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Why Social Media Isn’t Working For Your Library

by on May 1, 2013

I’m hard-pressed to find a profession given to including the post-signature-line inspirational or motivational quotes more than librarians – well, maybe coming in a close second to teachers. At about the same time the seed for this blog entry idea started to germinate, I scrolled a bit past “sincerely” to find the old gem “if you build it, they will come.”* Which struck me as odd, because it has all the structural and mystical makings of a pensively evocative Zen koan, but…after you roll it around your palate a bit…it doesn’t really work. All the ceremonial makings, but none of the actual substance.

Many libraries have approached their social media presence and marketing efforts with seemingly the same mantra. But merely opening an account and just showing up isn’t good enough. While the spirit of social media is casual, spontaneous, and whimsical, the method behind the message is anything but. While we (myself included) may have once scoffed at the notion of managerial positions being created to oversee the organization of social network efforts, the truth is, virtual fronts must be constituted with the same structure and vision that physical ones are.

  •  Commit. Plain and simple. The most common mistake is underestimating the workload and persistent involvement that development and maintenance of an online presence entails. It isn’t “something to do on the side. ” If that’s your attitude toward managing your library’s social media that’s the type of presence you’ll project and following you’ll attract.  Social media management  has to be religion.
  • Too many cooks  spoil the broth, so be sure to consolidate and centralize social media management. Though the appearance and experience of social networking sites is light and casual, the generation and planning is anything but. It has to be systematic, organized, scheduled, and backed-up. Have one person oversee the effort. Put together a formal schedule based on the desired outcome from the specific channel. Focus and channel the role. An optimal scenario would be one person managing Twitter (who thinks and breathes in under 140 characters), one on Facebook, and one overseeing the blog. Too many efforts are stretched through departments – with too many layers of editing or approval. The watered down result is that many are a victim of their own design and would benefit from centralized (and, if for nothing but by virtue of proximity, a more focused) management. Consolidate the organization, quality control, presence, and effectiveness. Simplify.
  • Develop a brand-voice and vernacular. Keep your library language (regarding programs and services, etc.) and phrasing consistent across your social media channels. Have an administrative meeting with the library decision/mission makers and the managers of the media channels and agree upon base language – then trust the individuals to “roll with it.” Too many layers of approval and editing (see #2) slows down the process. Approval and posting should be localized and be nearly instantaneous – especially for shorter Facebook or Twitter posts, a little longer for blogs but nonetheless attentively addressed. The rational for these layers of consent is typically a proactive damage-control tactic, set-up to guard against a potentiallly incriminating verbal faux pas or image-tainting projection. This is understandable  but the precautions too often strangle the life out of what are supposed to be fun ventures. A social media life lived defensively results in safe, flat, life-less brochure-speak by committee. The fix? Streamline the process. Minimize the hands involved. Localize the approval process. And don’t be afraid of letting your writer’s own individual voices represent the library. Social media is about sharing experience, expressing perspective, and having fun. Surely this is the media’s appeal and libraries want to join in on the fun, but end up playing it so safe they come off as square – the social media equivalent of wearing a suit and tie to a beach party – and who wants to be seen with that guy? The only safety net you need is your “delete post” button.
  • Being in possession of  a Facebook account does not automatically  make a person a good library social media manager. Managing and orchestrating the library’s  online presence takes an  understanding and awareness of the organization’s larger vision and an interest in pursuing the library’s purposeful directive. Create a job description for your media managers or posters. Check out online job postings for different companies and organizations that are hiring these positions – what responsibilities and words do they use to describe the expectations and duties of the position? What is their process? Borrow it. Tweak it. Use it to formalize a list of responsibilities and expectations for your library’s social media managers.
  • Evaluate. How you are going to measure or define your success – what will it look like? How will it be manifested or counted? Just because something works in one context (or someone has had great success) doesn’t mean it will universally translate to others, so just as it is important to be inspired and idealistic and experiment, it is important to know what  you hope to achieve and, however tentative or evolving or specifically unknown, know what it will look like. Pick a date. Define and use metrics and analytics – quantified and qualified. Tangible and intangible. 6 months in or 12 months down the line, review them. Are they what you thought? What can you change? What’s working? What isn’t? Be realistic, and be flexible.

* It should be noted that the oft-misquoted line from “Field of Dreams” is actually “if you build it, he will come,” which naturally makes it less aspirational, but also more sensical