The vision is pretty clear – people have gone online. They have become accustomed to beautiful products like Spotify or iTunes which use a tremendous amount of skill and engineering to mask complexity and offer a simple, seamless experience which drives repeated use. If libraries are to compete in a connected culture, we need one of those – a consistent online presence for libraries.
Over the years, I have been involved in at least 5 different projects to set up a ‘single digital presence for libraries’ – a unifying platform which gives online consumers a single point of entry to the wonderful world of libraries.
And each of these initiatives has failed. Some failed fast – in one case, not even making it to launch. Others took a while, even lasting a number of years through ongoing subsidy. The unifying factor was that each had forgotten to take care of at least one element from the list below.
The ingredients you’ll need
- – a grown-up, large-scale ongoing marketing budget supported by clear segmentation, a strong brand and ongoing investment over a period of 3-5 years;
- UX design
- – a modern, mobile-first attractive interface informed by leading practice in user experience design (and surrendering all decisions about presentation to UX professionals – which means nothing that looks like a field from a Collections Management System or Catalogue!);
- Quality content
- – curated/editorialised content, sourced through real-world partnerships with real-world people who know and love their collections (which means nothing squeezed through an API or rendered through a 3rd party ‘data model’). Getting quality content means long-term, qualitative and reciprocal relationships between real humans;
- Meaningful interactions
- – any online platform or service has to deliver rich, meaningful and ideally emotional experiences that people can’t get anywhere else. UX design which leads the user to a record and then leaves them there does not make for a fulfilling, meaningful interaction. It has to be the prompt for a string of creative or social interactions with little or no barrier to exchange (including the barrier of rights management);
- A reason for existing
- – if your rationale is ‘because we’ve got all this stuff’ or ‘because a politician had dinner with someone in the tech sector who said we needed one’, your platform will not succeed. If your rationale is soft diplomacy, tourism, national identity, strong pre-existing user community or real evidence of need, then it is more likely to (though still no guarantees);
- Value add
- – any single digital presence for libraries needs to deliver real impact in two directions – driving visitors/users to the library (conversion) and delivering unique, compelling experiences for the end-user (attention). It needs to be able to evidence when this has happened;
- – not only the codebase at launch, but an ongoing commitment to refreshing the technological infrastructure, re-factoring every 3-5 years and building your platform as an actual platform (or better still, re-purposing an existing platform);
- – a viable organisational structure with skilled, committed people whose job it is to maintain, improve and develop the platform, engage with users and create a plan for long-term sustainability. Although this can work with volunteers, these people mostly need to be paid;
- – someone influential who loves, owns and believes in the platform and is willing to defend it, fight for it, argue for it and sustain a clear vision for it over a long period;
- – a strong governance structure and a sense of unity of purpose between interested parties, many of whom will be in competition for resources;
- A business model
- – a grown-up, real, evidenced business model based on generating value for an identified market from day 1 and a clear and genuine (ideally pre-existing) means of monetising this audience to secure an identified cash amount equal to or greater than the cost of running and staffing the service;
- -if individual staff in individual library services feel that the platform is ‘alien’ or a top-down imposition, or designed by Committee or generally anything other than directly useful to the people they meet and serve on a daily basis, then it is time to think again (they know their customers better than anyone);
- End-user support
- – a staffed, responsive tech or user support service that is available 24/7;
This is really hard. I have seen single digital presence projects deliver excellent technology and content, but fail to implement a marketing strategy or a business plan. I have seen initiatives falter because the parties were too intent on fighting each other for credit. I have seen great brands built on air, with no real substance behind them. I have seen platforms built with immense political support, only for that support to evaporate 3 years later when the wind changes.
In case it isn’t clear – I am still a believer. I think that a Spotify or iTunes for libraries, properly marketed at scale could transform public understanding of what public libraries can offer. I am mainly sharing this in the hope that someone out there will be able to find a way to make this work!