Thursday, January 05, 2006

Marketing is code for customer service

It's a perennial problem of mine that when I mention my interest in marketing to my colleagues, and even non-librarian types, I notice that many of them will cringe a little, roll their eyes slightly, and then nonchalantly shuffle away. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but I have definitely noticed a hesitancy to embrace the marketing concept, and it's noticeable enough that it makes me wish that there was another less loaded term for what is nothing more than just a strategic, common sense way to address people's needs.

But what, really, is the word "marketing" loaded with? For librarians, I think it might sound too sales-ish, which is a direct affront to our core values of free and equal access to anyone and everyone regardless of their social or economic status. We don't sell things, we provide services after all. Right?...Wrong! OF COURSE we sell things! We sell the idea that information literacy is an important skill to have; we sell our expertise as information providers; we sell our values of privacy and equal access to information; we sell our buildings as community hubs and we sell our collections. We sell all the time, everyday, and we even profit from it. We count our profits in terms of gate counts, circulation, positive word-of-mouth, repeat users and yes, even money in the form donations and special taxes. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with this. You can call "selling" persuading, convincing, or educating, and you can refer to "profits" as higher usage, bigger budgets, or an information-literate public, but it's all the same thing.

Still, this makes some feel a bit icky, so maybe we do need a better word. When I think of marketing, I think of service. Marketing begins and ends and begins again with understanding what patrons need. Then, it involves finding the best way to fill those needs and explaining (advertising or promoting) how we can help. This is serving the public, and it's noble work. It also happens to be marketing, but we can go ahead and call it customer service if that means we can openly talk about it without sacrificing any warm fuzzies. Or, we can embrace marketing for what it is and be proud of it. After all, if people don't understand what we do or why it's beneficial to them, they'll stop coming in our doors. If that happens, libraries, just like any other organization, will be out of business.

Don't get me wrong, I don't intend to dismiss anyone who is critical of some of the really awful marketing practices that go on out there (and there are plenty!), but it doesn't have to be a necessary evil. Marketing can actually be a public good when it focuses on best interests of those we serve, which is really what marketing is all about anyway.

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