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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > May/June 2022

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 36 No. 3 — May/June 2022
Calgary PL Demonstrates How ‘Green’ Libraries Are
by Grant Kaiser
Calgary Public Library’s innovative 'green' media kit included a small peat flowerpot, a wooden spoon 'shovel,' a tiny paper
bag of earth, a seeded library card, and a media release and backgrounder/fact sheet.

[This is a special reprint of a favorite MLS article that’s evergreen in more ways than one. I originally published it in the November/December 2008 issue and have always remembered it for the clever way that Calgary Public Library (in Alberta, Canada) measured, then conveyed, how library usage has a positive effect on the environment. Now that sustainability and environmental concerns are top of mind again for many, I wanted to shaf1re this widely in the hopes that other libraries will try similar initiatives. And this “Green Before Green Was Cool” campaign won a John Cotton Dana Award, so it’s definitely an example worth emulating. —Ed.]

Many organizations are now jumping on the environmental bandwagon, but one type of institution has been “quietly” green for hundreds of years—public libraries.

In an era of carbon transfer credits and alternative fuels, it is easy to forget that there are simple, everyday things that can save the planet and save money at the same time. As one example, people sharing books, magazines, and other print materials instead of buying their own significantly reduces the amount of paper produced and, ultimately, discarded. That’s where public libraries can shine.

Calgary Public Library’s (CPL) marketing and development department regularly discusses broad issues and trends that impact society with an eye to shaping these factors into initiatives that encourage library use and demonstrate the ongoing value of public libraries to the community’s quality of life. Some time ago, my department identified the environment as an issue that had staying power with the public.

The library had already established its credentials as an organization that’s concerned about the planet by constructing two new branches that were among Canada’s first certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings. CPL has committed to building all future branches (three are in development) to the LEED Gold Standard. The new public focus on green issues would give us an additional opportunity to show environmental leadership and to reinforce the relevance of public libraries to the local community.

Various factors, including funding, delayed CPL’s ability to act on the issue, but in early 2008, I formed a small project planning team to determine how to move forward on delivering a positive library-related environmental message.

Planning a ‘Green’ Event

We began by setting our objective. I’m a stickler for avoiding the “communicating for the sake of communicating” approach. There must be a clear, shared purpose to our activities before we invest time and money. Often, our objectives are measurable, such as our advertising campaigns designed to drive benchmark activities like circulation or membership. Sometimes, the objective is to gain publicity or top-of-mind awareness to enhance the image, reputation, and perceived impact of the organization.

Promoting the library as a strong steward of the environment clearly fell into the latter category, so I chose to measure success by the number of people we reached with our green message. Research had shown an extremely strong connection between an organization’s “greenness” and favorable public opinion, so this simple “reach” objective was appropriate for us.

The budget for the project was set at $2,000 CDN, which was figured by a combination of how much money we had and what the return on investment was likely to be.

With a better understanding of the objective and budget, my team began looking into what communications vehicle would be most effective. There were obvious limitations on how messages could be delivered (you can’t print brochures that describe how you save paper), so we chose to have a special event that was designed to generate as much media interest and publicity as possible.

I asked the work team to do a simple SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) of the environmental marketplace as it relates to the library. It became obvious that almost every organization and product on the planet was being touted as somehow environmentally friendly. CPL would have little chance of standing out in this crowded marketplace. For the library to differentiate itself, we needed another approach.

Instead of addressing how green the library or its “products” were, I decided that the approach would focus on how the library and its users were well ahead of their time in environmental responsibility—whether they knew it or not. This messaging would congratulate existing library users for having been green all along and show non-users how something as simple as patronizing the library helps the planet. This messaging fell in line with my efforts to encourage library staffers to adopt a “you attitude” in communications. This means replacing statements about how wonderful the library is with statements about how wonderful the library helps you to be.

Crafting an Effective Message

Members of the work team researched and documented how much paper, plastic, energy, etc., the library used and saved. For example, to determine the amount of paper saved, we researched the average weight of a book in our collection. Our cataloging department helped the marketing team understand our system’s proportions of paperbacks, hardcover books, etc., and we weighed random samples. We then multiplied the average weight by our annual circulation and also multiplied the average weight by the number of items in our collection. By subtracting the total weight of all items circulated from the weight of the books in our collection, we determined how much paper was saved by borrowing books rather than everyone purchasing their own copy. At each stage, we rounded numbers down to ensure that we never exaggerated our environmental impact (a practice so common it now has a name: greenwashing).

This exercise provided the needed information but also showed how difficult it was to comprehend the numbers. The team decided to focus only on paper savings and the related environmental impacts, since it would be the most easily grasped message to communicate. We also developed the idea of expressing figures in familiar, everyday terms. For example, instead of saying 840,000 kilograms (1.85 million pounds) of paper are saved, we equated that number to the weight of 187 full-grown elephants. This messaging led to the idea of having costumed characters represent the key points: trees and an elephant for paper savings, something to represent the water saved at pulp mills, and something to represent the oxygen produced by the trees that are saved when Calgarians borrow rather than buy their books.

Next, we developed an overriding slogan to further package the event. We considered suggestions such as “Libraries—the Original Recycler” but rejected them as lacking punch from a media perspective. In the end, the team chose “Green Before Green Was Cool” to best convey the point of the event in a short, catchy fashion.

Designing for Maximum Impact

We carefully considered the date for the event. The team thought about holding a standalone event but felt the risk was high that it might get lost in a sea of green messages. We examined holding the event as a part of Canada’s National Environment Week but felt that our message might be lost in a week of pronouncements from experts. I chose to run the event on Monday, June 2, 2008, the day before the local launch of Environment Week (a Tuesday-to-Sunday celebration). The intent was to strike when the media was already primed for environmental stories but hadn’t started delivering them yet. CPL’s event would be a positive, friendly start to a week of more serious green stories.

We would hold the event on the city’s busiest outdoor pedestrian mall over the lunch hour to allow us to interact with the most people possible. I assigned one of the library’s marketing officers to look after logistics, such as bookings and permits.

What’s easier to understand: 840,000 kilograms or 187 elephants?
This 'in the shower' costume represented the water that pulp mills save by producing less paper for books.

The event was shaping up nicely, but I felt we still needed something a bit more tangible to reinforce the library’s message. I thought of handing out tree seedlings but balked at the price. That led to the idea of tree seeds, which I felt lacked impact. But in researching tree seeds on the internet, I ran across a company that printed stationery and greeting cards impregnated with flower seeds. I contacted the company to see if it would entertain the idea of doing a full-color, two-sided mock library card on this seeded paper. Although it had never been done before, we worked together on mockups and test cards and finally developed a product that actually grew wildflowers in our Canadian climate.

The messaging around these “growable” library cards was perfect. On a basic level, they reinforced the idea of Calgary Public Library being environmentally responsible by saving plants, trees, and the planet. On a deeper level, the idea of these promotional library cards growing something beautiful, just as real library cards help people to grow, was irresistible.

Creating the Physical Components

The special library cards were designed and printed at a cost of about 60 cents each. Although fairly expensive, the marketing team felt the strength, appeal, and appropriateness of these giveaways more than justified the expense. The front featured a green leaf design with the library’s website and the phrase “It’s easy being green with your Library card!” The back had planting instructions along with a “leafy fact” about the amount of paper saved each year by CPL customers.

One of the team members knew a local seamstress who we commissioned for $500 to develop simple, fun costumes, including five trees, an elephant, and a periodic-table representation of an oxygen molecule. But she really shined in developing a costume to represent the water saved in pulp mills each year when our library customers borrow books. The costume consisted of a man in a bathrobe with a hidden backpack that supported a showerhead, rail, and shower curtain.

This quirky way of demonstrating water savings would prompt great curiosity and interest at the event. We produced little “picket signs” in-house for the costumed characters, each with a simple message about the paper, water, and oxygen savings or with a catchy phrase such as “Trees Love Libraries.” The picket signs enlivened the event, making it like a fun “protest.”

The local newspaper receives about 600 media releases each day in Calgary, a city of 1 million people. The members of the marketing team knew they needed something more than a media release to draw attention to the event. They developed media kits that included a small peat flowerpot, a wooden spoon “shovel,” tiny paper bags of earth, the seeded library card, and a media release and backgrounder/fact sheet. All printed materials were produced on post-consumer recycled paper. As an extra salute to environmental responsibility, we arranged to have the media kits delivered by bicycle courier.

The team developed key-message documents for the use of media spokespeople and participants to ensure messaging was succinct and targeted. I wrote internal communications pieces to inform all library staffers of the event and its purpose.

Finally, we developed an additional photo opportunity featuring the library director, Gerry Meek, planting seeded library cards with a group of children. Although the costumed characters were a terrific visual, I believe the more photo opportunities you give the television and print media, the more likely they are to find their own unique story angle. (Media outlets don’t like running the exact same story their competitors do.)

The Event and the Media’s Response

On Thursday, May 29 (2 working days before the event), we issued the media kits. On Friday and the following Monday (the day of the event), staffers made follow-up phone calls to all media and emailed photo opportunity guides to selected editors to help them understand what visuals would be available at the event. (Person-to-person media follow-up is always an effective tactic to maximize interest.)

On the morning of the event, we held a training session to ensure that the costumed characters and their handlers understood the importance of being extremely outgoing and full of personality. Although the visual impact of the event was outstanding and the messaging clear, the marketing team understood that the whole event would fall flat without the energy and enthusiasm of the participants.

At 11:30 a.m., costumed characters and their handlers paraded out of the main library branch to the pedestrian mall and began approaching members of the public. They did various little “shtick” routines to help promote the idea that being green was as easy as using their Calgary Public Library card, all in a fun and friendly atmosphere. They handed out the seeded library cards and encouraged Calgarians to make use of their public library.

Two of Calgary’s television stations covered the event during its entire 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. duration. The remaining two local television stations, both daily newspapers, three radio stations, and a number of other community media outlets all showed up at 12:15 for the photo opportunity with the director and children planting library cards. Following the photo ops, the director held a media scrum, followed by one-on-one interviews.

Evaluating Our Event’s Effectiveness

The response to the Green Before Green Was Cool event was exactly what we had hoped for. More than 300,000 people were exposed to extensive media coverage, and the costumed characters interacted with more than 1,500 people during the 2-hour event (more than 12 people per minute—literally as many as could be managed). The tone of media coverage and public reaction were overwhelmingly positive. Using standard media-measuring formulas 1, we calculated that the value of the media coverage exceeded $29,000.

Without question, the most popular element of the event was the plantable library card. We received requests for cards from hundreds of people who saw a friend’s card, which reinforced that the expected word-of-mouth promotion had materialized. There was some disappointment that these folks couldn’t get their own seeded card (only 1,500 were available), but even the disappointment was expressed in a positive fashion. Rather than being angry about not getting a card, people said they loved the idea and just wanted to participate.

We know the costumed characters were a hit because many people expressed delight that our fun-loving staffers weren’t stereotypical librarians. The key-message documents worked to keep people focused, and the photo opportunities with children brought the usual heartwarming coverage.

The main area we could have improved was the media kits, which worked a bit too well. Many of the kits never made it as far as the reporters who were assigned to cover the event, having been appropriated by various editors. So while they worked in generating coverage, the reporters themselves showed up unprepared, having never seen the background materials. This was easy to fix through plenty of staff/media interaction, but in the future, the marketing team will send far more kits into various levels of a media outlet’s structure to ensure that they make it to the right hands.

The Green Before Green Was Cool event proved to be an outstanding investment for Calgary Public Library from all perspectives, helping to reinforce our positioning as a relevant, positive community asset.


1. These formulas involve measuring the length of a story (in either minutes or column inches) and multiplying it by certain factors (to account for its tone and the additional credibility of a media story over a paid ad). Most books on media relations can provide more details on the math. In our case, the work was easy since my department has established excellent rapport with members of the media, who provided us with the estimated value of their coverage as part of their support for the library.

In 2008, Grant Kaiser was the manager of marketing and development for Calgary Public Library in Alberta, Canada. He was educated in communications at Calgary’s Mount Royal College and in business at the University of Calgary. He has earned professional designations from the Canadian Public Relations Society (an APR) and the Canadian Institute of Management (a P.Mgr.). During that time, Kaiser won more than 14 national and international awards for communications and marketing on behalf of libraries, including three John Cotton Dana Awards from ALA. He is happy to have MLS share this article about what he said was his favorite JCD-winning campaign.
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