Friday, April 14, 2006

All competition is local

Our library is a pretty hopping place, most of the time.  Earlier this week, I wondered why so many people pack into this building to do things they could probably do elsewhere, like check e-mail or type papers.  I thought that it might have to do with a shortage of social spaces that are also conducive to getting work done on campus and that we fill an important niche.  This got me to thinking about the bigger picture of competition and the nature of competition in the library world in particular.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became of the idea that most competition is local, which is especially true for libraries.  Just think, even the biggest, most well-known brands only have a competitive edge to the extent employees on the local level respond to and get to know their neighbors.  A barrista who remembers my name and coffee drink from day to day is a more compelling reason for me to patronize Starbucks than the look and feel of Starbuck’s Web site, for example.  If that barrista is consistently rude and messes up my order, I’ll go to the competitor down the street, no matter how much equity Starbuck’s brand wields.

For libraries too, their success or failure seems to hinge on how the stack up to their competition locally.  If students can only find social space or an item on reserve at your library, than you definitely have an edge.  If you’re the only game in town for children’s programming on Saturday mornings, you may also have a distinct advantage.  Likewise, if a coffee bar with free WiFi opens up across the street, you may be in for some trouble, depending on the needs of your patrons.  It seems that the local scene is where the threats and opportunities lay, no matter what’s going on in the grander scheme of things.

Of course, any good marketing plan considers broader social, technological and environmental changes, as those things do indeed shape behaviors on the local level.  But when all is said and done, it comes down to what you can offer that the guy down the street can’t and finding a way to sustain that advantage.

No sooner was I thinking about all of this when MarketingProfs came out with an article on the topic called The Surprising Secret of Successful Differentiation.  In it, the author talks about how marketers should look beyond the core benefits of a product or service to find the feature they will use to distinguish themselves.  For libraries, we are not different because we provide information (lots of entities to that), but we’re different because provide expert assistance in finding a broad array of information that is just right for patrons while respecting privacy, preserving documents for the future, and providing education and programming, all without a profit motive!  We’re different in other ways too, but you get the idea.  

Getting a leg up on the competition is not about out-searching Google, or out-Wiki-ing Wikipedia, for instance.  It’s about integrating ourselves so tightly into our communities that we can offer personalized services that no one can match.  While we don’t want to neglect the larger world, our ability to match services to specific needs on the small-scale local level might be our most important advantage.  Agree?  Disagree?  Am I missing something?  Let me know!

Categories: usable_theories

1 comment:

steven said...

Jill - we have a like mind on this topic. I like that way you said we can't out-Google Google - but we can use local knowledge (knowing what our students course-related needs are) to our competitive advantage. I think we'll both be writing more about this in the future.