As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of Michael Kaiser’s description of “The Cycle” for arts nonprofits and I think it has some lessons for libraries. Kaiser makes a distinction between programmatic marketing and institutional marketing. The former is largely transactional: buy a ticket, attend an event, make a donation. This is what we think of when we discuss marketing: email blasts, websites, advertising, and other avenues to get people in the door. But institutional marketing is different. Kaiser used every opportunity to get in front of as many people as possible to sell them on his arts organization itself, and on the great art that they were producing. It was an invitation to be part of the organization’s family.
When I worked for an art museum, we did our best to put the tenets of The Cycle into practice. Our institutional marketing was tailored to our situation. Marketing was a major challenge in a town of a few hundred people. It was a tourism town, and although we had quite a few day trip visitors come to town on weekends, it was difficult to deeply engage and generate loyalty among our audience. A certain number of visitors would walk away from the museum because there was an admission fee, and although the library was free, it didn’t have the same draw.
We used every avenue we could to get in front of new audiences. We founded our own blog and began promoting our art and books. It became a weekly project, compiling and writing for it, and we used it as a hub to drive digital audiences. Our social platforms became conduits to the content there, and once we gained traction we reached audiences who would never have been able to make the trek to our tiny town to come see us.
We also dove deep into partnerships. These are force multiplyers for nonprofits, and helped integrate us into the surrounding community. We worked closely with tourism groups, our county’s economic development groups, and worked with local schools to get our message out. We wanted to let people know more than the fact that we were there, or to get them in the door to buy a ticket. We wanted to be an experience, and to let folks know that the experience could be fun. Dynamic, engaging programming was a must, but it went hand in hand with institutional marketing.
Our signature program was an outdoor concert: while we started out with a grassy lawn and a couple of bands on substandard equipment, we eventually grew it into a full event: beer and wine vendors, food trucks, and a full professional sound system. Shops and restaurants in town kept their doors open a bit later. Hundreds of people traveled from miles around to come for the event. A partnership with a local radio station got the word out and things really took off! It was a great promotion for the town and the museum alike. Visitors began to join museum membership. Once they were able to experience the event, and enjoy themselves, we extended the invitation to be a part of the family. And that grewthe cycle for the following season of concerts, and brought regulars to our other programs.
The key to our success was in our partnerships. We positioned our organization as a hub of activity. We didn’t expect the same thing from every partner organizations. The schools, for example, couldn’t contribute monetary sponsorships, but they could put out the word about our event to the families who attended. Not a traditional sponsorship, but the schools were happy to participate in a community event and we gained allies and goodwill in our mission to promote the town and our event. Our small local bank paid for free water for concertgoers. The sound technicians gave discounted service in exchange for billing as a sponsor. Once we got up to speed, our hub was a rallying point for the entire community.
Libraries can (and should) engage in institutional marketing through strategic partnerships as well. For-profit organizations may well be willing to help make projects or programs a reality. Most public libraries have volunteer programs, but do they actively cultivate a stable of informed advocates and ambassadors for the library? Partnerships can allow the library to expand its reach beyond the walls of the library.
The partnership mentality can also be a powerful influence for internal stakeholders. It’s important for librarians to see all the units of the library system as potential partners: administration, marketing and communications, programming, and even other branches. As we move forward with out thoughts, ideas, and goals, it’s critical to work together to accomplish new initiatives. I’ve seen library units that have struggled to cultivate a partnership mentality internally, and that has led to underperformance of programs and intiatives.
In my experience, a partnership mentality generates creativity. Once you adopt it, you begin to see possibilities everywhere. What are some of your library’s most fruitful partnerships? What makes them special? And how can you replicate that success with internal and external stakeholders alike? Share your thoughts in the comments below!