Libraries, Marketing, and Popular Culture

Libraries are not businesses. They do not fare well when the majority of people in a society believe that the “free market” is the only viable economic model. However, there is much of value that libraries can learn from the business community and the concept of marketing is one example. Library leaders have been arguing for decades that librarians need to “get out the message” concerning the value of libraries and what they do—whether the audience is college undergraduates, the general public, or employees served by a special library. But what is effective marketing within the context of libraries?

I would argue that in order to be effective, library marketing must succeed in two things. First, it must capture the attention of the intended audience. Second, after capturing that attention, it must provide useful information about the organization or the services offered. Unfortunately, much library marketing seems to succeed at only one or the other of these objectives. Historically (and currently to a great degree as well), libraries have been successful at producing useful information about their collections and services. Librarians have spared no effort in putting together brochures, websites, research guides and pathfinders, publicity about programming, and more. But in many cases such efforts have fallen short because they do not reach their intended audience. The element of creating interest and capturing the attention of that audience is missing.

Librarians are aware of this problem of failure to reach the intended audience, but in many instances have reacted by over-compensating in the opposite direction. They have gone to such lengths to capture the attention of potential library users that the underlying message, the information they need to convey, is lost or missing. A recent case in point is the very entertaining YouTube video put out by the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library. This was promoted on ACRL’s LinkedIn page as “Now THIS is how to market a library” by UMD Libraries’ Director of Communications. The video is one of many re-creations or parodies of South Korean rapper Psy’s catchy “Gangnam Style” music video that has recently taken the internet by storm. The UMD student who produced it did a great job with the video—you can tell that a lot of planning and work went into its making. The student performers admirably dance and lip-synch to Psy’s hypnotic beat and repetitive lyrics with the McKeldin Library serving as the main setting for their lively re-creation. Yes, the video features a stereotypical librarian—a middle-aged woman with glasses and a stack of books—but even she is hip enough to get in on the fun. The video has certainly been a success by many measures, including having garnered over 100,000 views in its first week of being posted online.

In terms of library marketing, however, the UMD “Gangnam Style” video does not succeed at effectively providing information about the library or its services. The only message that seems to be communicated about the library is: “See how tuned into popular culture we are.” That doesn’t truly rise to the level of effective marketing as I have defined it. This video is the 21st century, Web 2.0 equivalent of students vying to see who can stuff the most people into a phone booth. UMD may have beaten out their peers by producing an internet meme using more people and higher production values, but it is doubtful that any UMD student understands more about their library and its services as a result of watching it.

Using tropes from popular culture to promote the library is a good idea, and it is certainly something that other libraries have attempted with varying degrees of success. Brigham Young University’s Special Collections produced a “Theatrical Trailer” that plays on themes from various popular and cult movies, from the Harry Potter series to Being John Malkovich. The production values are very high and the video effectively communicates that “treasures” of historical value are located in this area of the library. It also counters the stereotype of barriers to access in special collections with the tag line stating that “Anyone can come.” Another example is Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which made a humorous video involving another trope—zombies. In their YouTube video, a young couple is menaced by the undead while out at night. They find safety and the information they need to survive a zombie attack (in a book of all places!) at their public library. The video manages to convey the fact that useful and even obscure information can be found at the library, without hitting the viewer over the head with the message.

Popular culture can be mined effectively for library marketing, and its use is not a strategy that librarians can afford to ignore. Some may feel that they have succeeded in marketing if their audience feels positively about the library or is at least made aware that it exists. That is certainly a necessary step. But grabbing people’s attention by showing that the library is tuned into popular culture is not enough. Librarians need to do more than merely entertain with their attempts at marketing. They need to rise to the next level and do what they do best—clearly communicate useful information to those who need it.

5 comments on “Libraries, Marketing, and Popular Culture

  1. If only the solution to libraries’ marketing shortcomings were so simple as doing a better job of getting attention and talking to people. But that isn’t the answer. It isn’t even marketing. Or, rather, it is only a part of marketing.

    What’s missing is the heart of true marketing — understanding the needs, preferences, lifestyles and other relevant characteristics of the audiences (the market segments) that are important to the library’s mission and viability. What library can list its five most important market segments? What do you know about each segment in terms of what its members need that the library does or could provide?

    That’s another missing piece — translating an in-depth understanding of key market segments into programs and services that address the needs and desires of the library’s market.

    Only then does the library have something “useful” to communicate, which is proof that the library is providing something of value as community members — not just librarians — define value.

    Two examples of libraries that have successfyll based their programming and marketing on market-segmentation research are Topeka and Shawnee County PL in Kansas and the Washington County Cooperative Library Services in Oregon. I hope there are others and that the number is growing.

  2. Thank you both for your suggestions regarding additional resources. Michael, I especially appreciate your input regarding what should indeed be the first step in any attempt at marketing our institutions or services — really understanding the audience(s) we are trying to reach and what their needs are.

  3. In their 2008 article “Social Media Metrics: Making the Case for Making the Effort” Darlene Fichter and Jeff Wisniewski argue for the use of social media by libraries to assess the services and programs they provide, as well as its use as a marketing tool. In making their case, they point out that an institution’s web presence is now also partially dependent upon social voting. Results from search engines have now begun to factor in the popularity of the uploaded content, and both Google and Yahoo now “assign higher rankings based not upon simple presence in social media (though of course that’s necessary and relevant) but on social media voting” (p. 55).

    This is the breakdown of the number of ‘likes’ for the three youtube videos you mentioned, and the fourth from the comments:
    UMD: 1,541 likes.
    ACPL: 29 likes.
    BYU: 77 likes.
    “Book Club”: 46 likes.

    I think it is a small point, though not insignificant, that there can be some benefit to the popular, yet content shallow approach to marketing a library. It may drive the library higher in search engine results or could help to shed a perception of libraries as stuffy and outdated.

    That said, I completely agree with your larger argument as well as the previous commenter. Popular cultural references alone will not be enough to endear the library to its serviced community. Understanding their needs and providing relevant, substantial information is crucial.

  4. Thanks for this information and for your thoughts, Matthew. It’s definitely not insignificant (and more than a small point) that this kind of popular media can indeed have a positive impact for libraries. The gentleman who originally posted it in the ACRL LinkedIn group later cited several positive outcomes the library had as a result of this video, including media attention and a significant increase in “Likes” on their Facebook page (one more avenue for feeding real information to a particular audience). In hindsight, I think my comparison of the video to phone-booth stuffing was over the top. That was the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction from what I was seeing as a somewhat over-the-top promotion of the piece as a model for library marketing. I really wasn’t trying to be dismissive of this effort, which I do think is very well done and is obviously creating a lot of interest. But we do also have to continue to try to find ways to effectively educate people about what the library, and librarians, can do for them.

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