I hold a controversial opinion. Newsletters are an ineffective tool for library marketing.

I totally understand why libraries create them. Our customers are a wide and diverse audience and our budget is limited. Newsletters are an easy and efficient way to get information to our audience.

But many libraries are frustrated by the lack of demonstrable results from their newsletters, both the print and email versions. And there’s a reason you can’t get good results from a newsletter.

The mistake is: You’re sending the same message to all of your cardholders.

It’s understandable. It feels like the natural thing to do. Your library has great stuff and you want everyone to know about everything.

The problem with that approach is that your cardholders are individuals. One message never fits them all. The needs and interests of your cardholders vary greatly.

I’m not suggesting you ditch your newsletter. By transforming the way you approach your current print and e-newsletter, you can make it actually work! The trick is to make changes that increase your newsletter’s value by refining the message.

Tips that work for both print and e-newsletters

Give your cardholders LOTS more of what THEY want. I know you’ve been keeping track of attendance at events and holds or checkouts of books you promoted in your previous newsletters. If you notice that your newsletter audience turns out for a particular type of event or that they like a particular genre of books or collection items, put MORE of those in your newsletters.

Library marketers are often pressured to promote what their co-workers or bosses think is interesting. Or worse, what their co-workers think the audience NEEDS to hear.

I’ve actually had to gently explain to my colleagues that, while reading classic authors like Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen are good for the brain, most people are not looking for an intellectual challenge when they reach for a book. It’s like getting kids to eat their vegetables. Veggies are healthy, but if your child doesn’t like them, they’ll clamp their mouth shut and refuse to take a bite.

The newsletter audience is the same. You can’t make people attend events or read books because they’re healthy or intellectual. Library marketers sometimes have to be an advocate for their audience; you have to be persistent in your defense of what your cardholders want.

At my library, we pivoted our newsletter to focus more on our the parts of our collection that our cardholders like. We had the data to back it up. We know that our cardholders really love content about coding and coding classes. We know they love mystery books. We know they love workshops about writing and publishing their own books. We learned all of these nuanced preferences by carefully measuring our audience’s response to marketing in all areas. Patterns emerge. And now, we do a lot of promotion around these areas because we know, for a fact, that our cardholders love this kind of content.

Make your content helpful, not promotional. Your cardholders are regularly bombarded with offers, sales, and promotions, both in their inbox and in your mailbox. To get people to read your newsletter, the content needs to be interesting, useful, or helpful.

Hundreds of studies and surveys about consumer behavior show us that content that is educational or entertaining gets better results that content that is promotional. So how can you promote something while being entertaining or informative? Content marketing in the answer.

Content marketing is a strategic approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience–ultimately, to drive profitable consumer action.

Content marketing breaks through the noise and the clutter by providing compelling, useful information for your cardholder–any type of information. It addresses whatever pain points your cardholders have. It positions your library as the go-to place for information. It builds trust.

And through content marketing, your library gets a better and deeper understanding of your cardholders. You can use that understanding to do a better job of addressing your cardholders’ needs. It’s a constant circle of giving and it carries more weight for a longer period than a traditional newsletter promotion.

Stop thinking of your publication as a newsletter. Start creating news magazines. Most library newsletters that come to my inbox or mailbox are long and contain a ton of text and images. There isn’t much white space and scanning them is difficult, because there is so much to scan.

At my library, we increased the effectiveness of our print newsletter by transforming it into a magazine. We trimmed it from 16 to 12 pages. My graphic artists started to give the publication a magazine feel in layout, using bolder visuals and shorter, more engaging articles. We left some white space. We changed the balance of the articles from 100 percent promotional to 50 percent informational and 50 percent promotional (even I have to fight the battle with my library to be less overtly promotional!).

What happened when we made these changes? Our news magazine became a must-read. People started asking when the next issue would be out. We had to order more copies. Library staff and outside partners vie for space in the publication. The news magazine is popular!

Tips specific to e-newsletters

Keep the text short and scannable. Your e-newsletter is a touch point, not the end of a conversation. Readers should get enough to be left with the feeling of wanting to know more about a particular subject. Drive your recipients to your website or another platform where they can get more information with compelling text and enticing calls to action.

Make it easy to share your e-newsletter. Include social share buttons that link directly to your library’s social pages.

Segment your e-newsletters. You can segment your e-newsletter in a number of ways… by age, by interest, and by location. This means you’ll need to create more than one e-newsletter. But each one will be targeted to a specific audience, which increases effectiveness. This step will be more work for you but it’s worth it for better results.

By targeting your message, you are more likely to say something that matters significantly to your cardholders. That individualized message makes them more likely to take an action, which makes it more likely that your newsletter will be successful.

More help for library marketers

How the Best Newsletters Get-and Keep-Reader’s Attention from Content Marketing Institute

NoveList’s Guide to Best Practices for Library Newsletters

7 Tips for Creating Engaging Newsletters from Mailjet

Great examples of targeted library newsletters

Dallas Public Library’s Young Black Readers Newsletter

Indian Prairie Public Library’s DVD Preview

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