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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Should Libraries Engage in Marketing?

Tony Leisner, Adjunct Associate Professor of Service Marketing, J.L.Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA


What is the role of marketing in the library...

Contemporary management practice suggests very strongly that marketing is an essential component of any organizational business plan. In the thirty years that I have been involved in the library industry it has become very clear that the difference between good libraries or good companies and those that do not achieve their goals is the quality of their marketing. I have worked with libraries, arts organizations, private and public companies and government organizations and the fundamentals of business and marketing apply equally to each of them. I am currently working with the Dawson Group and a small town public library and in many ways the objectives are the same.

  1. Each institution wishes to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction.
  2. Each wants to enhance the perceived value of their services.
  3. Both want to insure the survival of their respective institutions.
There is a direct relationship between these two even though some would argue that one is for profit and the other is not for profit. If you examine the reasons for marketing you can see that profit or increased funding resources could be a result but that alone is not a reason to implement marketing. I think it follows that increased customer satisfaction will result in increased willingness to use and pay for the services offered. An enhanced perception of the value of the organization will translate into increased levels of support and that usage and funding is necessary for the continued survival and existence of the institution.

There is a lot that business can learn from the not for profits and social service organizations and they also can learn from business. The goals are similar and many of the techniques are the same. Not for profit organizations are usually services and the primary differences between pure products and services is the role of advertising and public relations. Services are nearly totally dependent upon satisfied customers telling others about the institution where products depend more on advertising.

What is a library?

A library is much more than just a building full of books. That could describe a warehouse or a book distributorship. By using some definitions we can begin to formulate a marketing approach to the library. Let us begin with the physical building itself and then progress through the essential ingredients of a marketing approach. If we were just discussing a product such as automobiles or soap then we could focus on advertising and more commonly thought of marketing tools but the unique nature of a library suggests a more fundamental methodology. A customer is going to evaluate their use of the library based on their personal experience while using library services. Marketing offers the opportunity to address changes in physical facilities, materials and services offered by the library and the quality of professional help which is offered. For these reasons we will restrict this paper to place, product and service.

PLACE is the marketing term for describing where the product or service is offered. In many campus and large city libraries the definition of place used to mean only the physical building where the customer went to get materials. In many countries that is still true but more common today is the concept of place meaning the computer terminal or telephone as the place where information is kept and delivered. This removes many of the restrictions that a building imposes such as hours of openings and days of service as well as distances customers need to travel to reach the building. The downside for librarians is that is reduces their visibility in the process of offering library services and the result could be a reduced perception of the value of the librarian. The wide availability of such services as the INTERNET, Mintel, the wired city of Singapore with computers planned for every household and the abundance of Free nets in major USA cities is an indication of the challenges facing librarians who wish to be more prominent. Today and in the future the PLACE of the library will be anywhere it is needed.

PRODUCT. What is the product of a library? We know for example, the product of British Airways or Air France is the safe transportation of people. We know if we visit a store that the product is what is offered on the shelves. But libraries aren't that simple. If you go to a bank and wish to borrow money it is not the money that is the product. The money is a common commodity which any bank has so the difference is the service of the banker who helps you procure the loan. So it is with a library where it is the librarian that distinguishes a building full of books from a library. It is the service that a librarian provides that leads to the satisfied customer who will speak well of the library. Of course service alone will not compensate for a poor collection of books or journals but neither will excellant books overcome a bad experience with a staff member. Books are not commodities and in fact they are the opposite since each one is unique and different. That is also true of people. Part of the service must be the constant monitoring and analysis of the use and needs of the libraries customers in order to determine what materials are wanted and needed by the customers and to see that they are readily available. Determining the proper balance of product and service is a function of marketing.

SERVICE is the most challenging aspect of marketing in any organization since it is often the interaction with staff that people remember long after they have forgotten which book it involved. Let me give you an example. A customer comes to a library and the material is openly and clearly displayed with good signs and items are easy to find. This customer finds what they wanted and checks it out with only a personal contact at the circulation desk. Because they served them selves their last impression of the library will depend on the contact with the circulation clerk. After all the customer does not actually see all the work that went into making the library so user friendly that they found their book right away. So the only person who has a chance to promote the ease of use and convenience of the library to this customer is a clerk who is most often on the bottom of the pay and training scale. Yet this is the most important person in this customers visit and the one staff member who can "market" the library in a favorable way while getting valuable feed back from a customer. It is the same way with so many of today's super markets where you find the item yourself and a clerk takes your money but says nothing. It is at this point that the customer can be asked if they found exactly what they wanted. If so the excellence of the library is reinforced by that statement and if not there is a chance to bring in a professional librarian to help the customer either find more suitable material or to identify a shortcoming in the collection. In all cases the desired result should be a satisfied customer.

What makes the delivery of service so challenging is the highly personal nature of services. They cannot be mass produced like books. Services cannot be stored up until needed so sometimes demand for service exceeds the ability to supply it on time. Policies and procedures often get in the way of good service. Take time to review library policy manuals and practices to determine which policies might actually be anti customer or exist to impede a smooth transaction. Also look at the work assigned at public desks that interferes with a staff members ability to focus on the needs of the customer. If you want to market your library as user friendly it helps to have staff ready to serve and not appearing too busy to take care of customers. Because it is not possible to always have the correct number of staff on duty it is important that the people who are working be able to drop internal work and focus on the customer.

Marketing your services

One essential role for marketing is to create a series of exchanges. The library exchanges customer satisfaction for support and funding. The University or City government exchanges funding for curriculum related materials or civic pride as examples. Universities and local governments like to point with pride to their great libraries but what is it that makes a great library? Of course a good collection of material is important but most often the measure of a good library is the positive comments made by it's customers when speaking to others. For products like soft drinks, soaps, cars and similar consumer items advertising is the most common way of telling people about their qualities. But for services the most common and most effective method of communication is "word of mouth". That is the act of one satisfied customer telling another person how pleased they were with the service provider. This means that if you are in charge of a Federal or State level government library you want the government officials to either be talking about how pleased they were with the service of the library or you want them to be told that by people they listen to and trust. If they hear it often enough they will become convinced that you are running a great library and that you deserve continued or improved funding. If no one ever says anything either positive or negative then the library will remain out of sight and out of the minds of those who provide funding. Those who fund your library will only think of you when you come for more money to run the library. This is just as true for public libraries, school libraries and even corporation libraries. Because libraries don't actually sell their services and products they rely on third party funding and it is those third parties that must hear about the library from satisfied customers.

About personal professional services

Almost everybody knows where the library building is located in their community. But hardly anyone knows a librarian in their community. Contrast this with other professions such as medical, accounting or law where nearly everyone knows the professional even if they do not know where their office is and you begin to see the challenge. In order to successfully promote the true value of library services and products the librarian must move outside of the library and become a personal advocate for the library. This is public relations, a major component of a marketing plan, and it is creating a personal relationship between the potential customer and the professional service provider much the same as lawyers and other professionals are constantly doing. Librarians usually have to meet educational requirements as high as those of other professions but frequently aren't as well paid. I believe an argument could be made that they simply have not done as good a job of promoting the value of their personal service as have the other professions. This cannot be done by sitting in the library and waiting for customers nor can it be successful if the customers are not talked with when they do visit the library. We will know when we have begun to make progress when we hear people speaking of "my doctor, my lawyer and my librarian". Until they know a librarian this can't happen.

The marketing of libraries will be much more rewarding and effective if it also includes the marketing of librarians and professional library services. After all, a building full of books isn't a library without a librarian.