Why does my library use social media?

July 6, 2011, 8:40 pm

ALA in New Orleans was a blast. The city has a great vibe—glad I finally got to experience it. Despite the humidity, it made me miss the South.

I gave a talk for LLAMA about managing social media. The theme I built upon was “from pioneer to policy-maker” –  which sums up my early work on the fringes experimenting with 2.0 tools, to where I am now as an admin overseeing the social media program. But I also envision this as an analogy for social media in general— as a profession, we’re past the “dabbling” stages and are moving into something more concrete.

While preparing I looked around for social media guidelines, policies, procedures, strategies, etc from others. I found a great article Protection, Not Barriers outlining the state of affairs of policies in academic libraries. The authors found that 82% of their survey respondents operated without a social media policy. And that 74% indicated little or no concern regarding potential legal problems.

This was eye opening to me. Of course, back in the day I was totally that person. Why do we need a policy when we don’t exactly even know the full potential of these tools yet? We were all just experimenting and it was changing every month… but things seemed to have leveled off now with Facebook and Twitter emerging as the standards.

I decided to collect some information to update their research and conducted a very informal, unscientific, non-generalizable study. I emailed a handful of librarians who I know actively use social media in their organizations and asked if they had a policy or procedures. I heard back from twenty. It broke down like this:

40% no policy
40% are currently working on a policy or have one in draft form
20% have a policy in place

This suggests a noticeable shift. My small sample suggests that many of the libraries operating without a policy are now moving toward writing or implementing one. I predict that by ALA 2012 (or maybe 2013) we’ll see a total swing in which 80% of academic libraries will have a policy in place and only 20% will be without one.

The bigger picture though… this talk forced me to reflect on the past and future of social media. And there was one question that I kept emerging.

When you ask most librarians why they have a social media presence they will likely say things like:

  • To promote library services, workshops, and events.
  • To provide better access to information.
  • To be where the users are.
  • To enhance instruction.
  • To collect feedback from patrons.

These are all fine actions— but they are what we are doing, not why we are doing it.

I’ve been very influenced by Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why and especially his TED Talk. (Read Steven Bell’s column on this too ) And I keep coming back to that question of why bother with social media at all? If we deleted all of our accounts today would it really matter? Would anyone notice? What impact would it have (or does it have) on our operations? The phrase I used was during the talk was “potential, but not essential.”

As I reviewed the social media sites of many academic libraries I felt somewhat disappointed. On paper (and on twitter) we talk about “opening conversations” but the reality is that most of us just use these tools to push out information. We’re building online billboards, not centers for engagement. And I’m pointing the finger at my own library (especially myself) too.  We could be doing so much more, but bottom line is priority—my librarians are so busy that social media becomes an afterthought, perhaps even a chore, rather than a major interaction channel. It’s easy to just push out information, but it takes a much larger time investment to really manage a social media program to it’s full potential. That’s why I’m using this summer to not only relaunch but to rethink our intentions.

I’ve been pondering why we do this and here is my current thinking:

Our purpose—the reason why we use the social web is to find people who “like” the library and give them a way to express it. We will use this platform to nurture that bond and move them from like to love. [Develop their passion.] We also want to enable them to share this experience and help bring others into this relationship.

Granted it’s still a little rough, but this is what I’m bringing to my team to brainstorm and wordsmith. Do you see the difference? It’s not about promoting the library, this is about building brand loyalty. It’s not about posting library news for students, but about building an ambassadors program, a network of friends and allies. The goal is a transition patrons from being library users to library advocates.

This approach isn’t about reaching a mass audience or being where students are necessarily—instead it’s about reaching a small focused niche audience. What I want to do is change the mindset of how we operate: we treat our “fans” or “followers” like VIPs. They are not just people interested in learning more about the library, but rather, people who we want to keep interested in using, thinking about, and telling others about the library, and moving them along the engagement process.

Some recent hotel experiences may be influencing me. One hotel treated me as a customer and it was a fine satisfactory time. While another hotel, with which I have a loyalty card and many points, treated me very well and gave me what felt like special perks because of our established relationship. This is the type of thinking I want to explore via our online experience as well. Giving our interested patrons a peek at our new website, or inviting them to a “fans-only” focus group, or giving them a special tour of our renovation plans, or giving them free water bottles and other swag with the library logo. When you take away the pressure of using social media to reach everyone and instead refocus on enhancing the relationship with your core users it because a totally different agenda.

I mentioned in a previous post that I hired a student consultant to draft a strategy document. And I have another student writing a policy/procedure/strategy plan for us this summer. Then my plan in the Fall is to have a handful of students who already work for us (ILL, Circulation, Reference, Special Collections , etc) work an additional hour or two each week contributing to our social media streams. I want to build around the concept of students engaging other students, but now with a focus of revealing the personality of the library. The other 20% will be managed by librarians and staff providing value-added perks.

This is obviously  an ongoing project and I’ll post an update later in the summer once things are more defined, but I’m guessing that your team might also be thinking (rethinking) your social media effort and so I just wanted to put my evolving ideas out there. The question you should start with is why does your library need to use social media?

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