When Services Are Off Target

My RSS feeds have been bubbling this last week with “new book” announcements from law libraries.  Something must have changed in the underlying search tool because it’s returning results from library catalogs that it ignored in the past.  It made me realize how common this type of law library marketing still was, and also made me wonder why libraries think this is a good thing to do.

You’ve probably seen something similar, because it’s not just law libraries.  When I Iog into the Overdrive e-book reader, it lets me know about the latest romance novels, or the newest 3-volume dystopian YA books.  Neither category is one that I read nor would have the slightest interest in.  And it highlights the defects of this type of marketing: untimely, untailored communications.

I consider this a service issue – something we provide as a layer to the information we’re making accessible – but it’s as much a marketing issue.

Content is What We Do

At the most basic level, libraries collect, organize, and provide access.  I assume that all law libraries are collecting all the time, due to the need for current information.  Announcing the fact that new things have been added isn’t really very interesting because that’s the baseline expectation anyway.  It’s like giving every employee a 5 out of 5 for just showing up every day.

One reason libraries do it is that it’s easy.  Most integrated library systems support an automatically generated list of new books.  Librarians take that list and e-mail it, put it in a newsletter, or direct people to an RSS feed.  Job done.

The question to ask at this point is why?  Just because it’s easy, automated, and it shows activity?  High volume collecting libraries may acquire and announce so many books as to be unmanageable.  Specialized libraries like law libraries will announce books on a wide variety of practice areas, so a certain percentage of the new books will be irrelevant.

Public library users will at least be on the lookout for the latest title or type of book.  Unless lawyers or paralegals are actively seeking to build out their library, a new title announcement may or may not be useful.  Just as with how we collect, marketing should be just in time, not just in case.

Short Attention Span

One reason is this: if you have the attention of your lawyer or paralegal audience, you don’t want to waste it.  There are few opportunities and a limited amount of time for any communication pushed by the law library to have an impact.  If a law library’s e-mails, blog posts, or RSS feed is just delivering new acquisitions news, and that communication isn’t tailored, I would expect it to be quickly deleted.

Mailchimp watches e-mail opening rates and found that lawyers (“legal” industry”) open e-mail marketing about 22.5% of the time.  As you can see from Mailchimp’s chart, that’s not far off other industries.  It captures the scope of your starting audience, though.

If you were to list the types of services and resources you offer, and which distinguish you from the next law library down the block, my guess is that services are more unique than content.  The meat of any law library collection in a given jurisdiction is going to be very similar, and slightly more general if public facing, and more tailored inside a firm.  But it’s the librarians and their services that are the distinguishing factor.

There is no question that the collection may be a draw but I think it’s a waste of attention bandwidth if the law library has other things to talk about.  And if it doesn’t, it should take a look at that.  At it’s heart, I think it’s questionable that:

  • marketing a generic list of titles is likely to generate a significant number of visits to the law library, because that is generally what’s required to access a new title or database;
  • marketing any kind of list relies on the idea that the legal professional is looking for that book at the time the list appears (just in time) because, if they’re not, the likelihood of them following up is going to drop.

Law libraries (and probably other special libraries) run on current content.  I think it’s fair to say that most lawyers will perform research on a topic, including discovery of new and relevant titles and content, when that research is needed.  I would be surprised to find most practicing lawyers reading new titles as they are released.

Square Activity with the Audience

In my experience, new acquisitions announcements touch an infinitesimally small number of people who will complete all steps: read, click or call, visit, access.  Doing an activity that has such little impact is as bad as doing an activity (like activating an acquisitions RSS feed) because it’s a built in feature.

A law library could have a greater impact by tailoring this content – only notifying lawyers who have indicated interest in criminal law that books in that practice area have been added – but I think that still makes the false assumption that lawyers consume texts as they are published, rather than as they are needed.  A well-tailored e-mail might incorporate a recently acquired title as a highlight, tied to some immediate external topic (change in the law, current events) that might cause the recipient (who has opted in to receiving e-mails in that practice area) to take action.

A better announcement list might include all titles that are being weeded, rather than acquired.  Lawyers would know they can come in and get free discarded titles to fill out their own libraries.  That shifts the function of the announcement – here are books in case you need them to here are books you can have if you come in quickly – and might generate desired foot traffic.

And foot traffic would pass a new books display, which makes far more sense to me than acquisitions announcements.  Once the legal professional has qualified themselves as being willing to come into the library, you can give them something to look at.  From a staff processing perspective, it is a brief change in shelving, and from the lawyer’s perspective, it is part of the attention they are already investing in their library visit.

If new acquisitions information is a service a law library provides, it should be able to measure the effectiveness.  Calls placed for books following the announcement, or a spike in walk in traffic, or more in-house circulations of that particular title, or more clickthroughs on those links.  But if there are no metrics, or the metrics show no activity, it begs the question why it’s being done.  This is the same baseline for any law library service.

Law libraries operating with limited resources can do better than investing any of it into acquisitions announcements.  Those resources can instead be put into selling what the librarians can offer.