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Steering With Your Compass
Market With Your Mission and Your Users
As in the Steely Library example, we need to step back from the tactical marketing considerations—such as how we get the word out about something—in order to tend to strategic considerations first. With limited time and resources, every marketing-related action we take should result in an intentional impact to deliver offerings with meaning and value to people. In fact, it is the cumulative effect of everyday actions across all of our touchpoints—not the big, splashy, one-off promotions—that adds up to make the most significant marketing impacts in users’ minds. Therefore, there is a risk to piloting too many scattershot communications to see if a few people respond (in the style of Marketing 1.0 thinking). In worst-case scenarios, that kind of hodgepodge marketing damages libraries’ reputations among users, as it presents a disjointed, incoherent view of who they are. Instead, we need to do some hard work building our missions—the bedrock of our offerings—with help from our users in order to devise the mission-related imperatives that we carry in all interactions and communications with users.
Too many “marketing” planning meetings lead to dead ends or indeterminate results because there is no agreement on who we should focus our efforts on, the purpose of those efforts, and how we would determine success. Teams I have worked on are good at identifying large groups that we want to inform (“We want students to know about our online chat service!”) but not so good at honing in on important details like specific user groups to target, why those groups should care about a service, how a service fits into their lives, and importantly, articulating how these actions support a greater mission. And many teams forget to discuss whether the service is helpful to begin with!
To help understand the importance of mission-driven marketing, consider how it plays out in the corporate world. Starbucks, for example, is generally recognized for its savvy marketing, but it faced serious challenges to its identity during the Great Recession, starting in December 2007. After returning as Starbucks’s CEO in early 2008, Howard Schultz complained that the company had expanded the number of stores too broadly at the expense of its key core values—the quality of its coffee and in-store experience. As stores proliferated, coffee quality suffered, service became erratic and impersonal, and a new expansive food menu clouded the company’s value proposition (and, much to Schultz’s chagrin, created odors that competed with the coffee’s aroma). While these strategies yielded near-term profits that satisfied shareholders for a while, they also weakened the sense of mission and values that would sustain the company long-term. And in fact, there was pressure on stock prices as the accumulation of corners cut cascaded down to the front lines. As Schultz realized, tactics need to be reconciled with ethos; otherwise, Starbucks would risk undermining what was truly foundational and important to the organization. As he insightfully summed it up in his autobiographical book Onward, “Every brand has inherent nuances that, if compromised, will eat away at its equity regardless of short-term returns” (Schultz & Gordon, 2012, p. 175).
Implicit in Schultz’s observation, and important for us to recognize, is that an organization must know what it stands for and stay true to its mission. Though we share high-level common values, every library fills a particular niche informed by the special needs of their stakeholders. Some libraries specialize in the support of cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research, others concentrate on the preservation and digitization of rare materials, while still others focus on providing technical equipment and expertise necessary for specialized research. A primary concern for each library is to discover, along with its users, the “inherent nuances” that set it apart from others in users’ minds. We should safeguard and emphasize these nuances in our marketing plans or else we are in danger of fading into an undifferentiated crowd of competitors. Marketing should never entice us to shortchange those nuances; rather, it should give us the means to leverage them.
Like Schultz, successful marketing leaders today credit tending to mission above all as the secret to their accomplishments. A recent Forbes article reported on this year’s American Marketing Association New York’s marketing Hall of Famers—four honorees with experience working for global brands like P&G and IBM, who agree that adhering to sound mission and values is what differentiates marketplace winners from the rest. These distinguished honorees ascribe to a Marketing 3.0–like philosophy in that they recognize the importance of connecting their missions with their customers on an emotional level. As the author notes,
They share the awareness that, in order to remain relevant—to keep mattering to people—organizations must have a guiding purpose above and beyond what they do or sell; organizations must remain true to their values, hold fast to their DNA; and organizations must be able to tell their stories in a compelling and authentic way through the lens of their purpose. (Adamson, 2017, para. 4)
Far from an esoteric exercise, making a mission work in practice is a fraught but integral aspect of library marketing. We are keenly aware of this challenge in library spheres as we work, and in some cases struggle, to adapt our mission in a context of information abundance and rapid technological advances. One example that has evoked strong opinions about libraries’ futures is Arizona State University’s (ASU) Hayden Library renovation. In recognition of the declining use of print books and simultaneous increase in electronic resource and space demands, ASU’s University Librarian James O’Donnell is looking to the retail sector and Amazon specifically for innovative models of library resource delivery, including the use of drones and novel ways to showcase library materials by exhibiting them on a rotating basis and retaining only a small selection of books on site. O’Donnell argues that an online resource-oriented library “means changing your service model, your staffing structure and organization” (Straumsheim, 2017, para. 7). Dramatic shifts like this force librarians to ask questions like, Which of these choices bolster our mission, and which ones weaken it? Which decisions illuminate our inherent nuances, and which put them and our values at risk? For some, ASU’s move represents an unwelcome displacement of library values for industry ones, evidenced by ASU librarians’ choice of the term “fulfillment center” to describe its off-site storage facility. Others view the project as a logical necessity in adapting to modern realities and space pressures.
Addressing which strategies to pursue as extensions of a library’s inviolable character and deciding which elements should give way to the needs of today and tomorrow is exceptionally difficult. On the one hand, we are obligated to be responsive to the expressed and implied needs of our users, but on the other, we have to guard against sacrificing our values to the whims of frivolous fads or shortsighted pressures.
One way to find the right mix of responsiveness and mission fidelity is by co-stewarding our mission with our users. Here too marketing knowledge can be of help to librarians.
To understand why this librarian-user partnership is important, it is helpful to know some marketing realities when it comes to the nature of services like the ones libraries provide. Services are a type of product, but they are different in important respects from physical products like cars and microchips. Library services are not tangible goods. They cannot be touched, eaten, or packaged. While one can see evidence of a service in the form of brochures, personal interactions, and so on, the service itself is invisible. In addition, marketers point out that services are also inseparable (Coldren, 2006, para. 3), meaning that they are “consumed” at the same moment they are created. Consider, for example, a reference transaction. Librarians do not have a ready supply of answers sitting on shelves to hand out to users. Instead, we conduct reference interviews to ascertain users’ needs and tailor our responses to specific requests through conversations and participation with users.
These defining characteristics demonstrate that users themselves are part of the invisible structure of the very services we make. There is simply no way to create a service for users. By definition, we can only create services with users. And the perceived value and quality of those services exist only in users’ minds, well beyond librarians’ control. What we can choose, however, is to acknowledge this interrelationship and purposefully make opportunities to increase users’ involvement at all stages of our service development to improve the chances that library services will resonate with them. Finding these opportunities is an area ripe for marketing innovation in libraries.
Take as one example patron-driven acquisitions (PDA). PDA is an approach to collection-building where users trigger the purchase of materials on demand, either directly by making a request for the purchase of a print item or automatically by using an electronic item a predetermined number of times. In effect, PDA opens up the once-closed acquisition ecosystem to enable users to have a direct say in what materials libraries buy. Furthermore, this user involvement is in alignment with libraries’ mission of matching people with needed information.
Blindly pursuing our mission without regard for those who help us define, clarify, hone, and achieve it opens libraries up to problems of mission ambiguity and, consequently, irrelevance. We see inklings of this danger in some recent analyses. Ithaka S+R’s most recent U.S. Library Survey of academic library directors provides some indications of library–stakeholder disconnects that may be the result of not partnering with our end users to calibrate our mission and purpose as well as we could. These results include the following findings:
- Three-quarters of library directors surveyed rated their library’s role as a resource archive as important, while just 58% of them thought their supervisors agreed (Wolff, 2017, p. 13).
- Faculty members rated the role of buying needed resources as the library’s most important function, while library directors cited their role in supporting undergraduate research as most important (p. 14).
- Only half of directors reported having clear collections strategies that drove decision making, and less than half reported that their library had a clear, broadly accepted vision on campus for the use of its spaces (p. 44).
In light of these gaps, it may not be surprising that of the 13 sources respondents were asked to rank in this survey, library directors ranked the top three influencers of their library’s strategic priorities as themselves, librarians/professional staff, and the provost/chief academic officer. Student groups and influential faculty were ranked sixth and eighth, respectively (p. 19).
A white paper by McGraw-Hill Education (2016) unearthed similar evidence of disconnects in its survey of librarians and faculty, concluding, “There is misalignment in what makes libraries most useful, and therefore misalignment in how their success should be measured and how budgets should be allocated” (p. 1). For instance, the study found that a whopping 88% of faculty felt the library’s primary purpose was offering “access to information,” whereas only 43% of librarians responded the same (p. 3). Despite the overall finding that faculty believe libraries effectively meet their communities’ needs, it is concerning that librarians must overcome such a towering marketing hurdle to meaningfully connect with faculty who have very different ideas about the basic function of libraries.
Gaps like these are precisely why focusing on promotion alone falls flat. Without a shared understanding and mental model about what a library is and does, communication with stakeholders is impossible. It is not that one perspective is more valid than the other but that missions need to be tended to collaboratively with users via ongoing dialogue, partnership, and feedback in order to have a shared understanding to base a relationship upon. No amount of “push” communications like posters, e-mails, or newsletters can do this work.