Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A micro-marketer in a macro library: Challenges and possibilities

The word “marketer” doesn’t appear anywhere in my job title; I don’t organize massive PR events; I don’t design logos or orchestrate major branding initiatives. In fact, a lot my work doesn’t quite fall under the marketing rubric in the old-fashioned, traditional sense, and yet, despite all this, I am a marketer. More specifically, I am a micro-marketer in my macro library, and I suspect I am not alone. In effect, even if it’s not widely recognized, everyone in the library is micro-marketing all the time. However, marketing on the micro scale is fraught with challenges, but it also opens up some unique opportunities that we should seize for the benefit of the macro library.

Let me back up for a moment and explain why it is that I, and in all likelihood you, are a marketer. Modern business textbooks define the marketing concept as the idea that all of an organization’s efforts should be directed at satisfying its customers. Aren’t you, in your position, attempting to satisfy patrons in all you do (I bet you are!)? In my work, I have been charged specifically with designing services [products] for undergraduates [target market] and promoting [advertising, etc.] those services to them. This charge as written is one way of saying I'm a librarian-marketer without really saying it, and I’m sure most if not all of you have some similar responsibilities in your job descriptions. Whether we know it (or like it) or not, we are all a part of the wide world of marketing, but for those of you who are like me and live near the bottom of the library hierarchy, there is very little we can do to direct the efforts of the entire organization, as the marketing concept definition suggests. So, for those of us who are in this marketing quandary, here are some of the challenges we face and possibilities we can seize:

  • Challenge: I can’t decree marketing strategies. I can’t say to my colleagues, “this is how we should position ourselves, this is how we should brand ourselves, and this is who we should target,” and so on. Possibility: I can decree marketing strategies for my area of responsibility. We can decree, for example, that we will give the absolute best service possible in all of our areas of responsibility be they reference work, collection development, or technical service. We can set high standards for our performance, which make our services [products] the best they can be, which is the most critical marketing task there is. We can also devise mini-marketing plans for ourselves and for the tasks spelled out in our job descriptions.

  • Challenge: I can’t define the mission or brand. Most of us inherit the mission, vision and values of our libraries. Hopefully, those values were an important part of why we chose to work at our libraries in the first place, however, we can’t just opt to alter them when we see fit. Possibility: I can live the mission or brand. If your mission emphasizes providing equal access, you can make it a point to reach out to underserved groups, for example. A mission/brand is only as good as the people who live it and fulfill its promises. A lofty vision that is not sincerely put into practice is easily seen through and disregarded.

  • Challenge: I can’t make library-wide decisions. Closely related to Challenge #1, I can’t decide for the library what path it should take and what the priorities should be. Possibility: I can inform library-wide decisions. The low-man-on-the-totem-pole position gives us a nice vantage point and allows us to interact with and observe our patrons on a daily basis. All of these points of contact grant us valuable insights into our patrons’ needs, which we can collect and communicate to those responsible for decision-making on a larger scale. To do this, we must be active observers and make it a point to get out into our communities and talk with our supervisors.

  • Challenge: I can’t determine what services the library provides. While some of us can design services that fall under our purview, for the most part we inherit the suite of services already in place and library-wide service design and management is out of our hands. Possibility: I can provide tangible evidence of service quality. Library services are intangible products. As such, every piece of tangible evidence patrons perceive reflect on the services we give. The way we answer the phone, our facial expressions, class handouts, the cleanliness of our facilities, the quality of our signage and furnishings all influence how patrons view the services we offer, and so we need to make sure each is well-managed and well-maintained.

  • Challenge: I don’t have much influence on the management of library activities on the big scale. Some of us have very little bearing on how our libraries carry out their business and how they manage operations. Possibility: I have a lot of influence on the management of library activities on the small scale, and small things count big! Oftentimes, it is the smallest of things that make the biggest impressions on patrons. Thank you notes, timely follow-ups, an extra effort when patrons are in a bind, and informal lunches can mean the difference between patrons’ apathy and enthusiasm toward the library.

I realize that not all of you have these same exact concerns to the same degree, but the point here is to not be discouraged when you feel microscopic in the macro library. There are always avenues, however small, to put sound marketing principles into practice. And, who knows, it might be those very micro-marketing efforts that have the greatest impact on the library as a whole.

I’d like to hear about other challenges/possibilities you perceive, and I’d also be interested in what challenges/possibilities those higher up the totem pole experience as well.


Monique said...

I very much appreciate your insights. I think you're right on as far as constantly having these principles in mind so we can best serve our users. I love being a micro-marketer!

Luke Vilelle said...

excellent ideas. The challenges and possibilities you present are very real. I am in a similar job, an outreach librarian position, and the word marketing is nowhere in my job description, though that's how i usually describe my job to others -- of course, i can't tell you how many times the response has been, "oh, so you're the librarian responsible for the business collection"!!

I think one of the toughest things about being a micro-marketer is the difficulty of aligning the efforts of all the micro-marketers in the library (many of whom would never describe their position as having anything to do with marketing). As you indicated, every library worker should, as goal 1, be trying to serve customers (from purchasing the right item to excellent cataloguing that makes that item more accessible to checking that book out with a smile).

but when all those micro-marketing efforts are not aligned, it leads to a situation where a lot of people are working really hard, but they're pulling in different directions. This is why the vision of the upper library administration must be clear, and must be respected by 90-plus percent (if not all) of those working in the library. It enables all the micro-marketers among us to be certain we're all pulling the same direction.