In the October 2014 edition of CHOICE, Mark Sandler has written a wonderful guest column called Coffee’s for Closers: Spilling the Beans about Library Customer Acquisition. It is a renewed wake-up call to librarians about the importance of retaining and expanding our user base, and using business practices to help us. I feel this article particularly resonates with community colleges, whose ever-changing student base makes academic librarians’ jobs even more difficult.
I agree that it is hard for librarians to think in terms of business. In my experience, it is often counter-intuitive to what we have been taught. We do all we can to protect our consumer’s identity and preferences, rather than prey on them. We tend to not think in terms of ROI, as our investment is information and product is knowledge, which can be difficult to measure. We feel that our existence as the collector and mediator of information is an important one that should not be overtaken by a for-profit mentality. We don’t feel it is our responsibility to find ways to “drag people in off the streets,” as Sandler says.
However, times are changing rapidly. We are now competing for the role of information purveyor. Students are used to paying for service—a few dollars here or there for apps or music, or for a monthly fee for a streaming service. It isn’t hard to make the leap to a few dollars per month for access to articles or books in the comfort of your own home, without passwords or complicated download options.
Community college libraries can be particularly vulnerable. As enrollment can fluctuate with the economy, budgets are also in flux. As books and journal database costs rise, there is often little or no budget appropriated for projects outside of the library. I have worked in four different types of libraries (special, corporate, private college, community college) and none has had any type of comprehensive marketing plan or substantive marketing budget. Outreach has generally consisted of sporadic attempts at programming, with varying results.
For community colleges, what can be done to get students into the library time after time? How do you get the new students to see the library as one of the primary supports to their success?
Sandler has some great ideas, including pushing for budgeting, training personnel in successful “selling” and promoting library services, partnering with publishers, using social media, and learning about your users. For some libraries, such an investment may not be possible. To start small, I would suggest the following:
- Make a general plan for social media, programming, and attending events. Know when the crucial times in the semesters are, and work early in each year to begin developing a comprehensive plan to stay on task for the whole academic year.
- Go where your customers are. This could be virtually or physically. Partner with faculty to offer free extra credit for attending a webinar or viewing a video tutorial. Go to classrooms or areas of the college with an iPad or laptop and provide reference services during busy research weeks.
- Talk up what you have to faculty and administration. Just sending an email or posting a poster with information on a new database or service is not enough. Go to a department meeting, ask to speak at a board meeting, go to a Student Senate meeting, make an appointment with the president of the college—get the idea of library outside the building and back into the consciousness of the other support systems for students.
- Attend as many community college functions as you can that promote the college’s services to the students and community. When attending each event, make sure to showcase the resources that best support that event and show off your library’s excellence and librarians’ expertise.
None of the above can happen in a silo. Each requires relationship building with various constituencies and the development of goodwill. They also require a commitment to persistence and consistency—your customers should get used to seeing the library and its resources outside of the library, providing high quality support in meaningful ways. You may also notice that the cost for applying these tactics is minimal. A small printing budget, time to plan, and personnel are the biggest expenses. Finally, the one major element that we can bring is our customer service talents—that personal touch that often is not available from a large, offsite company.
As Sandler notes, by keeping our services and outlook status quo, we are hurting future generations of librarians and students. Recognizing the need to move beyond the expectation of simply providing information and expecting them to come, we need to consider how we can prove our worth by reaching out to keep them coming in.