Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How A Bad Date May Improve My Library's Marketing

Let me tell you about my weirdest date

Yesterday, someone at my work (I don't know who), brought in 3 boxes of dried dates. Not sure where they came from, but the boxes are shiny, so I picked one up, grabbed a date (yummy!), and then looked at the box more closely.
I told you it was shiny.
But the front isn't the interesting part. The back is:

Crazy claims about dates.
Can you read that text? According to the box, "modern science" has confirmed that dates will help cure everything from your sexual debility to your obesity to your childbirth difficulties.

I swear this has to do with libraries

I am skeptical of the claims made by the date box. They're not even logical, let alone "confirmed" (stating a thing does not make it so). So I did what I do when I'm skeptical - I mocked the box. And as I was reading some of these random, not-actually-confirmed, not-actually-logical claims to a coworker of mine, I started thinking about what the company was trying to do. As far as I can tell, they're trying to show that the dates are good for everyone! Everyone should eat the dates! You should eat these dates, and then buy more! But by trying to appeal to everyone, they lost me as a customer. The company actually strikes me as a bunch of nutjobs now, and I'm not inclined to go find more dates to buy. I mean, they were fun while they lasted, but I won't be back.This marketing ploy was totally ineffective. And it's common speak in library land.

In which I get to the point
I get it. There are people who luuuuurve libraries. Generally, I'm one of them. Those are the people who will agree when you just make vague statements about how libraries are awesome for every demographic of a given population (like they did about dates on the box). I'm not saying it is untrue, per se (unlike the claims on the date box. I don't think those are true), but that when you're portraying yourself as everything to everyone, in vague terms, then you're not going to connect with anyone who doesn't already see the value of libraries - and that's not our target audience.

Thinking about my own library's marketing efforts, I can see that we've fallen into this trap. (And I swore I wouldn't, when I was in library school. So annoying.) We've got a wide variety of audiences to appeal to, and we don't have a lot of staff to do it (a commond refrain among librarians. Everyone join in!). We genuinely do have resources, knowledge, and skills that can help people from all groups in my organization - and to library staff, the value of the library is so self-evident that the generalities don't seem vague at all. Of course we can be of assistance to a geologist headed out for a field season, a junior policy analyst, and an Assistant Deputy Minister - and they should just know that, right? Wrong! So they're not using the library, and that is a problem.

What we should be doing is making statements about the library that resonate with the clients, rather than making statements about the clients that resonate with the library. The date box statements are navel-gazing; they're about how absolutely fantastic dates are, but none of them were about why the dates were directly relevant to the particular issue I was looking to resolve (namely "you're hungry, and we're delicious!")

Don't get me wrong - we don't always fall into this trap. When we're one on one with a client, or presenting library services to a specific group, we're great at identifying our clients' particular pain points when it comes to information they need, and addressing them. And that's what gets us the repeat customers. We're just not doing it in our more general marketing - because it's tough. It's way easier to just be general, and trust that that's enough.

But it isn't enough. It's what gets us overlooked, and what puts us at risk for losing our libraries due to budget cuts. And at the risk of seeming like a tease, I've got what I think are some good ideas on how we (I) can make this situation better at my library... but this is plenty long enough for today, so it will have to wait until later. I'm excited to be thinking about this, though. And excited to be working in a place where I believe I'll be able to make a change, too.


  1. From the title of your post, I thought this was going to be about a bad "date" date, not the figgy sort of date, so I was very confused. Then I became even more confused reading the packaging. They want to purge my liver from my toxins? Yikes.
    I'd say the only honest thing on that package is the part about "if you eat them, you'll be less hungry". :)
    If you're interested, dates have some antioxidant properties that have actually been studied by "modern science" (for example, see
    Good luck with the marketing contemplation!

  2. I fully admit that the title of the blog post was a bit of a bait & switch.

    I do have some awkward dating stories, but I can't think of any contribution that they've made to my career, unfortunately. Or else I could have a whole blog series about it!