Should you Focus on People without Library Cards?

If you haven’t seen it yet, go read Bobbi Newman’s article on Why Libraries Should Look Beyond Library Card Ownership as a Measure of Support. Bobbi sometimes has a slightly different perspective than me, so her articles make me think.

I left a comment on her post that said this:

Yes … but. It’s also a problem of simple marketing. We aren’t offering something those people want, so they don’t use the library.
Perhaps we should ask them about their information/entertainment/distraction needs, and see if we can meet those?

I wanted to expand that thought a bit more – hence this article! The point that hit me in Bobbi’s post was her last paragraph:

Rather than focusing on the percentage of the community that has a library card, libraries would be better off focusing on public support of the library and accepting that some people don’t use the library for one reason or another.

Do I agree with that? Well, yes and no. Here’s what I mean.

No, I don’t agree with Bobbi:

First off, for my original response. I think many libraries could get more cardholders simply by:

  1. asking their community what they want, and what’s missing.
  2. Then working hard to provide those things.

That’s basic marketing and promotion, and most of us library types really don’t do marketing and promotion all that well. Figure it out, and you’ll get more cardholders – simple (well, not really simple. But you get my drift). There are definitely “potential cardholders” out there who want your library’s services … they just haven’t yet bothered to get a library card for one reason or another. With a little nudging, they just might get one.

Yes, Bobbi’s right #1:

Then again, focusing on “people who don’t have library cards” is probably NOT the best approach. Your library should have a strategic plan focused on narrower groups of people.

For example, maybe one of your library’s long-range goals is to attract more kids age 5-10 to the library. In this case, who should you target? Certainly not everyone, and not “people without library cards.” Why? Because not all of those people have kids age 5-10.

Instead, you should focus pretty specifically on young parents. Do that well, and you will attract more library card holders … within that targeted group. In the process, you’ll be working towards achieving that long-range goal.

Yes, Bobbi’s right #2:

Or, for something completely different – don’t work too hard on those people who don’t use your services. Instead, why not focus pretty heavily on your current customers? For example, my library has 92,000 or so library card holders. Why not provide those library users with the most awesome library experience ever? Or even narrow that down further to our most engaged customers (those Library Lovers that Bobbie mentions)?

Focus on that top 1% of your most engaged customers, and they will do quite a bit of word-of-mouth marketing for you. Other businesses and brands do this pretty successfully all the time. For example:

  • Lady Gaga focuses on her Little Monsters – her most engaged fans (the top 1% of her audience)
  • Maker’s Mark does a similar thing with their Ambassadors program, focused on their top fans

Here are a couple more articles on that concept:

So … what do you think? What’s your response to Bobbi’s article, and to the Pew Report she mentions?

Photo by Bobbi Newman (perfect for this post!)

  • Bobbi Newman

    Thanks for the follow up David!

    One of the important points about not focusing on card holders is the assumption that librarians and libraries have that card holdership equals support. It doesn’t. If you go back and look at the data I up into the chart from pew you’ll see that in almost every case belief that the closing of the library will affect the community is lower than the numbers for card holders. And the numbers for belief that the library closing would affect respondents personally is even lower than the belief it will affect the community. These are the numbers libraries should be looking at when considering support for the library. It’s not card ownership that’s indicative of support at the polls or through donation but the belief it will affect people personally or the community as a whole.

  • davidleeking

    That’s true – nice point. Some of those card holders needed their card once, to do a specific thing … and now they’re done. With the thing, and with us. But they still have that library card.

  • Bobbi Newman

    Right and there are people who don’t have a card for one reason or another but who think that the library is important to the community. Having a library card doesn’t equate with support for the library, and focusing on it as if it does is a problem. That was the main point of my post. :-)

  • Jeffrey Davis

    As the national parks analogy shows, support can come from non-users and non-cardholders. And as the Pew study shows, library usage, much less card ownership, doesn’t equal support. So, agreed, library cards are not a useful measure of support.

    That said, card ownership in and of itself serves a part of the library’s mission. Think of the paeans to the childhood library card we’ve all read. That’s real. Library cards confer membership and belonging: for kids to their world, for immigrants to a new community, for patrons to one another.

    Libraries have also begun to offer non-library *benefits* to library members: museum passes, admission to zoos and private gardens, tickets to performing arts events, valid identification, etc. I don’t know that we’ve thought about these offerings in these terms — expanded meaning for library membership, the library card as a City Pass — but we should.

    So for these reasons, I’d encourage us to not confuse library card ownership with support while at the same time pushing library card ownership, in and of itself and independent of traditional library use, as a central and forward-looking goal.

  • davidleeking

    Nice thoughts, Jeffrey!

  • Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

    This is a topic I think a lot about. One of my roles at my library system is to help our member libraries get their budget votes passed. We use something called “The Magic Quadrant” to estimate our potential yes votes. While it is true we can’t focus on “all non users” we can be smart about segmenting users and non-users when it comes to figuring out not just who loves us but who will show that love at the polls.

    “The Magic Quadrant” are those folks who are both library users and registered voters. Those are people that we find we are highly likely to be able to mobilize on the day of the vote. Our first step is to make sure as many of our users are registered to vote as possible. Next we take a look at voters who are not library users. These are people who are engaged community members who would likely find something appealing about libraries. We work to target this group through focus groups, surveys and a targeted marketing approach we like to call “Building Your Base” (More about that here:

    Those in the community that are not engaged, meaning not using the library, not voting are not necessarily worth a targeted effort for the purposes of winning your vote. I’m sure they could use the library but the effort expended there would be much better spent on amping up good word-of-mouth amongst your “little monsters”… 😉

    Here’s a graphic that probably better describes our Magic Quadrant better than I just did:

  • davidleeking

    Awesome comment … and awesome use of library card holder data, too! We don’t do that (though I think that’s fabulous!), but we DO target groups of library card holders and non-card holders, based on market segmentation data.

    Mine that customer database and use it!

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