Market the Library for Just-in-Time Use

Marketing is a tricky alchemy.  There is a never-ending drumbeat of libraries trying to market their services.  I’m not a big believer.  This is, in part, a long term struggle trying to connect with an audience that usually needs law library services just-in-time.  You may know about law libraries, but here are some basics that impact service delivery:

  • (almost) all service recipients in law firms or subscription libraries have had legal research exposure, at law school or through a paralegal program.  Successfully or not, they are able to do introductory legal research by themselves;
  • space is no longer anchoring law library services, so firm libraries’ physical space may disappear or the physical footprint of the courthouse library may no longer be a location regularly visited by potential service users;
  • many law libraries are subsumed within a larger organization, making branding and outreach more complicated as they have corporate branding and communications limitations to work within.

All of this came to mind when I spoke with a library student recently who was developing a library marketing strategy/plan for another regulating agency’s library.  They aren’t law-focused but have similar issues – an educated clientele, a disconnect between audience and space, and they exist as a unit of a larger organization.

How do you market when your audience only needs you when they can’t do it themselves?

Public library marketing can be constant.  They tend to be stand-alone institutions and they can serve a large population with a variety of needs.  Still, they, like many law libraries, focus on marketing things rather than outcomes.  You can hardly surf the Web without coming across a law library that is promoting the latest books added to the catalog, or the latest new database, or resource like e-books.

Unlike public libraries, though, where there may broad general interest in new titles or resources, lawyers are tied to their subject matter.  A family lawyer isn’t going to find much to chew on if there are a bunch of new estates and trusts e-books.  A database that reference librarians may be swooning over may be sufficiently complicated for most lawyers to use that it’s essentially useless.

And it’s not really even that simple.  For many lawyers, the law library – whether funded through their membership dues or the local or state government – can be a cost-savings for things they’d otherwise include in their overhead.  Just as law libraries are finding themselves unable to keep as many books on the shelves from exploding legal publisher costs, many lawyers made those cuts to their own collections before.

We have a clientele that needs us when they need us, whether it’s to ask questions or to get information they don’t have.  So how to market to them once we’ve reminded them once?

The basic rule is repetition.  If the law library is part of a larger organization, it may only be able to market its services directly to members or the rest of the firm every couple of months.  Ideally, it would be sharing information with lawyers at least monthly.

As I discussed with the library student, social media may work for some libraries but e-mail remains one of the best ways to connect with lawyers.  Whether they just aren’t on a given social network or a parent organization’s risk aversion means social media isn’t an option, e-mail is tried and true.  We use blogs because they connect us with law librarians who can then use our services on their lawyers behalf.  Lawyers are less likely to follow a blog like ours.

Another rule is customization, sometimes personalization.  You can send out a monthly e-newsletter but not just to talk about new stuff at the library.  Get a lawyer to write something topical (not just for you; easier to get something already written).  Discuss how to use a resource.  At a previous organization, we created opt-in e-mail lists on legal subject areas.  You keep to a common technology – e-mail – and are only sending content lawyers ask for and on a topic they’re interested in.

If you’re marketing, you need to measure the impact of your efforts and repeat your message often.  Social media are attention grabbing but if they’re not converting researchers, they’re just a research drag.  An ideal method is to embed library staff in teams but not all organizations can support that.  Faculty and law firm librarians probably can pull it off.  Subscription and courthouse law librarians?  Too many customers, too physically distant from the staff to remain involved.

What about print marketing or online advertising?  I’m hesitant to do print advertising because it can be harder to measure conversions.  How many people subscribe to your e-newsletter?  How many sign up for your family law news updates?  Those are easy.  Web site analytics help you measure whether people are visiting your site.  Even better, analytics can tell you how often your members-only resources are used.

But again, what about advertising?  We used a – because it counted clicks (or, if the address is typed into a browser, visits).  We could see whether an ad was causing an action.  After 2 years, it became clear that it wasn’t.  We weren’t paying for the advertising – it was a house ad in a corporate publication – but it still wasn’t worth it.  Whether it was placement or what, it’s hard to know.  We could see a difference because our monthly corporate e-mail, when it included library links, caused massive spikes – 500x as many clicks – in traffic.

In the end, my discussion with the library student probably didn’t shine any new light on her challenge.  Like all libraries, we continue to look for ways to remind people we’re here and to grow our services by word of mouth.  But rarely a week goes by when someone says, “I didn’t know you did that”.  It may not have been something they needed when we talked about it, or they weren’t in the audience when we marketed it.  It’s a reminder to not only keep doing what we’re doing, but to continue to look for ways to tweak our messages to make them more meaningful to individual lawyers and their clients.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.