(Adapted from a presentation at the recent VLA Paraprofessional Forum Conference, May 21–23, 2006, in Richmond, Virginia.)

Who amongst you was told by your mother that it’s impolite to call attention to yourself? Did she remind you often that one should never try to be noticed? What did you think of such advice? Did you ever pass it on to someone else? How does such advice play out in the workplace? Could your mothers have been wrong?

What I’m talking about, here, is marketing. As defined by Encarta , “Marketing is the selling of products or services. [It’s] the business activity of presenting products or services to potential customers in such a way as to make them eager to buy. Marketing includes such matters as the pricing and packaging of the product and the creation of demand by advertising and sales campaigns.”

Businesses have understood for years that only by marketing themselves and their products can they expand their customer base and increase profitability. Libraries, on the other hand, have traditionally shied away from the concept of marketing. That’s perhaps because of its association with the dirty “p” word — profit orientation. The public service orientation of the public library and the value placed on the importance of free service seem at odds with the blatantly capitalistic concept of marketing.

In recent years, however, public libraries have begun to recognize the importance of marketing. The Fairfax County Public Library has had a marketing department since 1994. It has dramatically increased publicity and recognition for the system.

We market our services,
but are still reluctant to
market ourselves.

Those who work in libraries have realized that our institution must be willing to borrow marketing concepts from the business world in order to make both existing and potential customers aware of the services and products we offer.

Customers, Patrons, Clients

Even though information professionals have come to realize the importance of marketing, many of us still struggle with the apparent conflict between promotion or self-marketing and service. We market our services, but are still reluctant to market ourselves. Many view self-marketing as — sorry, Mom — bragging.

The irony is that while willing to work to ensure that our users understand and value the products and services offered, we are less willing or able to ensure that coworkers and supervisors understand the skills and knowledge we — as individuals — bring to the table.

Whether we have been in libraries for a year or a decade, we have surely seen the changes in how people access information, as well as the services we provide. Changes in technology occur so rapidly that it is difficult for us to keep up. As a result, we information professionals are constantly reeducating ourselves, refining our skill sets, and reinventing our services. If we acknowledge this, how can we expect our supervisors, our colleagues, and our users to know what we do — or can do — for them if we don’t tell them?

Let’s explore why we should tell them. Why should we apply business marketing skills to ourselves? Why should we be marketing ourselves within — or even outside — the library? Is it for recognition, personal advancement, money? Yes. All of us have marketed ourselves to someone else before. We’ve marketed ourselves to obtain our current positions. Our resumes, cover letters, and responses during interviews were all designed to present ourselves at our best. Even after we’re on the job, we continue to present our best selves. To do so, we use self-marketing, even though we may not recognize it as such.

Look around you at work. Who among your coworkers do you consider to be particularly successful? Is that person just lucky? Luck does help, but I’d be willing to bet that she or he had plans for advancement. Even if it wasn’t titled “my personal marketing plan,” it had the same effect.

Make a Plan

To initiate a personal marketing plan, write down what you consider your core strengths to be. These are the skills, knowledge, and expertise that you bring to your library, which allow you to add value to it. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you a creative problem-solver?
  • Do you work well with children?
  • Are you able to explain technology to those who have little or no experience with computers?
  • Do you relate well to older people?
  • Do you have highly developed organizational skills?
  • Do you adapt well in stressful situations?
  • Do you function effectively in a team-centered environment?

Once you have decided what your strongest skills are, make a list of your short- and long-term professional goals. What do you want to be doing next year? In five years? In ten years?

Ask yourself how well your strengths support and align with your goals. If there are gaps, list the skills you believe need further development in order for you to effectively pursue your goals. You may want to update your technology skills or improve your public speaking. Maybe your organizational or interpersonal skills need some refinement.

… you are the storyteller
of your own life and
can create your own
legend — or not.

Actively seek out opportunities to develop these skills through attending workshops and conferences or working with mentors and colleagues. Self-awareness is absolutely vital to self-marketing.

Becoming a Brand

No marketer can begin to sell a product unless he or she understands what it is about the product that makes it unique or desirable to others. Marketers use these characteristics to develop a branded package. Similarly, you cannot begin to market yourself — to create your own branded package — if you cannot tell others what you have to offer.

What is a brand, anyway? Again, here’s a definition from Encarta . As a noun, a brand is a “product or manufacturer; a name, usually a trademark, of a manufacturer or the product identified by its name; … a distinctive type of something.”

So, what is the value of a brand? Here’s what marketing guru Tom Asacker says:

“Salt is salt, right? Not when it comes to a blue box with a picture of a little girl carrying an umbrella. Morton International continues to dominate the U.S. salt market even though it charges more for a product that is demonstrably the same as many other products on the shelf.”

Management consultant Tom Peters has some interesting insights on brands, branding, and uniqueness. According to Peters, “Branding is nothing more than heart. It’s about passion — what you care about and what’s inside you.” If there is nothing special about your work, Peters says, no matter how hard you apply yourself you won’t get noticed. And you won’t get paid much, either. Peters believes you are the storyteller of your own life and can create your own legend — or not. Peters says he “can’t think of anything worse than being ordinary.”

Branding is a conscious, proactive, positive activity that forces individuals to know who they are and to articulate this knowledge succinctly and publicly. But branding cannot take place in a vacuum. To develop a brand, you need to know who the consumers of “Brand You” will be.

In public libraries, the first group of customers to consider is the users. The products and services that any library provides are — or certainly should be — designed with these customers and their needs in mind. But your customers are also your colleagues, your subordinates, and your supervisors both within the library and within the larger organization it serves, such as a county or city government.

With such a large group of potential customers, it is difficult to pick out one or two needs or wants as most important. Marketers deal with this situation by dividing their potential customers into subgroups. They determine what it is about the product that will appeal to each subgroup, and they market those specific attributes to each group based on its primary and secondary wants or needs.

This can work for you as well. For example, your supervisor may place the highest priority on organizational skills, but she or he might also value team orientation, the ability to communicate effectively, or the ability to make and explain decisions.

Your colleagues, on the other hand, may place the highest priority on the ability to work in a team, but they also value communication, decision-making, and organizational skills.

Once you have clearly identified what it is that each group values most highly, you can focus on presenting that particular skill or attribute set when you are working with members of that group.

Communicating Your Brand

Have you ever heard of the elevator speech? Wikipedia defines the elevator speech (or pitch) as a brief overview of an idea for a product, service, or project. It’s called an elevator speech because it can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride — about twenty seconds.

Conventional wisdom has it that the most important decisions made on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate are made “in the spate of an elevator ride,” as a staff aide whispers into a legislator’s ear while heading down to the floor to cast a vote.

Does this sound
calculating? It should.
A better word, though,
is strategic.

So, what’s the purpose of such a concept in a library? To me, it is not so much the speech as the exercise which forces us to think about ourselves in a new way. The techniques for creating a great elevator speech are certainly applicable to marketing oneself in a library. A self-marketing elevator speech should consist of your name, title, occupation, field of interest or desired position, and something special about yourself, such as your talents, experience, or approach. Great elevator speeches sound effortless. They are memorable and sincere. They are concise, but warm, friendly, confident, and enthusiastic. They focus not just on you, but how you can benefit a situation. And they take practice.

A successful elevator speech frames what you do in a new and creative way. A landscaper I know introduces himself as someone who is “turning the world green one garden at a time.” A dietician friend describes her work as “teaching people how to behave in front of food.”

You can put a special spin on your library role or function. Change “I am an assistant on the circulation desk” to “I am in customer relations at our local public library.” Likewise, “I ensure that books are in order on the shelves” can become “I am an inventory control manager at the local public library.”

Does this sound calculating? It should. A better word, though, is strategic. It seems to me that the way to get where you want to be is, in essence, to follow the path of self-awareness that has been translated into “Brand You.”

If you are successful in marketing yourself within the library, you will have established your identity, become thoroughly self-aware, demonstrated the value you bring to the organization, and been rewarded in a manner appropriate to your contributions to the library.

So, with deference to mothers everywhere, here’s what Mom should have told you besides that advice to always wear clean underwear:

Marketing is good. Marketing is an essential element in moving ahead in the library. Know your skills and competencies. Develop that elevator speech or a thirty- second commercial. Use such tools to develop a clear and concise “Brand You.” Learn to network and develop a support structure. Leverage your current customers and develop alliance partners. Brainstorm with others. Practice patience, but not for too long!

And while Mom might not be on target when it comes to marketing yourself, remember what she told you many, many times:

Don’t be afraid to try. VL

Edwin S. Clay III has been the director of the twenty-one-branch Fairfax County Public Library since 1982. FCPL is the largest public library system in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, as well as the largest in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Clay is a past president of the Virginia Library Association and the Virginia Public Library Director’s Association.