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Marketing your library to the Net Generation

What is marketing?

In Elizabeth Kostova's retelling of the Dracula story, The Historian, librarians from various parts of the world become infected with vampire blood as a way of luring them to the master vampire's lair in the depths of Eastern Europe. Gruesome, but the story emphasizes the role of the librarian as custodian of knowledge, gatekeeper to a vast treasure house of books.

Today's librarian, however, will be as much a custodian of DVDs and electronic databases (depending on the type of library), and the library itself more of a gateway to electronic resources than a physical collection. What is more, today's Dracula is spared the task of hunting out librarians: he can sit at his computer and type into Google.

Both public and academic libraries are losing out to search engines and to online book stores. At the same time, libraries are no longer (along with all other public service institutions) in a position where they have guaranteed funding. They may well see their budgets decreasing while having to offer new services, for example in the UK, public libraries have been given a central role in lifelong learning, social inclusion, and education in information and communication technologies.

For some, marketing is about selling and making profits, but marketing is much more than this. Philip Kotler, the great marketing guru, defines marketing as being about genuine customer value, and social change and added value for not-for-profit organizations (Helinsky, 2007). John B. McKitterick, president of General Electric in the 1950s, saw marketing as a "customer-oriented and integrated system", which, as Mi and Nesta (2006) point out, is almost a definition of library services. More recently, marketing has been described as:

"An organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders".
(Peter Fisk, Marketing Genius)

A true marketing attitude is focused on the customers and their needs rather than the product. Everything is derived from the customer: the product needs to fit their requirements and be communicated to them where they are, and in a way that they will understand.

A good library, then, will need to understand its users and provide services which will enhance their studies, business and leisure. But what are the characteristics of today's user, and particularly those of the Net Generation?

The marketplace – libraries and the Net Generation

The "Net Generation" is the term given to the generation that has grown up with the Internet – those born in or after the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Schmidt (2007) provides a vivid description of the information landscape in which they live:

  • The growing sophistication of the Web, with aids such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Resource Description Framework (RDF), together with the semantic web and the semantic grid.
  • Big online stores such as eBay and Amazon.
  • New collaborative communication frameworks in the form of blogs and wikis.
  • Growth of multimedia on the Web, for example and, both of which are also self-publishing sites.
  • Increasing acceptance of open access, which bypasses traditional publishing routes, for example BioMed Central.
  • New communication hardware in the form of memory sticks, wireless, personal digital assistants (PDAs), iPods, Blackberries, e-books, and mobile phones.

Furthermore, according to the OCLC, digital is the predominant channel for accessing content: there is a huge growth in the use of SMS, e-mail, and blogs, while the number of articles published over the last five years in electronic format has almost doubled (Kenneway, 2007).

Hardly surprisingly, the learning landscape has also changed:

  • People are able to carry out research on their desktops (Mi and Nesta, 2006).
  • Alarming numbers of students are using search engines as port of first call when doing essays: 89 per cent according to a survey cited by Mi and Nesta (2006), and "google" has become a verb.
  • Learners are more visual, rely more on multimedia and absorb information in a non-linear way, contrasting with the more organized world of the library.
  • Study is likely to be more interdisciplinary: it is now possible to study new subject combinations such as mathematics and history, physics and music.

In order to find out how libraries were being affected by the new learning and information landscape, the OCLC carried out a web-based survey (Mi and Nesta, 2006), looking at users between the ages of 14 and 65, and different geographical regions (Australia, Canada, India, Singapore, Great Britain and the USA). The survey found that although 45 per cent of university students "completely agreed" that library websites provided worthwhile information, and 85 per cent ditto for electronic journals, only 2 per cent started their search from a library website. Furthermore, in a comparison of search engines and libraries according to seven performance attributes, libraries scored highly on credibility and accuracy, but were beaten by search engines on reliability, cost-effectiveness, ease of use, convenience and speed (Mi and Nesta, 2006).

"The Net Generation recognizes the value of libraries and library resources. Libraries are not under-valued but they may be over-priced in terms of the cost in time and effort to use them."
(Mi and Nesta, 2006)

Market planning and analysis

Marketing is not a matter of throwing a few leaflets at supposedly receptive audiences: it must be planned, monitored and evaluated, and adapted in the light of new information. Spalding and Wang (2006: p. 500) describe the strategic marketing plan as including:

  • customer and market research;
  • analysis of context, including opportunities and challenges;
  • goals and objectives;
  • desired image and key messages;
  • operational plans for marketing efforts aimed at different audiences;
  • evaluation of outcomes, as well as feeding information into future research.

Image: Figure 1. The market planning process - Customer and market research; Strategic library plan; Promotion of the library; Providing products/services.

Figure 1. The market planning process (Spalding and Wang, 2006)

Having a plan will enable the library to talk with greater confidence about information-provision needs, and increase its visibility and funding potential.

Helinsky (2007) mentions a couple of common analysis techniques that can be applied to the library:

  1. SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats),
  2. Boston Matrix.

The former is useful for analysing your current position. For example, a strength may be specialist expertise, weakness having to do too much on a limited (and possibly cut) budget, opportunities could be new e-resources, while threats might be technical problems and competition from Google.

The Boston Matrix uses analogies to help you analyse your products and services and help you prioritize:

  • dogs – problem services and should be got rid of;
  • cash cows – services with a high share of a low growth market (your book collection might be an example!);
  • question-marks or problem children – those services which consume a lot of resources now, but which could develop in the future;
  • stars – those services which have a high market growth (such as e-resources).

Market research and segmentation

Marketing emphasizes the importance of knowing what your customers want, which may not be the same as what you think they need.

The traditional way of finding out about the market is by doing a market research survey. Many libraries conduct traditional mail surveys of their users, but Calvert and Pope (2005) discuss the benefits of telephone surveys, which allow for a more personalized response. Hermelbracht and Koeper (2006) describe how they used the conjoint analysis method for a market research questionnaire, an approach which they consider very useful to libraries.

Once you have the information on your users and their preferences, you can divide up your market into groups, a process known as segmentation. There are various ways of segmenting your market. For example by:

  • demographics, for example age (e.g. Net Generation; 60+ etc.),
  • educational level, for example first year student, dissertation student, post-graduate research, etc., or by field of study,
  • role, for example student, faculty, funder (the latter is very important, they may not be heavy users of the library, but they will want to see information about how the latter is meeting requirements),
  • behaviour, for example level of borrowing, high use of electronic resources, etc.,
  • need, for example students' need for textbooks, postgraduates' need for e-resources, books in their language for a minority group.

Segmentation will enable you to implement customer relationship marketing, which involves holding information in a database about your various customer groups that can then be targeted for particular purposes. For example, you could e-mail a particular group of students about a new resource in a particular field of study, or recommend reads to public library users.

Henderson (2005) describes how the Library of Congress site American Memory, which is a digital record of American history, segments its readership and provides specific pages for specific groups, for example a Learning Page that can be used in the classroom.

Image: Figure 2: Screenshot of The Learning Page from American Memory,

Figure 2. Screenshot of The Learning Page from American Memory

There are a number of specialist software packages for customer relationship management, such as the Talisma package (, which can be integrated with library management systems to extract customer details (Henderson, 2005). Such software packages can help facilitate "pinpoint marketing" – "delivering the right message to the right person at the right time" (Kenneway, 2007).


Branding is central to marketing: it is about values and identity. A brand image should sum up the features and the benefits of a particular product or service, and is defined thus by the American Marketing Association:

"A name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers."

According to the OCLC, most people associate the library with books (Kenneway, 2007). Unless your library is just books (unlikely) you will want your branding to move people away from this impression:

  • Consider the totality of what you are offering: what is the big idea?
  • Do you offer everything you need for your study?
  • Are you promoting a leisure experience, or somewhere people can find information?
  • Is it also a place for learning, as with the UK's library-based LearnDirect centres?
  • Is the place important? (Mi and Nesta, 2006 believe it is important to incorporate place association).

The library exists in two worlds: virtual and physical. It's important to create a powerful digital brand through the website (Kenneway, 2007), which will be a main point of access for many – as well as a promotional tool.

Many academic libraries brand themselves on their web pages by promoting their services, as for example with Buckinghamshire libraries (note the picture of the new library to emphasize place):

Image: Figure 3. Screenshot of the home page of Buckinghamshire County Council's libraries.

Figure 3. Buckinghamshire County Council's libraries home page

Other libraries, however, brand themselves more self-consciously according to their values. The example that is most often quoted is that of Tower Hamlets Library in East London, which has rebranded itself as Ideastore declares its values as combining "the best of traditional library and information services with first class lifelong learning opportunities in comfortable and friendly surroundings", and deliberately sets out to make itself physically as well as virtually accessible by having stores in shopping malls.

Image: Figure 4: Screenshot of Ideastore home page.

Figure 4. Ideastore home page

The Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) Library is an example of academic library branding, as shown in Figure 5, below:

Image: Figure 5. Screenshot of the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) Library.

Figure 5. MMU Library

Note the evocative image of the building, and the emphasis on how the library is there to help you complete your studies.

Sometimes, libraries choose to embody their values with a particular slogan, for example the British Library is "the world's knowledge" while Milner Library, Illinois State University, used the theme line "Power up @ your library", which appeared on post-it notes and pencils given out at the reference desk, as well as colourful banners hung around the library, the faculty newsletter, student planners, and large calendars. See,%20Illinois%20State%20University for further details.

The marketing mix: the four Ps

The four Ps – product, price, place (or placement), and promotion – is one of the most famous marketing concepts, the idea being that that if you adjust one part of the mix, you need to adjust the other to match.

The following table looks at ways in which the marketing mix has been applied to libraries (Kanaujia, 2004; Kavulya, 2004; Mi and Nesta, 2006).

Table 1. The four Ps in the library context
Product The products and services that libraries offer their customers, including their print and electronic items, their services, and the place itself
Price Normally the cost of a product or service, but as library services are free to the user, it refers to the latter's investment of time and effort. For example, the library may have excellent databases, but because the users have to search through each individually, as opposed to the one search required by commercial search engines, they may regard the "price" of using the library as too high
Place Traditionally where the sale takes place (the book shop for example) and the distribution channel from manufacturer to customer. In library terms, it is the physical and virtual access points, the service commitment, the hours the library remains open, the staffing levels, document delivery systems, etc.
Promotion The methods used to ensure that the users know what the library has available


A key "product" is the library website, which is the library's virtual presence and a key point of access as well as a promotional tool. However, all too often more attention is paid to content rather than presentation: sites fail to offer sufficient navigational tools for exploring resources (Mi and Nesta, 2006).

Schmidt (2007) points to a study of websites on, suggesting that users need simple terms (for example, some users were unaware that databases contained journal articles, and some libraries found new words for "catalogue"). A major requirement for websites was clarity, conciseness, consistency and minimal graphics. Another was convenience: subject guides, for example, should be placed not only in the library, but also on the course website.

Another key product is the Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC), which is discussed by Andrews in his article that contains a useful discussion of the next generation of OPACs (2007). Andrews cites the benchmarks of quality as:

  • navigation,
  • scope (availability and ease of retrieval of resources),
  • assistance (how easy is the catalogue to use?), and
  • operation (does the catalogue behave like other software I use?).

The library as place is an important aspect of the product. Many libraries which are attentive to their customers find, for example, that what they want is not just quiet study areas, but areas where they can work as a group, have a cup of coffee, or read the paper.

Product development should be based on understanding of need, associating the media with the market. For example, the Net Generation may appreciate game or multimedia tutorials on search strategies (Mi and Nesta, 2006), services via PDAs, subject guides, gateways, links to websites, or online chat in conjunction with Askalibrarian (Schmidt, 2007).


Price, in terms of investment of time and effort by the user, is a major problem. The product is excellent, but many libraries are quite difficult and time-consuming to use (Schmidt, 2007). This also relates to place.


A major feature of Google, and other top search engines, is the speed with which they return copious results. The problem with libraries is that often a separate search is required of different databases. Many library market research surveys show that people want to see seamless, one-stop-shop searching. Thus, the navigation of the library's website, referred to above under "Product", is an important aspect of place. Some libraries are trying to accommodate this with a metasearch engine such as MetaLib which brings all their resources together in one interface, as in the screenshot in Figure 6. University of Bristol's MetaLib:

Image: Figure 6. Screenshot of the University of Bristol's MetaLib.

Figure 6. University of Bristol's MetaLib


Before looking at specific promotional initiatives, there are a number of general points that can be made about this part of the marketing mix.

  • Don't confuse promotion with marketing, promotion is often the only marketing activity undertaken, but this is the wrong approach. (Kavulya, 2004, reports how marketing activities in Kenyan university libraries tend to focus on promotion and advertising.) You will achieve a better result if you create a plan, and look at the rest of the marketing mix. Above all, consider people's needs.
  • However, equally it is important not to ignore the promotion aspect – many libraries have excellent and user friendly products which users are just not aware of.
  • Promote to specific groups – for example targeted e-mails. Remember what we said above about customer relationship marketing (see "Market research and segmentation").
  • Think of the message you are putting across – people are more likely to take note if they can see a benefit to them. For example, tell people that something may save them time.
  • Think about where your users are likely to be – the Net Generation makes considerable use of mobile technology and online community networks. And see the newsletter example below (Figure 7. The digiWIZ newsletter from the Carlson Library).
  • Be creative – often some of the best ideas come from people thinking laterally. Such ideas can also be useful in challenging the image of the library as "dull"!
  • Digital marketing is an important part of today's promotional landscape. However, Helinsky (2007) cautions about over-reliance on digital, believing that people are more inclined to read paper.

Examples of promotional initiatives

There are a whole range of promotional initiatives that can be used.

Library newsletter, in print or electronic format

The Carlson Library at Clarion University produces a somewhat irreverent and fun newsletter, The digiWIZ. In its original paper form, it was posted in the bathroom facilities!

Figure 7. Screenshot of The digiWIZ newsletter from Carlson Library.

Figure 7. The digiWIZ newsletter from the Carlson Library

Traditional paper methods, such as bookmarks, fliers, brochures, etc.

OhioLINK is a consortium of Ohio's state and college libraries. It decided in 2001 to do a targeted promotion of its services aimed at specific markets to ensure they were aware of its collection:

  • for faculty, it produced a number of "teaser" postcards followed by a single "benefit" sheet;
  • for students, a number of posters featuring Ohio celebrities.

For more details see

Targeted e-mails

Alerting of new services, for example from liaison librarians to relevant academics, new staff, etc. (Helinsky, 2007).

Training courses

Something that is currently a priority with most libraries.


There are a great many possibilities here, from straightforward marketing events to specialist seminars, exhibitions, etc.

The National University of Ireland Library held an "E-day" at which it promoted various electronic services, including MetaLib.

The American University Library decided to market its new self-check 3M™ Library Systems' Check-It-Out system with the message of saving time. It came up with the idea of having a special event based on the idea of a time machine, and on April 2 2001 visitors were greeted by time travellers Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott, Angela Davis, and a Civil War soldier, all of whom promoted the benefits of the new self-check system. There was also a competition. For more details see:

Giveaways and memorabilia

For example cups, pens, bags, etc.

Guerilla marketing

Baltes and Leibing (2008) describe this method in the context of libraries, its advantages being that it often takes the opportunity of another event, and costs very little. A training course, for example, may explain a product's features; a fines slip may provide the opportunity to include a promotional message.

When Buckinghamshire libraries introduced a new receipt system to replace book stamping, they issued fridge magnets to remind people to keep their receipts in a safe place, but it was also a good way of promoting the enquiries line and the website.


Occasionally something may come up which provides a milestone to hang a campaign on.

The Milner Library at Illinois State University decided to promote its @your library theme by a milestone event associated with the acquisition of its 1.5 millionth volume. Local dignitaries were asked to nominate a book, collection or artifact that Illinois State University should honour. The nominations were then balloted for and the associated campaign did much to increase the library's profile. See,%20Illinois%20State%20University for further details.

Library tours

Showing people what you do is an important way of marketing services.

Enlist help from vendors of products

They will be all too keen to help with training sessions, brochures, etc.

Word of mouth

As always, personal recommendation is a very effective form of marketing. It can also be done by library staff themselves spreading the word, for example by attending internal meetings and making sure that people know what the library is doing. Walk the walk and talk the talk: make sure that library management get out and spread the word! Alire (2007) provides a case history of how word of mouth marketing worked in the University of New Mexico Library.

Digital marketing

The virtual world is becoming more and more important in marketing. Melinda Kenneway of the marketing consultancy TBI Communications believes that there are huge advantages:

"It's all about context and cost. In an online environment you can engage in highly relevant, two-way communications – mass personalization done in an affordable way that is just unmatchable offline."

Digital marketing offers such tools as RSS, blogs, e-mail and wikis. Additionally, you could explore the following:

  • Mobile technology, for example texting people about events, overdue books, tips of the day, and podcasts (for a library induction/tour). For example, Duke University has issued all its students with iPods, to which the library can upload its podcasts.
  • Online community networks – social networks such as YouTube, MySpace, Flickr and Facebook, as well as virtual worlds such as Second Life. Worth doing if you know that your users are there, for example the McCraken County Public Library in Kentucky has posted a short video promoting library events on YouTube (Kenneway 2007).

Where to go for help

TBI Communications Ltd

A specialist marketing agency providing services to the scholarly communications industry. Go to:

Marketing Teacher

A website which provides free resources on marketing. General, clear, easy to use and with case studies. See

@ your library™

This is the campaign from the American Library Association to foster better appreciation of libraries. In conjunction with 3M Library Systems (St Paul, Minnesota), they have provided a number of useful publications for both librarians themselves and also for facilitators. See

Highly detailed and useful case studies are also available on

Conclusion and references


You can use a whole range of marketing concepts to increase the visibility of your library. To do so will take work, but it should not take you away from your primary focus. "A library is no longer about managing content collections, in a central repository, it's about providing visibility and access to quality information in a whole variety of environments," says Melinda Kenneway. "How you do that, some might call that marketing, some might call it librarianship, the two things become actually very, very close – because you are trying to match the right content with the right people in whatever environment they want to access it. That's what good marketing is, and why librarians need to be marketers absolutely. It needs to run through their veins because that is what their job now is."


Alire, C.A. (2007), "Word-of-mouth marketing: abandoning the academic library ivory tower", New Library World, Vol. 108 Nos 11/12, pp. 545-551.

Andrews, M. (2007), "Changing markets, changing relationships: How libraries and vendors respond to the 'next generation' challenge", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 562-578.

Baltes, G. and Leibing, I. (2008), "Guerrilla marketing for information services?", New Library World, Vol. 109 Nos 1/2, pp. 46-55.

Calvert, P. and Pope, A. (2005), "Telephone survey research for library managers", Library Management, Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 139-151.

Helinsky, Z. (2007), "Marketing to get better mileage from your e-resources", The E-resources Management Handbook, UKSG [accessed June 23 2008].

Henderson, K. (2005), "Marketing strategies for digital library services: digital directions", Library Review, Vol. 54 No. 6, pp. 342-345.

Kanaujia, S. (2004), "Marketing of information products and services in Indian R&D library and information centres", Library Management, Vol. 25 Nos 8/9, pp. 350-360.

Kavulya, J.M. (2004), "Marketing of library services: a case study of selected university libraries in Kenya", Library Management, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 118-126.

Kenneway, M. (2007), "Marketing the library – using technology to increase visibility, impact and reader engagement", Serials, Vol. 20 No. 2.

Mi, J. and Nesta, F. (2006), "Marketing library services to the Net Generation", Library Management, Vol. 27 Nos 6/7, pp. 411-422.

Spalding, H.H. and Wang, J. (2006), "The challenges and opportunities of marketing academic libraries in the USA: Experiences of US academic libraries with global application", Library Management, Vol. 27 Nos. 6/7, pp. 494-504.

Schmidt, J. (2007), "Promoting library services in a Google world", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos 6/7, pp. 337-346.