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19 Marketing Library Instruction


Most of the instruction sessions that information professionals offer are workshops that patrons voluntarily attend or one-shot sessions that depend on invitations from teachers and faculty members to deliver. Exceptions include elementary and middle school librarians, who typically have weekly scheduled classes with students, and academic librarians, who teach credit-bearing courses described in more detail in Chapter 17. With these exceptions aside, because our sessions depend on audience interest and invitation, instruction librarians must engage in marketing and communication to raise awareness of and generate interest in their sessions. This chapter provides a brief overview of marketing and outreach techniques suitable for instruction programs.

Marketing Overview

Some information professionals have negative associations with the word “marketing,” but in the library and information science field, marketing is not about selling people a product or service they may not want or need. Instead, it is an informational activity meant to raise patrons’ awareness about the services the library offers, like instruction sessions, and to help patrons understand the value they will find in those sessions. No matter how well designed, useful, and relevant our instruction sessions are, people will not attend if they are not aware of them. Unfortunately, most people feel only “somewhat well informed” about the resources and services their libraries offer and wish that the library communicated better so that they could be more aware (Pew Research Center, 2013). Further, instruction is among the services that people most want to see offered by libraries (Pew Research Center, 2013). To that end, the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) lists communication and advocacy as a best practice for instruction programs, noting that instruction librarians must “reach out to relevant stakeholders” and use a variety of communication methods, including “formal and informal networks and media channels” (ACRL, 2019). Similarly, ACRL (2017) describes the library teacher as an advocate who “promotes and advances information literacy.” The Public Library Association (n.d.) offers a list of resources for marketing, while the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) addresses marketing with advocacy and public relations, defining marketing as “a planned and sustained process to assess the customer’s needs and then to select materials and services to meet those needs” (AASL, n.d.).

How do we make people more aware of our instruction services? We can accomplish this through a clear and coherent marketing strategy. A coherent marketing strategy will involve concise and engaging messages targeted to a specific audience and delivered through one or more relevant formats. Developing a comprehensive marketing plan is a complex undertaking and outside the scope of this chapter. However, a basic marketing strategy can be boiled down to four steps: identifying the audience, determining audience interest and needs, crafting the message, and selecting a medium to disseminate the message.

Identifying the Audience

Identifying the audience means breaking down the larger community that the library serves into smaller groups or target audiences in order to develop specific marketing messages for each group. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to marketing. If we send a single message to all of our potential patrons, it is likely to be ignored because it is not speaking to anyone in particular. Rather, we have to ensure that our message and medium are matched to the various audiences that we hope to reach. In the field of business, this process of “dividing potential customers into groups based on shared characteristics” (Ruckno, 2019) is known as market segmentation, and its aim is to align messaging with the specific needs or interests of each community. Potential markets can be subdivided in countless ways, including by gender, age, education level, and geographic location. In some cases, businesses might develop different products for different customer groups, but in other cases they market the same product to different groups using different messages and mediums.

We can segment our audiences for library instruction in many ways as well. Because the number of possibilities for segmenting audiences is seemingly endless, we need to consider what approaches will be most useful. In general, we should group learners who share similar characteristics that will impact their instruction needs and interests. In school and academic libraries, our primary service communities are students and instructors, but each of those groups can be further segmented. For instance, we can group students by grade level; major or broad academic interest; extracurricular pursuits; first-generation, international, or disability status; and so on. Public libraries also have a wide range of possible market segments, including by age, socioeconomic status, languages spoken at home, and hobbies. See Activity 19.1 for a brief activity on segmenting audiences.


Activity 19.1: Segmenting Audiences

Choose an instruction setting with which you are familiar or one in which you’d like to work, and answer the following questions:

  1. How many different audience segments can you identify for this setting?
  2. What characteristics do members of these groups share that could impact their instruction needs and interests?

Determining Audience Interests and Needs

Once we have identified a number of potential audience segments, we need to determine the specific instruction needs and interests that members of each audience might share. For instance, older adults in a public library might be interested in financial planning and health information, while parents of young children might be interested in educational materials and low-cost entertainment options. Studies show that faculty members demonstrate different information behaviors and prioritize library services differently by field and discipline (Hardesty, 1995; Saunders, 2013; Wolff-Eisenberg et al., 2015). Chapter 7 discussed the many different community segments that we serve in libraries and how we might learn more about our various target groups, including through direct research like surveys, as well as through existing research articles and demographic information. See Activity 19.2 for a brief exercise on determining audience needs and interests.


Activity 19.2: Audience Needs and Interests

Choose one of the audiences you identified in Activity 19.1, and answer the following questions:

  1. What existing research can you find on your audience’s information behaviors?
  2. What information can you find about its general demographics?
  3. How could this information inform your understanding of this audience’s instructional needs and interests? Can you identify specific instructional topics of potential interest to this audience?

Crafting the Message

Understanding members of our audience is crucial to developing a message that captures their attention and piques their curiosity. Especially in an age when they are constantly inundated with advertisements and social media messages, people are likely to ignore or tune out information that is not relevant to them. Even worse, they might choose to unfollow library announcements on social media or unsubscribe from newsletters if they consistently find that the messages do not appeal to them. To avoid this outcome, we can use the different interests and needs we identified to develop messages targeted to each of our audiences.

In some cases, we will market different resources and services to each group, and in some cases, we will promote the same services and resources but describe them differently. Even when audience interests overlap, each group will have different motivations for its interests or will prioritize those interests differently, so that the same message will not work for all groups. For instance, an academic library session on database searching is relevant to all students, but we might emphasize the time-saving nature of the search strategies when reaching out to older learners, while noting that finding better resources can lead to better grades when marketing to younger students. We can even adjust the language that we use with different audiences. While we always want to remain professional, shorter, more informal messages might resonate more with a younger audience. The point is to craft a message appropriate to the targeted group. See Activity 19.3 for a brief exercise on crafting a targeted message.


Activity 19.3: Crafting a Message

Review the information you compiled for Activity 19.2, and choose an instructional topic you think would be of interest to this audience.

  1. What specific needs or interests of the audience does this session address?
  2. Based on your understanding of audience members, how would you describe this session to them?
  3. What aspects of the session, or what benefits of attending the session, would you emphasize? Why?
  4. What specific words or phrasing would you use? Why?
  5. Try adapting the message for another audience that might be interested in this same topic. How would you change the message, and why would you make those specific changes?

Selecting a Medium and Disseminating the Message

Just as different groups have different areas of interest, they also have different preferred methods and sources for receiving information, and we should find appropriate mediums for getting our message out to each group. In most cases, we will want to find more than one way to share our message, regardless of audience, but the question is which formats or outlets will work best? As we research our audience needs, we should also inquire about which outlets they use to find out about community events. Do some users rely on social media? Which platforms do they prefer? Which patrons subscribe to the library newsletter or the local community paper? Which patrons are likely to see flyers at the student union or the local yoga studio? And who can we meet by moving out of the library and into spaces like residence halls, low-income housing, and farmers’ markets? The sections below explore how to use various outlets and media effectively, but the first step is to match different outlets with each audience.

We also must consider how to use each medium effectively. With most text-based materials, including flyers, direct email messages, web blurbs, or notices in newsletters, we should minimize the time and effort needed to digest the information by keeping the text brief while still adapting it for the intended audience. For instance, for a voluntary workshop, we might include the title of the session, a line or two about what attendees will learn and how it will benefit them, the basic logistics such as time and place, and whether registration is necessary. When reaching out to faculty to offer in-class sessions, we can emphasize how we can adapt the session to their specific course and learning goals. Occasionally a longer piece could be effective for generating interest. For instance, a campus newspaper might be willing to include a brief article highlighting library instruction, while a local newspaper might be interested in a piece on workshops for job seekers at the public library. If the articles include a few positive quotes from attendees, all the better. Keep in mind that we can use images and graphics to enhance our textual materials.

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can be great ways to reach certain audiences, but they entail additional design considerations. Certain formats restrict text, and some outlets are particularly appropriate for graphics. For instance, we are limited to 280 characters per tweet, but we can enhance the post with graphics or a link to a web page with more information. Instagram emphasizes visual media over text and could be a great place to share a brief video outlining workshops and classes. Unlike most written materials, social media offers an opportunity for interaction with our learners, and we should incorporate those opportunities into our messaging. For instance, we could invite learners to share something they enjoyed about a recent workshop they attended or invite them to submit pictures of themselves putting the skills they learned into practice. Creative use of hashtags can make our messages discoverable. See Activity 19.4 for an exercise on selecting formats.


Activity 19.4: Matching Mediums to Audience

Return to the audience you selected for Activity 19.2 and Activity 19.3, and answer the following questions:

  1. Which outlets or media might this audience consult to find out about community events? How do you know?
  2. Think about the message you crafted in Activity 19.3. Could you use that message as is for the outlets you have identified? How might you modify the message to better fit the medium?

Avoid Stereotyping

As discussed in Chapter 7, to avoid harmful stereotyping we must be careful not to overgeneralize. Existing research, demographics, and our own data collecting can give us some helpful insights into broad group interests, but we have to remember that any individual’s membership in a group does not describe an entire identity. Each person is intersectional, or made up of numerous, overlapping identities, and as such, each individual is a member of multiple groups. For instance, one person might be a father of young children and a nontraditional student returning to college for a degree. Another might be an African American woman and a veteran working as a nurse. Each part of a person’s identity could influence different instructional interests and needs. Further, not every single member of a group will necessarily share all of the interests and needs of the larger group. While we can use market segmentation for broad generalities and guidance, we have to be sure not to make assumptions about any person based on actual or perceived membership in a group.

Design Considerations

In addition to each individual message we craft, we should consider the overall look and feel of the range of materials we create in order to achieve a coherent approach. For instance, we might select a color palette and font style to use consistently across all of our messaging, or we might develop a signature graphic or logo that identifies the library instruction program (Graesser & Sundell-Thomas, 2020). This kind of branding makes our materials recognizable and provides a familiar and consistent feel. That said, library instruction programs do not exist in a vacuum but are part of the larger library and might be part of a larger campus or community system as well. We should ensure that our materials are consistent with those of our parent institution and follow any design guidelines it might provide.

As with any materials we create, we want to be sure that our marketing materials are accessible to our audience. As we develop materials in different formats, we should ensure to provide readable text, use color and white space effectively, add alt text for images, and include closed captions for videos. Chapter 11 outlines additional design considerations with a focus on accessibility issues.

Outreach and In-Person Marketing

In addition to text-based materials and social media, we can reach potential learners in a more interpersonal way through in-person and word-of-mouth marketing. To begin with, every instruction librarian should prepare an elevator speech, or a brief speech of about 30 seconds describing the instruction program. Ideally, the speech should explain who benefits from the program and what those benefits are. The Association for Library Service to Children (2015) offers a simple template:

I help [target audience] [verb phrase] so that [proven/expected positive outcome for the target audience].

For instance, a school or academic librarian might say, “I help students learn to evaluate information so that they use better resources in their papers and earn better grades.” An archivist might say, “I help researchers locate and interpret historical resources so that they can create the books and films that help us understand history.” With an elevator speech ready, we can market our instruction services to potential learners and other stakeholders whenever and wherever we might encounter them.

We should also consider taking our message out of the library and into our patrons’ spaces. People often ignore emails, social media posts, and flyers when they are constantly inundated with information. However, when we meet them in-person, not only can we ensure they receive our message, we can answer any questions they might have and make the information even more personalized. Where we go to meet patrons depends on our setting and community. School and academic librarians should spend time in student unions, residence halls, and faculty lounges. These librarians might also request a few minutes at a faculty meeting to share information about the instruction program. Public librarians might visit community centers, housing developments, and elder and youth service organizations. And all librarians should make an effort to attend community meetings and events, including school sporting events, city council meetings, rallies, and so forth. Armed with printed marketing materials and an elevator speech, we can share information about our instruction program while showing support for our community.

We can also tap into word-of-mouth marketing by encouraging some of our most satisfied users to talk about our services (Graesser & Sundell-Thomas, 2020). Our patrons and potential learners expect positive messages about the library to come from librarians, but such messages coming from their peers or trusted colleagues might pique their interest in a new way. Further, these patrons can reach a wider audience who might never have received a message from the library, and thus bring new learners to the library. A faculty member who had a good experience with an in-class session can discuss that experience with her colleagues in a way that speaks to their needs as instructors more directly and specifically than someone outside of the department. Stories from students who felt more confident writing a paper after library instruction, or public library patrons who found a job after attending a job hunting workshop can be more impactful than any message a librarian can deliver. Rather than hoping or trusting that satisfied patrons will share their experiences, we can reach out to patrons that we know have had good experiences and who might have influence with their peers. We can encourage them to share their story and provide them with printed marketing materials to circulate. Depending on our setting and intended audience, we could even ask patrons to record a short video for the library website or write a brief article for the newsletter. See Activity 19.5 for an exercise on in-person marketing and outreach.


Activity 19.5: Identifying Spaces and Individuals for Outreach

Return to the library setting and audience you selected for the previous activities, and answer the following questions:

  1. What community spaces or events could you visit to reach this audience?
  2. What kinds of patrons might be willing to help spread the word about instruction services?


No matter how engaging, relevant, and informative our instruction sessions might be, if people do not know about them, they will not attend. Instruction librarians, like all information professionals, must market their services to raise patron awareness. The main takeaways from this chapter are as follows:

  • The first step to marketing is to segment our audiences into groups that share commonalities that might impact what they want from library instruction. We can use techniques from Chapter 7 to learn more about our audiences’ interests and needs. While understanding groups can help us focus our marketing materials, we must remember not to stereotype individuals based on their actual or perceived membership in any group.
  • Once we understand our audience, we can craft a message targeted to them.
  • We should share our marketing messages through media outlets favored by our patrons.
  • We should also take our message outside of the library and engage in in-person and word-of-mouth marketing.

Suggested Readings

Barbara, P., & Wallace, L. (2010). Building a buzz: Libraries and word-of-mouth marketing. American Library Association.

This handy guide provides clear and straightforward advice to developing word-of-mouth marketing. The authors discuss marketing and communication plans, then go on to describe various methods for “creating a buzz” about library services. They also offer an overview of marketing terminology, some sample planning documents, and a series of case studies. Although geared toward public libraries, much of the advice would be relevant to any setting.

Barker, K. (2017). Creating a unique brand for your school library: Values, vision, voice, and visuals. Young Adult Library Services, 15(3), 31-35.

Barker offers pointed advice for developing a brand for the school library that builds on the mission, vision, and values of the library and larger school system.

Douglas, V. A. (2019, June 12). Innovating against a brick wall: Rebuilding the structures that shape our teaching. Libraries + Inquiry.

In this post adapted from a keynote address, Douglas identifies and challenges some of the structures that impact library instruction and how library instructors identify. In particular, she examines patriarchal notions of service and the liminal space outside of the traditional classroom that academic librarians occupy. After problematizing some of these issues, Douglas provides specific ideas and strategies for overcoming barriers and engaging fully in our work, such as valuing the time and labor that teaching requires.

Miller, K. L. (2010). The non-profit marketing guide: High-impact, low-cost ways to build support. John Wiley & Sons.

Although not specific to libraries, the advice for nonprofit marketing is directly applicable to libraries. More detailed than some of the other texts listed here, this handbook provides clear guidance on each stage and aspect of marketing, including methods for learning about the community, including surveys and focus groups. Miller keeps cost in mind throughout and discusses the importance of relationships and social capital, which are key for nonprofits like libraries to encourage advocacy.

Posner, M. (2014, September 18). Here and there: Creating DH community. Miriam Posner’s Blog.

Although directed at digital humanities librarians, the advice in this post is widely relevant. The first few paragraphs provide background, but beginning with the header “You are a disruption in the force,” Posner offers clear, targeted advice for engaging in outreach to build community, including gems such as “Go to coffee with one new person every week” and “Promise nothing.” Her handy list of tips and strategies is generally low cost and easily implementable.


American Association of School Librarians. (n.d.). What is advocacy?

Association for Library Service to Children. (2015). Creating an elevator speech.

Association of College & Research Libraries. (2017). Roles and strengths of teaching librarians.

Association of College & Research Libraries. (2019). Characteristics of programs of information literacy that illustrate best practices: A guideline.

Graesser, C., & Sundell-Thomas, L. (2020). Marketing and promotion of reference services. In M. Wong & L. Saunders (Eds.), Reference & information services: An introduction (pp. 200-222). Libraries Unlimited.

Hardesty, L. (1995). Faculty culture and bibliographic instruction. Library Trends 44(2), 339-367.

Pew Research Center. (2013, January 22). Part 4: What people want from their libraries. Library Services in the Digital Age.

Public Library Association. (n.d.). Public relations & marketing.

Ruckno, H. (2019). Market segmentation. Salem Press Encyclopedia. EBSCO.

Saunders, L. (2013). Culture and collaboration: Speaking the language of faculty. In D. Mueller (Ed.), Imagine, innovate, inspire: ACRL conference proceedings (pp. 137-147). ACRL.

Wolff-Eisenberg, C., Rod, A. B., & Schonfeld, R. C. (2015). Ithaka S+R US faculty survey 2015. Ithaka S+R.


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Instruction in Libraries and Information Centers Copyright © 2020 by Laura Saunders and Melissa A. Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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