You can look back over years of law library professional development programming and see how often marketing comes up. It’s evergreen. I’ve never been confident that marketing is the issue. Like a technology applied to a bad process, marketing allows us to take action. But it doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it may miss the problem entirely.

I’m at a new law library. This gives me some opportunities. First, the focus on awareness is the responsibility of the whole organization: the law library is a unitary organization, not subsumed within a larger organization whose mandate differs or obscures the law library. Second, it has a defined audience and so some of the legwork is done for us. Perhaps most importantly, it’s useful to leverage any large change to take a new look at things that are bread and butter, habitual activities and see if they should continue, be improved, or stop.

You don’t need to move organizations to do this work, but it forces you to if you do move. What is it that makes our library unique? Why does our audience need our law library?

Point In Time Marketing

There can be a sense of superficial knowing that moves us directly to a marketing pitch. We know our audience is the public and we know that we spend a ton of money on resources, so we pitch our databases or other parts of our collection. In a sense, it’s logical.

Except that it’s off target.

What is the public? It is not the legal profession, even though they make up a very small part of the public audience. If anything, marketing towards the legal profession is a waste of resources. You are competing with the legal publishers for their attention and their dollars. Even if you can persuade them that you can provide better legal reference support than their own legal research skills, you can usually only provide them competing content.

It can be easier to market to the legal profession though because you know that they will be repeat customers. If anyone needs legal research support and legal information on a daily basis, it’s a lawyer. That means you can come up with a “what’s new” approach to your pitches. And this is extremely common: look at our new titles! look at our new databases! Look at the incremental updates we’re making to our collection that will supplement your own legal research skills. Look at the latest legal research courses we’re offering to update your skills on the latest database or resource.

In our jurisdiction, though, there are about 20,000 lawyers and 3.3 million residents. We are barely scratching the surface if we focus on the legal profession. And those residents? They present challenges:

  • they may or may not know that they have a legal issue that our law library could help with
  • even if they do, they may not know there is a law library available
  • even if they do, they may not trust a quasi-governmental entity to help them
  • even if they do, they may not be able to access our law library due to time of day or transportation or perceptions around who is allowed to access the law library or the language skills required to use English-only legal information
  • even if they do, they may not think of the law library when they actually have a legal issue.

As one of the smart people I work with noted: the people who need us are not repeat customers, so how do we create awareness at the moment of need?

It’s obvious on its face. How many houses does one person sell or buy? How many divorces does a person have? How many car accidents does a person get into? Except for criminal law, where we know what the recividism rate suggests might lead to repeated legal needs, and estates, where everyone probates only once, it’s hard to know.

It’s not a law library issue. A local car windshield repair company had the same issue. How do you get in front of people with a cracked but not broken windshield? They set up a small tent in a grocery store parking lot. If you drove by, you might see it. But how many people have cracked windshields AND would have the time and the route to find that tent? It’s got to be a subset of people who have cracked windshields and probably excludes those who are concerned enough to call someone (phone book or SEO advertising).

A person who has repeated legal needs, like multiple business incorporations or property sales or divorces, might hire counsel because it’s an investment in outcomes. Or they may decide that they have accrued enough experience to handle their own legal affairs. But they know they have a legal issue and can anticipate the need for legal information and legal research support.

How does a law library crack that awareness for the person who may only perceive themselves to have one legal issue in a decade? in a lifetime?

Just In Case

If I was looking for an industry to copy, it would be insurance. This is their whole purpose, to be there when you have that once incident. In fact, if you have multiple incidents, they may charge you more or drop you as a customer. But we get title insurance when buying a house, we get car insurance in case of car accidents and personal injury, we get life insurance in case of the impact of death on our families.

The brilliance of insurance is that, if it isn’t mandated by law, the insurers still get into your boodle bag. And, because insurance is set and forget, you just pay against the eventuality until the cost is just a normal cost of life. While public courthouse law libraries have a mandated income, it doesn’t grow with actual costs and population growth like commercial insurance. If wishes were fishes.

If you survey insurance marketing campaigns, you don’t see them telling you about the latest feature. They don’t give you incremental updates about why you should have their product. They focus on getting you in the door with emotion: your personal safety, your pet’s safety, your children’s well-being, your home or vehicle’s security.

Aren’t you worth it?

But insurance isn’t any less fungible than a law library. During my switch in employers, I had to get new insurance. And there was little fundamental difference between one provider and another. In some cases, the features were identical and the only differentiating factor was cost. Just as with a law library, the product isn’t necessarily what people are buying.

Focus on the Unique Offering

Think about your law library. What makes it unique? More particularly, what makes it unique to people who may only need you once in their whole life?

It’s not your collection. Legal books or databases? Lots of public libraries have a legal collection, including online legal forms and Nolo books. Your archival or historic materials? How many people who aren’t historians or legal professional use that and, if you didn’t have it, what impact would it have on your foot traffic?

I’m not saying your collection isn’t important, it’s just rarely distinguishing enough to matter. It’s not that everything’s on the internet so much as that most people need current information. And perception or not, a lot of information is available through a web search. So any marketing that focuses on your collection is going to be for a very narrow audience.

A law library collection is like insurance. It matters AFTER you’ve secured the customer. It’s not how you’re going to grab the customer’s attention. It’s not a road to awareness.

Here’s a non-library example. I was driving a kid back to college last weekend. We saw these U-Haul trucks and each one had a different advertisement or hype on it. My favorite was a variation on this truck technology one: how many people hire a U-Haul truck because it’s aerodynamic? Is it the pH Neutral truck wash? Rounded corners? Or the cost or the truck size or the availability when I need to move an apartment?

U-Haul Technology description. While all valid benefits of driving a U-Haul truck, probably not among the decision points that someone is using to select a truck hire company.

Let’s get back to law libraries. What do you do that’s unique? CLE? Public legal education? Forms? Legal information (Libguides) pathfinders and guides? Clinics? All of these are things other groups do, many of them with a far more specific focus than a law library. CLE providers, courts, public legal service agencies, law schools. Most law library services do not make a law library unique unless they exist in a legal services desert.

Your people are what make you unique. Your reference librarians are something no other local, perhaps regional, public library can match. Your legal information organizers – catalogers, whoever – understand the legal information world better than organizations who may only buy their catalog data, let alone get elbow deep in classifying legal materials.

But how do you turn that into a distinguishing marketing pitch? “We’ve got the best legal reference librarians!” In fact, you may have the ONLY legal reference librarians but that’s not going to be dispositive. Because that message still needs to hit at the moment that someone – or someone who knows someone – has a legal issue. #FriendsandFamily

Future Awareness

This is further complicated because any marketing campaign has to be ongoing. If you are not advertising year-round, you almost might not bother doing any advertising. I don’t mean to be flippant:

  • you are trying to reach an individual
  • that individual may have a legal issue in the future or know someone who has a legal issue in the future
  • legal issues may arise as they go through their life
  • as people get older, they age into your audience group

If you only advertise once every couple of years or once a year, you may miss part or all of each new cohort that enters your audience at the moment that they are open to your message.

My experience is that law libraries do not spend anywhere near enough money on marketing, even if they spend a lot of time on it. This is partly because of the perception of public entities marketing but also because the reality is that courthouse law libraries do not have excess funds beyond collection and people to do substantial marketing.

There is an argument to make that a law library should cut its losses and focus its marketing only on decision makers, like boards and funders. This choice narrows your audience to the people who can ensure the law library is sustained into the future. But it neglects the primary audience of people who might benefit from the law library’s presence.

This isn’t an argument I would be comfortable making although I’ve seen this done. One place it manifests itself is in misalignment in governance direction. Governance boards probably understand that awareness is a problem but (a) may think it’s awareness by the bar that is the issue (it isn’t or, if it is, it’s immaterial) or (b) fail to realize the cost and resources required to raise awareness.

Why is awareness by the bar immaterial? Because lawyers are never going to refer anyone but other legal professionals to the library. “Here, client, here is a free resource you can use instead of me to get started on your legal issue.” This is similar to the challenge of having an all-bench-and-bar governance board: they aren’t going to market the law library to the public, for the most part, but to colleagues. Their importance is as funding and governance decision makers. You want friends and family to refer other friends and family to the law library.

If there’s any hurdle here, we can clear the ones around messaging and audience. I think the biggest hurdle is money to continue a multi-year campaign. Marketing could easily consume as much as a collection development budget. At some point it may be necessary to have a hard discussion with a governance or funding group: the usage the law library gets is all it will get because the cost to market and raise awareness means sacrificing staff and collections.

Make the Pitch

I was talking this all over with someone who has done marketing and advertising. If anything, the discussion moved me along a spectrum. I knew already that we needed to advertise and we needed to hit our target audience where they were. As is so often the case, my personal experience with public transit meant I’d seen legal advertising on buses and trains and it seemed like a good way to get to the same people.

But my initial thought was to use something to enable the target audience to immediately access our resources. I was making the same mistake that law libraries make when they advertise their collection updates, incremental creeping that is unaligned with time. I was focusing on our improvements – access our remote resources 24 hours a day – rather than really thinking through the need.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. My initial idea had involved a URL or a QR code on the public transit poster. The QR code has become so prevalent due to the pandemic that it seemed like a technology that anyone could use. Wouldn’t it be great if someone was on public transit, accessed a QR code, and had access to information?

And I think the answer to that is still a big “yes” but it’s not the right answer for our current need. We need to reach people who do not yet know they have a legal issue and we still want them to interact with our advertising. We want them to remember.

Also, one thing you notice when you’re on public transit is the wide variety of devices. I also assume there is a wide variety of access. Until I moved to the US, I did not have data on my phone and I’m sure there are people who are in our target audience who don’t carry data plans. So the ideal advertising is something that is consumable on a flip phone with a camera without internet.

What we need is something that consumers can take a photo of and store away. It might be a photo of a QR code or, more likely, a URL. Not our main web site URL but a measurable URL. And, if they’re like many people, that photo will stay on their phone. Perhaps it’ll even be automatically backed up with their other photos, or pop up in their “This Day 3 Years Ago” memory prompt in their photo app.

The point is that the camera is a common technology that achieves the insurance function of the marketing. We want them to know how to reach us – phone number, address, URL – but we don’t need to care if they know how to reach us at this moment. It’s far more important we give them something to keep, to carry with them.

I’m not sure exactly how this will pan out. There’s still the content to create. And the problem with this approach is that, even more than most marketing, the advertising expense and the measurable conversion into a customer will be so attenuated as to be potentially unmeasurable. But, increasingly, I think that’s a multi-year gamble I’m willing to take.

Courthouse law libraries don’t sell widgets. We don’t even sell content access. We sell legal reference expertise and legal research organization. We answer questions no one else can answer for free and we make information findable, browsable, for those who may not have any idea how the law works.

And we struggle with showing our value because what we do is amorphous. It is no surprise that awareness building would share this same hurdle, although I think that a lot of marketing is aspirational of a particular goal. Otherwise we’d all buy everything we’re advertised.

I’ve been skeptical of law library marketing for a long time. I can’t say I’m converted. But I do think that this approach finally makes sense to me in a way that other marketing has not. Persistent awareness is impossible for a courthouse law library. But if we can get individuals to stash us away, even if they forget us in the meantime, we may be further ahead in our awareness challenge.