforts, including our Google Ads.