|Name: Sara Keuhl
Current Title: Freelance Copywriter and Marketing Consultant
Former Title: Manager of Marketing and Communications
Library: Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Libraries
Location: Rochester, N.Y.
Type: Academic and Special Collections
Population Served: 19,000 undergraduate and graduate students plus 4,000 faculty and staff across 11 colleges on the main campus. There are another 2,800 students enrolled at RIT’s five global campuses located in Dubai, Croatia (two), Kosovo, and China
Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, said, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.” Sara Kuehl, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Libraries’ manager of marketing and communications from August 2016 until January 2022, followed that adage when the library temporarily moved into one of the university’s ice rinks. The transition was a success not only with students, but also with members of the 2022 John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award Committee. Not long after Kuehl stopped working for RIT, she got the lovely parting gift of a JCD Award.
Sara, tell us about your educational background.
I have an M.A. in English from St. Bonaventure University and a B.A. in English and secondary education from SUNY Geneseo.
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
I am somewhat of an accidental marketer. I was an English major in college with the intention of teaching at the high school or college level, but I also completed several internships in higher education marketing and communications. They piqued my interest in the field and ultimately became my launchpad for a career in marketing.
Although I didn’t take the most traditional route, I believe my education gave me a strong foundation for a career in marketing. It’s where I honed my research and writing skills and where I learned about psychology and storytelling. The rest I have learned on the job and through continuing education.
Early on, I earned an integrated marketing certificate through the Higher Education Web Professionals Association (www.highedweb.org). I also pursued opportunities to work on bigger projects, like rebrandings and major website redesigns, which helped me develop new skills as a marketer. After I joined RIT Libraries, the Library Marketing and Communications Conference (www.librarymarketingconference.org) was a fantastic place to delve more deeply into library marketing and start building a network of colleagues.
I don’t think you’re ever done learning when it comes to marketing.
How large was your department?
It consisted of one full-time professional staff member (me) and two or three student employees who worked as graphic designers and marketing assistants.
How many staffers were at your library?
RIT Libraries had 50 professional staffers across the academic library, two special collections, and its scholarly book publisher (RIT Press). RIT Libraries also employs about 80 student workers who support the day-to-day operations of departments across the library.
What percentage of the total organizational budget was dedicated to marketing?
What was your most successful library campaign?
I would say my most successful library campaign was also one of the most challenging and unconventional—the Wallace on Ice campaign.
A renovation and construction project that began during spring 2021 required Wallace Library, the campus’ sole library building, to close for 2 years. Over the summer, our library and facilities staffers, along with a specialized library moving company, undertook a herculean effort to relocate the collections, furniture, and technology to Ritter Ice Arena, the former home of RIT’s collegiate hockey teams. It was an unusual solution that ensured we could maintain in-person access to the collection and many services throughout construction, yet it also brought some major logistical and communication challenges.
Our patrons were understandably upset about this disruption, and many missed the announcements due to increased remote work and the volume of information as COVID continued to evolve. So, I developed a campaign to increase awareness of the move and improve the negative perceptions. I relied heavily on digital communications over the summer when most patrons were not on campus, and these were connected thematically to additional digital, print, and in-person tactics in the fall after the library opened in Ritter.
Inspired by campus culture and by RIT’s Division I hockey teams, we went all out with a humorous hockey theme to connect with our community in an authentic and memorable way, while also bringing some levity. For starters, we held a naming contest and officially dubbed our new home “Wallace on Ice.” I worked with a vendor to design personalized hockey jerseys for library employees to commemorate it, show team spirit, and ensure patrons could identify staff members in the new space. I also partnered with Leigh Rubin, the nationally syndicated cartoonist of Rubes and RIT’s Cartoonist in Residence, to create a custom cartoon of RIT’s mascot driving a Zamboni bookmobile filled with punny, hockey-themed titles. It’s featured prominently at the rink entrance and on library swag, which quickly became collectors’ items during the fall semester.
Video and social media marketing formed the backbone of the campaign over the summer. We filmed a scripted video (https://youtu.be/0J_PpyyNUzA) that takes viewers behind the scenes of the library team’s “preseason training” for the opening of Wallace on Ice. We periodically shared clips on social media to remind our community about the move and to build anticipation for the reopening. We published the full video just before the start of the fall semester as the official introduction of Wallace on Ice. These videos were our most engaging content of the year by far. Recruiting campus community members for cameos and incorporating campus traditions really connected with our audience.
We also strived to be transparent about the move and to address our community’s concerns and questions directly, rather than relying solely on our website and official news releases. First, we hosted an interactive Q&A session in our Instagram Stories and responded publicly to every question. When the move was nearly complete, we created a virtual tour of the space for our Instagram and Facebook Stories, which included answers to questions we had received over the summer. The tour is saved as a highlight on our profile for continued viewing after the Stories expired.
During the fall semester, we extended the hockey theme to some of our recurring marketing tactics. For example, I used a sports player profile approach for our annual Meet Your Librarian campaign on social media. Each liaison librarian sported his or her Wallace on Ice jersey for photos, and the captions highlighted their position, career statistics, etc. Instead of new student orientation, we hosted a grand opening celebration with themed decorations, raffle prizes, and the Pep Band.
The campaign amassed more than 20,000 impressions and 650 interactions on social media and more than 6,000 views of our webpage detailing the move. Two telling measurements, percent occupancy and event attendance, at Wallace on Ice were on par with the old Wallace Library. Beyond the numbers, we saw a significant shift in the sentiment of our community’s comments about the library. That was the real win for us.
More details and images from the campaign are available in the Marketing column of Public Services Quarterly, vol. 18, issue 2.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
My biggest challenge was navigating change. During my 5 and a half years at RIT Libraries, we experienced reorganization, a universitywide rebranding, the implementation of off-site collections, COVID-19, and a major construction project. Several of these events overlapped, which introduced more complexity and uncertainty.
It may be cliche, but I learned just how important it is to communicate early and often. It’s easy to get so focused on what’s in front of you that you forget everyone doesn’t have the same understanding of your work. So, it’s worth it to take the extra time to send regular updates.
For example, the rebranding process at RIT took several years and was rolled out in phases. Colleagues throughout the organization frequently had questions about the status, how it affected the library specifically, or how they could order swag that met the updated brand standards. So, I created a toolkit in our internal wiki to serve as a one-stop shop for all things brand-related. Each element of the brand had its own section with the latest status update, details about its standards and usage, and links to download files or order pieces online. My colleagues could subscribe to receive automated emails anytime I updated it. I also periodically sent emails to the all-staff list and gave updates at all-staff meetings to remind them about the toolkit and note any major updates. This approach improved communication during this lengthy process, set expectations, and ultimately increased consistent use of the brand.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
Although email has been around for a long time, I think it’s still one of the best marketing tools because you can communicate directly with your audiences. Your reach is not subject to the latest social media algorithms or reliant on a particular platform. You can segment your audience and, most importantly, personalize the messages specifically for them. It’s easy to create ways for people to opt in and for your existing users to forward emails to their friends or colleagues.
I was able to take advantage of institutional distribution lists at RIT Libraries to publish two enewsletters, one customized for students and one for faculty. The newsletters helped us expand non-users’ conceptions of what the library had to offer, increase the use of library services, and bring hundreds of new visitors to the website every semester.
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
Never stop learning. Marketing is always evolving. In addition to MLS, you can read Marketing Libraries Journal (https://journal.marketinglibraries.org) or attend the Library Marketing and Communications Conference. Try professional development courses—for instance, I teach two online marketing courses through Library Juice Academy (https://libraryjuiceacademy.com/instructor/sara-kuehl). And don’t limit yourself to the library field—see what marketers are doing in other fields and consider how it could be adapted.
Secondly, marketing is a creative field, so embrace experimentation and try something new. Some of my biggest successes have come from things I was nervous to put out there. You succeed or you learn: It’s a win-win. That being said, the best creative ideas are informed by research. So, get to know your audiences. Conduct surveys or read threads on Reddit. Glean insights from whatever data sources you have available to you. Deeply understanding and empathizing with your audience will make your marketing efforts more effective.