the market

Library Marketing and the Terminology Problem


When I first started writing and talking about marketing libraries, I was very keen to see libraries adopt the strategies and idioms of business. Libraries were being threatened by massive corporations like Google, Wikipedia and Amazon, whose function or output was for a lot of people a perfectly acceptable replacement for what libraries offered. So we needed to fight back, and market ourselves aggressively - just because we weren't chasing profits didn't mean we shouldn't be chasing customers.

Part of the reason libraries were in a state was that they didn't take marketing seriously, they were in fact scared of the term entirely, and were unwilling to recognise that letting the people come to us was simply not fit for purpose any more. We had to go to the people, and convince them of our value. Finding the term (or the idea of) marketing distasteful was holding us back.

I don't feel entirely differently about this today, although my view has become more nuanced, and I'd rather see Libraries effectively communicating the value of the other aspects of what we do, rather than directly trying to compete with, for example, Google: a fight we'll never win (and shouldn't need to).


In 2010 David Cameron came to power, and his Conservative Government set about making the UK a worse place to live. Part of what they've done is commodify everything, consumerise everything, and it is with this apparatus that they advance their causes of privitisation, destroying the NHS, making education a source of constant frustration for schools and parents alike, and so on.

Increasingly things with which I was previously comfortable - marketing terminology, describing students as 'customers' and so on - are being strongly associated with things which make me decidedly uncomfortable.

Yet sometimes you need to use the vernacular of what you're describing if, like I do, you spend a lot of time describing it - I run marketing workshops and write about marketing on this blog and in a whole book about it. Increasingly I'm drawn to the word 'communication' - not all communication is marketing, but all marketing is communication. So marketing is a subset of communication. Good marketing is often just a byproduct of good communication. 

Nevertheless, I still use marketing lingo at times, albeit decreasingly so, because on occasion there's no better way to describe something so people will understand it. Whatever you think of the term itself, everything that marketing actually entails (a dialogue between us as library services, and users and potential users of those services - about how and why our services are relevant to their lives) we NEED to be doing.

People pay money to come to my workshops, and I don't want to waste their time explaining what I mean every 10 minutes as I search for an alternative way to express something for which there exists a perfectly good term or phrase - it would be absurd. As the trainer I have to communicate effectively in workshops about communication! But I also don't want to be part of the problem, I don't want to be ushering libraries towards a consumerist future which sees information purely as a commodity.

So yesterday when I ran a workshop called Marketing Libraries: Principles and Actions, for the International Library and Information Group, I put this slide on the screen 5 minutes in, and addressed this issue head-on:

A slide from my marketing workshop. Click to view CC version on Flickr

A slide from my marketing workshop. Click to view CC version on Flickr

I wanted to make clear that, although I was trying to avoid certain problematic terminology, I was still going to use some where it would be ludicrous not to - and I wanted to be clear on exactly what library marketers mean they talk about the market.

In essence, your market is your community.

Your community will be very different depending on the type of library you work in. Some libraries have a clearly defined community - I work in Higher Education, so my library's community is the students and staff at the University. (Primarily.) This is our market. This is the audience to which we need to communicate our usefulness. Most Special Libraries have defined communities: a firm, or business, or a school. Public Libraries don't enjoy this luxury of course - for them the market, the community, is everyone in their local area, both users and non-users alike.

However you define your community, this is what people like me are talking about when we say things like 'understand your market' (get to know your community), or 'segment your market' (divide them into appropriate groups so you can tailor communications for each group) or even occasionally 'market share' (if you work at an HEI with 1000 staff and students, and 600 of them use the Library, you have a 60% market share). I talk a lot about libraries being market orientated, and I can't stress enough how I mean community orientated. I actually say 'community orientated' all the time now, but plenty of my past output just used 'market orientated'.

I'm not talking about 'the free market' here. There are economic definitions of 'market oriented' and marketing definitions of 'market orientated' and I'm (very obviously) referring to the latter, as are other people who go on about library marketing. I'm talking about libraries offering services that their community needs, rather than merely offering services they've always offered, irrespective of their community. 

In traditional marketing there are two ways or orientating your organisation: Product Orientated, and Market Orientated. This 'services you've always offered' alternative, in marketing terms, is to be Product Orientated. This means focusing on the thing you do, rather than the needs of your market / community. This worked for libraries for a looooong time. We did books. It was great. But we all know that's not enough any more, hence the move towards market-orientation - towards working with the community.) It's about working closely with the people who use (or may use) your library, understanding what they need and what they'd like, and then trying to deliver that.

(There is a further complication here, in that people don't always KNOW what they need. So I tell libraries to continue to do everything people need, but to focus the marketing on what people want.)

As the slide says, everything - everything - comes back to your community. The library being at the heart of the community is a very popular refrain - but as pointed out on Twitter recently after this sentiment reached a critical mass in conference season, just saying the library is at the heart of the community doesn't make it so. To BE at the heart of your community you have to understand them and offer services based on what they require. Your community is your market. You are therefore market orientated if you want to thrive.

So next time you hear someone talk about library marketing, remember that a) we're trying to make libraries communicate more effectively so people use them more, and b) we're using marketing rather than economic definitions, and c), most importantly, 'our market' is our community, and we must work in collaboration with them in order to succeed.