Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Acquisitions Department, Main Library, 1982-1983.

I was asked a deep question this week.

What is engagement?

I mean, you might as well ask me to explain the meaning of life. (I’m kidding. Please don’t ask me that question.)

There are two ways to define engagement in your library promotional efforts.

Transactional Engagement

One way to talk about engagement in library marketing is solely centered on numbers.

How many likes, shares, comments, and direct messages do your social media posts get? What is the open and click through rate of your emails? How many people signed up to attend your program based on the flyer you slipped into their checkout? How many people used a database after you mentioned it at your last program?

These hard numbers are measurable and easy to explain. They demonstrate that your community sees your marketing. They take an action.

Transactional engagement is data that proves people are interacting with your library marketing.

Relationship Engagement

But engagement cannot, and should not, be solely defined by the hard numbers. It must also be the ongoing relationship building that your library does with patrons.

People may be opening your emails and clicking on your social media posts. They’re checking out books and using your services.

But more importantly, how do they feel about your library long term?

Engagement must involve building a deeper relationship with your patrons over time. When that happens, the relationship will manifest itself in ways that go beyond hard numbers.

This is the real value of your library. Your cardholders will not only use the library more, but they’ll also donate more, volunteer more, speak out to support you more often, and influence others to use the library.

If this relationship building has not been in your list of priorities, you’re not alone. A study by Chief Marketing Officer found that most marketers fail to nurture long-term relationships. Instead, they focus more on the transactional nature of engagement.

That’s because transactional engagement is easy to measure. You can take those metrics to your supervisor and to the board. You can prove what you’re doing is effective. And you can feel good about your work.

It’s far more difficult to explain to your library administrators and stakeholders that you are building a lifelong emotional connection and loyalty with your community. It is hard to convince them that this is important. It’s also difficult to measure this work.

And building relationships doesn’t happen overnight. Libraries may feel they don’t have the luxury of devoting time to this work.

But we must. And we must do that right now.

Why this is the moment to focus on relationship building

Libraries are at a crossroads. I cannot stress this strongly enough: as we emerge into the post-pandemic world, we should not go back to doing things the way we were doing them before the crisis.

Libraries were already facing budget cuts, apathy, and accusations of irrelevancy. And that was before the pandemic forced us into lockdown and severed tenuous ties with our community by physically separating us from our customers.

The pandemic forced us to take our service models in a whole new direction. We proved that we can pivot.

We should use this opportunity to move our marketing in a new direction too. We cannot let the fear of doing something different keep us from making the bold changes needed to move into a real position of success.

Libraries should use this time to turn their sights on building loyalty. We’re going to need it to survive in the post-pandemic world.

Relationship engagement is the key. When we focus on building loyalty, we’ll learn more about our communities. We can put those discoveries to use to create services that actually solve problems. We can provide the services our community needs, not the services we *think* they need.

Yes, I know this sounds a little aspirational and far-fetched

Now, when I gave this answers to the folks who asked me do define engagement, I could see the look of skepticism on the faces of some of my peers. And I understand why.

We are just coming out a major life changing event. Most libraries think they must be solely focused on trying to get their circulation and usage numbers back up to pre-pandemic levels.

But I think this is a chance to do something bigger. This moment is an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime.

Library staffers often seek to find the deeper meaning of the work they are doing. They want to know that their jobs are having an impact on the community. If we focus on building sustainable relationships of loyalty and trust with our community, staff will feel like they are contributing to the library’s overall goals in a meaningful way.

How does relationship building work in a real library?

Let’s say your library does personalized reading suggestions. Staff members may view their work as transactional. A reader asks for a suggestion and answers a few questions. The library staffer sends them a list of suggested books based on their reading preferences. Interaction complete.

To turn this from solely a transactional interaction to a relationship building interaction, the library staff member could write a personal email or note to the reader, to explain why they chose these particular books. A few weeks later, the staff member could reach out to the reader to ask for their thoughts about the selections. Did they like them? Which books did they check out? Did they learn anything new about what they like to read?

This interaction takes longer but it’s more meaningful. It shows that the library cares about the person and strives to provide the best customer service possible. And that’s how you build loyalty in your community.

Here are more ideas that will help you take transactional library interactions and turn them into relationship building engagement.

By the way, this weekend, I heard someone say they believe the meaning of life is for us to help each other get to wherever we are going next.

That view has a connection to the work you do at your library, don’t you agree?

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