Group of women at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, circa 1947. Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

“The only way we can differentiate ourselves is in how we communicate.”

I heard this quote at a conference six years ago and it’s never left me. I can’t remember who said it, but I remember that it changed the entire way I thought about library marketing.

We do a lot of push promotions in the library world. We try to inform our communities about what our library has to offer. We tell them why they should support the library.

Honestly, we do a lot of talking at people. And we end up sounding like every other advertiser.

When is the last time you asked yourself: how can I differentiate my library from the crowd of competitors?

Content marketing is a good place to start. It is, according to Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi, “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.”

But what does that mean for a library?

It means we can’t rely on disruptive marketing to capture the attention of our cardholders. If we want to attract and retain people who will use the library and support the library and convince others of the value of the library, we have to be more strategic.

Think about how you go about interacting with signs, ads, and social media. Do you give every message your full attention… or half of your attention… or even a glance?

Unless something is seriously compelling, you filter it out. So do our cardholders.

Content marketing sticks with your audience because it’s not an ad. It doesn’t push.

It is stories about your library, your staff, or your community. Your cardholders will remember these kinds of promotions because stories make us feel emotions. And emotions are memorable.

Summer Reading, or any large library event or initiative, is the best time to be purposeful about using content marketing to promote your library. It’s also the best time to gather stories for promotion later in the year.

Here’s what I want you to do.

  • Gather stories about how cardholders are using the library. How is your library improving their lives? How is your library helping people get back on their feet or back to normal in this phase of the pandemic? Ask your library workers to be on the lookout for great story ideas.
  • Gather stories about your staff–who are they? What do they like to do in their spare time? What do they love about interacting with cardholders? How their approach to work changed during the pandemic?
  • Gather information about your cardholders. Survey your users or use social listening to create a list of the problems they are facing. Ask your cardholders specific questions like “Tell us about a time when your library helped you find some information you thought you’d never be able to uncover.” Or “Tell us your favorite library memory from your childhood.”
  • Set up a form on your website and solicit cardholder stories on social media, in your email, and printed newsletters. That list will be the basis for further content marketing your library can create down the road that answers those problems.

And then, tell those stories using the platforms you have available. Write them up for your blog. Create social media posts. Add them to your newsletters. Start a landing page on your website. Make videos.

There are three key pieces to look for in a good content marketing library story.

Emotion. The joy of finding a book, the fear of not getting a job, the frustration of another night of homework without any help… these are all emotions felt by our library’s customers. Other people can relate to these experiences and empathize.

A good emotional story activates many portions of the brain, including sensory, memory, and empathy sectors. The more active the brain is while reading, the more likely it is that the listener/reader will remember the story.

Emotion is the most important criteria of a good story. If it makes you feel something, it’s worth pursuing.

Conflict and a resolution. A good story includes some conflict, whether minor or major, and a problem or situation that is resolved.  Without conflict, a story is flat and unmemorable.

Look for stories with a beginning, middle, and end including a story arc that leads to a resolution.

Simplicity. A story that’s direct, with less adjectives and more heartfelt and straightforward language is more likely to be remembered by the listener than a complex story with a long, winding narrative and lots of details and unnecessary description.

When writing content for marketing purposes, draw a straight line from beginning, middle, and end. Keep the story moving forward with clear language.

Content marketing gives you a chance to tell your library’s story without making a direct pitch. It increases brand awareness and affinity and improves your library’s image. And stories are fun to tell!

We cannot rely on this old disruptive marketing policy to be the driving force behind our library marketing efforts anymore. We’re better than that.

We work with stories every day. Let’s start telling them.

Do you use content marketing in your library promotions? Do you have some great stories that you’ve gathered about your library and cardholders? Do you have questions about storytelling and how it works for libraries? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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