Libraries and related organizations naturally want to maintain a high level of awareness and exposure to their clientele. They can use many different techniques as part of their marketing or outreach efforts. As organizations centered on information, employing methods to disseminate interesting content comes to mind as a potentially effective way to strengthen engagement with a site's community of users. There are a variety of technologies that can leverage the resources of the library to strengthen its engagement with patrons.
I often use my Library Technology Guides site as a test bed for trying out strategies that may have applicability to libraries. Although not a library in itself, it aims to provide relevant resources to those who share an interest in the topics it covers. Since this is mostly a personal site, I can use it to experiment with different technologies and techniques. Even though I want to ensure that it remains stable and reliable, I don't have the concerns for risk avoidance that often apply in a library setting.
I have implemented a variety of techniques to increase the exposure of Library Technology Guides since I launched it almost 2 decades ago. These techniques include optimizing the discovery of content in search engines, dissemination of content via multiple channels, use of social networks, and other personalized services.
Interesting and Relevant Content
More than anything else, the key to cultivating engagement lies in developing highquality content of interest to your clientele and presenting in it a way that highlights its value. In a context in which information is abundant, it can be difficult to distinguish objective, reliable, and authoritative sources. While great content is an attraction, it can remain obscure unless proactive measures are taken to heighten awareness.
It's essential to understand the audience for the organization's information and services, which may include many different segments. Although most libraries serve broad and diverse communities, outreach activities can be directed toward specific niche groups, defined by academic disciplines, cultural affinities, or other areas of common interest. Different forms of outreach might be developed to reach each of these target audiences. With Library Technology Guides, for example, vendors that make products have distinctly different patterns of use relative to those who work in libraries and might make use of those products.
The general public constitutes another interesting audience group for Library Technology Guides. The libraries.org directory of libraries sees extensive use as a general finding tool, both by searching it directly
or through the listings presented in web search results. This type of activity represents a large portion of the overall use, but it is somewhat incidental to the main goals of the site. The high volume of churn in the directory does help improve data quality, especially through the reporting of errors or changes. I'm delighted that libraries.org provides a useful public service, especially since that use results in strengthening the data underlying the overall site.
Following the content itself, techniques to facilitate its discovery in the broader web come next in the development of outreach strategies. Although SEO may not be able to optimize access toward targeted audience segments, it is an important prerequisite for other, more refined approaches. It is vital that the site can be easily found on the web, as well as each of the individual content elements within.
The specific techniques for improving discoverability on the web continually change. Google and the other search engines provide guidance regarding the content guidelines and technical techniques that can be implemented to improve search engine performance. However, it is notoriously difficult to achieve consistent results. Some of the basic techniques currently expected are as follows:
- A clean presentation of information, using uncluttered and valid HTML.
- Mobile friendly: Google now penalizes sites that cannot be easily displayed on mobile devices.
- Implement HTTPS: Google and other search engines treat pages encrypted with HTTPS as more trustworthy (as should users).
- Generate site maps: Create current listings of each unique resource offered on the site, following the sitemap.org protocol.
- Provide appropriate metadata in page headers, especially the title and a short description.
- Encode content to delineate semantic content, using specifications such as schema.org. Google's Structured Data Testing Tool can be used to view and validate the results of this encoding (search.google.com/structured-data/ testing-tool).
These techniques should be applied to every resource page on the site. The CMS I developed for Library Technology Guides enables templates to include both presentational and semantic elements to enhance search engine performance. The CMSs used for library websites should have similar capabilities.
Once the infrastructure of generalized discoverability has been implemented, other techniques can be used for a more targeted outreach.
Social Media Strategies
Social networks can be powerful tools to generate interest in your resources for specific audience groups. I use Twitter and Facebook; different options include LinkedIn and Instagram.
Twitter is well-suited for amplifying engagement with a website. Its effectiveness primarily depends on cultivating a community of followers with a potential interest in the content on the site. Don't worry as much about the total number of followers for the account associated with the site as much about attracting people within your target audience. Since there is a close association between my name and Library Technology Guides, I use my personal Twitter handle, but libraries will usually want to match the branding among their website and any social media channels. I use Twitter to lead interested individuals to new resources or announcements posted on the site. Each link is encoded using bit.ly, for shortening it into a customized URL as well as providing a mechanism for tracking the volume of associated activity.
I post only a few key articles on Facebook. I find that the site does not generate as much focused engagement as Twitter. Even though I have an organizational page set up for Library Technology Guides, it does not generate much activity. Notifications are sent only to a fraction of the people who have Liked the page, unless advertising fees are paid to promote the post.
Many libraries have developed advanced social media strategies and allocate significant personnel resources toward their execution. Effective use of social media often seems more of an art than a science. You will need to evolve strategies to keep up with the changing world of social media networks. It's important to not only be savvy about each of the social media channels themselves, but to especially be tuned in to how your organization's clientele engages with them.
Email, even though it is often perceived as a dying communication channel, has proven to be the most effective mechanism for interacting with individuals who are interested in Library Technology Guides. It's the best option for direct communications between a site and its users.
Library Technology Guides has a feature for people to register as members, which includes their providing a valid email address. I try to make the registration process as simple as possible. While almost all the content on the site is freely available without login, only registered members can use the advanced search feature of the libraries .org directory or update entries. It is also necessary to have a membership record to participate in surveys, especially the annual "Library Automation Perceptions Survey." For those who are not already registered, completing the survey response automatically creates a member profile.
Registered members can also opt to receive news updates from the site delivered via email. Compilations of press releases and other announcements are distributed weekly or monthly, according to the options set in the member's profile.
The churn of incoming and outgoing email represents the majority of personal interactions on the site. Email communications, however, require considerable administrative overhead. It is essential to have a properly configured email service for generating messages to avoid them being flagged by spam on the receiver's server. Many thousands of individuals have signed into the weekly or monthly news updates, which also generate many bounced messages, unsubscribe requests, or other tasks that require attention. The effectiveness of email for efficient site engagement depends on keeping a clean registry of addresses.
Although they were once regarded as an essential mechanism for disseminating information, interest in RSS feeds has greatly diminished. Google's shelving of its popular RSS reader was a major blow, but many other alternatives certainly are available. I have provided RSS feeds for my site from its earliest versions. Although activity has declined, I continue to offer the service. It is difficult to measure how many views of content on the site can be attributed to those using the RSS feeds. Once RSS feeds are deployed, they require little ongoing maintenance, making it reasonable to continue them even if they see less use.
When developing methods for engaging current and potential users of a service, it is important to show some restraint. Anything perceived as spam will not only fail to be effective, but it can also generate an adverse reaction. I find that it is much better to entice potential users gently, building stronger affinities over time. These strategies have paid off in cultivating a relatively large userbase that regularly contributes to my research projects, such as the aforementioned survey, as well as assists in improving the quality of data on the site by routinely reviewing and updating entries in the libraires.org registry. In return, I work hard to provide information resources pertinent to their interests.
It is not necessarily easy to measure the success of engagement strategies. Many analytical tools are available to measure overall use of the site and each of its resources. Services such as Google Analytics can show multitudes of usage trends. It is especially helpful to monitor growth in activity over time and levels of interest in specific categories of site content. It's a bit more difficult to measure the effectiveness of each method to engage users. For my more informal work, it is generally sufficient to measure the overall changes in use. However, many libraries will find it worthwhile to make use of the more sophisticated marketing analytics tools available to gain more insight into the activity of their users and the impact of each channel of communication.
These technologies and techniques represent some of the most basic approaches for fostering engagement with a website's audience. They have generally achieved positive results for Library Technology Guides and should be effective for libraries. Regardless of the specific approaches used, libraries can't be passive about communicating with their users. Effective marketing and outreach are increasingly important to improving the visibility of the library to its users, funding organizations, and other stakeholders. The technologies mentioned here are a starting point that can be further expanded as the library seeks additional ways to extend its impact on the communities it serves.