5 Lessons From 5 Years in Library Marketing

Five years ago, I decided enough was enough, and left my career in journalism for a normal schedule and more time with my family outside the wild world of TV news. I was fortunate enough to land in the marketing department of a library system. On the last day at the TV station, my coworkers got me a goodbye cake with “Shhh!” written in icing across the top. They were convinced I was leaving the fast-paced, exciting world of TV for a slow and boring job inside a library.

I’m happy to report: They were so wrong. While the breakneck, extreme daily deadline pace of TV news reporting cannot be replicated, my stint in library marketing has never been boring. It’s provided me an incredible work/life balance, while being full of challenging, fulfilling work every single day. I’ve worked at two library systems over the course of the last five years. First, a midsize library system with 10 mostly rural locations — then on to a huge, urban library system with 41 locations. As I close this chapter and leave the library world for a new nonprofit marketing job outside the business, I’m reminded of all the lessons these library marketing jobs have taught me. I leave as a loyal library fan and cheerleader — with a whole new appreciation for these institutions. Here are five lessons I learned that I hope may help others, too.

1. Make Everyone (Especially Your Staff) Understand Libraries Change Lives.

In my opinion, the faster you embrace this, the faster your library marketing will hit the next level. Many of us in the library marketing world know what incredible work libraries do day in and day out. But do your customers realize this? Do they really, truly get it? More importantly, do your non-customers realize this? Libraries have to start shouting from megaphones every chance they get: We Change Lives! We Change Lives! WE CHANGE LIVES! One of the best ways to get started is through content marketing. My stellar, soon-to-be-former, (sad face) bosslady writes a terrific library marketing blog dedicated to tons of content marketing ideas. But, really, bottom line: start telling your stories. And get your non-marketing library staff to understand the importance of good storytelling. For example, one of my recent library projects was to create several short videos of staff talking about some of the most memorable times they helped a customer. When I asked one particular children’s librarian to think of a story that fit this theme, she was worried she didn’t have anything worth sharing. She casually said, “there was this one time I used my sign language skills to help a nonverbal child pick out the books he wanted.” She told this sheepishly, as if it may not be good enough. I was thrilled! As a marketer, I could not have scripted a better story. But to the librarian, she was simply doing her job. No big deal. It’s a great attitude to have, however, creating a storytelling-savvy staff that can recognize when they have something worth sharing will make the job of a marketer so much easier.

2. Don’t Just “Put a Book on It.” 

One of my favorite episodes of the TV comedy “Portlandia” features a quirky, hipster-owned gift shop that believes everything is better if you “put a bird on it.” T-Shirts, Dishes, Vases, Furniture — all benefit from a whimsical, vintage-looking bird painted nonchalantly on the surface. In the library world, it’s often easy to want to “put a book it.” When thinking logos, emails, posters, any kind of printed collateral, or empty space: “put a book on it” tends to be the direction. It’s a library after all. They’re full of books. Shelves and shelves of books. But do not fall into this mind trap. Libraries are so much more than books. I think most people in library marketing get that. But I still see so many re-designed logos or new branding featuring nothing but an open book, bookmark, book pages, or some abstract version of any of the three. Libraries must continue to embrace the idea that in order to modernize, move forward, and remain relevant, you have to bravely accept the future. That doesn’t mean forgetting the past. Trust me. No one is advocating getting rid of books or launching a book burning party. (Well, unless, maybe it’s this clever guerrilla library marketing campaign.) Most stats show print book circulation continues to thrive and deserves attention and promotion. But things like Maker Spaces, job readiness workshops, digital resources, and outreach all deserve attention too. I can’t tell you how many friends I talk to about the library who are smart, informed citizens, yet have no idea they can download and keep popular music for free via the library’s website. Or get free resume critiques and live online career coaching. Or hone their Photoshop skills via free access to the trendy Lynda.com. Libraries have to get better at spreading that message. And the instinct to “put a book on it” is simply not going to advance your library.

3. Always Think Like a Customer 

I remember a time when a librarian handed a customer a small strip of green paper and called it a “P-slip.” It was a single sheet of paper. Just large enough to write down an item’s call number or other quick reference notes. My curiosity couldn’t resist. “What’s a P-slip?” I asked. The librarian looked at me a little puzzled and said, “I think it stands for paper. A paper slip.” I know, for sure, my mouth fell wide open. Why not just call it what it is: a piece of paper?! “Because that’s what we’ve always called it,” the librarian said back. Every industry has these weird “inside baseball” terms that make total sense to those inside the business, but make zero sense to the people outside the business. When your job is to communicate in a clear, helpful style, “P-slip” is, like, the worst thing you could say. Libraries are guilty of this in so many ways. Staff tend to love the term “patron” which, let’s face it, sounds weird and super dated. Customer! Customer is fine. People know what that means. I even heard a senior library leader once say she thought libraries could take it further and use the term “client.” I love that. It sounds almost chic and really personable. Reference is another one. Why not try “research,” or something else more approachable? At my library, we changed “programs” to “events.” Doesn’t that sound more fresh and inviting? I also always wanted to do away with “databases.” But I never struck gold with a better idea. I challenge you to find one! Thinking like a customer will break down barriers, better the user experience, and all around improve your library. Use this strategy everywhere: style guides, staff talking points, signage, way finding, the library website, promotional materials. Basically anything that comes in contact with a customer.

4. Your Staff is Your Greatest Resource

Libraries pride themselves in big, diverse collections, right? That fancy library chalice runneth over with resources. However, today, a person can type the name of a book or a movie into Amazon and it’s delivered to their doorstep by nightfall. Or, even better, the digital version is instantly on their device. Sites like Goodreads take care of reading recommendations with ease. And every library is actively combating the threat of Google. The problem is nothing new. But, in my opinion, a library’s greatest resource (and greatest competitive advantage) is its staff. Experts. Gurus. Specialists. Information Ninjas. Libraries still offer expertly trained humans to help people answer just about any question, find any resource, complete any task. This idea can be highlighted and expanded in so many ways. Take this living library resource and find creative ways to offer it to customers with the convenience everyone craves. How about an online option to receive highly-personalized reading recommendations expertly chosen by smart, skilled, professional bookworms. Both the libraries I’ve been part of did successful versions of this. Knowledgeable staffers could also go on Facebook Live to take questions and offer real-time answers. Camera shy? Try a Twitter Chat instead. Feature your staff regularly on social media. Turn them into local personalities. Consider personas like Mystery Loving Librarian, The Non-Fiction Librarian, The Nerdy Sci-Fri Librarian. Libraries are the No. 1 source for information. Branding is a huge part of getting that across. And I believe there’s no better brand than the Helpful Human Librarian. Let your staff shine.

5. Take Time to Feel Great About What You’re Doing 

Lastly, library staffers (from the front line staff to the support staff) really need to take time to stop and take in all the good they do. Remember my first tip: Libraries Change Lives. That means: You’re Changing Lives! It’s not cheesy. It’s awesome! Embrace it. Pat yourself on the back. I remember getting caught up in the daily duties of my library marketing job and often forgetting this on the day-to-day. It’s easy to do. However, every now and then, I’d get stopped in my tracks by a particularly inspiring piece of work we were doing. For instance, while collecting customer impact stories, a librarian told me how she helped two customers find tons of free library resources to help them study and prepare for the U.S. Citizenship Test. That’s amazing! Take in these goosebump moments. They’re not just good for marketing purposes. They’re good for the soul. Libraries make an incredibly positive impact on our society. If you’re part of that great work in any way — small or large — you’re making a difference. These moments always re-energized me and refreshed me and reminded me of the value of my work. Let them inspire you too. Your work, your library, and your customers will be better because of it.

Go Team Library!

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