Monday, April 30, 2007

Read this second: Finding balance in library marketing

[Read this first]

It seems to me that most professional, personal, and social efforts concern finding just the right balance between competing forces. People must balance the demands of their personal and professional lives; their desires and their available resources; their opportunities and their existing commitments; their selfish impulses and the greater good; and that's just for starters. Librarians are no strangers to balance-seeking. We've traditionally sought to mediate opposing tensions such as the responsibility to make resources readily available and the duty to preserve materials for future generations. The search for balance is a hallmark of professional work, and it also raises some important questions about marketing libraries in contemporary society.

I often mention the fact that modern marketing is customer-driven. In many ways, this trend meshes well with librarians’ service ethic in that we strive to meet patrons' needs, preferences, and demands. For many of us, it's only natural to involve them in our marketing efforts and to seek their feedback. Patrons, after all, are the reason we're in business, and they can be incredible sources of insight. I do, however, have concerns about this open-source trend when taken to the extreme of giving patrons what they want, whatever that may be, without regard to our professional judgment and a larger vision of libraries' potential. Innovations that lead to new service developments - the most important marketing function – are the sole responsibilities of librarians. Patrons can give us a nudge in the right direction, but they can't be expected to carry the weight of advancing our libraries.

This point is described best by Marty Neumeier, author of the book on innovation and differentiation, Zag. In the book, he discusses the danger of relying too much on feedback in the form of focus groups saying,

"What stops most companies from zagging is the cloud of uncertainty that follows innovation. In an effort to remove the cloud, marketers often conduct focus groups, which, while helpful in some situations, are notably unhelpful for encouraging innovation. This is because radical differentiation doesn't test well in focus groups. When you ask people what they want, they'll invariably say they want more of the same, only with better features, a lower price, or both. This is not a recipe for radical differentiation. This is a recipe for me-too products with pint-sized profit potential."

I can attest to this based on a number of focus groups I've attended in which our patrons typically express their desire for things like more computers, better printing and photocopying, and more online materials. While these are important needs to recognize, they don't do anything to make our libraries more compelling places. Innovation simply isn't patrons' job. They aren't as invested in libraries as we are and it's difficult for them to imagine what's possible in a library context. If we want our libraries to continue to be transformative places, it's our job to envision and realize possibilities that inspire. Doing so requires restructuring our internal operations, confronting risk head-on, and staying ahead of trends in the marketplace. To put it simply, if library marketing is a two-way street, librarians still control the traffic signals.

Services require both patrons and librarians to perform important roles, but not the same ones. Here's a brief summary of how I see our service relationship:
Patrons' JobOur Job
Communicating unmet needs and complaintsListening and responding
Suggesting service improvementsImagining and implementing compelling services
Actively participating in service creation/deliveryMaking it easy and rewarding to participate in services
Helping to refine and effectively execute library marketing tacticsProviding meaning and context for participation
Spreading word-of-mouthDoing something worth talking about and providing the means to pass it along

Today's marketing realities rightfully elevate the role of customers and the power they have over how marketers do business, but open source marketing implies more than just giving people what they want. Modern librarian-marketers must be innovators who dig beneath expressed surface needs to create libraries that delight users in unexpected ways.

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