After 10 years of writing Interviews With Marketing Masters, I am still thrilled to explore the vibrant and growing library marketing scene. For my 30th column, I interviewed Carol Nelson of Vancouver Public Library (VPL). She shares how the Central Library enriches urban life with a captivating new roof garden that has welcomed locals and visitors alike, energized staff, and grown patronage. Her team’s work netted a 2019 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award.
Carol, tell us about your educational background.
I hold a bachelor of commerce in marketing from the University of Saskatchewan. While I keep myself current on marketing practices by attending various conferences and workshops, I have learned the most from others, whether they are colleagues, staff, or individuals from other companies. One of my favourite ways to tackle new challenges is to invite others to a “think tank,” where a group of people (who may not even be in the same industry) get together to share ideas. This not only helps everyone think outside their current parameters; it is an excellent way to build your network.
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
I consider myself very much an intentional marketer. After graduating from university, I aspired to a very traditional consumer packaged goods role; my first job was as a marketing analyst at a telecommunications company, followed by a few years in packaged foods. However, the past 20 years of my career have been in more nontraditional industries—from tourism destination marketing to not-for-profit and now public libraries. The common thread is that they are all marketing highly intangible, emotional experiences delivered through fragmented environments with a lot of diverse stakeholders. I joined the Vancouver Public Library 18 months ago and am still learning the library landscape. It is important to me to make a positive contribution to society through my work, and I enjoy bringing a business lens to organizations that typically are not marketing-driven.
This diverse experience taught me the value of market research. Understanding who your customer is and what motivates them is critical. Turning data into insights and action is what excites me. Asking not just “what?” but then “so what?” and “now what?”
How large is your department?
The Marketing & Communications department is comprised of a manager, two marketing coordinators, a social media lead, two graphic designers, and a marketing assistant. I am also responsible for a three-person policy and planning team.
How many staffers are at your library?
VPL has 21 locations and approximately 800 full- and part-time staff.
What percentage of the total organization’s budget is dedicated to marketing?
Most of our marketing budget goes to people (salaries/benefits), with less than $100,000 spent on program support and promotion. The total marketing budget represents less than 1% of the overall VPL budget. I’m working to change that by demonstrating the value we bring in terms of increased awareness, use, and public support.
What was your most successful library campaign?
I’m really proud of the campaign my team developed to launch the expansion at our Central Library—and of the John Cotton Dana Award it garnered.
When the Central Library opened in 1995, the top two floors were rented out, with VPL anticipating that it would someday require the space. The architect’s original proposal included a rooftop garden. For cost and environmental reasons, a green roof (inaccessible to the public) was added instead. Yet, every day patrons asked about the rooftop garden. In 2015, with the lease expiring and demand for community meeting rooms exceeding capacity, VPL began planning to add 42,000 square feet of new indoor space, as well as a publicly accessible outdoor green space.
The overarching goal of the expansion was to provide much-needed community gathering spaces in the downtown core. Key elements include the long-awaited rooftop garden, an 80-seat theatre, rentable community meeting rooms, a quiet reading room, and a gallery space. Uniquely, there are no traditional book collections on these two floors.
Because the spaces had many different uses and potential audiences, we undertook consumer research to understand what elements were most appealing and focused the campaign accordingly. Overwhelmingly, the rooftop garden was of highest interest, particularly among 18–35-year-olds who were not using the library as often as others.
With a very limited budget, we relied on a combination of low-cost social media, out-of-home and digital advertising, and public/media relations to raise awareness and drive visitation. A small digital advertising campaign was developed, with paid social media posts on Facebook and Instagram optimized to complement organic traffic. The website was updated with new content about the expansion, and enewsletters were sent to over 7,000 subscribers.
Due to construction complexities, the opening planned for spring was delayed to late September. This meant that visual assets (b-roll, images) for media pitches were not available in advance because construction was ongoing until the last minute. To mitigate this, we offered a sneak peek “hard-hat” tour for local media prior to opening. This resulted in numerous “countdown to opening” stories across print, broadcast, and digital, which in turn increased awareness and visitation for opening day.
To reach young adults, we also hosted an after-hours preview for local social media influencers. Showcasing the iconic architecture of the Central Library and scenic views from the rooftop garden, we pitched our “Instagrammable” setting to those with strong followership. This successfully created awareness among young urbanites looking for a trendy spot in which to be seen.
Over the first quarter of operation, visitation to the Central Library increased 13% over the same period in 2017. The key to our success was that we didn’t try to be all things to all people. By using research to guide decision making, we focused on the one element of the expansion (the rooftop garden) which had highest public interest. We also took a number of calculated risks: The campaign creative was nontraditional, and we invested in some paid media—something that hadn’t been done to this extent.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
The biggest challenge we likely share with other libraries is converting awareness into action. VPL is very fortunate to have very positive public perceptions—everyone loves the library. However, many of those people haven’t been to a library or used our services for a long time and may have outdated perceptions of what we offer. Our research indicates that awareness levels for core services (book lending and children’s programs) is high, but familiarity with more innovative areas (digital creation stations, musical instrument lending, and our Indigenous Storyteller in Residence) is much lower. This underscores the need to communicate the value that VPL offers beyond our traditional offerings.
An internal challenge I am addressing is overcoming negative perceptions of marketing. Marketing is frequently thought of strictly as promotion, which is viewed with suspicion by some in libraries. I’m working to expand the understanding of marketing to encompass all 4 P’s (product, price, place, and promotion), building on a shared commitment to deliver user-centered services. Last year, we developed our brand blueprint to articulate who we stand for and the type of personality we want to portray. The blueprint was informed by our existing vision and mission, as well as through workshops with staff. Enthusiasm for the brand was amplified by the chief librarian, who visited all branches and work units to share the blueprint and invite thoughts on how we could bring the attributes to life. This was so well-received that one of our annual staff recognition awards is now for an individual, team, or project that best exemplifies the brand. The first winner was the social media team, in recognition of how they are portraying VPL as inspiring, vibrant, and surprising. This exercise, finding a common language, engaging across departments, and demonstrating success, has helped build trust within the organization.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
Media relations, either through traditional (digital, broadcast, or print) channels or social, is by far the most cost-effective way for us to get our message out. At VPL, we have had great success reaching the 18–35-year-old market through social media.
By making a business case for a dedicated social media staffer, we have reached new audiences and increased engagement. Having someone who gathers together ideas from a cross-functional team and helps focus our messaging has really paid off. Our social media followers have more than doubled, and engagement is very strong. A side benefit is that we find traditional media is looking to our social media posts for story ideas. With the consolidation of media outlets, more reporters are looking for content directly from organizations; this allows us to help shape the narrative.
Discuss some of your productive partnerships.
VPL works in partnership with numerous community groups to develop and deliver programs and services. This is critical for us; we access their expertise to help develop content and access their networks to reach people that may not already be using the library. When we partner with a community services organization to deliver one program or service, their clients may become aware of a range of additional services that we can offer their whole families.
A great example of this is within the healthcare sector. The Reading Tree, a picture book written and published by VPL, is provided free to families with young children at every branch. VPL’s children’s librarians leverage relationships with speech-language pathologists, public health nurses, and local pediatricians to bring the book to some of the city’s most vulnerable and hard-to-reach families, through child health clinics, immunization clinics, and parenting groups.
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
Listen, learn, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Get experience on both the client and agency side and in different industries so you can bring different perspectives to your role. Focus less on learning different software programs—that’s helpful for sure, but learn how to analyze information and take data from information to insights to action.
Cultivating a network is important no matter what stage you are at in your career. It is a way to get fresh perspectives and ideas, which is helpful when you are working in an industry that may not be marketing driven, such as libraries. I have belonged to the American Marketing Association (AMA) for years and have met others who are great sounding boards.
Final advice: Think strategically. Before diving into tactics, try to paint a picture of what success will look like. My favourite questions are “What is the objective?” “Who is the audience?” and “What does success look like (and how will you measure it)?”