The Roadmap to Advocacy — Uncovering Your Library’s Support System

Librarianship | Patrick Sweeney| June 28, 2018

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EveryLibrary Political Director Patrick Sweeney provides tips to identify and engage with your library’s supporters, and explains why library advocacy is so important to the future.

True advocacy and activism relies on highly radicalized supporters taking significant actions on a library’s behalf to help push social change. If we want people to take action or make donations, we need to go beyond storytelling to radicalize communities about libraries and drive supporters to take action. Whether that action is putting pressure on our nation’s leaders through voting, signing petitions, attending rallies, or making donations and volunteering, it only happens if we do the work it takes to build huge networks of identified supporters and drive them to action.

The Audience Engagement Roadmap is the method we’ve used to successfully radicalize support for libraries, as well as build EveryLibrary through identifying, cultivating and empowering library supporters in the United States. While it’s built on a ladder of engagement theory of cultivating supporters, it’s strength is in the way it helps activists visualize the methodology and the amount of work that it takes to move a community to become radicalized about supporting a cause. By using this map, we have a stronger understanding of the kinds of audiences that we’re talking to and the kinds of tactics that we should be using to talk to them. The goal is to move as many people as possible from the first audience to the last audience.


The reason this roadmap is so useful and important is because various tactics are only effective when the audience is ready to engage with that specific kind of tactic. For example, direct mail or robo-calls just aren’t effective unless they go to a very engaged audience of supporters and the sender or caller has strong data about the message that the audience wants to hear. Other communication channels, like social media, are very effective at sharing stories and good for the initial education of early and unengaged audiences of potential supporters. We can take the data about our initial audience that we’ve collected along the roadmap and use it to make more informed decisions about the effectiveness of using canvassing, or to determine if the cost of canvassing is prohibitively expensive because we don’t have a targeted or well-educated audience. This audience engagement roadmap allows us to plan for those issues throughout the campaign and use the right tactics at the right time for the right audience.

To begin a roadmap, we start with some data to build our audience. This can be very high-level data from political pollsters or it can be circumstantial. We can create these audiences by simply sitting down and drafting a power map or brainstorming people we know. Given the right permissions, we can also create audiences from our ILS or from social media sources like Facebook or the Acxiom data guru. No matter how we create this audience, the important thing to remember is what brings them all together. What traits do they all carry that we want to use to engage them? It’s important to write something about this group’s common traits and why you chose them. What makes them pre-disposed to potentially becoming engaged supporters? Sometimes as campaigns go on, it’s easy to stray away from the messaging and having this understanding of your audience in the beginning will help you stay on track.

Once you have the audience, you can begin to move them through the roadmap. Our goal is to educate the audience about our issues. Our assumption for any large audience is that they’re uneducated on the issues we want to talk to them about, so we communicate stories of impact and success through inexpensive marketing tactics, including social media.

After you’ve reached this audience numerous times with stories of impact and messages, they’re now an educated audience. They haven’t taken any action yet, but they’re more likely to have a base of understanding. Your next step is to make a small ask that helps you identify them as supporters. This means something quick and easy, such as “liking” your library’s Facebook page, signing up for an email list, or maybe even signing a petition.

Once you’ve run this campaign to identify supporters, you’ll have moved a portion of the audience from unaware, to aware, to observers, and you’ll have an identified audience of known supporters to work with. Remember that not everyone will move over and that’s okay. If you get 25-50 percent of the audience to move up this far, you’re doing great. This identified audience of supporters will be your base of activity for building political action.

True advocacy and activism relies on highly radicalized supporters taking significant actions on a library’s behalf to help push social change. 

The next task is to build a greater understanding of these supporters. You want to open up a dialogue with them and find out what issues they’re concerned about. You can do this through a simple survey or polling. You can meet with them one on one or conduct focus groups. You can do it more silently by looking at their demographics on Facebook or appending data to their profiles from third party sellers like L2 or Accurate Append.

By getting data back about supporters, we’re left with a data-enhanced, educated audience of known supporters. We know what these people truly care about and we know why they care about libraries. Now we need to build more structure around the message that we’re delivering and attach their beliefs to the values of the library. You might even wind up segmenting this audience more according to their beliefs and values to accomplish this in a more effective way.

Our penultimate task is to encourage them to publicly declare their support for libraries or to make them feel as though they’re part of a community of library supporters. One of the easiest ways is to ask them to publicly display a token such as a yard sign, a button, a bumper sticker, or even something digital like a social media badge, banner or filter.  The reason this is so important is because once someone publicly declares support for an issue, cause, or candidate, it becomes more difficult for the opposition to change their mind.

Let me point out that we still haven’t asked for resources from our audience. We haven’t asked them to vote for us, donate, volunteer, or do anything else up to this point. We’re still surfacing our campaign. All of this is work that needs to get done before you even ask them for money or time. That’s why a campaign absolutely must start years before you go the polls, or start to run a capital campaign. If you wait to start this process until you announce to the public that you need something from them, it’s far too late. 

One of the biggest issues I run into while working with libraries on political action is that so many library organizations don’t understand the amount of work it takes to truly build a wide network of real support and political power in a community. We’re taught in library school and in advocacy training sessions that if we just tell good stories about the library, then the public will support it. But this type of thinking is entirely dependent upon the goodwill of those in power. It depends on the belief that people will just support and pay for good things if they hear about them. As a best practice, it’s important to go above and beyond, and make sure your library’s story is heard.

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Patrick Sweeney
Political Director, EveryLibrary

Patrick “P.C.” Sweeney is co-author of “Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding.” He is the former Administrative Librarian of the Sunnyvale (CA) Public Library and he currently works as the Political Director for EveryLibrary, the nation’s first and only national Political Action Committee for Libraries and is a lecturer on libraries and politics at the San Jose State University iSchool.  He can be found online as PC Sweeney.

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