Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, showing a librarian and a boy interacting at the reference desk in the Children's Department circa 1925.

It’s been one year since I started working for NoveList.  

I don’t often talk about my day job here on the blog. But the work I do gives me a unique perspective on library marketing.

I get to meet (virtually, of course) with library staffers from all over the world and spend time talking about marketing. It’s a privilege to learn from the people who are kind enough to share their insights, problems, and dreams with me.

Part of my job includes offering advice to help strengthen the position of libraries. And one thing I’ve noticed is that libraries of all sizes and shapes are making some small but common marketing mistakes. All of these little mistakes are fixable!

What’s the most common mistake you think libraries make in marketing and promotions? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Little mistake #1: Trying to promote everything your library has to offer, all at once and all the time.

Libraries are amazing. They quite literally have a service or collection item that is perfect for every single person in their community. The difficulty libraries face in marketing their breadth and depth of service is centered in matching each community member to the right service or collection item.

In the quest to make that match, many libraries will try to market everything they offer, hoping that the person who needs that item the most will see it. I had a boss who would have called this “an error of enthusiasm.”

Promoting everything you offer all at once waters down your message. It makes your marketing come off as noise to the community you are trying to reach. And it’s less effective.

How to fix it: Focus with precision on your library’s overall strategy.

What goal is your library trying to accomplish right now? Are you hoping to increase your circulation to pre-pandemic numbers? Are you helping to bridge the pandemic educational gap for elementary school students? Are you implementing a step-by-step plan to ensure your library is truly accessible to everyone? Are you undergoing a facilities improvement project?

Your promotions should be centered on whatever your library is trying to accomplish this year. When you focus your marketing with precision on your library’s strategy, your marketing will be more effective. You will avoid spreading your message thin.

Little mistake #2: Sending every email to all your cardholders.

This happens as a result of mistake #1. Sending an email to all your cardholders feels like common sense. When you are hoping to get people to check out an item, use a database, or attend a program, you want as many people as possible to know about it for maximum success.

But imagine if you had the entirety of your library service community all gathered in the same place, like a large stadium. If you stood on a platform to survey the crowd, what would you see?

There would be all kinds of people, from different backgrounds, with different economic statuses, of different ages. And if asked just ten people in that crowd to tell you a little about themselves, you would hear ten different stories from people with ten different wants, needs, and interests.

Your service community is diverse. One email isn’t going to inspire action in all your community members. Think of your emails as magazines – is there a magazine that includes every interest? Even general topic magazines like Better Homes & Gardens have a target audience and covers matters of the home and garden – not political news or sports or celebrity gossip. (My thanks to my boss, Kathy Lussier, for this brilliant analogy).

How to fix it: Target your email marketing.

There are dozens of ways to segment your audience. To help you get started, read this two part series on targeted email marketing: Targeted Email Marketing for a New Era: The Pros and Cons of How Most Libraries Segment Their Audiences and Psychographics Are the Key to Powerful Email Marketing: How to Unlock the Motivations and Aspirations of Your Cardholders.

Little mistake #3: Assuming your community will see your marketing.  

Remember back before the pandemic when we were all exasperated every time we talked with someone about all the services we offer besides books? We were constantly asking ourselves how it was that there were still people in the community who had no idea their library had e-books or homework help or small business resources. We were certainly marketing them! But it kept happening because our community was not always seeing our marketing messages.

Think back again to your community, gathered in the stadium. Each person in that crowd has a different preference for how they consume marketing. Some are signed up for your emails. Some come into the branch and see your posters. Some have never been in a branch before and only interact with your website… and they may have the catalog bookmarked on their computer, so they never even see your homepage promotions!

How to fix it: Target your promotional tactics.

Tactics are the specific methods you use to market your library. They include social media, emails, your website, your catalog, your digital signs, your print promotions, and more.

You don’t need to market each of your library’s overall goals using every tactic. Instead, think about where your target audience is interacting with your library. Then, choose the tactics that your target audience is most likely to see during those interactions.

For example, if you are promoting your new themed storytime, your target audience will be parents, caregivers, and educators. They may interact with your library in emails, on social media, and when they pick holds or use your curbside service.

You can target your promotional tactics specifically to this audience in the places where they are! You’ll want to send them a targeted email message, create social media posts that speak directly to them with wording that focuses on skills their children will learn in the storytime, and slip a flyer or bookmark promoting the storytime into holds or curbside pickups that contain picture books or books about parenting.

Little mistake #4: Letting fear prevent you from implementing a great promotional idea.

The ability to trust your own marketing instincts takes time to nurture. You may be worried that your great promotional ideal will fail. Or you may face difficulty in convincing others that a new promotional idea has merit.

I speak from experience. It took me five years to convince senior staff at my former library to let my department start a blog. It was frustrating. But my good idea did finally see the light of day.

How to fix it: Don’t give up.

Five years is a long time to advocate for a blog. But I did it because I knew it would be good for my library and good for my community.

I’m not advocating insubordination. But, if you truly believe in your idea, don’t give up. Be patiently persistent.

Your supervisors are a target audience, so use what you know about their priorities, motivation, and work beliefs to build your case. Keep gathering data to back up your idea. Recruit like-minded co-workers or peers to advocate for you.

Keep trying. The real winners will be your service community.

Little mistake #5: Thinking you must be an expert to be a good library marketer.

It’s a bonus to have formal training in communications and marketing. It gives you extra confidence. But for many of my readers, the role of promotions was handed to them as part of “other duties as assigned.” It’s hard to do good work when you feel unqualified.

How to fix it: You are already doing it.

If you read this blog or spend any time researching marketing trends, you’re already adding to your expertise. Keep seeking out advice from websites, videos, professional development courses, and conferences. No one understands the importance of lifelong learning better than librarians! 

Remember, the more promotional work you do, the more you will learn about your audience and what works for them. The better you will get at marketing. And the stronger your library will be.

You may also like these posts

The Virtual Library Conference is Over and Now the Work Begins! Here’s What to do Once You’ve Closed Your Laptop

The Ultimate Library Marketing Checklist: How to Decide When and Where to Promote Your Library

Latest Book Review

The Wright Sister by Patty Dann.

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, click on the “Follow” button in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Connect with me on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.