(This article was originally published at my old website, lifeinoleg.com, on January 21st, 2012.)
One of the most difficult parts of the job for many librarians is to draw an audience for the programs they offer at their libraries. They seem to do everything right: schedule the program well in advance, create fifty copies of an informative flier, expect the best, and yet their events see an attendance in the ones. Sometimes these professionals will reflect on their processes and sometimes they won’t, invariably however, they will wind up following exactly the same routine on their next essay into event-planning. There is little doubt that, with occasional exceptions, their efforts will return the same results. This discouraging cycle is easy to fall into and one that, due to a lack of precise goal-setting in the library world, neither the librarian herself nor management has any real motivation to change. Still, I think that those who do want to serve their community better will find this how-to a useful bootstrap. Much of these suggestions are gathered from experience I’ve gained myself putting on successful events at three very different public libraries as well as lessons I’ve learned from watching other librarians do their magic.
It would be great if everybody came to the event you’re putting on, wouldn’t it? But that isn’t going to happen. People are drawn to events that: Touch on an interest (a writers’ group), allow for a specific type of social interaction (speed dating), teach them something (computer class), help them with something they can’t/don’t want to do themselves (resumé workshop). Audiences for programs can also generally be divided by other obvious identifying factors: gender (knitting circle=female), age (retirement workshop=older), socioeconomic status (charitable-giving how-to=wealthier), stage of life (mommy & me=young mothers), it can go on and on. It’s a mistake to begin planning an event without putting plenty of thought into who you expect the audience to be. Since (lack of) time is a major factor in promotion, the majority of your effort should be spent talking to people who are most likely to come to your event (you do actually talk to people about your event, don’t you? More on this later). So before you call any performers or start designing your postcards, break down your expected audience using these handy-dandy questions:
- What is the purpose of the event? (In your answer consider the reasons people are drawn to events listed above.)
- What is the age range of your expected audience?
- What is the stage-of-life (or social role) of your expected audience?
- Is your event likely to draw more males or females? Or is it not a gender-specific event?
- Is socioeconomic status a consideration for your event?
- Does your event focus on a specific interest? Are there groups, associations, clubs, etc. in your area that are devoted to that interest?
Your answers to these questions should inform the way you inform your community about your event.
Getting the Word Out
Paper: Fliers, postcards, half-sheets seem to be the most common method of event promotion in libraries. This is strange because in my experience paper is the least effective means of communicating your message. Paper is passive; you might spend an hour designing a beautiful flier, make 100 copies of it, and see people picking it up, but get only one or two audience members in response. The fact is that taking a flier obligates a person to do nothing – they may use the page as scratch paper, they may throw it away as soon as they get out of your line-of-sight, they may stick the paper in a drawer at home and forget about it; a flier picked up is as good as trash for the most part; just wasted paper.
There are ways, however, to maximize the advertising potential of your paper: 1) Design your fliers to play to your expected audience. Make them distinctive. 2) Put your fliers in people’s line-of-sight, but not if that means among a gaggle of other fliers. Counters, well-used doors, anywhere people linger are all good options. 3) Get them out of the library. Go to places where your expected audience congregates and put fliers there! This is especially important if your expected audience isn’t composed of frequent library patrons. 4) Give your fliers out by hand whenever possible. When I worked at the little Lomita Library, the manager had the circulation desk staff give quarter-sheet storytime handouts to everyone with kids who checked out items. That means all of those people at the very least knew that we were having a storytime or whatever the event happens to be. As a result the library, which is tucked away off the street in the sleepy Lomita civic area and less than a mile from two bigger libraries, always has an impressive turnout.
Media/Partnerships: If you don’t write press releases and send them out to the applicable publications on your media contact list, than you’re doing an unprofessional job. There are two elements I’ll expound on in the previous sentence:
1) Press releases – If you’re talking about a regular event (as opposed to something special like a summer reading finale, or a very high-profile speaker), the release doesn’t have to be a production. When promoting events, I usually sent out a simple media advisory that contained a punchy one-paragraph description of my event, the library’s (and any performers/partner organizations) boilerplate and some one-liners about essential information like WHAT: WHEN: WHERE: and the COST:. This format has served me well in the past because it’s simple enough for a calendar listing and, if it’s interesting enough to the editor, can lead to full-length articles (audience members say: “That was you in the newspaper!”).
The 2) element is a media contact list. Don’t have one? Make one! It’s pretty easy, though never finished. Start by calling up the local newspaper(s) and ask to speak to the person who compiles the calendar listings, introduce yourself and ask them where it’s best to send press releases. One contact made. Next, check online for hyperlocal news sites like Patch or homebrew efforts; when I was at the Lancaster Library there were three or four hyperlocal news sites that would regularly include library events prominently on their sites. When that’s done, scour the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media for organizations that reach your service area; many libraries subscribe to the online version of this source, but I think the print version is easier to use. Don’t rule out local radio stations either, an on-air shout-out is often just a phone call away (my wife, a programming librarian, got the local classical music station to mention one of her library’s concerts by simply calling and asking). A few hours of research and phone calls is all it takes to create an initial contact list. It’s very likely, though, that by being an active community member you will constantly be updating your list. That’s a good thing.
A better way to promote your event than sending it out to general purpose news outlets is to find any local organizations that specialize in the theme of your happening. When I had my writers’ group at the Lancaster Library, I connected with many of the other writing groups in the area as well as two literary magazines and other folks in the arts community. These contacts either led to, or became core members of the group, not to mention they were cool people. My experience with the writer’s community in the Antelope Valley can translate to practically any type of ongoing program. I believe that developing a network of individuals interested in the content of your program is the single best way to guarantee robust participation. Creating, becoming part of, and giving back to a community is about more than promoting library events, but an audience for your programs is not a bad side effect.
Word: While paper and press releases are popular passive ways to let people know about your event, the aforementioned relationships with community organizations and word-of-mouth are powerful active ways of building an audience. The latter has long been my favorite way of getting people involved with library programs. I have lost count of the number of patrons who I’ve encouraged, in the midst of our usual communication, to come to my events. The philosophy is simple, if a person is already a regular library patron, then coming to program won’t be out-of-the-way. And, if an occasional patron has an interest or a possible interest in the subject of your program then why not tell him about it? There is nothing gained in being shy. I’m very comfortable saying that I strongly recommend pitching your programs to patrons directly where appropriate. If you’re going to do any type of promotion, talk to people. It is the best way.
Don’t stop with patrons, though. It’s always strange to me how that very staff that works in the same building as programming librarians don’t know what’s going on at their workplace. I would even venture to say that before you talk to any patrons, make sure your staff, from the volunteers to the librarians know what’s going on and are at ease answering basic questions about programs. Sometimes, staff will even come through by promoting your programs to friends and family. This type of excitement over your events shouldn’t be an exception, it should the normal course of things. Just like the circulation staff at the Lomita Library knew that they played an important role in bringing happy audiences to their library, your staff should be made to feel that their contribution is important. Because it really really really is.
At the Event
Before the program begins, make sure to introduce yourself to the audience and clearly go over upcoming library events. Then either hand out fliers or make them available somewhere in the room. Since these people are already at a library event it is much more likely that they will come to another one, but only if they know about it – it is your job to make sure they do. Make sure to also be available during any breaks and after the event to chat with folks. It’s those personal connections again, their importance cannot be understated; so many times I’ve rustled up an audience for a program that could easily have failed by inviting patrons I already knew. Because these people trust me to steer them correctly, they don’t mind taking a chance on something they might not have thought to attend on their own.
This is related to another topic so I’ll just touch on it briefly, but do take a few minutes before the program begins to survey your audience. Ask for a show-of-hands of people who are new to library events, ask what kind of events they’d like to see, ask how they found out about your program. This accomplishes two things: First, it warms up the audience which is good for the performer, and second, it gives you some crucial knowledge as to where your audience came from (so you could determine which of your promotional methods are working) and how to keep them coming back. That latter point is a useful one to remember; libraries, unlike some businesses, do not have a way to keep customers locked in – the way we work is to keep providing the right stuff. It’s a shame to lose a attendee for future events so ask what brought them there, and what would keep them coming back. You’ll be surprised at how eager people are to tell you what they like; they want to have good time, after all.
To Think About:
Poetry events: There are some programs that are harder than others to promote. Poetry events – well, literary events in general – are known to be among the most notoriously difficult for many reasons. The main reason, in my opinion, is that librarians putting on literary events typically shoot from the hip when it comes to promoting them. When the author or the workshop leader is not a recognizable name (read: most of the time), the only way to gather an audience is by finding the program’s other selling points and pitching them to a qualified audience. By qualified, I mean people you already know are interested or patrons you have some other connection with. This is precisely why it’s so important to consistently follow the suggestions I’ve outlined above, so you rarely have to promote programs cold. When the performer asks “How many people do you expect?” you should be able to answer with an educated guess. That said, too many times I’ve seen librarians with no idea what to expect because all they’ve been doing is passive advertising with no pre-planning.
So here’s the big question: How do you get a good audience for poetry events? Answer: Find the poetry-lovers in the community and ask as many of these individuals and groups as possible to come. You’ll have to ask a ton of people to get a respectable audience (approximately 10% of the “qualified” people you ask may show up). However, if you’ve been following through with your promotion for any period of time, a ton of potential audience members should be an email and a few phone calls away.
Oversaturation/Competition: Part of doing successful programming is to be able to read your community in order to ascertain their needs and wants. You will also have had to do the research to find out if the type of program your considering is already underway elsewhere in town. When I started the all-ages Checkmate Chess Club at the Lancaster Library, I knew that, while there was some chess-playing and a chess club or two around the Antelope Valley, there were enough chess players to sustain the library club (we ended up with anywhere between 35-50 people a week). Part of the Club’s success was due to my partnering with a local chess couple who provided lessons for beginners and helped promote the Club. On the other hand, perhaps your program isn’t getting a good showing because there are already plenty of concerts or movie nights or writing workshops going on in your area? Make sure you have a case for your undertaking before you do a whole lot of a work. Or maybe there’s something similar happening on the very day your program is scheduled? Check and keep checking for conflicts on your big day. Don’t set yourself up to fail.
Finally, have patience: Planning events is not always easy. It takes time to build a loyal following for an ongoing event. Be patient, but balance that patience with a strategy that calls for action if you don’t meet your participation goals by a specified date. Make sure to adjust your tactics in a meaningful way. Also, be bold; success comes to those who are unafraid to step out and make things happen. It can be as little as making a few phone calls or as much as renting a costume and parading out on main street dressed as a trombone to promote a concert. I haven’t done the latter, but you can have the idea. No need to give me credit.