Monday, July 09, 2007

And how are you any different?

Whether consciously or not, patrons are always comparing you to your competitors and asking themselves how you're different from them. They're also asking how you're better than them regarding what they care about most. Have you taken steps to stand out from the crowd? If not, you may need to give some attention to your differentiation strategy. Being different (in a good way) can give you a competitive advantage. If you don't have a competitive advantage, then you probably don't have any business being in business!

Because differentiation is so important, I chose to write a chapter on what it is and how to do it in a forthcoming ACRL publication, The Desk and Beyond:
Next-Generation Reference Services
, which is due out sometime next year. In the process of working on the chapter, I learned a lot of important stuff about being competitive and I want to share what I discovered with you all (without giving away the chapter, of course!). So, you'll be seeing a number of posts on this topic in the coming weeks.

To kick off this theme, let's first consider why librarians should worry about competing. Being competitive is not a sneaky or underhanded tactic of any kind, but simply a means finding ways to fulfill needs that have been neglected or that no one has ever noticed before, and doing so better than anyone else. While addressing these needs in the best way possible, service providers like us challenge themselves to think hard about what they do, who they're doing it for, what they excel at, and how they can creatively satisfy their target market. Being competitive then, makes service providers more useful to their customers and also more innovative. It's a healthy thing to do, which is why I encourage every librarian look at the marketplace as a game of chess where you have to think a few steps ahead of the other player and execute moves that catch him off-guard. The best competitors not only do things differently, they do things differently for the benefit of their customers. There's no point in being different for the sake of being different. Patrons have to care about those things you stand for.

In his book, Zag, author Marty Neumeier explained competitive strategy/differentiation in a very illustrative way. He noted that talented artists have the uncanny ability to see not only the space an object fills, but also the negative space it creates, which he calls "white spaces." He says that our marketplace is full of white spaces that have yet to be discovered by marketers. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to hunt down those white spaces and stake that territory for libraries. Librarians have so much that is unique and worthwhile to offer, but we just need to make what we do connect with patrons so that we can stand out in their minds from all of the alternatives they have at their disposal. Easy, huh? ;-)

Since I go into a lot of detail in the book about how to find your competitive advantage, I won't repeat all that here, but I will share some of the terrific stuff I've read that you can benefit from taking a look at. Stay tuned.

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