Billboards sell everything from soda to lawyers to hotels so why not sell libraries that way? The Wilmington Memorial Library in Massachusetts gave it a try by renting a billboard for the month of November. I’ve never seen a billboard advertising a library, but I see billboards advertising other nonprofits pretty regularly around Indianapolis. The most recent campaign that caught my eye is a local hospital promoting free information about the Affordable Care Act. How many people driving on that same interstate noticed that sign and thought, “Wow, I never thought to call the hospital for help signing up for insurance?” If my personal reaction to billboard advertising is any indication, I’d guess that this type of promotion could be very effective in reaching huge numbers of people.
Given the high visibility of billboards, I imagine public libraries don’t use them for advertising because the funding simply isn’t there. I couldn’t find anything in the library literature about marketing campaigns with billboards and the Wilmington Memorial Library doesn’t know of any other libraries in Massachusetts trying it. Most libraries are lucky to even have a marketing or PR department.
Even if our Friends of the Library were paying for the advertising, there is always a danger that a group of patrons could become angered and start a campaign blasting the library for using tax payer funding for expensive advertising. Others will of course simply state that there are better uses of that money ($2,000/month for Wilmington). But then again, advertising could be the best use of library funds. We spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on collections, but complain that our circulation is low and program attendance is small.
As Wilmington Marketing Librarian Joanna Breen said, “It’s really easy to advertise to the people who are already coming in.” We need to reach the population who doesn’t know how great the library is—and that population isn’t watching our Facebook pages or websites for news and events. We need those people to come in and use our collection and attend our programs.
Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project  found that 91 percent of respondents said libraries are important to their communities, but 31 percent said they knew not much or nothing at all about what the libraries had to offer. This is a huge problem that libraries need to address. Our messages, for the most part, fall on the same ears that are in the 69% who already know what the library is doing.
Clearly we need to reach that 31 percent in untraditional ways, even if it’s costly. Why not start with billboards?