Friday, January 27, 2006


The advice "Keep It Simple Stupid" has served many a marketer well throughout the ages. After reading this article in Fast Company (via Micro Persuasion) back in November about how Google and other tech companies have been thriving by presenting the complex as seriously simple, I decided to give some thought as to whether or not we librarians are really the "simplifiers" of the information world and if this is one of our best strategic marketing advantages. Now that I've seen this concept tossed around on the ACRLog (see Sense and Simplicity via this post about rebranding), I thought it was time I took a stab at my own post about the subject.

Since this cropped up on my radar in November, I've been keeping an eye out for how simplicity manifests itself in the marketplace. On my way home during the holidays, the airport terminal featured an ad from Panasonic (I think) that said something about simplicity with a picture of a baby and the product (ok, I was rushing to catch a flight and I haven't been able to find that ad anywhere since, so if anyone has seen it, please let me know!). More recently, you've probably all seen Citibank's new Citi simplicity Card, which offers, well, simplicity, in credit services. Heck, there's even a book out there called Simplicity Marketing. Needless to say, the idea of simplicity is not new to marketing and it's becoming increasingly compelling as our lives in general get more complex.

But is simplicity what librarianship is all about? Is our job to present the complex world of information searching as something so simple a baby can do it? And, is doing so ultimately a good marketing strategy? I don't think so. In fact, marketing in this way could harm the profession. After all, if we strive to make our services appear Google-esque, we could be obfuscating a big chunk of our competitive advantage - our collections' depth and sophisticated organization. The complexities of our databases and services are what give users control over their searching. I'm not saying that we need to make our offerings overly-complicated and intimidating, but that we need to let patrons' needs guide what shape our marketing takes and they don't all want simple. (It's true!)

When people embark on the hunt for information, there are a lot of factors that dictate how much info they want and how detailed they want it to be (motivation, experience level, etc.). Novices, most of the time, will want simple. And not only that, but because they lack experience and everything that comes with it (vocabularies, mental models and so on), they probably can't process anything too detailed. For example, I'll probably be looking for a new car in the near future, and when I go out looking for information about cars, I won't even look at engine specs and all of that, because, to me, it's incomprehensible. On the other hand, most experts dig the details. They don't shy away from complexities, they dive right into them. And, because they've been around the block, they can actually understand what they're taking in. I think of hardcore Star Trek fans here. You know, the ones who can speak Klingon, discuss the features of hundreds of different phasers and recite episode scripts by heart. No amount of minutiae is too minute for those folks.

Does all of this translate to library services marketing? I think it does. When I first began teaching library instruction to new Honors students, I approached them like most other students new to the library. I didn't want to overwhelm them so I kept things very simple. InfoTrac-esque, if you will. Well, I soon learned that simple doesn't cut it with these kids. They were bored to tears and had a been there, done that attitude. I could sense that they were not impressed with what the library had to offer because they'd seen and mastered it all before and we weren't giving them anything new to sink their teeth into. So, in future classes, I started throwing out all the bells and whistles. I've heard audible "oohs" and "ahhs" when I've shown databases like PubMed where they could use MeSH headings, combine sets and explode terms. They ate it up! They were expert enough to be able to build on the basics and craved more depth from their instruction. For this group, the fact the librarians understood and could help others master the complex was a huge selling point for library services. I learned then and there to never assume that users want simple. They want to achieve a sense of satisfaction and confidence that they can accomplish what they need to do at the level they want to do it. I also suspect that my Honors kids got a bit of an ego boost by getting an inside scoop on how the databases "really" work. (Buyer behavior lit is full of great articles on this kind of thing, by the way).

Complex is not bad when it gets you where you need to go. In fact, the complicated aspects of information searching can actually be attractive to those seeking challenge and greater control. Simple, on the other hand, can be tragically inadequate when we have complex requirements and high expectations. In order to market our services effectively, our approach should be sufficiently layered to accommodate every task from the simple to the complex and should showcase our expertise in both arenas. It's that simple.

1 comment:

Amanda Werhane said...

Thanks for saying what I'd been thinking for a while now. I may have more to say later...