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Start With the Hard Part

Whenever we give short shrift to difficult conversations about our goals, services, and organizational structures in favor of quick wins and one-­off promotions, we have skipped over doing the hard work of real marketing and furthering the cultural acceptance of it. Marketing entails reengaging with our shared purposes and passions as librarians while fully grounding them in our practice with the central idea that marketing orients all of our efforts toward making value for the people who matter most—­our users.

Librarians do phenomenal work, and we all want to remain essential, trusted partners in our communities. When we confront severe budget cuts or deep frustration and anxiety about why so many users seem oblivious to what we do and why it is important, applying marketing in its fullest sense is imperative. Merely learning about marketing and how to apply its bevy of tactics is not the answer to securing relevance, and so we need to resist the deceptively convenient idea that if we just could find the right mix of the Four Ps, execute them, and repeat—poof!—we would be overwhelmed by floods of users. As I hope we all recognize by now, marketing well is not that simple, and it certainly is not easy.

This briefing offers more than a tool kit to hammer away at the barriers we contend with—and will always have to contend with—as librarians. Rather, it presents concepts and preconditions for marketing success that are less immediately satisfying than ticking off a series of tasks yet are more likely to sustain our institutions in the long term. Namely, these preconditions include the following:

  • A commitment to tending to our mission with the care it deserves as our most important marketing asset and marketplace differentiator. This commitment entails keeping the mission alive by inviting our users to help us understand how to fulfill it as our environment changes, without straying too far from our purpose. We should not accept findings (like Ithaka S+R’s) that expose a lack of clear collections strategies and vision for our spaces. If we lack clarity on issues so close to our mission, how can we expect to engage users about them? Achieving mission clarity is an opportunity to work with our users to discover a mission together.
  • Organizational structures with embedded feedback mechanisms that orient all of our efforts toward soliciting, evaluating, and solving our users’ needs in partnership with our users and keep us accountable to those ends. (Steely Library’s reorganization is one attempt at doing so.)
  • Opportunities for dialogue within and among libraries, as well as ongoing training that demystifies marketing and exposes the ways marketing thinking is applicable to all operations and service interactions. Achieving the deeper understanding librarians need to succeed at marketing requires creating opportunities to consider and apply its tenets as we carry out our daily work.
  • An acceptance of frequent and constant change that marketing demands. Administrators should provide skill training, emotional support, and rewards for risk taking. Because librarians create services with users, we need to adapt those services based on our users’ contributions. We also need to draw in and recognize user input and incorporate it into our service planning continuously, which necessitates ongoing change. We may be wrong in how we apply those findings from time to time, but we will never be wrong in being responsive to users.
  • Enthusiasm and mechanisms for collecting evidence about the efficacy of librarians’ work. Data should not limit but free us to focus on where we create the most value and help us reflect honestly on our progress toward achieving our mission.

Admittedly, this list of conditions includes a tinge of idealism, but it is entirely achievable. The most successful organizations can and do address these requirements of a marketing commitment. Achieving them is the difficult work of marketing and the part that is most tempting to overlook when we can more readily hang up a sign or invent a clever campaign. The problem is that, while those things are easier, they are not marketing, and they are not going to secure our ability to do more of our mission.

We librarians need to come to a philosophical truce with marketing in order to take proper advantage of its promises, a truce that is both appropriate and necessary for our work. The only path to acceptance and subsequent success is honest, ongoing, and purposeful conversation with colleagues, users, and stakeholders to ensure we apply what is useful about marketing in a way that does not usurp the very mission we need to celebrate and make real.