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Insider Article [September 2013] [09/03/13] (For Public Libraries--Marketing Matters )
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For Public Libraries:  Marketing Matters

For Public Libraries:  Marketing Matters by Brian A. Reynolds, Library Director, San Luis Obispo County Library

Here is a riddle:  Everyone loves the public library but most people don’t use it.  Certainly, very few want to pay for it.  I’ve heard the public library called nice but not necessary, an artifact of the past.  After all of my years working in libraries (1968+) I am more convinced than ever that public libraries matter.  So, what is the solution? Two clues:

  • Let’s use words correctly:  Marketing is not publicity, no matter how many people misuse the word in that way.  Marketing is research about potential products and services.  Of course, publicity is included in market research, but the two terms (marketing and publicity) are not synonymous.
  • For many, the Library is a scary place:  No, I don’t mean shushing staff or weird customers.  Public libraries have too much “stuff.”  They epitomize sensory overload.  I have become convinced over the years that this is a major reason why only a minority of “smarties” use public libraries.  Simply put, public libraries offer too many answers and take too long when most people want one answer and quick turnarounds.

In a public library context, market research requires that we look at our customers (current and potential) in segments or niches.  Our own San Luis Obispo County Library is currently working with consultants from OrangeBoy to perform a countywide market research project that will develop customer “clusters” for each of our fifteen branch libraries. 

A particular cluster is defined as a group of people which uses the Library in similar, predictable ways, for example:  attend programs and use materials for children, youth, and families; prefer e-content over physical books; omnivorously consume both physical and e-books, etc.  Once these clusters have been identified and detailed for each branch, they will be prioritized.  The Library’s Strategic Plan will be adapted to include branch-specific goals & objectives aimed at achieving some easy victories that address needs and priorities of one or two “top” clusters.

Choosing which cluster to emphasize will be tricky but, even more, it is important not just to decide what to strengthen or start from scratch, but what to minimize or eliminate.  The commitment of Library staff is pivotal, everyone, top to bottom.  This commitment and trust will be gained only if they are convinced workload will not increase:  add something, take something away. 

We are lucky to be working on a project like this, which was funded by a partnership with the Library Budget, a California State Library LSTA grant, and our Library Foundation.  I strongly encourage any public librarian to look into this concept.  They will be glad they did.

Market research has the potential to:  1) promote public libraries to people who don’t use them; 2) blend intuition and experience with scientific data for better outcomes; and, 3) break down Library services into tangible, digestible nuggets where people’s passions are enriched by “reading more about it.”  Let’s go to market.