Some observations on marketing e-resources

Most people have no idea of the breadth of resources libraries can offer them. This is particularly true for e-resources. I frequently hear things like, "I'm frustrated that I can't get x article online" or "I didn't know the library had this" or once a user is shown a particular e-resource, "Wow, that is amazing!"

This is not entirely a marketing problem, but that's what I wanted to focus on here.

There are some articles in the library literature on the topic (see e.g. Kennedy, Marie. “What Are We Really Doing to Market Electronic Resources?” Library Management 32, no. 3 (2011): 144–58. doi:10.1108/01435121111112862). In addition, I am looking forward to reading a recently published book purchased by my library: Kennedy, Marie R, and Cheryl LaGuardia. Marketing Your Library’s Electronic Resources: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2013. But aside from these resources and perhaps conference presentations here and there, my sense is that there is relatively little focus on this topic.

That is surprising because we spend so much of our acquisitions budgets on this stuff. It's not uncommon for libraries to spend 70-90% of their entire acquisitions budget just on e-resources. Also, e-resources are very popular with users in general. E-resources are my "thing" and I spend a significant amount of time not only managing them, but also marketing them. Based on my experience, here are some observations on why marketing e-resources is a challenge:
  • Libraries, themselves, may be uninformed about e-resources. If we don't understand them or are uninformed about e-resources, how can we expect our users to be any different? Marketing isn't just an external (i.e. to library users) effort, but an internal one (to library personnel) as well. This is why I implemented a blog aimed at keeping library staff informed about what's going on with e-resources, and my assistant and I post regularly to it. Levels of awareness have increased, I think, but I know there is more work to be done. Part of the problem may be due to the fact that e-resources management is frequently relegated to one person, or a small, isolated team. It is too easy for library people to hear about e-resources and immediately think, "Oh, that's x person's issue. We'll give it to her (or him)." E-resources as a part of library collections are much less tangible than offline resources like print stuff. I fight this battle all the time. Then, too, there is a real struggle to find time to familiarize ourselves with every e-resource we offer.
  • Content providers from whom we buy or lease access to e-resources often don't make it easy for us to publicize them. I wish all content providers or publishers would spend more time to make it easy for us to publicize their stuff, I really do. There are some exemplary ones who seem to "get it" (an example I've come across recently is BrowZine). A practical example of how to make things easier for libraries is to provide a dedicated page or source for images and/or videos we know we can use to embed in our websites, in our Facebook or Twitter streams, or anywhere else. Just yesterday I was working on publicizing my library's acquisition of one of JSTOR's newest collections, and for the life of me, I could not find anywhere on their site, or on their local admin. pages, where I could download or link to standard JSTOR images to jazz up the publicity stuff I was working on. Of course I can download or copy standard images on their site but I'm reluctant to do that without having explicit permission. Then, too, there is the issue of co-branding (allowing libraries to identify and brand themselves within the e-resource itself). In my view this is barely a token gesture of support in the case of most vendors.
  • E-resources are frequently complicated and changeable. When I say e-resources, that can mean a lot of different things. We in libraries have a hard time keeping them all straight or even understanding their differences. There are e-books, databases, data sets, e-journals, and much, much more. Ask yourself: do you really understand what is an integrating resource vs. a continuing resource? And do these definitions help users get what they need from the e-resources? What makes an online version of a print book into an e-book vs. a database vs. an integrating resource? It's hard to keep things straight. Another common issue I struggle with is what to call "it" and how to be consistent over time and in all access paths users might use. Cataloging standards dictate title x, but vendor may seem to prefer to call it y, and then again, users may seem to be most familiar with title z. I tend to prefer what the content provider or publisher calls "it" but even then, they can and often do change their minds over time. The whole what to call "it" issue may sound simple but believe me, it is a significant problem.
  • It is really hard to get users' attention. The most likely place for us to publicize e-resources is our own website. But even then, that's not a slam dunk, for a variety of reasons. Many studies have shown that our users routinely bypass our site, for one thing. Another problem is that there might be technical restraints on our own websites that prevent us from developing compelling means of marketing e-resources. Simply embedding images or videos might be a challenge! Of course, there are plenty of other marketing channels including email, Facebook, Twitter, and (gasp) print materials. Our library has a Facebook page which has become a primary marketing and outreach tool. I've noticed a dramatic difference in "engagement" between our Facebook page and our website. Typically, a post I put on our website gets a small fraction of the traffic that my Facebook post gets. I think it'd be great to add a Twitter feed as well but there are concerns about the extra work that'd require on the part of library staff to maintain. Of course, we also use email. For example, subject librarians typically send out one email per semester to faculty in our subject areas, and we try to highlight important new e-resources there. But my sense is that these emails aren't particularly effective or even paid attention to, which is a shame because we all know that if faculty aren't aware of and promoting e-resources, the chances that their students will be aware of them and adopt them are pretty low. We tend to avoid lots of marketing emails directly to students because there is a sense that they are already inundates with these kinds of emails from various other departments and programs. The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of stuff competing for our users' attention and that makes it extra hard to keep them informed or make them aware of our e-resources.
  • Many libraries aren't good at marketing, period. This isn't pointing a finger at my current library or any library in particular; it's just a general reality. Historically we haven't spent much time on marketing ourselves, or seen it as a priority. That is changing drastically, of course. My library has instituted a lot of great changes since hiring a librarian for whom this activity is a primary focus. But in general, my sense is that libraries are still trying to figure out their approaches to marketing, and there are many who can't afford to spend time and effort on this area or make this a job focus for someone. Because of this, making users aware of e-resources can become a somewhat lackadaisical or haphazard enterprise. In addition, there are many facets to marketing and awareness building, and sometimes libraries don't think about this holistically. One simple example of what I mean is lack of consistency in use of fonts, colors, and text with what our parent institution uses.

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