Passive programs in the physical locations are nothing new to libraries; however, with the changing behaviour of visitors, passive programs should be considered on a digital platform as well. Stephen Abram shares his advice on how libraries can start developing their own programs to suit their communities. Read more below!

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Promoting the Full Digital Library: Not just book covers and live programs!

One of the most exciting initiatives in library programming trends is the emergence of 24/7/365 digital programming. It covers a wide-range of curated experiences like podcasts, e-learning courses, online story-times on YouTube, non-fiction audiobooks, etc. In many ways these great resources are among the most exciting passive programs available to grow your library presence in the community. It also seems, to me, to be underpromoted and lacks engagement strategies with the potential audience for these innovations.

Traditional ‘Passive Programs’ are wonderful programs for libraries that have limited staff time or budgets for programming. Traditionally, it’s automatically there for everyone who walks through the door, but what about passive digital programs available to anyone just with a click – especially when our doors are closed?

The world of passive programs

I love passive programs. Some are so simple. Instead of requesting a chess or checker board at the information desk, many libraries just leave a few permanently set up. Libraries also leave out a deck of cards or a giant community puzzle. I’ve seen a very few that offer billiards or Ping Pong tables, or retro pinball games for teens, seniors, and more. Libraries often have toys and this has been expanded to water and sand play tables, carpets with roads and buildings for trucks, cars, and farm animals, and many other innovations that make the visit to the library even more exciting for kids. I love those libraries that hatch chicks from eggs in incubators, or demonstrate the life cycle of butterflies from pupa to release. Many libraries are like a zoo with aquaria, lizards, caimans, snakes, and even library cats and dogs. The greenhouse windows filled with community herb gardens or outdoor community plots are awesome too, and reduce the exterior institutional feel of our placemaking efforts.

What is cloud-printing?

The great libraries extend these passive experiences beyond the library. The aquarium cam broadcast through their website, the cam that’s on 24/7 watching the eggs until they hatch and cheep about, the blogs and social media accounts written by the library pets about what they see going on in the library (They’re very well-informed.) Some animals even read stories to kids in their own podcasts. Many libraries use their cable or internet TV to broadcast significant events for community connections – think Olympics, World Cups, Wimbledon, elections, Mars landings, and more. Some cable systems offer Book TV. Just filling one of your screens with local or international news in your community living rooms engages visitors. Poetry walls on glass or white boards also fill the bill. The main goal is to encourage kids and adults to come to the library for more than books and movies, and to offer a creative out-of-the-box, and fun experience.

Hint: Having a dry spell for new ideas or inspiration? Try searching on Pinterest!

However, in this article, I am encouraging you to up your game in the newest entrant into the passive programs space – e-learning courses. Any library can afford these courses. For larger systems or members of consortia, you can subscribe to thousands of quality courses from library market leaders like Gale Courses or Lynda.com / LinkedIn Learning. For any library, just try searching on your favourite search engine. Beginning with great TED programs by famous authors is a brilliant start – short and engaging.

Here’s a modest introduction on how to innovate to extend your library’s reach to the 24/7/365 world of online programs.

Pinterest Ideas

How to start

First, we need to acknowledge that we can’t treat e-courses like content alone instead of experiences. Marketing an experience that aligns with user goals for life skills (whether professional or recreational) just isn’t the same. Indeed, I’d argue that reading is the experience we market for books (digital, audio, visual, or print), even though we count the actual artifact of the book for statistical purposes.

For our traditional programs we have relied on synchronous programs that required attendance at certain time(s) and date(s). I am not suggesting that focus on these programs needs to decline, but we learned a lot about digital delivery in this pandemic, and that behavioural change is here to stay. It’s really about the mix of your services and not reinforcing the books alone positioning in many user minds. Indeed, once we fully re-open, our residents will be hungry for in-person, affordable experiences and learning with their neighbours. Our huge opportunity now is to expand our portfolio of offerings, with minor impact on staff resources when compared to offering group programs physically. Asynchronous learning is that opportunity and it can only increase your organization’s relevance to your members.

Even though, from the public library perspective, we know that these services come Free or Fee, when we look at this from the cardholder’s perspective, it’s a free service to them and that removes a barrier to success – just like most of our other offerings. eCourses and MOOCs (massively open online courses) like Khan Academy, Udacity, edX, Coursera, Udemy, Gale Courses, Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning, TED/TEDx, Ancestry, HOOPLA, Kanopy, Mango Languages, Niche Academy, Overdrive, Libby, BrainFuse, and name brand top-flight college and university free courses are available by the hundreds of thousands! If anyone is an expert at curation and organization of this morass of content, it’s the staff in libraries.

So, to start, review what you have already and find the gaps in needs that you’ve identified in your community. Do you have strong demand for more IT course offerings at levels below or above the skills of your staff? Are you limited by space, technology, and staff resources to meet demand? What about courses in gardening, cooking, learning a musical instrument, crafts, etc.? Would your community love parenting courses tuned to their kids’ ages? How about health, nutrition, and wellness supports? Would your library employees, adult residents, or local businesses appreciate management courses? How about your Board’s needs for fundraising and governance? The list of opportunities is endless and therein lies the issue. How do we climb this Everest of opportunity? We need to create a map.

Creating the map

So here are some questions to ask yourselves:

What should be in our ‘mix’ of Passive versus Active Programming in our portfolio? How do we grow it strategically over time?

How do we track the usage and impact on our community for these offerings?

Now on to marketing the offering and few more questions:

 > Do some simple research. Review how many book covers you promoted as individual reading opportunities in the last three months. Review how many active, synchronous programs you promoted during a 3-month period (you might want to compare pre-pandemic with now). What are your ‘attendance’ numbers on any online learning programs you’ve offered this year? See any differences? Perform a situation analysis and SWOT de-briefing on where successes can be built on and what was learned by your organization so far. It’s relatively new so we can learn from playing in our sandbox and through successes and failures.

 > Do those numbers seem to be in balance with the passive learning engagement opportunities of e-courses for learning? It’s my experience that many libraries treat their e-course collections like databases, with which they share very few qualities, and demand that the user be aware of the service first. In my community survey work, the majority of residents are surprised and delighted that these online learning opportunities are available at the library and demand is high once awareness is addressed.

 > Review your course collections based on your community needs or review your community needs and align your course offering promotions with that. (For example: We’ve seen huge pandemic-driven increases in cookbook circulation which implies that demonstration and introductory video courses might fly well in a stay-at-home world.)

 > Offer in-person sessions on tips for online learning. I call this strategy “meta-learning community skill development”, since the experience is quite different (not better or worse) in terms of learning curve from the classroom or lecture hall experiences that we have all been through. It’s not for everyone, but the majority of your teens and adults have experienced some, and perhaps a lot, of e-learning already. When personal interest or need enters the equation, things boom. There’s room for awareness training, orientation, stress reduction, coaching, benefit communication, and demonstration(s). Perhaps a great start is to create an in-person or digital course in online learning skills at the library. Your vendor may already provide one. Start with promoting these to staff and build awareness, skills, and experiences with this critical group.

 > Use staff testimonials to start, then seek user/learner testimonials from your communities. People want to feel engaged and part of their community trends. You’re expanding the library-centric market for learning and knowledge in a post-pandemic world. Digital word-of-mouth through testimonials and social media is a good strategy. Use all of your channels (websites, social media, social networks partners, newsletters) to promote this to different target audiences. Most vendors offer standard testimonials and reviews in their comments feature and videos too.

 > Offer library branded online completion certificates or promote the vendors’ course completion options. Some courses are accredited and meet employer requirements.

 > Consider offering an Online High School (e.g., Gale Cengage’s COHS: Career Online High School) and host the graduation. Some libraries find sponsors and agency partners for such programs since the library is stigma-free, offers technology and help, and these are brilliant anti-poverty initiatives that create populations of high school graduates and real eligibility for more jobs.

 > Build course packages AND point to individual courses while offering introductory vs. advanced. Disappointment is generated when people’s personal expectations aren’t met by how they’re shaped by the marketing copy.

 > Aim it at niches within your all-ages strategy. A big don’t is thinking “everyone will love this course.” Consider the audience. There are many target audiences. Real people often fall into several need-based groups simultaneously. Use different marketing approaches. Teens are not a huge market for genealogy and many adults may not require homework advice. On the other hand, everyone loves food but maybe not cooking, and the adult Millennial audience has gotten into cooking big time regardless of gender. Combined with in-person partnerships with local restaurants you can make a real difference in community recovery and re-opening strategies.

 > Partner with your vendors. Look for their course trailers that are like movie trailers (many have them and they promote the course and the instructor). Indeed, many libraries have started on this with book trailers too. Many vendors organize their courses in threads by topic and careers. Build on these by aligning them with your community and your collections. Indeed, e-learning course popularity is often an indicator for collection development and growth.

 > Build partnerships (parks & rec, social services, faith services, ethnic or language-based associations, clubs, etc. and promote your offering through them aligned with their clientele’s needs.

 > Most importantly, focus on the benefits to the user. These include:

  • You can use these offerings 24/7/365. All you need is a library card, a device, and Wi-Fi and you’re good to go. If you’re missing any one of these, use the library’s technology, get a digital card, and ask for assistance.
  • You can pause and answer the phone/door, calm the baby, tend to dinner…
  • You can time-shift your learning experience to match your schedule.
  • You can do this for fun or professional needs.
  • Some courses you meet the online class and learn together – reducing social isolation and building your learning.
  • Some courses align with employer’s needs and support résumé additions, skill development, and skills and competencies updating for re-entering the workforce or seeking new jobs.
  • Looking for a career pivot? Starting your own business? Joining a new organization or community group and need to develop skills and confidence? Need something to do that aligns with your retirement strategies (learning, hobbies, volunteering, etc.)?
  • Your instructors are pros and sourced from around the world. Some of the courses have closed captioning and other learning aids. The larger services have quality controls and additional coaching personnel on the digital hotline.

These are not one-and-done marketing activities. Growth in digital content marketing comes from iteration, repetition, creativity, and cleverness. I have yet to see e-learning strategies not experience tremendous growth in demand by every size of community – along with delighted, repeat users.

The steps

So, in conclusion, our tasks are to:

  1. Re-frame e-learning as personal experience opportunities, not mere content.
  2. Treat e-learning like programs, not databases.
  3. Market our passive and active programming in a balanced way.
  4. Treat testimonials like book reviews.
  5. Focus on the benefits to the learner in their life challenges and growth goals.
  6. Highlight the tools that level the playing field for learners with exceptionalities.

Go for it!

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram, Principal of Lighthouse Consulting, Inc. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a strategic planning practice for libraries, works internationally in all sectors of librarianship and information providers. He is the past president of SLA, OLA, and CLA, has run libraries, associations and served as a strategic VP in global information vendors.

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