Do the names we use to refer to the people we serve matter?
It’s a question libraries are grappling with (or at least, should be) in an increasingly consumer-centric industry where libraries need to think and act like consumer brands.
Many libraries still shirk at the idea of sidling up to anything that looks like for-profit marketing. After all, libraries are institutions. They’re stalwarts. They hold the keys to information, collectible treasures, and one-of-a-kind documents. They’re steeped in free service and adding culture to communities.
Marketing adulterates libraries. Or does it?
It’s time to turn that idea on its head because not marketing libraries is far more of a disservice to communities than broadcasting introductions to library services, education, and information.
Because that’s what marketing really is. It’s not selling. It’s telling.
It’s not forcing things people don’t want. It’s showing them they can get to what they need.
The American Marketing Association defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.
Salespeople close deals. They turn products and services into cash.
Libraries guide knowledge. They add power to resources by leading the charge in information literacy.
Libraries must market themselves.
In a time when generous benefactors are aging out of AARP and younger generations turn to Google searches and 1-click e-book downloads, they must show that value in new and relevant ways if they hope to stay funded, increase usage and services, and survive. Insisting that people know you’re there and what you have ignores reality.
The truth is, not everyone knows. And if they do, they have no idea how you’ve changed to accommodate the 21st century. Time to get the word out.
Have an honest conversation about who you serve
Understanding who you serve, and adopting a consistent and organization-wide term for them, will help personalize and frame thoughts and messages toward them.
Let’s break down the most common choices:
While patron has been librarians’ preferred nom de rigueur—some will fortify troops to defend its use—it’s stuffy, dated, and, according to research by Joan Frye Williams, the people who use libraries don’t like it. Given the changing nature of libraries, where libraries kept and controlled information to the internet now pre-empting the library’s domain, it’s a highbrow term that feels exclusive. People don’t need us like they did and bristle at the librarian-knows-all positioning this reference alludes.
Try calling a 20-something a patron. It’s akin to Ma’am. Polite, maybe. But not trendy. Not hip. Not cool. And not winning anyone over.
Users use and consume. That the law defines use as the continued enjoyment of a right implies an all-take relationship. Who hasn’t heard the phrase use and abuse? That’s not what we work so hard to accomplish. We’re not here to be used up.
Drug addicts are users.
Software developers design for users and user experiences, but the term implies abstract entities, not people. Our people have hearts and brains and reasons that motivate them to seek and learn.
Libraries are here to help, to inform, and educate. And we’re here to learn from the people we encounter.
People who use libraries are readers, learners, researchers, students, and parents cultivating next generation literacy. Sure, they use the library, but they aren’t users.
In business, customers are the lifeblood of survival. They hold power in their independence to research, shop, compare, and make purchasing decisions. Businesses who don’t deliver or respond with the most value, best products, or stellar customer service won’t last.
For libraries, customer service has become much more of a “thing” but the overall relationship departs from traditional consumerism. The people who use libraries aren’t shopping around for the best price and they’ll come back for what’s free, even if not ranked high on Yelp or delivered with flair.
True, libraries are competitive, with Amazon and Barnes and Noble for instance, but the overall service relationship and the who is serving whom and for what reasons differ. Customer just doesn’t quite fit.
A piece of a structure.
A subscriber. An associate.. A card-carrying member.
Who doesn’t want to belong?
And isn’t that what libraries can and should cultivate? — A constant exchange of what do you need, here’s what I want, and how can we work together?
The term “member” gives members a nod toward their part in something bigger. It acknowledges their ownership in this altruistic and inclusive service.
Getting library teams to adopt Members
If you adopt members as your new library who, how do make that change within your teams?
Marketing is at least 35% internal and getting your team to adopt the new name will require effort. As a leader, here are three things you can do:
- You use the term.
- You explain more than once or twice why it matters (Feel free to share this article!).
- You enforce its use. Make it light-hearted but not.
Does it matter if your team is on board with using member? Yes, it does. And here are three compelling reasons why:
- Professionalism. If everyone on the team uses common terminology, it shows proactive thought and displays vision. It’s catchy and good for team building.
- Mindset. Adopting a consistent moniker for those you serve helps everyone get on the same page. It is helpful to remember that members can be young or old, a huge benefactor or not, an avid researcher, a weekend reader, movie buff, or teen creator. Cultivate an environment (and team) that knows the people who walk through the door are all part of what you do.
- Member-service. Probably no one will wonder out loud why you no longer call them a patron or customer, but they will notice the shift toward subtly inclusive language and ensuing adjustments in the team’s attitude toward them.
What do you think? Have you adopted members? How did you do it? What was the response?
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