Elizabeth Castañeda, public information manager for San José Public Library (SJPL), gives stellar advice for seasoned and novice marketers in this installment of Interviews With Marketing Masters. Tracing her interest in marketing to her mother’s community activism, Castañeda says that she “started to adapt some of her methods” while in college. As an adult, Elizabeth is a multi-award-winning marketer in a library that strives to ensure that “every member of the community has access to a vast array of ideas and information.”
Elizabeth, tell us about your educational background.
I have a Bachelor of Science in public relations and a minor in Spanish from San José State University (SJSU).
What is your marketing background? Do you have formal training, or are you an accidental marketer?
I would say I have both. My marketing background started as a young child when my mom became involved in our community, working to beautify it and make it safer for everyone. She would walk around the neighborhood to meet our neighbors; she organized community meetings, looked for creative ways to bring our neighbors together, and organized community events that celebrated the diversity of the neighborhood. Many of those events included giveaways and offered community resources. Her efforts helped her become well-known and built trust among our most vulnerable community members. I was always fascinated with how she slowly started to create change, created a name for herself, and created a more connected and well-informed community.
Fast-forward several years: While in college, thanks to my mom, I started to adapt some of her methods to promote parties at nightclubs. I would support promoters and DJs with innovative ideas, come up with catchy names for parties, and figure out ways to promote the parties among local college and university campuses. During that time, I learned a lot about marketing, graphic design, leveraging partners, sponsors, and influencer marketing, utilizing emerging technology like Myspace and Facebook to get the word out to people. I did all this up to my last year at SJSU.
After I graduated from SJSU, my first professional job was as a special projects coordinator for an initiative called Pre-College Programs, which helped first-generation, low-income high school students get into college. That job provided me with the flexibility to try new ways to build awareness about the program across high school campuses, and it allowed me to work with an in-house graphic designer to implement a rebrand and to work closely with a web developer to revamp the website. Since I didn’t have a large budget, I applied my mom’s marketing techniques to organize events that would bring families together. I ensured that materials were translated for non-English-speaking parents and cold-called companies to ask them to donate items or gift cards that we could use for drawings during events to help raise money for scholarships.
As much as I enjoyed what I did and understood the meaning of the program (being a first-generation, low-income student myself), I wanted to develop my skills even further and promote large events and concerts in downtown San Jose. That’s when I decided to take on an unpaid internship with the San Jose Downtown Association. The internship turned into a job as a communications coordinator, which I worked in for 5 years. While in that position, I learned web design and social media, created a weekly newsletter, and supported small businesses and events in downtown San Jose. I also served as the spokesperson and regularly went on community affairs shows to showcase small business and to highlight upcoming events.
I was also fortunate to have worked for many years at branches across the city as a clerical staff member, which has helped me understand how the library functions and the type of visitors we attract. My experience while growing up, plus working for a nonprofit program, the San Jose Downtown Association, and at the library, provided me with the necessary experience to take on the role of leading the library’s marketing and communications unit. It’s gone from a team of one to an amazing team of three. Over the past 6 years, the team has been honored with three John Cotton Dana Awards and four California Library Association PR Excellence Awards.
How large is your department?
The library’s marketing and communications team currently consists of a public information manager, an acting senior public information representative, and a public information representative, and we will be expanding the team in the coming months. The public information manager sets the vision for major campaigns, develops marcom strategies, secures resources, and leads the public engagement division, which consists of three units—the web team, volunteer services, and marketing and communications. The marcom unit consists of a newly added senior public information representative position to directly lead the marcom team and two public information representatives. One of the public information reps focuses on digital marketing, visual storytelling, staff training, graphic design, and brand identity. The other focuses on communications, partnerships, strategy, content creation, and media relations.
How many staffers are at your library?
SJPL has more than 600 employees.
What percentage of the total organizational budget is dedicated to marketing?
San José Public Library’s marketing budget is approximately 1.35% of the organization’s budget, which includes salaries and benefits. This is an aspect of the public and nonprofit sector that creates challenges but also opportunities for us to determine our top priorities and develop creative strategies to engage with our city’s diverse community.
What was your most successful library campaign?
I would say that the most successful library campaign was our 2-Step Fine Forgiveness Program, which was the library’s first-ever, monthlong return amnesty program. The multilingual awareness campaign was created to motivate customers who had overdue items to return them and have their late fees waived.
To tie in with the “2-Step” Fine Forgiveness concept, we recorded dance videos (https://www.facebook.com/sanjoselibrary/videos/10154848146694807). We partnered with a dance studio and also got library customers and staffers, and even elected officials, to dance. This approach made it fun and welcoming to everyone and reached nearly a million people through social media, community outreach, and news media coverage. In just 31 days, nearly half of all the overdue materials were returned, over 12,000 people participated, and nearly $64,000 in late fees were waived, restoring account access to thousands.
What was your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it?
I would say the biggest challenge is getting some of our staff to understand the value of what we do as marketers and communicators. We still get folks who approach the team to request our support to promote a significant program with very short notice. I think people get caught up developing their programs and don’t think of looping the team in until they are ready to launch.
As marketers and creative thinkers, we strive to ensure the information and design work we share with the public is on-point, consistent with our brand, and easy to understand. It becomes a huge challenge when the team doesn’t have adequate time to create a robust campaign, quality designs, and catchy taglines. To address this challenge, the team has started to develop presentations for staff to provide insight on how we develop our campaigns, which staff members appreciate.
What I’ve learned from this is that, as marketers, not only do we have to market our services to the public, but we also must make the time to market ourselves within our organization, which will in turn help us develop a stronger connection with staffers by providing them with insights to what we do. We are still working on building this connection and recognize this will be something we will need to continue to implement over time with new staff joining the library.
What technology has helped you reach new audiences?
Social media continues to be a strong driving force that helps us connect with new audiences. Reels, stories, carousels, music, locations, hashtags, and collaborative posts have all helped us become more discoverable.
How do you think library marketing will be affected long-term by COVID-19?
I think COVID forced people to learn to use video chat, Zoom, and QR codes and become more comfortable using the internet and social media to connect with others. I also think that COVID was a period of reflection and change for many people, which has led to holding folks accountable for their actions and the need to recognize and embrace diverse identities. People want to see people that look like them in ads, they want to hear genuine stories, and don’t want to be consumed by marketing jargon and paid content. Luckily, at the library, we have always been mindful of the content we produce by ensuring that our messages are translated and that the pictures we use reflect real customers and the diversity of our community members. However, we recognize we still need to do more to continue to create trust and build a deeper connection with those we serve.
Discuss some of your productive partnerships.
We have been lucky to have strong partners amplify our messages, stories, and opportunities to attract more library memberships and invite people to explore the library. We have built a strong partnership with our library foundation, which now has a new cadre of people dedicated to storytelling and content creation that we can leverage for our programs as well. We have also created strong partnerships with local sports teams such as the San Jose Sharks and the San Francisco 49ers, whom we have worked with to design co-branded library cards to promote library services to their fans and to provide programs that attract a new audience to our libraries. Our partnership with the San Jose Sharks also led to us receiving an Urban Libraries Council Top Innovator Award.
What guidance would you give a fledgling marketer?
I would say to never stop learning and researching—we are the library, after all. You need to look outside of the library to gather ideas and concepts that attract you and others and can inspire ideas that can be implemented in library marketing.
I would advise marketers new to the library world to step outside of their workspace and work alongside branch staff members to immerse themselves in what a day at the library looks like, because that is completely different than simply getting a tour and observing for a few hours, since the dynamic of the customers changes throughout the day.