One of the most important aspects of the library's virtual presence on the web concerns building engagement with patrons. A library website must be able to do many different things simultaneously. It needs to provide all sorts of information about the library, such as its hours, programs, services, and myriad other details. It serves as a delivery vehicle for content and collections, made even more complicated as libraries become involved with electronic and digital materials in addition to their print offerings.
The overriding concern must be to go beyond these utilitarian functions and strengthen ties between the library and its users, not only fulfilling their immediate questions, but doing so in a way that helps shape a more positive image of the library and increases the possibility that they will return many times over. A library website that doesn't work well, that frustrates its users, or that is simply uninteresting may drive users away. Libraries have a vital interest in sparking engagement in ways that will increase the use of their collections and services and improve the user perception of libraries and their relevancy. The library website also can't be seen in isolation, but as being part of the broader ecosystem of the web and social media.
Make a Great First Impression
First impressions matter, especially on the web. I'm far from an expert on user experience and design, but I know enough to understand the importance of crafting a site that presents an attractive look and a clear and readily understood user interface, with intuitive navigational elements. My own text-heavy Library Technology Guides site certainly isn't a positive example of simplicity and elegance, but it was created for use by individuals interested in technology in libraries and not by the general public. Although I'm not the one to teach libraries how to design a site with great visual appeal and exceptional usability, I certainly recommend tapping any available expertise in these areas.
Many library websites overwhelm their visitors with densely packed information. Rather than try to anticipate every possible situation on the top-level pages, you should ensure that all that information can easily be discovered. One of the behaviors that I notice in usability studies is a preference for searching rather browsing or reading through text. When I'm not able to find what I'm looking for on a website after looking for just a few seconds, 111 usually try typing a keyword into a search box, if one's readily available.
Most libraries manage their websites and collections through various back-end systems. Each of these platforms may offer its own search capability, but search on any one of them is usually not designed to work together with another underlying platform's method. I see many library websites that offer separate search boxes for content on the website and for its research collections.
Multiple search boxes can be confusing to patrons who have little understanding of, or sympathy for, the complications in the way that libraries manage their systems. Ideally, visitors to the website should be able to find everything about your library through a single search box.
Libraries should find ways to ensure that the content of the website-such as descriptions of library services, events, hours, subject-oriented resource guides, blog entries, and the like-can be just as easily discovered as collection items. This can be accomplished in various ways. A laborious approach would involve manually creating some kind of metadata record that can be imported into the catalog or discovery service. Other approaches might involve using the APIs of the CMS that powers the library website to automatically populate the index of the catalog or discovery service. Regardless of the technical approach, it's important to achieve a seamless result from the user's perspective.
The commercial and social web sets a high bar for simplicity and usability and are overwhelmingly oriented toward search. Rather than browsing through many complicated webpages, we expect to be able to just search for items of interest. I'm not familiar with successful social network or ecommerce sites that confound their customers with multiple search tools or that segregate content in ways that involve different search or navigational techniques depending on what resource you're researching or what kind of information you are seeking.
Connect Users With the Library Collection
A fundamental role for libraries centers on providing collections of relevant resources to their communities. Providing easy and effective ways for patrons to access these materials helps the library in many ways. Libraries make incredibly sizeable investments in building these collections, so it makes sense to provide the best tools for discovery and access. I spend a lot of time doing research and writing about discovery services consistent with my view that they represent one of the most critical areas of library technology.
Beyond general tools for discovery and access, libraries can leverage their collections in other ways to amplify engagement. The gems of the collection can be featured within the library's website to provide a rotation of content, both to ensure a continually fresh presentation and to remind visitors of the rich resources available to them. Some online catalog and discovery products come with mechanisms that feature best-sellers or other lists of popular materials. Taken a step farther, libraries can also shine the virtual spotlight on the most interesting or unique materials in their local collections.
Online catalog and discovery services often offer buttons on each item display allowing patrons to 'like" it on Facebook or share on Twitter. I am skeptical that they see all that much use, and I worry that they are oriented more along the vectors that push outward rather than inward, relative to the library's virtual presence. I would be interested in learning more about the impact of these tools that connect library resources with social networks.
The library can also use technology to re-create the best of the in-person experience virtually. Most online catalogs allow patrons to browse the collection by call number, listing titles as they would appear on the shelf. Some also offer visual browsing, presenting items by showing their cover images, which not only creates a user experience more similar to visiting the library's physical space, but it provides the added advantage of being able to visually show items that might happen to be borrowed or pull together items that might actually reside in physically separate collections. I hope that library catalogs and discovery services continue to enrich their features to capture more of the flavors of experience that patrons love about libraries and bookstores.
Connect Users With Each Other
Another level of engagement involves establishing virtual venues that foster interactions among library patrons. These interactions might happen in various ways. Some libraries facilitate online book clubs where groups of patrons can select common reading material and engage in the same kinds of discussions as the in-person events. Other avenues of patron-to-patron interactions might include sharing recommendations about individual items, which could lead to a lively exchange among other readers. Some library catalog environments, such as BiblioCommons and ChiliFresh, allow patrons to share their lists of recommended titles in their "areas of interest." Adding a layer of social interaction to library interfaces is another area where I see potential to strengthen patron engagement with their library. A flat searchand-retrieval model of library catalogs may be increasingly less viable relative to alternatives that offer more layers of dynamic interaction.
Connect Users With Library Programs and Services
It's especially beneficial when the library website is able to facilitate patron awareness of library services and attendance at the events and programs the library offers. It's relatively easy to link users to electronic content through the website, but making the in-person connections is more challenging. A library will naturally maintain information on its website describing its events and programs. Patrons may or may not happen to visit the website and notice such listings. I'm aware that some of the discovery tools also have the capability to include programs, events, or other specialized content items in such a way they can be featured in the results returned in response to specific search terms. Social media provides another channel for libraries to promote these kinds of services. However, achieving specific results through social media involves its own set of challenges, as I will detail later.
Create 'Vectors of Engagement'
Social media can be one of the most powerful ways to engage a library's community of users on the web. I see many libraries that have very effectively developed social media strategies and are able to use social media to shape a positive image of the library and to attract interest in specific programs or collections. While part of a general program of outreach and marketing, adding a social media component requires special consideration. Jumping into a social media campaign without a good feel for the nuances and norms of each social network platform might actually have more of an off-putting effect on the individuals you had hoped to reach and positively stimulate or motivate. Just understand going into it that creating a winning social media strategy requires concerted time, effort, and expertise.
To the extent possible, libraries should work to captivate the users who visit them virtually, working to channel them to the service or information resource of interest. The final goal might, for example, be to deliver a user to an article viewed on a publisher's site. But I have a harder time seeing the value of taking a visitor that has already discovered the library's virtual presence and ejecting him to Facebook. An effective strategy shapes the vectors in the other direction, bringing users from social media to the library.
With regard to social media, you might find it useful to think in terms of what I call "vectors of engagement." Thinking in terms of this metaphor, you would want to leverage social media to attract attention to selected areas of interest, either through the library's own website or in its physical facilities. I often observe a prominent link or badge on a library's website linking to its Facebook page or Twitter feed. Those links seem to me to work counter to the desired effect. The vectors should go from the social media to the desired landing point-either physical or virtual-and not the other way around. I notice that libraries that have a prominent presence on social networks-such as the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Library of Congress (LC)-only a small link on the footers of their webpages links to their social media accounts and their social media content consistently links to library resources.
A social media strategy involves building and cultivating a community within each of the social media platforms of interest. I notice many library Facebook pages or Twitter accounts where most of those following them are librarians and not the users of the library. Librarians naturally use social media to connect with their peers, which is different than a social media strategy that targets engagement by current and potential library users. I don't consider myself an expert social media strategist, but I observe that the libraries, such as NYPL, that have large numbers of "likes" or "followers" on Facebook post at least daily, highlighting interesting, controversial, or timely events or items from their collections. The presence on social media should not be about librarians talking among themselves, but to spark conversation with and among library users.
Develop a Social Media Strategy
Designing and executing a social media strategy takes some time in terms of bringing together the right skill set in the library, setting goals for desired accomplishments, and defining the mechanisms most likely to achieve those results. In some sense, a library might just plunge into the social media waters and hope for the best, but a more methodical approach may be more effective in the long term. I don't necessarily advocate waiting for a perfected policy to begin. It's never too soon to begin establishing a presence on selected social media platforms. But to be more effective, consider establishing a social media strategy.
Effective social media strategies can't be developed and carried out by outsiders. Rather, those most immersed in social media will have the direct experience and perspective needed. Just as any other set of responsibilities in the library, managing the library's social media presence requires specialized skills. Some libraries may have individuals who are already savvy in social media marketing, while others may need to identify and provide training to existing personnel, engage with an external expert, or hire a specialist.
The library might want to be selective, at least at first, regarding its involvement with social networks. Each social media platform (such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Tumblr) has its own quirks and use patterns. Blasting the same content to each site is not likely to be as effective as customizing the content, tone, and frequency of each submission to the respective platform. It's important to be sensitive to the distinct character of each of these outlets.
Many libraries have established policies related to how its personnel use social media. While policy issues seem to always surface, keep the strategy of engagement in mind rather than the do's and don'ts and what-ifs. A highly restrictive social media policy might constrain its potential impact.
Libraries have a vital interest in promoting engagement with their communities, both individually and collectively. This engagement should help elevate the use of the library's collections and services and improve other aspects of its strategic mission. But more engagement helps in other ways, such as shoring up support during times when libraries must defend their relevancy and budgets to their constituents or funding bodies. Each library's efforts to heighten engagement with its own patrons also contributes positively to the broader cause of advocacy and support for libraries in general.