As libraries evolve from pillars of shhh and books, to vibrant, engaged centers of information, education and community, the need for strategic marketing and public relations has become clear. Since implementing a more deliberate focus on marketing and communications in 2018, Anchorage Public Library has seen direct results in the following areas:

  • Increased support from library champions. These members of the community are quick to lend their time, voice and financial resources to support the library when we ask. APL established regular communication via social media, e-mail and a cohesive brand strategy that keeps us front and forward in patrons’ minds. We make it easy for our patrons to answer the call when we ask.
  • Improved connection between community partners and city departments. A marketing strategy with clear goals, themes and performance metrics makes it easy for partners to amplify library messaging or incorporate our goals into their own campaigns. We recently completed a successful co-marketing campaign for the launch of a new transit bus route to our main library location.

Most library staff didn’t get into the business of libraries to be marketers. While it’s helpful to have a dedicated marketing professional in your library system, librarians shouldn’t be afraid to take on this task. The “trick” is to remember marketing, advertising and public relations are a skill set just like library science. It can be overwhelming to find the best way to learn so I recommend five tips:

  • Get a brand book and stick with it. Keeping it simple including a small number of standard colors, fonts and logos makes it easier for any staff member to support marketing efforts whether it’s making a social media graphic or an in-house flyer.
  • Consider your audience. Libraries may serve everyone, but you can’t successfully market to everyone all the time. Learning about the demographics is an important part of marketing. When you consider a new campaign think about exactly who you’re targeting. A fun way to do this is picture what that person looks like when they walk into the library. How old are they? Where did they just come from and where are they going to after their visit? Do they have internet access or are they coming to the library to be connected? Smaller is better. You can always target a different group next time.
  • Time is money. While many aspects of public relations seem “free” (social media, earned media) staff time is still a limited commodity.  Do less things well vs trying to be everywhere at once.
  • Hop on trends but stay on mission. Sea shanties and dance challenges are fun to watch, but how do they relate to the library? Tying in items from your collection help make it library relevant but still fun.

Find trusted peers and experts. Find a library whose campaigns and strategies you love and reach out to them. Join groups like Urban Libraries Council or Library Marketing Conference. Look to traditional marketing experts and then adapt those tactics to library land. Retail marketers and non-profits have been at the public relations game longer than libraries. Some of my favorites include Social Media Examiner, American Marketing Association, AdWeek and Public Relations Society of America

The “trick” is to remember marketing, advertising and public relations are a skill set just like library science

Once APL was firing on all cylinders with renewed marketing energy, we knew we wanted to shoot for the moon and try for a John Cotton Dana Award. With that in mind we approached three larger scale campaigns with the framework of the JCD application as our base, so when it came time to apply, we had the data and creative samples at the ready.

“Books Get Our Vote” was chosen as our submission project because it incorporated so many types of public relations and had the most defined metrics.

It started with two of Alaska’s statewide and local challenges, following national trends — low reading scores in elementary school students and low voter turnout. We believed by creating something that combined literacy and voter education we would increase an interest in reading and civic participation with one joint program. 

With a population of about 300,000 people and municipal land encompassing an area roughly equal in size to the entire state of Delaware, Anchorage, is a sprawling city home to moose, bears and humans alike. As the largest library system in the state, APL often leads as a hub for statewide initiatives and programs that can address both municipal and statewide issues. 

We surveyed possible partner libraries throughout the state to gage interest level, as well as their needs for a voter participation literacy program. Using those results, we worked to design a program where kids under 18 would vote for a book character for president. 

We further defined our target audience to grades 1-6 and parents/ caregivers of voting age. The program metrics and original goals then had to be adjusted due to COVID-19. For statewide participation, our revised goal was to have a presence in at least 25 Alaskan communities and distribute 10,000 ballots. Within the community of Anchorage, we hoped school libraries would distribute at least 20 percent of our materials with library buildings picking up the remainder. The goal was to increase our presence as a trusted brand and community partner. 

The initial plan was to set up ballot boxes inside of library locations and school libraries. COVID forced us to think outside the library to distribute materials by activity packets, relying more heavily on community partners. We then had to hope that people engaged with the program and returned them. This meant we also had to step up our marketing efforts since we would not have built in in building traffic

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To market the program, libraries released information on multiple channels both locally and statewide. Additional public facing marketing efforts focused on the active voting window and included: 

  • Special voting/civics themed Facebook Live virtual storytime led by library staff 
  • Recorded YouTube suffrage themed storytime led by a volunteer dressed as a suffragette 
  • Extended Facebook Event to allow for multiple posting to the targeted program audience without spamming full library audience.
  • Local celebrities making videos endorsing candidates. These videos were edited to include book information and voting directions. (Facebook) 
  • Social media posts from partner school librarians (Facebook/Instagram/Twitter) 
  • Social media posts from participating libraries (Facebook/Instagram) 
  • Posters in open libraries or windows of closed libraries 
  • Distribution of materials through school libraries and afterschool providers 

For a program conducted while the schools and libraries were all physically closed and the city was in a version of lock down, this was remarkably successful. 

We ended with 27 libraries participating, six of those were anchorage community groups with 21 additional Alaskan communities represented. We distributed materials for voting for 7,920 participants. While we did not set a goal for the “return rate” we wanted, we were quite pleased to receive 1,081 ballots back.

When we began planning this program and marketing initiative, we were excited about the possibilities of spreading awareness of the library, fantastic children’s literature and voting. We were thrilled to see many social media posts of children proudly casting their ballots at home and in socially distanced voting set ups. Additionally, getting other people to help spread the library’s marketing for free was the greatest success of all. 

APL will be using our grant money for a 2022 re-engagement campaign targeting youth with an emphasis on coming back to library buildings after more than two years of COVID- impacted service, including more than a year of closed buildings.

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Learn more about the John Cotton Dana Awards and how to apply.