Monday, October 09, 2006

Time: Too high a price?

In library land, our services entail little or no direct monetary costs. Other costs, however, are quite high for many of our patrons. Specifically, I'm talking about time (and the lack of it). Research is a skill and like any other skill, it takes time to develop. Even pleasure reading is a trade-off of time for a variety of personal benefits. Unfortunately, time is what today’s patrons lack. I'm sure that this statement is hardly news for any of you who probably suffer from your own time deficits. What's newsworthy to me is the extent of this problem. The other day, a patron approached the desk in search of a golf pencil. When I asked if she was finding everything else alright, she responded, "Yeah, except the inside of my eyelids." It was about 9 or 10a.m. This statement reminded me of other conversations I'd heard recently. For example, a group of undergraduates were talking about the challenges of balancing full-time jobs with full-time schoolwork. One girl commented that she remembers breaking down into tears some days because she was so exhausted she didn't think she could function. Perhaps you've heard similar sentiments. How, then, can we expect even the most well-intentioned person to devote valuable time to leisurely or scholarly library pursuits?

In marketing, one of the much beloved 4 P's is Price. Marketers set a price that is a reasonable exchange for the benefits a product or service offers to a target market. When it comes to time, how can librarians set appropriate prices as time becomes increasingly valuable? I don't have a magic bullet answer to this question, but I do have a few ideas and I welcome your own:

  • Set realistic expectations: We don't want to promise too much or too little to our patrons when it comes to how much time something will take. It's great if we can speed up processes, but some services take a fixed time to deliver. We should do all we can to get patrons what they need quickly, but if we over- or under-promise, we risk dissatisfying them. Furthermore, it's dishonest to portray research or learning new skills as quick and easy. They're not. And I doubt any amount of technology or automation will make a substantial difference time-wise for many of these endeavors.
  • Promote the benefits: Sure, attending a library workshop or program will cost patrons 60 minutes, but focus on what they'll get in return. A new skill, a good time, better grades, or new insights are just some benefits patrons seek in exchange for spending their time. Promotion materials should focus on those benefits and the service should be carefully designed so as to be worth the cost.
  • Segment by time: In the for-profit world, marketers use characteristics like income to segment markets. In the library world, why not segment patrons by how much time they have to spend? On-the-go businesspeople, sleep-starved students and busy moms will likely prefer quick and convenient services at their points-of-need, whereas retirees may be more willing to attend longer programs. Of course, market research will be required to make these determinations, but segmenting by time is worth investigating.
  • Help patrons make more time: Highlight resources you have on topics like time-management or sponsor workshops on time-saving themes.
  • Creative distribution: Technology offers exciting opportunities to deliver what patrons need when and where they need it. RSS feeds allow patrons to get the news they want quickly when then want it, for example. Librarians are already investigating how they can get small, quick chunks of information and tutorials to patrons on demand by way of screencasts and podcasts. These strategies put patrons in control of how much time they spend on tasks and when they engage in them, thereby offsetting the time costs of services.
Have any other price-reducing tips?

Categories: real_life | tips_to_try | usable_theories

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