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Stuck inside the library? 5 Tips for doing a successful outreach event

If your library is like most libraries, then you probably do a really great job of doing internal marketing but are less successful at external marketing. Your stuck inside the library and need to find a way to take your message out into the community. This has been one of the greatest challenges for most libraries I know, except for the big ones that have dedicated staff and budgets. Getting outside of the library and raising your public profile can really help your local community get to know and understand what the library is and the value it adds to your local community. So let’s do outreach!

Summer is an intense time of outreach for me as the town I work in hosts a monthly event called First Fridays. The First Friday of every month from May through October, I take my set up and go downtown and help promote the library. Over the years, I have perfected the set up and want to share some tips with you. This has been a very successful source of marketing for our library, though it hasn’t always been without a few bumps in the road.

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Size Really Does Matter

Whatever type of outreach you’ll do, you will need to take stuff with you. What you take and how you take it matters. Wheels, for example, are your friend. Size is also an important consideration. You’re going to have to take everything you need and load and unload it a couple of times. Don’t bite off more than you can chew because size really does matter.

You want to put together for yourself as compact a set up as possible because you are going to have to load in and loud out. Ideally you’ll want a table, a chair for each staff member, and signage. We’ll talk signage more in a moment. You want the things you take and have to set up to be light, easy to carry, quick to fold up, etc. Some people have things like tents with their library logo on them, great for hot days and in case of rain, but not fun to carry in and out and set up.

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You’ll always want to pay attention to any requirements that the outreach event itself sends you. Some of them have very specific things they want you to do or bring. When you sign up for an outreach event, they should send you information about what they provide and what they expect you to bring and do. For example, they may give you very specific table sizes. Pay attention to and honor that information.

At a minimum you will want: a small, folding table; folding chairs for each staff member; signage; something to hand out. People at outreach events like to walk away with something in their hand or to have done something fun.

For the chairs, I recommend those collapsible chairs with a bag and a handle that you see people take to sporting events and parades. They are usually light and the bags with straps make them easy to carry. You see in the picture above that we originally took folding chairs – don’t do this. These are cumbersome to carry. Learn from my mistakes, which is actually one of the tips below.

ALWAYS HAVE WATER FOR STAFF.

At the end of the day, it will be on the shoulders of staff to do outreach events. So keep that in mind when you are thinking about what you are going to do, what tools you are going to use, and how many staff you are going to send. Plan accordingly.

Bigger is Not Always Better: Your Goal is Effective Marketing, Not Necessarily Big

Over the years we have really paid attention to what other organizations at the event are doing and we have seen a variety of carts, wagons, etc. to help get items into and out of the event. We tried using library carts, because we had them on hand. This was no ideal and I don’t recommend it. We ended up buying a collapsible wagon that we can use to load our items into the event. The more events you do, the better you will find out what works for you and you will refine your tools.

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My co-worker is really good at paying attention to what other people are doing and is always asking me to look at this or consider that. We used to try to do and take more, but things like heavy winds or intense heat really helped us refine what it is we were willing and able to do. We started out with the grandest of plans and we have whittled it down to reasonable expectations. We live in a world with the mantra that says bigger is better, but this mantra forgets to tell you that sometimes an outreach event is late on a Friday night after a long days work in the month of July in the midst of record heatwaves. Meet your goals, promote your library, and take care of yourself and your staff. Bigger is not always better, your goal is effective, not big.

But I’m not just talking about physical size when I say bigger doesn’t always have to be better. I’m talking about the scope of your event as well. You don’t need to hand out 300 flyers promoting every single program or take a million items to hand out. Remember, you have to get everything into your event. For example, this year for our summer reading promotion would put very basic information onto one postcard for all 3 of our age group programs and handed out one postcard with a website where they could find additional information instead of handing out 3 different flyers for 3 different programs. A lot of people will be handing out paper and a lot of it will end up in the trash – or, unfortunately, blowing around the event itself as people litter – so consider how you hand out information, what will make an impact, and what will actually get used as opposed to discarded. Pens, bags, cups with logos, for example, make a better impact than a piece of paper with information. That paper is going to end up in the trash.

Who Are You? Signage is Your Friend

You’re there to get noticed and promote the library, so you’ll want to make sure you have good signage. In this one instance, bigger is in fact better. I know, I just contradicted myself. However, some people will not walk up to your table and you still want them to know you were there. Try to put your library’s name out there in as many ways as possible and make sure people can see it from a distance.

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In the past we have used table covers, which I have liked a lot. This year we added a pop-up banner which is my new favorite thing. I designed ours which we purchased online from Totally Promotional for only about $130 and it really increases our visibility. I will say that the only drawback is that this is an outside event and we have had a couple of windy days which caused our signage to bend and twist in the wind. We now have cables and we can firmly attach our signage to a nearby post. It’s easily collapsible, folds up into a portable size and came with its own carrying case. A lot of people have walked up to us simply to look at the sign and then a conversation begins. I adore our sign.

All By Myself: Staffing is Important

I typically do an event with the help of one co-worker and we have it down to a science. I have also had teen volunteers help out, which brought us up to four people. Yes, sometimes my family members come and “volunteer” to help out. It’s nice to have enthusiastic people who are willing and able to interact with the people who stop by your table and booth and answer any questions. That’s why you’re there, to get the word out.

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I once had the extreme misfortune of having to do an event by myself and it was a miserable experience and I do not recommend this at all. Two is doable, three or four is ideal. In the future if I am the only one available to do an event, it will be a hard pass for me. Setting up by myself was hard, wanting to use the restroom and having no one to break you was harder, and it felt like it was more frustrating for the people stopping by the booth. The last thing we want is to go to an event to promote the library and then have potential patrons walk away frustrated because they had to wait too long or didn’t get their questions answered.

I once worked at a library system where every staff member had to sign up to do 2 outside outreach events in a calendar year and it was a part of their yearly performance evaluations. When an event came up the coordinator would send out and email asking for x number of volunteers. At the end of the year you wanted to make sure that you had done 2 or else you would be dinged on your evaluation. There are pros and cons to this model. For example, you sometimes get staff being forced to do outreach events which does not play to their strengths. The positives, however, are that you aren’t always asking the same people to do work outside of normal library hours, in sometimes hot conditions, and without a lot of good staff support. I like the idea of having a bigger pool of staff to help out, I do not like the idea of having disgruntled staff who don’t want to be there begrudgingly helping out.

Remember: People Like Free Stuff so You’ll Want to Have Something to Do or Handout

Because we are there specifically promoting our Teen MakerSpace, we often try to have a hands on activity. Making buttons, for example, is fast, easy, and fun. Plus, the teens walk away with something tangible. I have found that one of the quickest ways to do this is to have a bunch of pre-cut circules and stickers that the teens can use to make their buttons. There are, however, some drawbacks to having a hands on activity. For one, it seems like everyone comes at once and you can get some long lines built up. Also, if you are at an outside event, strong winds can become an issue.

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Stickers work well if you want to make quick buttons

I recently joined a button making community and a lot of its members make buttons to sell and they often discuss packaging. It is in this community that I got the idea to take pre-made buttons that are attached to a postcard made out of card stock to hand out. There were many benefits to this model, which I really found to be quite successful. One, I had a variety of designs so it allowed teens to pick out their favorites. Two, I made sure each button was book or reading related to promote the idea of reading and in hopes that when teens saw the buttons, they would think of the library. Three, on our postcard I made sure and highlight the library itself so even if I didn’t get to talk to a teen as they picked out a button, they still had some basic information.

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Taking the pre-made buttons required a lot of additional prep work, as I had to design the postcards and several staff members helped me make the buttons, print the postcards and attach the buttons to the postcard. But I really liked the visual and the information the teens walked away with.

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We also have drawstring backpacks with our Teen MakerSpace logo and library name on them that we hand out. We pre-stuff the backpacks with any flyers for upcoming events and a brochure about the Teen MakerSpace itself. I love seeing the teens walking around wearing their backpacks and the additional promotion we get from the visual. Not all of my coworkers, however, like it because we don’t order a large number so we try to hand them out only to the teens and even though we have signage which clearly says the backpacks are for teens, it can be hard telling young children or adults that no, we’re sorry, the backpacks are for teens but here, have a button!

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Bonus Tip: Have a Planning Checklist

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Over time, we have perfected our basic outreach scenario and we have put together a planning checklist to help us make sure that we have all of our items packed up and ready to go before we head out the door. A majority of the items I actually keep packaged together in my office, like our table coverings and signage. But I’ll have to go to another part of the library to get our tables and chairs because they aren’t stored in my office. My checklist includes a listing of the concrete items we’ll need, including a reminder to take water for staff. Staying hydrated is important. It also includes space for us to write in items we may need based on what activity we are doing. Looking at the planning checklist a couple of days before the event helps me make sure that I have every thing I need the day off and eliminates some of the stress and worry that can come with an outreach event.

I do have to say that recently I saw several libraries had done storytimes at local Pride events and I loved this idea. I don’t do a lot of storytimes because my target audience is teens, but I think it would be cool to have storytimes at outreach events. Because First Fridays is a music and arts festival there is always a band playing music, so storytimes may not be right for this event, but I think libraries should definitely consider adding them to outreach events if they work for the event.

Each time we do an outreach event, we have new people come into the Teen MakerSpace. If you aren’t already doing outreach events, I highly suggest that you consider it because it is a powerful marketing tool.

More Outreach Posts on TLT

MakerSpace: Outreach Activity – Book Face

Teen Coloring Postcards: Outreach

Building Our Portable Photo Booth – Outreach

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