Library Marketing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about library marketing. Here at the Kansas City Public Library, we have 10 branches that serve highly diverse communities in neighborhoods throughout the city. One of the challenges for our Digital Branch is to figure out the most effective ways to market our online services.

So it’s timely that Library Journal posted this: The Results Are In and They Aren’t Good | Library Marketing by Nancy Dowd (posted on February 5, 2013)

Last week, I ran across this website: Librarian Design Share

What I particularly appreciate about the Librarian Design Share site is the opportunity to see how different libraries establish and express their own unique personalities. To my way of thinking, library marketing and the library’s personality are inextricably intertwined.

When it comes to library marketing, there seems to be a persistent belief among library systems that the system as a whole should have a consistent and coherent brand. I can say that here at KCPL, creating a vibrant and effective brand for the library has been challenging.

The patron base of the full KCPL system is highly diverse; each neighborhood branch serves its own group of patrons with their own needs and identities. Coming up with one overarching brand that represents all these different groups seems impossible. The most viable option is a brand that celebrates the diversity of the metro-area, rather than attempting to identify directly with any specific group… but this isn’t an identity that individuals can relate to on a personal level. It may be an effective way to promote the city, but it’s not something that helps me to think of KCPL as my library.

It’s a brand with no personality.

I’m coming inexorably to the conclusion that there isn’t any such thing as a system-wide identity that can successfully relate the library to all of our patrons, equally.

More than that though – I’m also beginning to question the underlying assumption that such an identity is even desirable. I no longer believe that this is what library systems should have been trying for in the first place.

Consider: the great strength of library branches is their ability to relate to, and identify with, the unique neighborhoods they each serve. Branches are able to embed themselves in communities and culture on a hyper-local level – and, indeed, should be doing so. By definition, this degree of hyper-locality is unattainable by the system as a whole. The stats I’ve seen make it abundantly clear that branch patrons are loyal to their branch, not to the system. People who use the library branch in their neighborhood rarely if ever travel to a different neighborhood to use a different branch. I look at the way my wife uses the Johnson County Library: 95% of her usage is through the Lackman branch, with occasional forays to the Antioch branch where she went as kid. Despite growing up in Johnson County, and being back in JoCo for the past year and half, she’s been to the JCL Central Resource Library maybe once or twice in her entire life.

In my experience, this is entirely typical of library usage in a system with multiple branch locations.

When I started in my current position in the Digital Branch here at KCPL, I started to think about how we can add personality to our digital presence. I did my usual thing of coming up with personas to explore different possibilities and use-cases. The thing is, though – I couldn’t come up with a single persona for someone who would ever use the KCPL system as a whole. Not one. People relate to the library on the branch level. People invest themselves in, and feel ownership of, their neighborhood branch – not the overarching library system.

Imposing a uniform system-wide library identity actively contradicts and undermines the ability of branch locations to create identities that are uniquely relevant to their particular neighborhood. This, in turn, makes them less relevant to their communities, less identifiable to their patrons, and that, in turn, circumscribes their ability to do their job.

Even more, the ideal of an effective and appropriate system-wide identity for the library fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the reality of how our patrons relate to us.

Branches need the freedom to create their own unique identities, relevant to the neighborhoods they serve. There can be certain universal design elements that are system-wide (maybe the font-family that gets used, or a graphic motif that gets a featured in some way in all marketing materials) and of course each branch identity should be held to the same basic level of quality. But I no longer see much value in trying to establish a system-wide identity.

The particular challenge for a Digital Branch is that it’s the only part of a library system that’s truly system-wide – everyone can access our digital resources and content regardless of physical location. Thus, the Digital Branch isn’t embedded in a specific neighborhood that it can identify with. The Digital Branch needs to be equally relevant to all patrons, everywhere.

The Digital Branch is the only branch of a library system that really does need an effective overarching identity.

Maybe the identity we create for a Digital Branch could be based more on the services provided, rather than on the patrons served…

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