A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Magazine Feature

Reconnecting With Reading

by Robert Rua on May 9, 2013

Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL) is one of nine library systems in Cuyahoga County. It has twenty-eight branches that serve forty-seven communities. Though the population in Cuyahoga County has decreased steadily in recent years, CCPL’s circulation continues to climb. Since 2005, our circulation has increased 35 percent and customer visits have increased 19 percent. CCPL consistently ranks among the ten busiest library systems in the U.S. Last year, we circulated more than 19 million items.

In 2008, we began an ambitious, multifaceted initiative called Reconnect with Reading aimed at boosting reading levels in Cuyahoga County and increasing the circulation of print materials. Over the past two years we have made a tremendous investment in Reconnect with Reading, not only in dollars, but also in staff, marketing, and space in our branches. And it has paid off. Our circulation of print materials has increased 3 percent since 2008. As of December 31, 2009, print materials constituted 57 percent of our overall circulation. Through Reconnect with Reading we have demonstrated our high level of commitment to the core values of public library service—books and reading—and focused our organization efforts toward finding ways to improve customer convenience, increase accessibility, and, ultimately, connect customers with books.

Survey Data

In January 2008, we hired TRIAD Research Group, a Cleveland-based firm, to conduct a telephone survey of adult reading levels in Cuyahoga County. The purpose of the survey was to obtain benchmark measures to compare against data taken from the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) 2007 study To Read or Not to Read, which examined national reading levels. We also sought to identify if and why Cuyahoga County adults were not reading more frequently and what we could do to intervene. We surveyed 860 county residents aged eighteen and older. Our sample was stratified one-half male, one-half female. The survey had an overall margin of error of +/- 3.4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. We asked respondents a variety of questions related to their reading habits. For example:

  • Have you read a book not required for work or school within the past year?
  • How frequently do you read?
  • What type of materials do you prefer to read?
  • How does reading rank among your preferred leisure activities?
  • Where do you normally go to get books?

Overall, 78 percent of our survey respondents indicated they had read a book not required for school or work within the previous year, and 71 percent indicated that they had read a literary work such as a novel, short story, or poetry book. Comparatively speaking, these figures were encouraging–only 57 percent of adults surveyed in the NEA’s national study said they had read a book not required for work or school within the previous year, and only 47 percent said they had read a literary work. However, 34 percent of our respondents identified themselves as “light readers” (they read one to five books in the previous year), and 22 percent reported that they did not read books at all. Notably, 33 percent of our survey respondents said that the reason that they didn’t read more often was because they didn’t know of any good books. This was an area where we felt we could have an immediate impact through a commitment to proactively connect readers with books, particularly through readers’ advisory (RA).

Making Connections

We knew that the success of an undertaking the size and scope of Reconnect with Reading would require the members of our staff who worked most closely with the public to be engaged and enthusiastic about the project. We were fortunate to be able to bring in perhaps the nation’s most recognizable librarian, Nancy Pearl, as a special consultant in 2008. As the best-selling author of the popular RA books Book
Lust
, More Book Lust, and Now Read This, Nancy has successfully connected thousands of readers with their favorite books. Her participation and infectious enthusiasm got our staff excited and helped our initiative build momentum. Throughout the year, Nancy visited CCPL for one week each month to work with our staff on their RA skills.

She conducted workshops in collaboration with our subject specialists, technical services, and collection development staff that focused on best practices for RA and leading book discussion groups, as well as genre study workshops. Participants role-played typical customer interactions and explored techniques for starting book conversations. They were also given tips for giving good RA. For example:

  • Always remember that RA isn’t about the books you think people ought to read. It’s about engaging people and talking with them about the books they enjoy—and really listening to what they have to say.
  • Ask, what was the last great book you read? What did you like about it? The way your customer talks about it will tell you how they found the doorway to that book. Then suggest a book with the same doorway.
  • Look for openings to get a conversation going. For example, display a book at the checkout desk. People will take a look. This is your opening to start a conversation.
  • When you’re giving RA, get out from behind your desk and into the stacks so you can give the person your undivided attention. Don’t let your desk be a barrier between you and your customer.
  • Hand your customers the book as you recommend it. Let them hold it and read the flap. Do this and you’ve broken another barrier—and your customer will be more likely to check out the book.
  • Prepare a small list of “can’t miss” books that you are comfortable recommending to customers.

Nancy also acted as the public face of our initiative, giving live “Pearl’s Picks” presentations focused on mid-list, under-the-radar titles in our branches. We featured these programs on the homepage of our website, and publicized them using targeted e-mails, print advertisements, and radio spots. These programs were very successful and attracted large crowds. Nancy’s involvement significantly raised the profile of Reconnect with Reading in Cuyahoga County. Just as importantly, it galvanized and empowered our staff to proactively give RA in our branches, and to use their own creativity to find new ways to connect our customers with books.

Building a Buzz

For the second phase of Reconnect with Reading, which began in January 2009, we planned and implemented a multifaceted, multimedia advertising campaign to capitalize and build on the momentum Nancy Pearl helped us generate in the previous year. The campaign, which would encompass all of Cuyahoga County and last through the entirety of 2009, would feature Nancy and local celebrities in an effort to generate a buzz in the community. We worked with Flourish, a Cleveland-based ad agency, to contact and photograph the celebrities and to handle contractual arrangements. Their images were also the basis for our annual report, which we used, in part, as a medium to showcase our service priorities and demonstrate the positive impact of our programs and services in the community. Naturally, we titled the report Reconnect with Reading. The campaign would cost $119,508 overall to implement. We presented our plan to our Board of Trustees in September 2008 and received approval to move forward.

What we thought might be the biggest challenge in the early stages of our campaign—finding local celebrities willing to donate their time and images—proved not to be. All of the celebrities we approached were very eager to participate. We selected personalities from a wide range of professions:

  • Regina Brett; newspaper columnist for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer.
  • Mike Brown; head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
  • Josh Cribbs; Cleveland Browns wide receiver.
  • Romona Robinson; lead news anchor for WKYC-TV, the local NBC affiliate.
  • Chef Michael Symon; Food Network star and successful restaurateur.
  • Cleveland Indians Manager Eric Wedge.

Our ads were designed to maximize the visual impact of the celebrity images. We paired each celebrity with a tagline related to their profession (for example, we paired Chef Michael Symon with the tagline, “Things are cooking at the library”) and a list of books recommended by our librarians. We chose books that were available in our catalog, corresponded to the celebrity and/or tagline of each ad (for example, we paired Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs with fiction and nonfiction books about football) and had broad appeal. A different celebrity ad and book list was featured on the homepage of our website each month from January through August.

Implementation

To maintain a continuous public presence and achieve the broadest possible reach/frequency within Cuyahoga County we advertised in a variety of media.

  1. Transit advertisements- We placed digital billboard ads in seven strategic locations throughout Cuyahoga County. Our ads ran for eight seconds per appearance at a frequency of approximately one hundred appearances daily over a period of two months (January through February). In conjunction with the rollout of our billboard ads, we also placed transit ads on buses with routes in our service district. These ads gave our campaign a broad reach during the critical first months of our campaign.
  2. Google ad campaign- From March through May we transitioned to an online advertising campaign. We placed geo-targeted ads on websites within the Google network. Our ads rotated among high-traffic news, TV, and magazine websites with broad-based appeal and niche websites focused on topics relevant to the celebrities/taglines in our campaign (sports, culinary, and book-related sites).
  3. Airport ads- From May to December we ran print advertisements in the busiest concourse in Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
  4. Radio ads- Throughout the year we ran radio ads featuring book reviews by Nancy Pearl that were broadcast on three strategically selected radio stations.
  5. Print ads- We placed monthly full-page, full-color ads in Cleveland Magazine from January to August. We chose to advertise in Cleveland
    Magazine
    because of its broad readership (it has a paid circulation of approximately 45,200 and reaches all of Cuyahoga County) and to maximize the visual impact of our ads (the magazine is printed in full color). From January to December we placed full-page and banner ads in the monthly book review magazine BookPage, which we distributed in our twenty-eight branches.

Evaluation

One of our goals with the Reconnect with Reading campaign was to use new advertising media to extend the reach of our marketing efforts. Prior to the campaign, we had never before utilized digital billboards, transit ads on buses, airport ads, or Google ads in our marketing efforts. By advertising in these media we were able to generate an estimated 37.5 million impressions and, ultimately, reach a far greater number of Cuyahoga County adults than we could have through print and radio advertisements alone. The digital billboards and Google ads also afforded us with unprecedented flexibility. Using the digital billboards we were able to rotate our celebrity ads at seven high traffic locations throughout Cuyahoga County. This allowed us to convey the full scope of our campaign. On one viewing, a person might see two or three of our celebrity ads in the span of a minute.

Google ads afforded us with the opportunity to track our expenditures, impressions, and clickthroughs with great efficiency, allowing us to more
easily evaluate the effectiveness of our campaign and allocate our ads to websites where they would have the most impact. Over three months, our ads ran on a total of 200 websites and generated 7,622,516 impressions. On a cost-per-impression basis these ads provided us with tremendous value. They also helped us reach new audiences and drive traffic to the Reconnect with Reading page on our website.

Expanding Outreach

In conjunction with the second phase of Reconnect with Reading, we also launched several new outreach projects. For example, to coincide with National Poetry Month in April, we launched a Poem of the Month (POTM) project inspired by Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy’s Favorite Poem Project. We created a POTM webpage that features video of a different personality reading his/her favorite poem each month. POTM readers have included authors David Wroblewski, Myla Goldberg, Colson Whitehead, and poet David Kirby, among other notable literary personalities. The videos are accompanied by links to resources, poetry recommendations from our staff, links to poetry books in our catalog, and information on upcoming poetry events. As part of the project, we invited the public to participate in a series of community readings at several of our branches. We recorded the participants as they read their favorite poems and posted podcasts of their readings on our POTM webpage. These programs were well received. We plan to hold another round of readings in 2010.

In June, we entered into a partnership with Good Company, a popular morning program aired by our local NBC affiliate, to promote an online book discussion hosted on our website. Each month from June through November a different CCPL staff member appeared on Good Company to announce the next discussion title. The online book discussion gives our customers the opportunity to post comments and share their thoughts with other readers from all over the county. The discussions are moderated by members of our Reconnect with Reading Advisory Group (RWRAG), a committee whose members meet monthly to exchange ideas and plan our ongoing outreach efforts.

Conclusion

We feel Reconnect with Reading has been a tremendously successful endeavor and we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made thus far. The high visibility of our Reconnect with Reading campaign has raised our profile in the community and demonstrated our commitment to fostering a community of readers. Cuyahoga County residents know they can turnto our trained staff to help them find new favorite books.

As we begin our third year of reconnecting with reading, we have begun building an infrastructure of support resources for our staff. For example, we are planning to create online RA instruction videos that will be accessible through our staff intranet site. These short videos will cover a variety of typical customer interactions and questions, and share tips for good RA. A long-term goal is to get staff at our circulation desks comfortable and adept at giving RA. Ultimately, the future success of Reconnect with Reading, or any other large-scale initiative, will always hinge on staff involvement. We are confident that with the right infrastructure in place and a continued commitment to our core values we can keep this momentum going.



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