When I was in first grade, I wanted to be famous. My big break arrived in the form of a school contest. The winner got to read a public service announcement about education on the radio. “IT HAS TO BE ME!!!” I exclaimed to my bewildered mother when I learned of the contest. She gently explained that I couldn’t win. She knew I faced a huge obstacle. I did not know (yet) how to read! The time between the contest announcement and the audition was short. How would I ever learn to read well enough to do it on the air? My mother is a very practical person. This was an insurmountable obstacle in her eyes.

I proved my mother wrong through sheer determination, and with a little help from the “Dick and Jane” series. I learned to read and won the contest! That was likely the first time I realized this powerful fact: there really isn’t any problem out there that can’t be solved.

20 years later, I found myself in a similar situation at my job as TV producer. The station suffered a huge power failure. The generators died. We had no way to get on the air. But failure was not an option and with airtime fast approaching, we came up with a plan. We would broadcast live from the parking lot using our live truck. It worked. We felt like heroes. Once again, I realized there was no problem that could not be solved.

We all face obstacles every day. Library marketing is not an easy job. You deal with deadlines, staffing issues, tiny budgets, and bureaucracy. Despite these obstacles, you make it work, day after day.  Your attitude plays a huge role in determining whether you overcome obstacles. Many of our problems are unique to this industry. Do. Not. Fear. You can find ways around anything. Here are some ideas to help.

The obstacle: there is never enough time. The library year is like the “lazy river” at my local YMCA; a constant, swirling flow of events that keeps pushing us forward. It takes some force to break free. When you’re under pressure to promote each big event, you may feel like you never have enough time to do anything well. All the emphasis is on the result and most people don’t give too much thought to the process.

The solution: Create a marketing strategy and STICK TO IT. The strategy must be clear, with expectations and goals set in writing. Get it approved by your supervisor and administrators. Explain it to staff. A strategy will help you stay laser-focused. Your marketing can be consistent. Library users will start to recognize the strategy of your organization without reading the mission statement. You’ll be able to accurately measure results. And, most important, you’ll be able to say “no” to promotions that don’t serve to drive your library’s overall strategic mission.

The obstacle: there is never enough money.  Budgets are a pain. Nothing can make you feel like you can’t reach your goals like facing the cold, hard reality of zero cash flow.

The solution: start small and partner up. Ask your administration for money to fund social media advertising. It’s cheaper than traditional ad buys. Your administrators might not realize how effective targeted social media ads can be. You can easily prove that you can make a good return on their investment. Look for partnership opportunities to promote more than the big programs. Create a standard agreement for media sponsorships of major programs, listing the action items your potential sponsors will fulfill and what benefits you can offer them in return. For every big program or marketing push, brainstorm partnership opportunities. For instance, my library uses partnerships for author events and to promote our collection.

The obstacle: too much work, too few people. Trying to take on a concerted, strategic marketing initiative can be overwhelming when you work alone. It’s a struggle just to keep up with the day-to-day stresses of social media, press, and meetings.

The solution: Ask for more help. You’ll find librarians who have an interest and skill in social media, writing, video, and design. Ask around and recruit those staff members to help you create content, with their supervisor’s permission of course. Ask for permission to engage an intern or two. Every organization has people with hidden talents!

The obstacle: There is never enough data about customers. This one sounds like the most difficult of the problems to solve but it’s actually one of the easiest. If your library isn’t already collecting data about your current customers, it should. I know libraries have a long and proud tradition of protecting the data and privacy of users and I respect that. I think there is a balance that can be struck. We can’t serve our cardholders well and point them in the direction of the items and services they need and want unless we know something about them. Collecting data on their card use preferences isn’t intrusive and I bet if you ask your cardholders, they’d confirm my assertion as long as we don’t share the data or lose it.

The solution: Ask, ask, and ask again. When people come to programs, hand them a three-question survey: How did you find out about this program? Do you have a library card already? What other kinds of things would you like to see at this library?  Create a new cardholder survey to gauge the interests of people just entering your library system. A yearly satisfaction survey for all cardholders is also necessary, particularly when you can take the results and split them into your different persona groups.

There are a number of software companies that can help you sort through cardholder use while masking the names of the actual items checked out by your cardholders, like Savannah by Orangeboy. From there, you can map your customer’s journey: When they get a card, how long does it take them to use it? Are they checking out books or using your digital collection or computers? Do they simply let it languish? Do you have some customers who got a card years ago, used it a specific way, and then stopped altogether? Do you have some customers who are making the transition from print items to digital materials? Do you have some customers who are only interested in one particular kind of item–DVDs, audio books, or computers? Break your customers into groups based on what they do with the card. Start creating pieces of content that target those groups.

The obstacle: fear. After five years of sharing library marketing information, this is still the biggest problem we face. Libraries are afraid of change AND afraid of failure. How many times have you heard someone in your library say, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it!” It’s the phrase I dread. It takes an enormous amount of effort and energy to change the minds of our fellow library staff members and our administration. It seems like it would just be easier to stay the course.

The solution: no one will die if you try something and it doesn’t work. It’s just marketing. Try stuff. Just try!  We have to remember our main goal–to get customers to move through the cardholder journey and engage with the library. Without that engagement, the people who argue that libraries are obsolete will win! We can’t have that. Do not be afraid. Marketing works best when you start small. Think of it like a staircase. On the bottom step, you make a small argument and you try a new thing. You see results. You report the results and chances are you’ll get to climb to the next step. If you fail, it’s just failure. No one dies. You stay on that step and you try something else! You’ll never get to the top of the stairs unless you try.

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