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So much social media, so little time.

2945559128_53078d246b_mSocial media tools create incredible opportunities for libraries. The limitations of physical structure fall away and personalized, in depth communication can occur in real time. Advocates can have more access to materials, new users can find out about different services, services themselves can be expanded and presented through these medium. The problem is there is no end. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel notes that even die hard techies like herself cannot keep up with all the new social media, so why should organizations feel they need to keep up? The answer is, they shouldn’t and neither should libraries.

Free is not without cost

The problem many libraries have is they do not realize the cost of free. Social media do not require large initial expenditures of money, they can be cancelled easily, so libraries do not devote the time to careful planning. But they do cost staff and they cost reputation. The staff costs make sense. After all someone has to set these up and time is money. More importantly, if they aren’t maintained, they look neglected and dead which reflects poorly on the whole institution. Many a library blog would be better if it were never created whether than being left up with only a few posts that are 8 months old.

What happened to planning?

It’s easy to start new projects. Just sign up and go, right? Well, that’s just part of it. Web projects are both a blessing and a curse. They can be started quickly, but abandoned even quicker. No one wants to become paralyzed by inaction, but there still needs to be a level of planning and accountability if the project is going to work to benefit the library system. So, how should social media fit into the greater framework?

First, know your audience and goals

This simple truth is often ignored in the context of the web. After all, potentially everyone is our audience, right? Well, no. No one ever visits a library’s website that’s not their own. Why would they? So the definition of audience becomes more important than ever. I have worked in libraries were plans have been made to add tagging and commenting to different services. Sounds like a great idea. The problem is that the department the library served was only about 20 people and as I’ve said before certain social media only work with a critical mass and really cannot be retrofit to a small centralized population that communicates mostly face-to-face. Audience is key. We are primarily a public service organization, so we need to know our public.

Second, create social media in support of these goals

Again, this seems intuitive, but is often ignored. Don’t believe me? Take a look at second life. If any company actually looked at the customer base, they would’ve realized that second life is, well, nothing. No one used it (or at least very few used it). Similarly, if I were to develop a teen area for the library, I would not commit time and resources to twitter. Why? Because teens do not use twitter. Oddly though, if I were promoting new books or services for adults, I’d set up twitter because there are more adults over the age of 55 using twitter than people under 25. The goal is to avoid what is called Cargo Cult which is imitating the success of others without understanding why they work. Understanding how social media work in the larger framework is crucial to creating a successful program.

Finally, commit!

Commitment is key. As with any project having a key individual to take charge and become accountable is crucial. This doesn’t mean there is someone to blame if the project does not connect with the audience. After all, the cost of early adoption is increased potential for failure along with increased potential for success. The idea of accountability is to be able to assess features. Has there been no blog post in a month? Why? Should we scrap the whole thing? Do we need to promote it more? Is the scope too narrow? A leader of each project can help answer these questions. Finally, focusing on commitment helps avoid the “Free is not without cost” problem that social media creates. It is better to have a few well-developed highly promoted community interfaces rather than a shotgun approach of half-hearted attempts.