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Keeping It Real

Let Your Metrics Be Your Guide

In library marketing, metrics should keep us honest about how well we are achieving our missions within the context of our available resources. Metrics are the guideposts needed to tell us when we are being inefficient or ineffective for our stakeholders so we can make immediate corrections and to identify what is working well that we should retain or emphasize. Librarians need to build these warning signals into marketing planning in the form of measurements and feedback that can keep activities finely tuned to produce demonstrable benefits for users.

Disney movie fans may remember the sage advice given to Pinocchio as he set out to make his way in the world: Let your conscience be your guide. In a similar way, metrics are a means of keeping our activities aligned with our mission, which we should in turn align with user needs. When marketing, it is tempting to get caught up in doing stuff like designing T-shirts, convening workshops, providing consultations, setting up event booths, publishing videos, and tweeting photos. Ultimately, while these activities feel productive, they have no significance outside of how they help or hinder users, nurture our mutual relationship, and further our mission. We need other measurements to help us know if we are hitting the mark.

Librarians deeply feel the importance of this assessment imperative in a general sense. Consider the Association of College and Research Libraries’ 2015 Environmental Scan of the academic landscape, which states, “With higher education under increased scrutiny to demonstrate the value of a post-­secondary degree, it is incumbent upon academic libraries and librarians to document and communicate the Library’s value in supporting the core mission of the institution” (ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee, 2015, p. 23). It is the value to stakeholders, not the quantity and quality of activities, that counts.

In libraries, just like in marketing, assessment is important but not always straightforward. There is a well-­known saying in the advertising world that summarizes this conundrum: “Half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half” (Wanamaker, 1999, para. 1). In business, marketers rely on measurements that are financial in nature, but they too need to demonstrate that their work bolsters the organization’s core objectives and financial goals, as well as healthy relationships with customers.

Librarians are no strangers to assessment, and discourse in this area is increasingly robust.[2] But when we think about how to assess our marketing effectiveness in particular, we would do well to consider business approaches that could inspire novel ways for us to evaluate our work. Translating metrics from businesses to libraries requires a bit of effort, given that we do not have dollar figures to benchmark against. Compared to librarians, marketers do a better job of thinking about the totality of the service relationship—­from the customer and organization perspectives—­to determine if the benefits achieved are worth the expenditures of time, money, and effort from all parties. As lean organizations, libraries should pay particular attention to the cost-­benefit of its marketing by monitoring the degree of benefit users receive relative to the cost of serving those users.

One example of librarians doing just that is an evaluation conducted by librarians at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ) as they deftly determined whether they should invest in creating and maintaining library-­specific social media channels. To do so, they questioned the merits of setting up these channels despite their prevalence among library peers. In textbook marketing fashion, librarians evaluated their college’s mission statement, other campus social media efforts, their staffing capacity, and library goals and then surveyed undergraduate students about their social media use. As a result, they declined to establish these channels, opting instead to contribute to existing ones. According to their report,

While the Library strives to keep up with ever changing technology, decisions need to be made that best meet the needs of the majority of the TCNJ community. For now, developing library-­specific social media channels has been put aside so the Library’s efforts can stay focused on moving forward in other directions. Projects that are more highly demanded on campus, such as the Library’s institutional repository and digital archive need to take priority. (Cowell, 2017, para. 27)

In essence, TCNJ librarians estimated their expected return on investment (ROI) and concluded that this initiative was not a sufficiently impactful use of scarce resources.

The two primary measures necessary to make these calculations are benefits and costs for both the library and the user. Users, not librarians, determine what those benefits are. Assessments, therefore, need to probe into users’ perceptions. They should identify what users want to accomplish in terms of concrete goals (e.g., writing a paper, obtaining a grant) and emotional goals (e.g., reduced stress, connecting with peers). We can glean these insights by doing needs assessments and surveys and reviewing transactional data. As part of our investigation, we should inquire about the costs users must “pay” to achieve these benefits and whether those costs are merited. Those costs could take the form of stress level, time, feelings of uncertainty, and so on. Our measures should question user satisfaction and whether the services received seem appropriate for the price tag.

Libraries too should recognize that they have goals and costs and that not all well-­intentioned initiatives are profitable enough to pursue, as was the case for TCNJ librarians. In addition, this kind of analysis could help us lower our costs by prompting us to find ways to extend our services to more users with similar needs. To do so, librarians should once again consider their missions and strategic imperatives and translate those imperatives to the measures being collected. If a librarian is seeking to expand the use of scholarly materials and devoting marketing energy toward that end, he or she needs some data points that would, at minimum, help triangulate whether those actions are positively or negatively affecting that outcome. Such measures range from usage statistics to user surveys and personal interviews. Likewise, if a library is promoting scholarly resources on its website, librarians should embed tracking tools to ascertain click-­through rates and downloads.

Librarians may think of costs in ways similar to how marketers view them. Marketers, for example, consider the cost of acquiring new customers versus serving existing ones better. Since acquiring new customers is more expensive, think about how to balance your efforts to reach nonusers with more fully serving your regular users. Marketers also size their market to determine how many people they can reasonably expect to reach. If, as in this extreme example, a librarian wants to create an instructional program for all senior, first-­generation, female student-­athletes who are also science majors, the ROI could be quite low, so he or she should consider expanding the group to help others who share common underlying needs.