At least, you’ve probably seen our parking garage: a striking, 40-foot-tall bookshelf that stretches along an entire city block in downtown Kansas City.
That’s because bloggers love that garage.
We love our Bookshelf, and watching it ride the viral tide is fun. But it’s pretty far off from our real marketing objective: to engage our local community.
Even in the urban area we serve, it’s a challenge to reach customers. Between Google providing lightning-fast reference services and Amazon delivering any book you could want at a keystroke, libraries can come off like informational slow food. Even our potentially best patrons are lured by the fizzy instant gratification of the global social arena.
Even in our hometown, that brobdingnagian bookshelf can be surprisingly hard to notice.
This is why it’s so crucial for us to join the online discussion and show that we’re still relevant. How? Much in the same way that any business or brand engages in social media.
Build a Framework of Relevance
For me, the most effective way to develop a framework of relevance comes down to two things. These things apply whether you’re a multinational athletic shoe brand, a community nonprofit, or an esoteric B2B company. To show your relevance on social media you must:
- Be human: People aren’t on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest to interact with brands. They’re there to cultivate relationships with other users and the community — relationships that will espouse good feelings and a sense of belonging.
- Add value: Before you enter any social medium, figure out how your skills, expertise, and products can best be leveraged to give people a reason to listen to you online. Figure out what they want and give it to them in ways that only you can.
For a public library, where all of our products and services are 100 percent free, the first objective is easier. Additionally, our target customers have a deeply engendered love of libraries held over from childhood. This built-in goodwill makes talking to them easier.
But how to sell?
Our challenge is not only to remind them we’re here (hello giant bookshelf!) but to educate them about our useful resources – not just books and DVDs but also business databases, local history resources, a growing collection of e-books, and diverse, high-quality events for children and adults.
Much of our “educational marketing” is done in the form of producing fresh, engaging blog and social media content designed to raise brand awareness and drive interaction. And that’s trickier than it sounds.
One thing I’ve learned is that even though our products and services are free, broadcasting a steady stream of on-brand messages doesn’t work any better for us than it does for a retail chain or restaurant. You have to join your customers’ conversation on their terms. You have to delight as well as instruct.
Make Engagement Fun
That’s why, in addition to the crucial, daily work of driving discussion on Facebook and sharing interesting links on Twitter, we hold fun contests and promotions to highlight a service or event happening at the library. A few examples:
Reading Refresh: Every Thursday on Facebook, we invite fans to ask for reading recommendations from our readers’ advisory librarians. It’s a simple mechanism – post the last book you liked, and we’ll make a personalized suggestion. The goal is to show that librarians can provide better, more personal service than the web algorithms that power Amazon and Google.
“Booketology” Tournament of Books: During March Madness this year, I worked with a readers’ advisory librarian (the great Kaite Stover, who conducts the Reading Refresh mentioned above) to build a 64-book tournament bracket spanning eight genres. As the NCAA tournament buzzed locally (alas, KU), we invited fans to vote for their favorite books until one title was left standing. More than 900 votes flew in from 400-plus people, and our growth rate increased significantly. In the end, To Kill a Mockingbird was our champion.
Victorian Valentines: When a local professor came to the library to discuss her book about the rise of the newspaper personal ad in 19th century England, we promoted the event by asking people to write their own Victorian personal ads for their favorite characters from literature. The winner received a copy of the book and a box of Christopher Elbow chocolates.
Pin Your Perfect Library: To celebrate National Library Week while simultaneously launching our Pinterest presence, we invited people to create pinboards showing their ideas of the “perfect library.” Though the number of entrants was small (a dozen), word of the contest spread virally, and we got a mention in the local business newspaper for our use of Pinterest.
Tweeting Rainbow: When legendary Reading Rainbow host and Twitter celebrity Levar Burton visited Kansas City, we held a contest for the rights to meet him in person. We asked people to tweet their favorite books from childhood with the hashtag #tweetingrainbow. The five winners whose names we drew from dozens of participants got to meet their hero, and we got to enjoy watching our community talk about reading.
Each of the above contests take our values and our strengths as an institution and adapts them to the new world of social media. I hope that they’ll inspire you to take what’s best about your business and find a way to deliver it to your online community in a way that’s relatable and relevant.
And remember, you don’t need 40-foot-tall books to do it.
Jason Harper exercises both his love for reading and fascination with social media in his gig as web content developer at the Kansas City Public Library. Follow him on Twitter @jasonfharper.