I had a very interesting conversation with a group of librarians last week that has spurred me to write a post I'd been thinking about for a quite awhile. There's a line that I hear over and over again that drives me crazy:
"Libraries need to market more. If only people knew what we had they'd use us."
I hear this ALL the time. Librarians say it a lot and the statement is usually followed by an example of how the librarian had shown a patron how to use a database followed by comments of how that patron loved it. Forget about the fact that they are still calling people "patrons" (another pet peeve of mine) but they are missing the whole point - most people know what we have and either they don't want it or they just don't want it from us.
Consider the idea that it would be far more powerful to realign our image and reassess our products to meet the needs of our customers than to create a multimillion dollar marketing campaign.
1. Realign our image
We all know when people buy things they are feeding their self image and reinforcing who they are. The same goes for when they join groups, support organizations and even use their local library. We also know the image of libraries has not changed much over the years. Pretty much people think libraries are quiet places to study or read that lend books and movies, provide free access to computers and are great places for little kids and seniors. People who use libraries may see us differently but even our members might agree with parts of that general description.
That leaves the question of what kind of self fulfilling feelings do we offer our members? Do people feel smarter, more connected or cooler by using a library? Or do they feel poor, down on their luck, nerdy, old? Or maybe something else entirely. Whatever that feeling is, it is the driving force behind the desire to use the library. Sure anyone might need to use it but who WANTS to use the library, who FEELS BETTER because they visit us ... that's the question we need to be asking ourselves. Because that is the root of our branding. Change the perception and you change the audience.
2. Reassessing our products
Pet peeve numbers 2 through 10: databases that need instructions, bookshelves without subject categories, librarians who make me feel like an idiot, not being able to buy books at the library that I like, fines, not being able to bring coffee into the library, being kicked out of a study room because my time is up, timers on computers, slow Internet connections, not being able to download audio books to my mac.
Wow, that's quite a list, eh? I stopped using my public library a few months ago because the list reached a tipping point where it was just no longer a place worth visiting. I'll go back, I always do. But that's because l want to use libraries. I'm not so sure we can take the chance that everyone is like me.
I just read the other day that Obama is going to be the first president to have a laptop but that he's going to have to give up his BlackBerry because of security issues. How archaic! Are libraries a little like that too? We work so hard to keep up with the times but something is happening in the translation. We are living in an era of online purchases, instant information and mobile phones and our libraries are installing timers on computers. Yikes!
In my talk in California last month I rallied librarians to refuse to buy any database that doesn't come with a marketing plan and tools designed to reach the end user. Today I'm going a step further - don't buy any database that can't be used without instructions. Send the vendors back to the drawing board. Meanwhile you can take the millions of dollars you were wasting to develop an online purchasing system were customers can purchase books from your library online. Add another element where they can purchase the book they are reading instead of renewing. (If you are interested in this idea email me because it could revolutionize libraries and I need people to help make it a reality.) Or build an extraordinary lecture hall with big cushioned seats, tiered seating, huge screens and great sound system where you can conduct classes, host speakers series and lend to businesses for their meetings.
Look, we have some neat products. But too much of our budgets are going into half baked ideas and it has to change. Timers on computers? Really??? Why are we not buying up tons of iPod touches for $229 and let people access their email and Internet while they are in the library?
Dewy decimal numbers on the ends of bookshelves? Come on.... no one cares about numbers, they need words and they need great big signs so they can just look and get an idea of where they need to go. Stop making people feel like an idiot.
We had a meeting the other day in a library and when our time was up, we got kicked out! Worse than that, I couldn't bring my cup of coffee into the room. Not good. I understood having to make room for another person to use the study room but the librarian never even tried to find us another space.
Look, we could spend a trillion dollars creating advertisements, establishing social networks, creating fantastic web pages but if we aren't providing products that people want, the word of mouth on the streets will counteract it every time.
If we want people to use our libraries then we need to understand that free doesn't cut it alone. People want the best. They want convenient easy-to-use products that make them feel good about themselves. They want to feel special in the way that matters to them. They want to be welcomed when they arrive and missed when they leave. They want to be part of organizations that are making the world the kind of place they envision the world should be.
If we work on that first, then we can create marketing strategies that will help our members spread the word for us.