Beyond the Echo-Chamber: Library Messaging in the Social Networks
Ned Potter in his blog post “Moving beyond the Echo-Chamber” defined the echo-chamber as an ‘enclosed space’ where like-minded people quote your own beliefs back to you. He asks the library community: “What if we’re only really preaching to the converted? What if we have our own echo-chamber, beyond which lie the people we really need” to convince to stay worthy and relevance?1
What if indeed! Colorado librarians wanted to experiment with reaching beyond the echo-chamber. Led by Jamie Larue, Douglas County Libraries, a group named BHAG (for Big Hairy Audacious Goal) wanted to push out an audacious message to Colorado residents with the hope of reaching beyond library supporters. Under LaRue’s direction, dozens of non-librarian, community leaders gave library talks to 3,000 people throughout Colorado. The big, hairy goal was to change the way people think of and speak about libraries.
The message focused on four key points:
- Libraries Change Lives
- Libraries Mean Business
- Libraries Build Community
- Libraries are a Smart Investment
A 15-minute script was created that consisted of powerful stories and telling statistics. The BHAG web site includes a final report, a video of the talk, and a host of other advocacy resources.2
“We've got to be the promise of the four points. It’s not enough to talk about how great libraries are, we have to prove it. OCLC’s From Awareness to Funding asks us to demonstrate that libraries are all about the future, and we can’t do this if we cling to the past. Libraries of all kinds need to band together. Not only to build support and funding -- but to ensure there’s a spot for libraries on the playing field of the digital age.” - Aspen Walker, Douglas County Libraries
An Experiment in Social Networking
Our next goal was to see what happens if you try to reach beyond the echo-chamber into the social networking sphere. A new subgroup, Son of BHAG, was formed to spread the four messages across the net. The name reflects one of our assumptions; humor must be a key component of our messaging.
While Son of BHAG committee members had a great deal of experience on a variety of social networks, we didn’t know how to frame our message to have the most impact. The BHAG group decided to spend four months experimenting with different techniques and styles of pushing out the four messages across a wide variety of social media. A quick poll found Son of BHAG members used Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, FriendsFeed, Momentiel, TubeMogal, local and national newspaper sites, TV programs and political discussion websites, book groups, and a huge variety of library and non-library blogs. We quickly learned that by combining the networks of eight people, we were reaching a vast number of people across a variety of networks, far more than any individual could ever reach alone.
To make sure all four points were covered on our social sites, we divided the message across four months: July – Libraries Change Lives, August – Libraries Mean Business, September – Libraries Build Community, and October – Libraries are a Great Investment.
Two or three committee members agreed to take the lead each week in finding messages related to our four key topics. Examples of messages include:
- “Libraries Mean Business: 2.8 million times every month, business owners and employees use resources at public libraries to support their small business.”3
- Libraries Build Community: "The library is the community's information hub and a place to gather, but also because of what happens inside libraries. Children come to story hour and adults come to programs. Library meeting rooms are places to vote or are used for local legislators' town hall meetings. In the information age, the library is so much more than a collection of books." - Sarah Long, North Suburban Library System, IL4
We wanted to find ways of measuring our impact. This turned out to be very difficult. We could not afford any assessment methods that would really capture what we trying to accomplish. We chose to use a number of tools, and to accept that we would be building our knowledge based on non-quantitative information. We did count Twitter Hashtags (#cobhag, #bad3), Facebook reposts, new friends added, and we paid attention to personal comments. In retrospect, most of what we learned came from anecdotal evidence. However, there was consensus among members on what worked and what didn’t.
Messaging that Work on Social Networks
- KEEP IT SHORT: Literally, the shorter the better. Three words are better than six; six words are better than one sentence, one sentence is better than two, and so on.
- KEEP IT SASSY: Surprising bits of information or comments caught reader’s attention. Playing it safe or conservative did not work with social media. To get through the clutter of messages, the message must have something startling, fresh, emotional, or catchy. We dumped all libraries are nice places-type messages; and instead used “Hula dancers sashay through local library.”
“Human beings, it appears, are attracted to shiny objects and the written word is no different. In a world of sound bites and waves of information, messages should be flashy, and attention grabbing; a no-brainer, really.” - Judy Van Acker, Colorado Library Consortium.
- TWIBBON CRAZE – Twibbons are ribbon banners added to profile pictures in Facebook and Twitter. Prior to Son of BHAG few if any Colorado library supporters were using Twibbons. After Son of BHAG members started using Twibbons, their use spread quickly beyond our library connections to old high school friends, distant family members, and other people with whom we share hobbies or interests. Twibbon use has since dropped dramatically. We may have caught a temporary Internet fad.
- FACEBOOK SITES: We pushed the Facebook group “I’ll Bet I Can Find 1,000,000 People Who Think Libraries Are Important.” When we started this group had a few friends. After we aggressively pushed this group, its’ friend list grew very quickly. We looked at the intersection between our Facebook friends and those ‘friends’ of the group, and we believe we were instrumental in its increased popularity.
“The Save Libraries Twibbon really took off and was a great visual way to represent our cause, but it was the growth of the I'll Bet I Can Find 1,000,000 People Who Think Libraries Are Important group that really amazed me. When we started, the group had a small number of members, and now it has grown to nearly a quarter of a million! Our collective network is huge, and that means the impact we can have is also huge.” - Michelle Gebhart, Colorado State Library
- THE ‘AH HA’ STATISTICS: Statistics worked particularly well when we were messaging out on the “Libraries Mean Business” topic. Among all our posts and tweets, short statistics were more likely to be picked up and reposted. For example: “Libraries mean Business: In Colorado, 1500 new businesses start each month –libraries can help. #coBHAG”
- QUOTES: Short, snappy quotes from famous or infamous people worked well. The shorter, sassier, or more startling quotes worked the best. For example:
- “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to an ignorant nation.” - Walter Cronkite
- “Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague.” - Eleanor Crumblehulme
- STORIES: Heartfelt emotional stories worked. The trick was to keep it powerful and short. It turned out that some BHAG members were better at this technique than others.
- HUMOR: Like stories, some BHAG members were better at writing humorous posts than others. Humor can cause a backlash, but it is also very effective such as in the Onion post: “News: Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.”5
- PROVOCATIVE QUESTIONS: Questions worked well for starting discussions, particularly within groups such as a library’s friends group. Laurie Kubitz-Maness used this technique with Denver Public Library’s Facebook Fans. “We discovered that challenging our Facebook Fans was a great way to engage with them and get them thinking about why libraries are important. Our Fans answered our challenge: 'TIME TO BE CREATIVE: What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of the word: LIBRARY?' with 60 replies, 'Families, Adventures, information, Happy, Freedom, Equality, serenity, AWESOME, peaceful, learning, Community, Knowledge' these were just a fraction of the passionate responses. We also added an interactive poll to the front page of our main website. We posed the question: 'What library services are most valuable to your community?' In just over a week, we received over 1300 votes and 38 comments.”
The process itself produced a number of challenges most involving the time, energy, and creativity of the Son of BHAG group members.
- The process was time consuming and it was difficult to be continuously creative. Katie Klossner from Douglas County Libraries described the situation: “It was great to have themes to rely on each month, as that gave all of us a specific direction in what links, quotes or statistics to push out to our followers/friends. However, as is the case with everything – time was an issue, as I was often only able to push information during my assigned week just 1-2 times.” Some topics seemed to lend themselves to creative messaging, others didn’t. Valerie Horton said, “I found it easy to locate one fascinating ‘libraries mean business’ quote/antidote after another, but I couldn’t find short, emotional ‘libraries build community’ references for the life of me. I know it was the reverse for some committee members. Another advantage of a group process.”
- The process led to exhaustion or a feeling of burnout after four months. Michelle Gebhart, Colorado State Library, reports, “Even as a social networking junkie, I noticed that there can be some real burnout involved with finding and sharing relevant, interesting content week after week. Having an assigned week to push out content around a specific theme was an excellent way to keep burnout low, but also ensure that new content was being put out there consistently.”
- The process made it too easy to sound preachy or to overuse a technique. Aspen Walker suggests a method to limit this problem: “There have been times when my friends and tweeps have wondered if I am obsessed with libraries. They may be on to something. That said, it is so satisfying to connect with other library lovers and see the messages you care about spread far and wide. And there’s a tip here, especially if you are using your personal account for advocacy: balance your evangelism with some posts about your life outside libraries, so you don’t look like a library-loving juggernaut or one-trick pony. In the heat of the Son of BHAG push, I would have to remind myself to take some Facebook quiz or another, or post my latest photos, so my wall contained some variety.”
All Son of BHAG members considered the project a personal learning success. Judy Van Acker asked, “Did the time we put into the project produce positive results? Did our efforts matter? I’m crossing my fingers that the answer is a resounding yes.” We did find it was especially gratifying to see a quote get picked up six or seven times and spread further out into the social network area.
“My big AH HA moment while posting messages via Twitter and Facebook was discovering that people outside of libraryland were actually interested in and supportive of our efforts. Wow, my third cousin does really care! So often we end up preaching to the choir when we blog or toss around statistics about the value of libraries. It was refreshing to learn that through our post and tweets - we were reaching a larger audience outside of our professional network.” - Judy Van Acker, Colorado Library Consortium.
Michelle Gebhart, Colorado State Library, summed up two of the key things we learned in this process: 1) the general population may not know libraries are in trouble, and 2) different people react differently on social networks. Michelle said, “I used both my work and my personal Facebook accounts during this experiment. While of course the other people in Library Land responded instantly to the things I sent out, the people on my personal account had a variety of reactions: some were eager to share my posts, some seemed apathetic, and still others had no idea libraries were even in trouble. The people who were unaware about the dangers libraries face could become powerful allies if they could only be made aware of the current crisis.”
The need to reach beyond the echo-chamber is clear to the members of the Son of BHAG group. While we have no definitive proof that our work changed any one’s minds about libraries, we were all heartened by the feedback and positive responses our work produced. American society still has a groundswell of support and affection for the institution of the library. We believe that outreach into the social networks is a way of connecting with a significant part of the American community.
We encourage all library supporters to try the experiment we lived for four months. Post about your library experiences – the good and bad – and engage the community in discussion about the future of libraries. But remember – short, startling, and humorous work best!
1. Ned Potter, "Moving Beyond the Echo-Chamber," Library & Information Update (July 2010): 23.
2. To learn more about this project, please check out http://bhagcolorado.blogspot.com/
3. Data taken from the OCLC report, Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community, available at http://www.oclc.org/reports/2010perceptions.htm
4. Data taken from a Daily Herald column published by Sarah Long entitled, "Libraries Build Community," on March 22, 2009.
5. "Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text," Onion (March 9, 2010). Available at http://www.theonion.com/articles/nation-shudders-at-large-block-of-uninterrupted-te,16932/