Library Marketing in the “Post-COVID” Era
December 1, 2022
Kimberly Shotick, Northern Illinois University
While the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on, killing more than 350 people each day in the U.S. (CDC), outcomes have greatly improved, and universities are mostly “back-to-normal.” However, the work that we do has been forever changed by the pandemic, and that includes the work of library marketing. When Stephanie Espinosa Villamor and I set out to write Practical Marketing for the Academic Library, there were no emergency closures or contactless book pick-ups. However, that changed in March of 2020, and our book’s production was delayed again and again due to supply chain shortages, while we witnessed the changes take place in real-time. Not much, and yet so much, has changed. What I mean by that is, the principles of library marketing remain the same. But our offerings (the services, resources, and programs that we market) have changed, and so have our audiences’ needs and preferences. While the literature on these changes is still emerging, we can see some noticeable shifts.
The two peer-reviewed library marketing journals are Marketing Libraries Journal and the Journal of Library Outreach & Engagement, the latter of which emerged in late 2020 and for which I serve as a member of the editorial board (full disclosure). By looking at the past two years of scholarship in the journals along with the presentations from the Library Marketing and Communications Conference (LMCC), we can learn how libraries have responded to the past two years of disruption through their marketing efforts. They give us a picture of the challenges libraries faced in the wake of COVID-19, and how they turned a crisis into an opportunity. In fact, in 2021 there was a conference track dedicated to the “Lessons and Triumphs from the COVID-19 Pandemic” (LMCC). And while the pandemic was not only disruptive, but devastating to our libraries and communities, there is much to learn from the crisis.
First, what has remained the same. The principles of library marketing come from those of marketing and the work of Philip Kotler who defined marketing management “as the art and science of applying core marketing concepts to choose target markets and get, keep, and grow customers through creating, delivering, and communicating superior customer value” (Kotler 4). In the context of libraries, we have a lot of competitors to contend with when it comes to marketing our spaces, resources, and even services. For example, Google and Amazon—students can get information and books from the two, but we know that the library’s resources are superior; the databases we subscribe to contain information not available online, our access to books is free to the user and comes with the service of a librarian who can help patrons find the right books, databases, and websites. Our study rooms and group workspaces are clearly (to us) superior to the dorm room or home bedroom spaces where technology, printing, and quiet may be lacking. It is our job to communicate this superior value to our patrons (whether they are faculty, staff, or community members) because what is obvious to us is not so to those on the outside. In the midst of the pandemic, the core of marketing remained despite the many changes around us. The need to communicate our superior value has not changed.
Another principle that comes from marketing theory are the four “Ps” of the “marketing mix”: product, price, place, and promotion (McCarthy, vi). In the context of the library, our products are the services, spaces, and resources that we offer. Our price is a little less obvious—though libraries are funded in part by tax dollars and/or tuition, and thus do contain a real cost to the user (and non-user), the cost that we most often must contend with is that of our patrons’ time and effort. When we save our patrons time and effort, we are essentially lowering our price in comparison to our competitors. For example, communicating the time saved from working with a reference librarian when doing research versus doing it on one’s own prices our services at a value. Afterall, as the Neil Gaiman quote goes, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” Patrons would be losing out on valuable time without using our services. The third “P,” place, is both the places where we exist and the places where we market. Our places are generally our brick-and-mortar buildings and our websites, and have, in terms of place, remained the same. Promotion is the “P” that we often think of as marketing: our branding, social media, and other marketing communications we use.
What has changed are the contents of those four “Ps.” First of all, our products are different. Library products can be grouped into the categories of services, spaces, and resources. Our services have withstood the most change, with some taking a temporary diversion, while others have changed forever. A glance at Marketing Libraries Journal articles from the past few years reflect some of these changes: curbside pickup (Cantwell 42), virtual programming (Wardell et al. 63, Droog et al. 42), virtual new-student orientation (Hoelscher and Jumoville Graf 96), and remote reference (Moyer et al. 160). Marshall University Libraries transitioned their stress-relief finals activities and popular emotional support dog visit to an online format by creating a LibGuide with stress-relieving activities students could do at home and a Zoom meet-and-greet with the beloved support dog (Johnson and Mollette 6). Those types of activities acted as a bridge between “normal” times, while maintaining consistent offerings that help make up the libraries’ brand. This is where libraries have risen to the occasion—I have never seen such innovation and care from libraries expressed through their service changes. Libraries were often considered essential services during strict lockdowns, and librarians had to find ways to keep their employees and patrons safe while maintaining some level of service.
We cannot talk about products without also considering the other “P” that has withstood the most change: promotion. Reaching our audiences when they weren’t physically in spaces added another layer of complexity to the already tough task of communication. Anna Moorhouse noted that libraries’ offerings are already complex and specialized—thus not easily understood by those outside the library (11). However, here we’ve also seen innovation and care. With COVID-19 adding to the complexity of library communication, Moorhouse utilized “strategic storytelling” to promote library offerings (12). Their storytelling structure took a familiar template and they used those stories to communicate library service changes in a way that was both straightforward and engaging. The stories cast the library workers as the heroes and contained a story arc that mimicked the hero’s journey, a classic storytelling template.
Changes to libraries’ communication strategies also reflect the patron’s increased need for information regarding the library service changes. One library noticed much higher social media interaction despite a reduction in programming due to the pandemic (Johnson and Mollette 5). They noted, “while the number of activities decreased (from 50 in 2019 to 26 in 2020), the attention to the needs of the students, the ongoing technological considerations, and the distinctive limitations inherent in conducting outreach during a pandemic resulted in a remarkable effort to connect with the campus community” (Johnson and Mollette 5). While the increase was in part due to their refined outreach strategy, it was also due to the library’s ability to quickly pivot and meet the needs of the community in a time of crisis—again, with innovation and care. Another example of creative communication during the crisis is Auraria Library’s move from using their internal crisis report to a tool that told the story of the library’s impact on research and student success (Browning and Freedman 12). The crisis report contained not only the factual information regarding to changes in library services, but also statistics that helped paint a picture of the impact of the library’s agility. For example, an increase in eBook offerings and use of virtual references services became talking points that communicated the value of the library.
What these examples have in common is the use of marketing from the heart, a way to engage with our communities by taking into consideration their needs as a whole person (Villamor and Shotick, 51) and turning a crisis into an opportunity. Whether it be through the creative use of video to connect patrons with their favorite program, contactless pick-up to keep our students and staff safe, or marketing our responses as a hero’s journey, we have continued our dedication to service and access throughout the darkest of times. As we continue toward an uncertain future, we can feel confident that we not only did the best we could, but we used the crisis to reinvent our services and reinvigorate our marketing efforts.
Browning, Sommer, and Alex Freedman. Crisis Report to Marketing Tool: The Auraria Library’s COVID-19 Report. no. 2, 2021, pp. 4–26.
Cantwell, Laureen P. “Developing a Curbside Pickup Scheduling Tool on the Fly Using Springshare’s LibCal.” Marketing Libraries Journal, vol. 5 no. 1, 2021, pp. 42–66.
Droog, Alissa, et al. “Zooming Through Crisis: Navigating the Move to Online Programming.” Marketing Libraries Journal, vol. 6 no. 1, 2022, pp. 42–62.
Villamor, Stephanie Espinoza, and Kimberly Shotick. Practical Marketing for the Academic Library. Libraries Unlimited, 2022.
Gaiman, Neil. “Neil Gaiman on Libraries.” YouTube, uploaded by Indianapolis Public Library, 19 April 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH-sR1uCQ6g.
Hoelscher, Colleen E. and Anne Jumonville Graf. “Accessible, Sustainable Outreach: New Priorities for an Online Orientation Program.” Marketing Libraries Journal, vol. 5 no. 2, 2021, pp. 96–121.
Johnson, Kelli and Sarah Mollette. “Pre- and Post- Covid-19 Outreach Experiences at Marshall University Libraries.” Journal of Library Outreach and Engagement, vol. 1, no. 2, 2, Sept. 2021, pp. 2–7. https://doi.org/10.21900/j.jloe.v1i2.843.
Kotler, Philip. Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, and Control. Prentice-Hall, 1972.
LMCC. “Schedule at a glance.” https://www.librarymarketingconference.org/Schedule-at-A-Glance. Accessed 1 Sept. 2022.
McCarthy, Jerome E. Basic Marketing, a Managerial Approach. R.D. Irwin, 1960. HathiTrust, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006071661.
Moorhouse, Anna. “When the Doors Close: Promoting Academic Library Services in a Remote Environment through Strategic Storytelling.” Journal of Library Outreach and Engagement, vol. 2, no. 1, 1, July 2022, pp. 10–17. https://doi.org/10.21900/j.jloe.v2i1.924.
Moyer, Elizabeth, et al. “Promoting a Rapid Deployment of New Services for Remote Reference at a National Laboratory.” Marketing Libraries Journal, vol. 5 no. 2, 2021, pp. 160–177.
Wardell, Retzloff, et al. “Rethink, Reuse, Recycle: Turning an Existing Workshop into a Virtual Opportunity for Outreach and Engagement.” Marketing Libraries Journal, vol. 5 no. 2, 2021, 63–81.