A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Changing Perceptions

by Audra Caplan on April 26, 2013

Marketing is a concept that is certainly not new to most public library staff. We are aware of the importance of marketing our services and many of us have put together marketing plans and campaigns to promote our libraries. A number of public library systems in the United States have dedicated marketing departments and even the smallest libraries have put together sophisticated campaigns.

At the Harford County (Md.) Public Library, we have a marketing department and use all of the tools at our disposal, both print and online, to get the word out about our services, programs, and special initiatives. Even with all of these resources and a focus on marketing I am still amazed at the feedback I receive when I speak to local community and civic groups. Many people will talk with me afterwards and say that they never knew about our online databases, that we have downloadable e-books and audiobooks, or that we offered numerous programs for all ages other than the summer reading program. What this indicates to me is that even though our library system and staff are very visible in the community, many of our potential users are still unaware of our services. We must continue to find new and innovative ways to get the word out about all we have to offer. Public libraries have come a long way in their quest to be viewed as an essential service but we still have much farther to go. This is more imperative now with the threat of budget reductions hanging over all of our heads.

What is marketing? A traditional definition is: “Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create instances that satisfy individual and organizational objectives.”1 I prefer this less standard definition: “Marketing is every bit of contact your company has with anyone in the outside world. . . . Marketing includes your idea for your brand, your service, your attitude, and the passion you bring to your business.”2 Marketing is also about changing perceptions—we need to help our customers expand their perception of our services beyond that of a stereotypical public library and become aware of the rich and varied resources that a modern library provides.

In order to make the best use of limited money and staff time, it is important to create a marketing plan—one that is based on strategic-plan goals and the library’s objectives, mission, vision, and values. A good way to begin is to do an analysis to be sure that you are providing the products your customers actually want. This involves market research that needs to be targeted to the specific groups you are trying to reach. With that in place you can identify the services you already have that meet these needs and develop new ones to address gaps. This also helps to identify the services that your customers do not want. Of course, constant review of library services is something we do routinely.

Most of the literature suggests that there are four Ps to a marketing plan. The following explanations come from the Ohio Library Council:3

  1. Product—library services available to clients such as interlibrary loan, reference, children’s programming, or web access.
  2. Price of service—includes direct and indirect costs to produce and deliver the product, or actual fees, if any.
  3. Place—considers delivery and distribution of the products and services, availability, and accessibility.
  4. Promotion—how libraries let users know what products are available.

What are the latest trends in marketing? We all know how important it is to use the web and social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube because of the wide range of audiences you can reach through these channels at no cost. Plus they provide immediate feedback from your current and potential customers.

In a Library Journal article, Alison Circle lists thirteen trends to watch.4 Some of the most interesting to me are:

  • Value—Businesses and organizations are turning key information and knowledge into actions that generate an enhanced customer relationship. Libraries need to define their “value proposition”— the key services that customers want most, particularly those that are not available elsewhere.
  • Mobile marketing—Many of us have created, or are starting to create, apps and mobile-friendly versions of our library websites. This is a primary way to reach customers in a time when there are more mobile phones than land-line subscribers. Fewer and fewer of our customers are using the telephone or e-mail as the preferred means of communication. It is becoming increasingly the norm to spend more time retrieving information and communicating with friends using text messaging and social networking sites on mobile devices. By interacting with our users and delivering service through these channels, we will be viewed as relevant, convenient, and, consequently, valuable to them.
  • Online reputation management— Circle suggests that we need to spend as much time managing our online brands as we do our physical ones. We
    need to be careful that our online brand doesn’t fall out of sync with offline marketing messages. We must project a consistent, targeted message. This is increasingly challenging in light of the ease with which users can post comment and commentary about us through a variety of online tools. We cannot control what is posted. Rather, we must be vigilant in maintaining an awareness of what is said about us so that we can participate in those
    discussions and be sure that our message is communicated. Circle recommends Monitor This and Google Alerts as powerful tools to gain an awareness of what our users think of us.
  • Art of being real—People are looking for real people who speak from the heart. Circle also refers to this as the trust economy and suggests that libraries have thisin spades. We have many stories to tell that will illustrate our value to customers and we should be “shouting these stories from the rooftops.”5
  • Micromarketing—This concept is based on “customer demographics, psychographics, and lifestyle behaviors.”6 Public libraries offer a wide range of services and products. With an expanding and increasingly diverse user group, we cannot assume that all users will find all of our services valuable. We need to focus on and address segments of our customer base, with targeted messages about the most useful services for them.
  • Speed—Circle says “Marketing is all about asking customers what they want, then giving it to them. They want it easy and fast.”7 We should be looking for ways to streamline all of our service delivery.
  • Emotional connection—Rather than focusing on delivering content, libraries must develop a service relationship with customers. We need to make a personal connection and that begins by providing exceptional customer service.

It is worth repeating: The most essential component of good marketing is providing excellent customer service. A wonderful, splashy, and convincing campaign will fall flat if we don’t back it up with substance. We may tell our customers that we have the materials they want, electronic resources that are easy to use, and welcoming learning environments. Nevertheless, if we do not follow through on those promises then many customers who were drawn in by our marketing campaign will not come back again. Everything that we do inside and outside the building is marketing. Whether the campaign is grand or simple, quality service will guarantee that we reap the greatest reward.

This issue of Public Libraries includes articles that give more detailed guidance on key concepts. You will read about marketing to your staff, building brands, and extracting the maximum value from customer surveys. All of these are valuable tools in successful marketing of library services.


  1. PRWeb, “Marketing the Library: Public Relations/Marketing,” accessed Oct. 19, 2010, http://star61451.tripod.com/marketingthelibrary/id10.html.
  2. Jay Conrad Levinson, Guerilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits From Your Small Business, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 3.
  3. Ohio Library Council, “Library Products: Introduction to Marketing the Library Module 3,” accessed Oct. 19, 2010, www.olc.org/marketing/3intro.htm.
  4. Alison Circle, “Marketing Trends to Watch,” Library Journal, accessed Oct.19, 2010, www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6698259.html.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.