These days, especially during and after the pandemic, the emphasis of library marketing has been on the electronic, especially email and social media. But there is still value in “old school” marketing in the building and in the community.

Marketing is all around us. You can earn a marketing degree’s worth of knowledge simply by paying attention to what’s around as you eat, shop, and travel. Library marketers can learn from the display techniques and marketing of restaurants, retail stores, and public places like malls and airports.

Look at your local retail stores and restaurants for great ideas on how to enhance your in-building marketing. See where they place items relative to your eye level and your location in the store. See how they use offsetting color and graphics. There is literally a field of science covering all of the ways we can attract a patron’s attention. This article is not going to cover even a minuscule amount. But knowing that there is so much to know, include in your schedule time to learn. I might even suggest taking out a book or two on marketing, retail display, graphics, etc. from your local library!

The following is a list of some items to consider using as part of your overall marketing scheme. It is not all-inclusive. But they are tactics that can be adjusted according to your budget.

One hurdle you may face at the outset is a glut of signage your library has up. The old saw is that the difference between bookstores and libraries is that when you go to a bookstore the first thing you see is books and when you go to most libraries the first things you see are empty spaces and signs telling you what not to do. Because so much of library signage is directed at scolding patrons or advising them of the restrictions and policies of the library, patrons tend to tune out much of library signage.

That said, there are ways to break through and to let patrons know about the programs, resources, and events that your library is offering. (For simplicity’s sake, I will be using the term event, but all of these suggestions can be used for programs and resources—like online newspapers or ancestry databases—as well.)

In no particular order:

  • Tabletops: Go into any restaurant and you will find marketing right at your table. This can be anything from simple cardboard fold-overs that you can print in-house to commercially available holders into which you can put inserts. You can keep these current to highlight upcoming events. The variety of tabletop signs available is staggering and can fit any budget. One suggestion is to go with a few different types of tabletops and rotate them around the library. Very often patrons find a favorite spot and thus by changing the style of the tabletop you may catch their attention.
  • Sidewalk signs: You have seen these outside of stores and restaurants. They can be wood or plastic-framed, with either a whiteboard or chalkboard surface for writing. We have found that using colored chalk on a blackboard is very effective. Sidewalk signs can be used for directions or can be used to highlight an upcoming event. These tend to be funny and can be effective. We have found that printed sidewalk signs get significantly less attention than handwritten ones and that the signs are more effective inside the building than they are outside, though both tend to be noticed.
  • Bookmarks: We like to use bookmarks to promote events. They can be simply sheets of cardstock printed on your printer and cut, or you can send them out to be commercially printed on high-gloss paper. As for bookmark content, we often hold a bookmark design contest among children and adults. Sometimes we give out small awards donated by our Friends, but usually the joy of victory and seeing their design in print is enough to get people involved. We use a form that has the bookmark template on it and distribute as a PDF and jpeg electronically, with paper copies available in the building. We then print and use the bookmarks in advance of the event.
  • Shelf signs: Shelf signs can be effective to highlight upcoming events. Place them near other resources which relate to your event. For instance, if you have a lecture coming up on gardening, put up a sign among the gardening books.
  • Mailings to Interested Parties: We maintain lists of key parties based on the type of program. We mail or email, depending on the recipient's desires, fliers on upcoming events of interest. For instance, we send health care programs once a month to our healthcare professionals in town; we send information about upcoming children's events to local daycares and the schools. Create lists based on your community: veterans, hobbyists, religious groups, etc. Then tailor a mailing to them for programs or events they may find interesting.
  • Lawn signs: Lawn signs are significantly cheaper than they had been in the past. This is not a political campaign, so you do not have to order one for every lawn in town. Often, four or five lawn signs placed strategically around your town can help highlight a particular event.
  • Buttons: We have a button maker which we use extensively for different programs etc. Buttons can be handed out to patrons if you have enough, or just to staff
  • Tchotchkes: If you have the budget, ordering various giveaway items highlighting your program, event, or resource can be an effective way of getting out your information. Pencils, for instance, can be purchased very cheaply with your library's name the event name, and the event date slash website. The larger budget the greater your array of choices, but even a small expenditure can get attention.
  • Window displays: Window displays can be used to highlight larger programs and events, depending on your facility.
  • Electronic Kiosks: If you have a TV set up for announcements, use it!
  • Pre-Program Video: Think of the ads at the movie theater, the ones they show before they show you the trailers for the upcoming movies. How often do your patrons arrive early for programs or events? Putting a video up on a loop before a program is a great way to market upcoming events. There are a number of programs you can use, but a simple PowerPoint slide show, automated to run on a loop, can display a month or more of fliers. Again, budget and staff training can vary—but don’t overlook this captive audience.
  • Pre-Program handouts: You can create a one-page listing of upcoming events and hand them out to patrons before a program starts. It gives them something to read and may result in more attendees.
  • Bathrooms: I know this sounds weird but putting fliers and marketing material above a urinal or on the back of a stall door is effective. That’s why so many bars do it!
  • Displays: Book and other in-building displays can effectively promote your programs, events, and resources, and can be tailored to your facility and your budget. If you don’t have your fliers available in a place with great access, you should. Again, the displays themselves range in shape, size, and cost, but make sure your fliers can be seen. If you don’t want to print reams of paper, consider having half-sheets available for patrons to take after seeing the full flier—and add a QR code for patrons to access more information about the event.
  • Ads: This is obviously budget-dependent but for certain events, an ad in a local paper can be effective. Besides local papers, your community may have organizations with newsletters that take ads or events you can use to market your library. For instance, our local Kiwanis holds a pancake breakfast every year and they sell space on their placement ($25). The pancake breakfast predates our annual Dr. Seuss Birthday Bash by about a month, so we often place an ad with them.
  • Press Releases and Articles: Talk to the editor of your local paper. Make sure you know the format they want for press releases and after-event photos and stories. The easier you make it for them to cut and paste the more likely your release makes the paper. In addition, talk to them about creating a column for the paper or supplying them with “evergreen” articles. Topics for a regular column could include book reviews, what’s new at the Library, etc. Evergreen articles typically will highlight a resource (like all your job-hunting resources), show readers “how-to” (how to use your ancestry material, how to use a resource, etc.), or focus on local history. These articles can be held aside, since they are not time-sensitive, and are used by the editor when they have holes in the paper that need filling. Prepare a couple of samples—250-500 words—and show them to the editor. You may find yourself with a non-event-specific marketing avenue.
  • Patrons: Including your patrons in your marketing effort is a great way to create buzz and getting help! Involve patrons by asking them to participate in polls, and contests to create bookmarks and fliers or to suggest the name and event (you do not have to accept the winning submission). 
  • Staff: The most overlooked and most impactful marketing tool you have is your staff. Make sure they know what is coming up and urge them (train them) to tell patrons about upcoming events, programs, and existing resources. Think of the best retail establishments you have gone to, whether a department store or a well-run coffee shop. Good staff are knowledgeable about their products and will help guide customers. Make sure the staff knows how important they are to marketing (staff involvement and motivation is a whole other article/book/course!)

If you are responsible for your library’s marketing, do not just look at other libraries. Look at people whose livelihoods depend on the success of their marketing. Retail stores, restaurants, and others must be successful in order to stay in business. Learn from their expertise. 

As opposed to the for-profit businesses which live and die on marketing, our doors will not close if a particular program or event doesn’t draw the way we hoped. What we do is vitally important for the long-term health of the institution and the community. But day-to-day we do not have the same pressures a local restaurant may have. 

This gives us great freedom to experiment and to try new things. Do not fear. Experiment. Analyze. Have fun!

Tony Iovino is the Assistant Director for the Oceanside Library. He has been in charge of programming and marketing for the last six years. Before entering the library field, he was the head of litigation for a Long Island law firm. Tony is a published author and poet.