Library Advocacy, Part 3: Getting Your Message Out

Library Advocacy Part 3You can have the best message in the world, but if you don’t have a good strategy for getting it out into the community in the best way possible, your message won’t matter. So, getting your message out there is almost more important than how good your message is. However, you can make a greater impact on the community if you know how to choose the right pathways for message deployment.

Effective Frequency

Many marketers believe in the concept of an effective frequency. The effective frequency is the number of times a person must be exposed to an advertising message before a response is made and before exposure is considered wasteful. This concept is fairly controversial and the optimum number of instances of exposure to a message for it to be effective is largely debated. That effective frequency can range from 3–20 exposures.

In any case, what is clear is that you want people to see your message as often as possible for the best response rate, which is why you need to repeat your message until you and everyone on your staff is sick of hearing it, then repeat it twice as much. If you aren’t tired of your own message, you haven’t used it enough.

A/B Testing

While, there are many ways to put your message in the minds of community members, there are some ways that are better than others and it can be different from community to community. This is why many political organizations rely so heavily on local A/B testing. A/B testing allows you to test your message with small sample sizes while making small changes and seeing how it impacts the way people receive your message. For example, you can measure if it gets more likes or shares on Facebook or if it has a higher open or click through rate on email. The data from this kind of testing early in your messaging campaign can save you a lot of time and money later on when you more fully push your message out into the community.

There are many examples of things you can change to increase open rates, click rates or whatever your measurement of success is. For example, if you’re doing a direct mail campaign to increase the number of library card holders, you can check to see how many of the people who received the mail piece came in and got a library card with one message versus another and make a comparison. Then when you do the full mailing, you can use the most effective message. Or, if you are letting people know about your new service through an email campaign, you can measure mail your open rates with various subject lines.

Overall, A/B testing is a significantly important experiment that any good messaging campaign will run in the early stages and often a few times throughout the campaign. Getting good at this kind of testing is one of the few ways to really see a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of your message. Eventually, you will be able to see patterns in what makes people respond to various promotions and you’ll be able to use that knowledge to develop better marketing across the board.

Direct Mail

Doing direct mail effectively is very difficult to accomplish efficiently. It requires well-curated lists and good data on who you are sending the mail to. If you send a piece of mail, you want to make sure that you’re sending to someone who cares and someone who will be most likely to respond. The market is just so oversaturated with direct mail (junk mail) that much of it gets thrown away without a second glance.

That being said, political campaigns spend billions on direct mail every year and almost as much on the research to find out who to send it to. You can do some similar research to help you narrow down where you send it and how many you should send using some of the databases that many libraries already have like AtoZ databases cross referenced with your list of people in your community who hold a library card.

So, for example, if you are trying to increase library card holder rates, you don’t want to send direct mail to people in your community who already have library cards. By getting a list of addresses and removing the people with library accounts, you can save money in postage and printing. For more complex goals, you are going to need to take some time and really research your community to eliminate anyone who is not likely to be affected by a mailer.

Facebook vs Email Messaging

Two of the easiest and most modestly effective ways to get out your message are using Facebook and email. These two platforms can allow you to direct your ads at groups of people with specific interests or geographies and set up excellent A/B testing with good metrics. They also complement each other very well and have similar saturation rates (in the United States) in most communities. Typically 70–75% of the adult population have a Facebook account and about 85% of the population has an email account. This means that you can get your message out to a very high percentage of your population using just these two devices and you can do it from the comfort of your office chair.

The biggest difference in these two platforms is the cost associated with them. While many people regard email as free, done correctly it can be a large drain on your staff time to curate and cultivate strong email lists. On the other hand, Facebook allows you to connect to people without their contact information using boosted ads, but that can be a drain on your budget.

In either case, I would strongly argue that the cost of using these tools together is much less than the cost of lost funding due to a lack of decent advocacy messaging to your community. Paying for the time for email and paying for the advertising through Facebook are the absolute bare minimum that a library needs to do. However, learning to fully utilize these resources would be lengthy articles in and of themselves and besides, you probably have books all about it on your shelves!

Other Social Media

While there are many different social media platforms that are largely popular, the return on investment (ROI) for using those platforms isn’t as high because the use rate is pretty low. Active user estimates for Twitter (one of the highest) are still around 20% and most of the rest fall lower than that. Spending a large amount of time or money on these platforms just doesn’t make sense … yet.

*This doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for your library to withdraw from less popular social media entirely. I still think it’s important to have a diverse set of social media accounts and maintain them.

Beyond the Internet

While Facebook and email are two of the easiest ways to get your message out there, there are a very wide array of choices if you have the money or the time. While I won’t go into each of them, I will give you a brief list of ideas with short summaries that you can use to get yourself started.

Did you know that in a lot of areas of the country, you can negotiate deals with billboard advertising companies that bring the cost down to almost $0? This is because many companies would rather have a tax write off than an empty billboard. If you think you’re in one of those areas, don’t be scared to call around.

Bar Coasters
If you have a community with a lot of local dive bars that many people go to, custom printed bar coasters are extremely cheap to print and many bars, taverns and restaurants will always accept free coasters.

Fast-food Trays
Those paper liners that many fast-food companies line their trays with are extremely cheap and some of the mom and pop diners and fast food restaurants will just take them from you if you print some with your library messaging. The bigger franchises might charge you, but the cost is pretty low.

Movie Theaters
Movie theaters are always looking for ads to put up while people wait for the movie to start. Many times you can either do a video ad or a static ad. Anytime you do a video ad, you need make sure you spend the money to do it right and professionally.

Grocery Store Shopping Baskets
Grocery store shopping carts usually have a space on the children’s seat or on the bottom of the basket that could be used as advertising space. Again, in this case, it’s much easier to get into the mom and pop grocers than it is the commercial chains.

Radio ads are especially effective for ads in languages other than English and many times they are pretty inexpensive. There are also opportunities to appear on local radio programs as a guest speaker and take calls from the public on issues dealing with the library.

I would almost never recommend placing an ad in a newspaper, but I would highly recommend having someone from your Friends of the Library group or one of your volunteers write an editorial. These get read much more than ads and hold much more weight in readers’ minds.

In no way was this blog series a comprehensive guide to getting messaging out to your community. We are just scratching the surface from the perspective of political campaigns. These campaigns spend billions of dollars every year on research, testing and data analysis to understand why people make the choices they make. This data translates well to what libraries need to do to win over voters, politicians and communities for change.

There are many more ideas to get your message out there and I recommend taking a few of the books off your shelf to see what you can add to this blog series! Feel free to share your comments below as you find ways to get your message out.


Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney

Patrick "P.C." Sweeney is a tireless and innovative advocate for libraries. A 2007 graduate of the San Jose School of Library and Information Sciences, P.C. is a former Administrative Librarian of the Sunnyvale (CA) Public Library and Executive Director of EveryLibrary California, a statewide ballot committee to support library propositions in California. He is currently the Political Director for EveryLibrary, the nation's first and only political action committee for libraries. He blogs at and he is a sought-after speaker and presenter, as well as a lecturer on politics and libraries at the San Jose School of Information Science.