Turning the entire Library Marketing ecosystem on its head.

I had an amazing conversation with some people on twitter the other morning all about how libraries doing a really bad job of marketing themselves. I tweeted that “I believe that if librarians spent time money on marketing then we wouldn’t be constantly complaining about people perceptions of libraries” and that libraries need to drop a database in order tell people about the other 49. Well, I’m going to take it all back. I realized that I was wrong, the problem is not that librarians are refusing to market themselves, its that our biggest vendors refuse to market their products.

The problem is that it shouldn’t have to be librarians who are marketing and advertising the things that libraries are offering like databases and our various collections. The ones marketing their products to the public should be the ones selling those products to us. If some database company wants my library to buy their product, there should be a demand for their product. If nobody uses their latest proprietary database on the mating habits of the Great Spotted Alaskan Chinchilla, then my library just simply shouldn’t be buying it.

Why are librarians the one stuck paying for a product, and then having to pay to market that product to the people to make sure that demand is high enough to justify buying that product? Why do we have to do their work for them? This is not how it works with any other industry.

Here’s my analogy;

The mom and pop stores on the corner of my block carry all kinds of Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, whatever… But, not once have I ever seen an ad on FB, on TV, on the Radio, in the Newspaper from the corner store telling people how delicious Pepsi is. They might advertise that they have it, but they’d never advertise that anyone should drink it over anything else. You know why? Because Pepsi advertises that people should drink Pepsi, which makes people demand Pepsi, which is why stores offer Pepsi.

But in our case;

A database company sells their database to the library.

But that’s it! That’s all that happens! Then its up to the library to make sure anyone uses it or cares that the library is paying for it. The library has to convince the public that it’s a good product AND the library has to expend resources telling people that they library offers it. The library pays for the opportunity to offer a product nobody wants because the company that makes the product doesn’t spend any resources to tell people how great their product is. It’s as if libraries are paying twice for the product and being forced to do all the big vendor’s work for them as well.

But here’s something to think about.

If one of our database companies started using their money, not to advertise to librarians that they have the product, but to advertise to the people that there is a really great product offered at their local library, then the libraries would have to offer their product due to demand AND people would know that libraries are offering these products. Essentially, by advertising to the public about what their products are offering and how great they are and that they are available with a library card then more libraries would have to buy those databases due to increased demand and libraries would get more people to use their services. Because of this we will also get more engaged and educated library users and that translates into more library support which translates into more funding for libraries which in turn translates into more money for library vendors since more people will be demanding their databases.

What do you think? This was really just a quick and rough brainstorm that I had and it was too long for a tweet so I wrote a blog. Am I totally wrong on this idea? I’d love to know that I’m wrong.

14 thoughts on “Turning the entire Library Marketing ecosystem on its head.

  1. 100% spot on. I do think libraries need to be marketing better overall, just as the mom-and-pop store has to market itself to pull in customers. But the key is that the products are part of the reason people come there in the first place. Honestly this is already done with actual books — the demand for a popular book to be available at a library is due to the publisher’s marketing, yeah? So yeah. That. :/

  2. A few thoughts:

    Pepsi isn’t distributed exclusively through mom and pop shops. Mom and pop shops are just one of a thousand distribution channels–there are vending machines, supermarkets, restaurants… So Pepsi has to market directly to consumers. Library “database” products, however, only get distributed through libraries so vendors only have to focus on convincing libraries to buy. Patron reception is a secondary consideration.

    So, if libraries demanded more effective patron-facing marketing material from database vendors, and not just as an upsell, vendors would respond. Libraries, however, need to develop enough local marketing savvy to recognize what’s effective and what’s not. How often, for example, do you see library websites splattered with vendor-supplied logos? The average patron has no emotional connection to that logo and doesn’t link it with any real need in their own experience. It is necessarily local work to explicitly link “database” offerings to local needs. Local libraries need to measure what’s working and refine the marketing approach with that data.

    Libraries have to be (are) more than retail outlets for database products. They offer locally customized self-directed education. This is a locally crafted product. Local libraries need to market this to their own communities. No one can do it for them.

    Total side note: “Database” is the wrong word for most of these digital offerings. The fact that we continue to use it highlights part of our problem.

    1. I’m just picking on databases in this example. 🙂

      But really, libraries and librarians don’t have the resources to build a real marketing plan for each individual database. Those marketing efforts that are done by large companies cost tens of thousands for even the smallest ones. Also, librarians don’t really know enough about each database to really build an effective and emotional marketing plan. Also, if every library developed their own marketing for each database there’d be no constancy in the marketing which means that none of those efforts would stick in the minds of users. Especially in places with a lot of nearby library systems all saying something different about the same product. That would be wildly confusing. Like if one store said Pepsi was refreshing, if one said it was delicious, if one made it sound great as an after dinner drink and one made it look good for breakfast as a wake me up. There has to be consistency in marketing or it’s meaningless static and the only ones with the resources and knowledge of their product are the ones who make it.

  3. Well, yes and no. For example, you are right – when a soda manufacturer advertises it drives people to the store to purchase it. But the grocery store (in addition to the manufacturer) also advertises the soda (and other products) to help to draw people to their store. Of course that may be more because the grocery store is in competition with other stores but the they DO advertise.

    Libraries (like the grocery store in the example above) are typically not in competition with other libraries, so we may have it easier on this count, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need to advertise our products. Just like with grocery stores, there are plenty of places for people to spend their money or time when looking for information or recreation or other library products and services. If we think we have something of value, we must spend time and money on marketing and advertising, too. And getting the vendors to share in the marketing costs by doing more of it themselves is a good idea. The only problem is – when the vendor spends more on marketing, guess what that does to the cost of the product? Yup. You got it. So the question becomes, does the library get a better benefit by paying more for products with vendor provided advertising or is it more cost effective for the library to provide the advertising and get a cheaper price?

    I don’t know the answer. But be careful what we ask for.

    1. Right, that’s the difference between advertising and marketing. Putting up a display or hanging a poster that says that the store carries Pepsi, is not marketing. That’s an ad. They put those up to let people know that they carry the great product that they’ve heard about on TV. Marketing would be telling people to actually buy and drink the Pepsi and why which is what Pepsi does. If you think I’m wrong, try to start developing and putting out your own marketing for Pepsi. 🙂

  4. I see the Ancestry.com commercials and think (every time) that they’re not mentioning that you can get this at your local library. Now, that’s a specific example because that company also sells their product directly to consumers.
    What would be great is if they vendors did provide marketing at a somewhat granular level. It would be difficult and probably the ROI wouldn’t be worth it if Gale ran ads nationally. But FB ads, and other social networking as well as working with the institution as part of the contract to pay to market in their area. THAT would be something to see.
    (As a side note, there’s an ad for a local supermarket chain that libraries should totally copy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH5MEWUqOf8)

    1. Gale spends tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to attend all those library conferences and sponsor the buses, and parties, and building that massive structure advertising their services to librarians.

  5. I’d love to spend a couple hours thinking about & responding to this. All I can say during this brief work-break is:
    1. Many database vendors DO provide customizable promo materials. I don’t think librarians use them very often.
    2. One reason for librarians to do their own promo is that we can’t tout these products by brand name; the names are meaningless to the public. (as Jared said) We need to show patrons what the products DO, not what they ARE. And certain products are better fits for certain segments of society, so ads would have to be targeted geographically / demographically.
    3. It would be nice for certain vendors to do major promo to drive demand. But that would need to be thought through carefully. Look at drug companies, and how they started advertising straight to consumers. Those consumers then go ask their doctors for items that look great, but may not help them at all. (Of course, the drug makers are doing that for profit.) Then, how many requests would justify a purchase? And would the requestors really use the products if you bought them? Or would they be shiny fun toys that they’d play with a few times, then forget about?

  6. For a period of time EBSCO bought spots on NPR and advertised their database aggregation service, including that it was available at many libraries. It would be interesting to ask them how valuable they felt that approach was. I think they stopped doing it a few years ago.

  7. A similar conversation happened at a conference I was at recently, in a session intentionally structured to get vendors and public services librarians talking to each other – instead of vendors talking to technical services librarians as is usually the case. The younger librarians in the room shared this expectation that vendors should be adding value to their products in the form of doing this type of work for libraries. In a time when a library like mine does more cutting than buying new products, why aren’t vendors clamoring to direct-market their products to our customers instead of marketing new products to libraries that don’t have money to spend? I’d like to see vendors do research on our patrons and determine how to market their products to them instead of just passively handing librarians some customizable branded materials and then expecting us to drum up the usage that leads to keeping a resource at cut time.

    These expectations that businesses would show me the value of their service by directly showing my patrons the value of their product seem in line with the mindset of millennial consumers…but not many millennial librarians have purchasing or negotiating power, so a different set of expectations and norms (regarding patron contact) are communicated to our vendors.

  8. I think the bigger issue is that libraries need the funds to hire people who actually do marketing for a living. High school English teachers aren’t being asked to all of a sudden teach math. Why should librarians be expected to have mad marketing skills without the right skill set and proper training ?

    1. Right, Jamie! Which is one of the many reasons I want to see library schools add marketing as a core course. Not an elective they might offer every 4 semesters; not a few sessions in a management course. Marketing — and PR, promotion, advocacy, etc. (all different, but related, topics) are so important, now that libraries have so much competition. Why is the profession so far behind? Why do so few library schools offer it?

  9. Look at which databases ARE getting heavily used. Ancestry.com is hugely popular, even though it can only be used inside the library. It has very high name recognition with the public from all the marketing the company does,despite the fact that they aren’t advertising on behalf of libraries. Lynda.com is another one that’s getting heavily used at the libraries that have it, and that’s another company that is widely known due to their own marketing of their product. If people know a product by name, and find out their library has it, they are far more likely to use it. So, yes, we need to do our share, too. We need to let people know we have the products they want. But we aren’t very good at making people want products they aren’t already familiar with – why put all of efforts into that?

    FWIW, my library is in the process of cancelling several dud database subscriptions and adding Lynda.com (we already have Ancestry).

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