A few weeks ago, a video by the Chicago Public Library caught my attention. It was part of a series of videos designed to promote a fine amnesty program.

If you haven’t seen them, you need to.

There are a whole series of these videos and personally, I think they’re brilliant–and more importantly, memorable.

And so I contacted Mary Beth Mulholland, Director of Marketing for CPL, who graciously agreed to a Q&A. Mulholland’s educational background is in nonprofits, fundraising and philanthropy. She received her Master’s degree from Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy (Now Lilly School of Philanthropy) and began her career as a Director of Development and Public Relations for a nonprofit. She began at CPL as a Press Rep and moved into the Director of Marketing role last year.

Mulholland has been a library user her entire life. Now, in her role at Chicago Public Library, she promotes services which reach nearly every neighborhood in Chicago through 80 locations. More than nine million patrons visit each year to check out materials, attend an author or children’s program, use the Maker Lab, view an exhibit or use a computer. CPL has more than one million active cardholders.

Tell me a little about how the idea for the fine amnesty campaign was born. Why did the library decide to do such a sweeping plan?

We decided to do a “Welcome Home” Fine Amnesty to kick off a larger marketing campaign called “Home of the Curious,” created in partnership with FCB Chicago. The last time we did a fine amnesty was for three weeks in 2012, and the results were very successful. During that amnesty, we had 101,301 overdue items, valued at approximately $2 million, returned. More importantly, we had over 40,000 Chicagoans renew their Library card.

During this two-week amnesty, we welcomed home 13,197 patrons to the Library through replaced or updated library cards. We had 33,886 items returned with an estimated value of $819,243. We knew the numbers wouldn’t be as high as in 2012 since we had so recently held an amnesty, and we are happy with the results.

One of the reasons I love libraries is because we are all about access. Our Commissioner, Brian Bannon, and our Mayor Rahm Emanuel are very passionate about CPL providing opportunity and resources to all Chicagoans. Oftentimes fines serve as a barrier to access. As we were planning the Home of the Curious campaign, we decided that another opportunity to wipe fines and welcome patrons home would be a great kick-off to our visibility campaign.

The Home of the Curious campaign, created in partnership with our pro bono partner FCB Chicago, is based on the idea that everyone who walks into the library has something in common – curiosity. There are so many things to explore at the Library, and through this campaign we highlight different programs and resources in which people use the Library, or call the library home. In addition to the ad campaign running throughout the city, we’re featuring the individuals and their ‘titles’ on our website weekly to highlight Library resources and collections. The ad campaign was made possible through the support of the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

In addition, we used this opportunity to do a brand refresh. We updated our CPL logo to better cohesively represent all of our sub-brands.

Tell me about the creation of the videos: What was the objective, who wrote them, how long did it take you to create them, and how much did they cost?

The videos, for me, were the most fun part of the process! We wanted to promote the amnesty and incorporate Library staff so they felt like ambassadors for the campaign. I think the staff enjoyed filming, and I think patrons loved seeing their library staff on camera! I loved that we were able to include sign language, Spanish and Chinese into the videos as well to appeal to our diverse patron base.

Our partners at FCB Chicago helped us create the videos — they were written by a brilliant and fun team over there. The video scripts were out of the box and humorous, while still being authentic to CPL and our purpose.

We did about seven hours of filming and hammered out all the videos in one day. FCB did more work in post-production to incorporate our logo and captions. Because the videos were done on the back-end of some filming work FCB was doing for Chicago Public Library Foundation, they did not cost us a dime! I am so grateful because they helped garner visibility for the fine amnesty, but also built a lot of good will with staff and patrons.

Did your library do any other marketing to spread the message about the fine amnesty program?

We had in-branch info flyers and “Wanted Posters” to promote the amnesty, a website banner and home page post up for the full two weeks, and utilized social media with about 3–4 posts a day spread over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In addition, we tried to leverage local press to get the word out about waived fines. Over 50 different outlets covered the fine amnesty program with combined circulation of over 20 million. Coverage included our local TV and radio stations, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and local Chicago papers like DNA info, Chicagoist, and Red Eye.

Was the campaign successful? How did you measure the success?

I think it was hugely successful. The full Home of the Curious campaign runs through the end of April with ads around the city and website promotion, so we can’t quite yet measure the success of that campaign. However, with the launch of that campaign with the “Welcome Home” amnesty kick off, our circulation increased by 13% in the month of February compared to last year. We also issued over 4,000 new library cards in the month of February in addition to the over 13,000 renewed cards.

During the two-week “Welcome Home” amnesty, we saw a 1000% increase in our social media engagement. In fact, the day we announced the amnesty, Chicago Public Library was trending on Facebook. That felt like such a win to me — if we can get the public talking feverishly about the Library then I think it’s been a huge success.

In general, the positive feedback we received from patrons and the good will towards the library that the amnesty inspired made it a success. We had a feature on our website where patrons could submit their amnesty stories, and we had a few explain how their fines had prohibited them from using the library. Our staff described how it made them love their jobs because they got to make so many patrons happy by waiving their fines. We got a lot of missing materials returned and put back into circulation, and most importantly, welcomed home thousands of library users.

What’s one piece of marketing advice you’d give to other library marketers about putting together a campaign of this scale?

I think that we need to remember as we promote library services to our cities and our patrons that it’s okay to be a little tongue in cheek or out of the box. It’s okay to break library stereotypes. Our services are no longer just those of library past, so why shouldn’t our marketing efforts evolve too? The videos we created with library staff, the “Wanted” posters in branches and our social media efforts were all a bit untraditional.

I’d also suggest leveraging the resources you have at your disposal. This campaign would not have come together as a success without the pro-bono work of FCB Chicago or the financial support of Chicago Public Library Foundation. Through the strategic partnership with FCB, we were able to build our marketing capacity and work with their very creative team. If working with a large agency isn’t an option, and even if it is, make sure to use the free or inexpensive tools at your disposal like social media. Using our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts with a calendar of scheduled posts and spending a nominal amount for social media ads and promoted posts increased our engagement and visibility. Make sure your front line staff is on board. In promoting the fine amnesty and making sure that went smoothly, they were a hugely important resource to the campaign’s success.

Finally, be adaptable. There were some bumps along the way, delays in execution and a few logistical challenges. The final iteration of the campaign and amnesty elements looked different in execution than they did during initial planning. Keep an open mind, keep pushing forward, and rally your team around you.

What are you reading?

I just finished A Different Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab (from our March recommendations list created by our librarians. I trust them more than anyone to steer me in the right direction every month!) and am starting The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah.

If you have any questions or comments or if you would like to write a guest post for this blog, let me know in the comment section below.

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