Kathy Dempsey

Have you ever been in the position to market library events or services without ever having a course that taught you how? As libraries, we want to break through the noise of all the other messages that people see every day to share the word about all that we have to offer. Having a marketing mindset can create inroads to those we serve and ensure awareness about all we have to offer our communities.

On this show, I speak with Kathy Dempsey, author of the book The Accidental Library Marketer and former Chair of the Library Marketing and Communications Conference. She offers practical advice that will make you an astute marketer in no time.


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas; and by the Park City Library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.


This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Have you ever been in the position to market library events or services without ever having a course that taught you how? As libraries, we want to break through the noise of all the other messages that people see every day to share the word about all that we have to offer. Having a marketing mindset can create inroads to those we serve and ensure awareness about all we have to offer our communities.

Even if you’ve never handled marketing before, it’s possible to learn the best ways to effectively use what today’s guest calls, the Cycle of True Marketing for maximum impact. On this show I speak with Kathy Dempsey, author of the book The Accidental Library Marketer, and former chair of the Library Marketing and Communication Conference. She offers practical advice that will make you an astute marketer in no time.  Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Kathy. Your book is called, The Accidental Library Marketer. It starts with the premise that sometimes in the library profession, we find ourselves in the position to do marketing for our libraries, and oftentimes we come to this with little training or experience in this area. 

Question #1: So, whether we came to marketing intentionally, or by accident why is marketing essential today in libraries? 01:56 

Kathy Dempsey:

Well, that’s a great question, Adrian. There are so many reasons that I find marketing essential. Let me try to boil them down to just a few. The first reason that always comes to mind for me is funding. Whether you’re in a public library, or even an academic, or a special corporate library, or anything else—somehow libraries always end up seeming to be not completely essential to people who may just be looking at the bottom line budgets.

If you want to keep your funding or increase your funding, and make sure that your library, or info-center just stays open, it’s really vital to explain to people what exactly the library does, and what your value is. Because people in the library field just assume that everyone knows how important they are, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.

I think part of it is funding. But, that goes hand-in-hand with the understanding of what libraries do. Unfortunately, we’re still plagued by the old stereo-type of someone with a bun in her hair, and shushing, and just handling dusty books all day. But of course, that perception is so far away from reality right now. I talk to people all the time about libraries. I will advocate for them on the street. I’ll talk to a stranger I’m sitting next to on a train, just about anything. I really often find that people just have no idea at all that there’s anything more than books. Even when I tell them that libraries have ebooks that you can download for free. Some people are shocked at that. Let alone if you get into talking about something like, Oh, we have makerspaces, and we have resume workshops, and we have small business advisory groups, and all that sort of thing. People just really have no idea what the value of libraries is, anymore.

My third reason is that what most people think of when they talk about library marketing—public relations. They just want to increase the usage. They want more patrons to come in, or they want more people to use certain products or services. So they’re really doing marketing to talk about awareness, just increasing awareness. That’s very important too, but you still have to have the funding and the understanding of administrators, or CEO’s, or city officials, or whomever you’re working with. There are just so many reasons why marketing is vital and that’s why I’m so passionate about working in this area of librarianship.


Question #2: So, how can our messages break through the noise of all the other things people see everyday?  05:26 

Kathy Dempsey:

Well, you know, if I had a failsafe[laughter] answer for that. If I had the ultimate answer I would be a very rich woman, but alas, it’s really harder than ever to break through to get people’s attention with the constant flow of information that’s tossed at everybody these days.

One of the best ways to do it is still one of the classic ways, and that is to target your information very specifically at people. As I alluded to before, you know, some people might look at their social status in the mornings. In that same way there are people who will always read newsletters. There are people who only want to read them in print. There are people who are so techie that they kind of ignore everything in print, and only want to see things that come to them electronically. But even those people may not be very responsive to email. They only want to see what’s on their Instagram, or something that their friends have posted. Their trusted group of friends is what they’ll pay attention to, but they really won’t look at other things. 

So targeting is part of the answer. But even as you target to specific segments, you still need to use the language that really speaks to that group of people. For instance, even if you are announcing a library event that is useful or interesting to numerous groups of people, you will want to perhaps word your promotion a little differently for each group. Teenagers, of course, have their own language which changes constantly. So, you’re not going to write a promo aimed at teens in the same way you would write the same promo that might be aimed at their parents.

If you were doing some sort of college preparation event, or having a speaker at your library about, you know, how to pay for college, or how to choose a college – you may be going for both the audiences of the parents, or caregivers, and the teenagers who are trying to make their choices. But, that doesn’t mean you would send the same message to both of those groups. Because, you know, how many teenagers are going to read something that starts like, Well, clearly you’re very interested in the finances surrounding college. [laughter] You know, that’s going to turn them off right away.

The more you can speak directly to someone and also give them something that really does have value to them, I think, the better off you’ll be. And the more people will actually see, and read, and remember the messages that you’re sending.


Question #3: So, we need to target the selected audience. And, it sounds to me like that’s going to cost something. So, if you don’t budget for marketing why should you? 08:54 

Kathy Dempsey:

Oh, my gosh, don’t get me started on this. [laughter] I’ll insert a funny story here, quickly. One of the things I do for work is I’m the editor of the Marketing Library Services newsletter. I’ve been doing that for twenty-five years. For a good portion of that time I run a column that’s written by Judith Gibbons and she does interviews with people and we call it, Interviews with Marketing Masters. What we do in our interviews is, we have the exact same questions that we ask everybody. So that way, we can compare and contrast how different people work. 

One of the questions that we always ask is, What percentage of your organization’s total budget is spent on marketing? I am always just aghast at the answers. Usually it’s around one percent, maybe one or two percent. Some of the highest answers that we’ve gotten were from people in European libraries, and they might go up to three or four percent. Which is almost nothing. And in fact, I do talk to other library marketers who say, Here’s a project I’m trying to do, and I’ve no budget for it. Do you have any ideas?  And it just drives me crazy.

Hopefully, now as we’ve been talking, the listeners are starting to get an idea of why marketing is so vital, and therefore why you want to put a little money into it. I’m not looking for a 50 million dollar marketing budget, although that would be awesome. But, I like to pose this question to leaders, So, let’s just say that you’re spending $50,000 a year on materials. I just toss that out there. So, you’re spending $50,000 a year to get the best things that you’ve curated, that you think will be really important to the people that you’re serving. And then, you’re going to spend zero on telling those people that you’ve bought those materials. It just doesn’t make sense. 

Libraries historically spend so much attention, and time, and money curating their collections. But then, they spend nothing to tell people what’s in those collections. So just on its face, that doesn’t really make good sense. So that, along with the ideas that now marketing is so important just to keep your library open, to keep it funded, to help people understand why libraries still matter in the age of the internet when everyone thinks, Oh, everything’s online on the internet. I can access anything on my phone. We need to get the message out there about what they can’t access, free, on their phone, with their WiFi.

As I said, social media’s really useful. That’s kind of free. But, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of meeting people, all types of people where they are, and getting that message to them multiple times, in multiple ways so that they will finally absorb that message, and understand it, and really believe it to be true.


Question #4: Right. It’s important to get the word out about what we offer. And, there’s a lot of ways to do that. I know email and electronic marketing is part of that. But how do we do that without violating patrons’ privacy? 13:11 

Kathy Dempsey:

Well, you know there’s something else that’s so important. I talk to some libraries who are doing amazing jobs at email campaigns, or other sources of electronic outreach, with their newsletters and things like that. Then I talk to other groups of people who say, Oh, my gosh, we’re not allowed to email anybody because my director thinks that will violate their privacy. I’m not the best person to explain the intricacies of privacy, but I do know from my work in marketing that every person I’ve talked to, every conference session I’ve listened to about this, there has not been a privacy backlash for libraries sending emails. 

There are various ways to do it well, and legally, and privately. But, I think the biggest thing that library administrators should understand about privacy is that all of these products that are out there now—there are vendors, and software products, and email products that exist in order to help libraries contact users and potential users. They’re not being sued. They’re not being closed down, because what they’re using is not individual people’s information. They’re not looking through their database and saying, Oh, look Suzie Smith, hmmm, she checked out these books in the past year and she did this, and this, and this, and I’ve scoured her social media profile and I think she would like X, Y, Z. So, I’m going to email her about X, Y, Z.

Of course, it’s not like that at all. It’s really using big data and pulling out groups of people from your cardholder database that have, say, people who have attended storytimes twice in the past six months, or twice in the last year. Or, you’re looking for other groups of people who have something in common. People who have attended our programs on starting a small business, let’s pull those things out and maybe we’ll have a group of 150 people. We’re going to send them one mass email. 

So, it’s about using the big data to segment your target audiences. It’s never about looking at one individual user’s records of anything they’ve done, or anything they’ve checked out. That’s part of why privacy is okay. So, it’s not spying on people. Which is what I think a lot of others picture when they think about privacy. 

A couple other quick things are – there are good ways to do this with opt-in, and opt-out options [laughter] as it were. When people sign up for library cards, you can have a check off box at the bottom that says, I agree to receive occasional emails from the library about things that might interest me. Let people opt-in, or opt-out that way. 

Of course you probably have 100,000 cardholders that you have signed up before you thought to put that question on. So what you can do with them is, just send a mass email saying, You have been a patron of our organization and we would like to send you occasional messages about things that might interest you. You can opt-in, or you can opt-out.

And almost always, at least from people who have done this in big ways and have spoken about their experiences at various conferences, almost always people opt-in. They never opt-out. And that’s because in part, look at the work that we’re in now, right? I know that libraries are competing with a bazillion other institutions that want to contact people, and send them emails, and sell them stuff. So, people have really come to expect that they will hear from organizations that they support, from organizations that they signed up for. 

So, for librarians not to email, or text, or contact people in any way, really makes the library look kind of old fashioned, and look backward. Like, Why are you not contacting me? Why are you not reminding me of this event that I signed up for three weeks ago? Why are you not telling me about another event, similar to ones I’ve attended in the past? Why are you not telling me you have something just like that coming up?

I think we really do ourselves a disservice by believing that we shouldn’t contact people because that makes our libraries forgettable. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve, right?


Question #5: So, a lot of libraries have a social media presence. Is that enough to get out the message? 19:20 

Kathy Dempsey:

You know, social media’s fun. It’s something that a lot of people enjoy, including myself. It’s an excellent way to reach people but it’s absolutely not enough. If the only thing you’re doing is social media then you’re really not doing good marketing at all. Part of the reason for that is that we have to remember when we are creating Facebook, or Twitter posts, or anything on a platform like that we’re putting, hopefully, a lot of thought into it and using the right words, and using images that will get attention, doing all that good stuff. And, it’s easy to think we’re doing a fantastic job, but we also have to look at the platform itself and how it works, and what the algorithms are like. We need to remember, especially, let’s say that each post that your library puts out may only be seen by, I don’t know, it changes all the time, by maybe ten percent of people who actually follow your page, or your account.

You can’t just put something on social media and say, Okay, I told everyone, because a tiny fraction of your people are actually going to see it. Which is why, sometimes, you’ll want to post about something numerous times, and at different times of the day, depending on your target audience. Some people will check their social media first thing in the morning. Some people look at it all day long. Some people will really only pay attention to it after work when they’re home in the evening. 

This is where you get back to knowing your target audience, and who they are, and how they receive information, and where they get it, and even when they look at it. So, while social media is great for a lot of things, you definitely can’t count on it for everything. And in fact, social media is a tiny part of marketing that’s usually the promotion or publicity piece of the marketing puzzle. So, it’s great and it’s fun, but it really just needs to be a portion of your whole marketing plan.


Question #6: Do you have a favorite book, or resource you’d like to share? 21:57 

Kathy Dempsey:

You know, there’s so many—I think for my little piece of the library world, in marketing, my favorite resource is a conference that I helped to found a number of years ago, that’s still kind of new. It’s called the Library Marketing and Communications Conference, or LMCC, to those in the know. I started putting this together with a group of like-minded people who realized the importance of marketing when we saw that there were all kinds of books and publications that you could read about it, but marketers didn’t have their own conference. 

They would go to a larger conference, and maybe have a few sessions about marketing. But, there was no really great place for them to learn more, and to really dig deep into it. 

So, we started this off with the help of Amigos Library Services, who was our organizer. This November will be the fifth LMCC. It’s really gone fantastically well. We found that people were really hungry for this information. The number of attendees has grown every year. So people do want to know more about marketing, whether you are at a director level and you want to understand the big picture and the strategies, or whether you’re the person who is sitting there designing the posters, and the images for social media. People at all levels have been coming to this conference. We have found no shortage of great speakers to address all kinds of, pretty much, anything that you can think of that’s related to marketing.


Yeah, that’s a great one.

Kathy Dempsey:

Yeah, that’s my favorite resource. If people want to know more about it, again, the name is the Library Marketing and Communications Conference. The website is library marketing conference.org, or you can search for the name, or search for LMCC. Again, that will be taking place in November of this year, in St. Louis, Missouri.


Question #7: Fantastic. One of my staff members attends that one and has taken away great things from it, so I’m so glad you mentioned that. In closing, what does being in the library profession mean to you, personally? 24:39 

Kathy Dempsey:

Oh, gosh, it means so much. It’s really almost come to define me, which may not speak well of my having a life outside work. [laughter] But, I’ve always loved and used libraries. I think what really makes them so important to me is just how they support democracy. You know, the fact that libraries are open to the public, and lending things to the public, not just to rich members. 

The way that all started in the US, just makes me so proud. And, I love how libraries allow just about anybody to learn just about anything. If you have the thirst for knowledge, there are these places in almost every city and town that are free for you to walk into, and you can search yourself, or you can get expert help. And, you can learn anything. Whether you just want to settle a bet with a friend, or whether you are writing a paper about something, or whether you just want to learn more to better yourself, or to start a business, or to just broaden your view of the world…libraries exist to help everyone do that. 

So, I don’t think there’s any better type of organization, really, to support human beings in the world. I think they’re just fantastic, and I’m very dedicated to them, and passionate about them, and I’m very proud to have been in the library field for thirty-some years now. I see marketing as the best way to support libraries and to make sure that they stick around for future generations.


Absolutely. Thank you for sharing your expertise and information.  It’s been so great having you on the show, Kathy.

Kathy Dempsey:

It’s been lovely talking with you. And thanks again for the invitation. I hope I’ve helped some people out there to get a better understanding of, and a better love for, library marketing.


I’m sure you have, thank you so much.

Kathy Dempsey:

You’re welcome.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.