A summer reading program is the cornerstone event of the year for most public libraries. But in my conversations with other library marketers, there is a central worry: slipping participation numbers.

Our summer programs compete so many other things: camps and vacations, transportation issues and poverty-related issues. We struggled with summer reading participation at my library. Between 2013 and 2017, our registration and check-in numbers steadily declined.

In 2017 and 2018, we made some changes that not only stopped that decline in participation, but actually reversed it–in a big way. In 2018, we saw a 12 percent increase in registration and a 97 percent increase in participation. Yep, you read that right. It was slightly insane!

The changes we made were not revolutionary. They weren’t costly. To me they actually felt a little… vintage. And they were easy. I think that’s why we were so surprised by the results.

These changes were all suggested by our planning committee so I take no credit for coming up with them. But my staff helped implement them. Each one made it easier for us to market summer reading. So if your library is struggling with declining participation, you might consider these options.

Drop the library card requirement. We decided to let anyone participate in summer reading, not just library cardholders. Dropping the requirement to get a library card sounds counter-intuitive, I know. It felt weird! But it opened the program up to a whole population of people, particularly those in under-served communities and those who may not be year-round residents of our service area. It makes your program more inclusive.

Of course, at registration and check-in, our front-line library staff still suggest that those participants get a card. And our new cardholder numbers still increase during the summer. As long as staff are still suggesting people get a card and explaining the many benefits of having one, you can drop the requirement without risking a dip in cardholder sign ups.

Add experiences to your participation elements. Several years ago, we decided to re-brand the program as Summer Adventure. In doing that, we set up new guidelines for what counts as participation. Reading, for certain, is a big part. But our participants can also get credit for doing things!

We created themes for each week of our summer program. They include the arts, nature, sports, and maker and technology. Then, we make suggestions for activities people can complete to earn participation credit. They can attend an event at the Library, go on a nature walk, visit the zoo or a park, draw a picture, build something with LEGOs, write a story… the list is pretty long. So, if someone doesn’t read 20 minutes a day but still completes an activity, they get credit and a prize.

Consider paper tracking. Okay, I know this is going to sound really nuts but hear me out. Many libraries have an app or an online software platform that participants use to track their reading. It seems like that would be exactly what customers want. It’s certainly what I want!

But when our library switched to online tracking, our registration and participation numbers went way down. Many of our under-served community members don’t have access to a computer or Wi-Fi at home. They can’t log in to track their reading and they can’t download or use an app.

In addition, many of our connected participants apparently forget to track their participation electronically. Or they just found the process of downloading the app, putting in their information, and then using it to log their reading to be cumbersome.

We went back to a paper tracker. Actually, we created a passport. It’s small–about the size of a real passport so it fits easily in a purse, backpack, or pocket. It’s about 24 pages long. It has suggestions for activities. It has reading tracking. It has space for doodling. It has blank pages for journaling or other creative writing.

Our participants get a passport at the start of summer. They bring it back to the library every week for a stamp. They love it. The idea of a passport or a printed log they can carry around is fun and it makes their participation tangible. Their reaction to it was totally unexpected. And it might work for you!

Summer Adventure Passport
A customer shared this photo of her child’s passport page last summer.

Make a game out of getting a prize. Last year, our summer planning staff had the craziest idea yet. I’ll be honest: I did not think this would be a popular thing. Boy, I was wrong.

Here was the idea: instead of giving out set prizes at certain levels, we printed scratch-off tickets. When someone completes a prize level, they get a scratch off ticket. Then they get whatever prize is on the scratch-off.

People LOVED the tickets. We had to reorder them twice last year! And we really think this fun element was the big driver of our huge participation numbers in 2018.

Scratch off ticket for Summer Reading
This is what the ticket looks like this year. The prize will be printed in the compass and covered with silver metallic scratch-off material by our printer.

Do you have any fun tips for marketing summer reading? Please share them in the comments section below.

More tips

Three Very Un-Library Ways to Market Summer Reading

Four Ways to Hook Summer Readers Forever

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