November 29, 2023

Email is the Key | The Digital Shift

Email concept with laptopWhen working with political campaigns for EveryLibrary, the nation’s first and only political action committee for libraries, we are often asked to identify the most important digital tactic for winning campaigns and advocating for libraries. Many of the people who ask expect us to talk about best practices using Facebook or Twitter to reach the public. They are usually surprised to hear we still believe email is the absolute most important tool for digital campaigns. This is true because email is still fundamentally the key to the Internet. Your library’s biggest goal in digital and in-person strategy should be the acquisition of email addresses. I have found this to be true, time and again, from my experience managing digital strategy for the libraries where I have worked and from my experience running political campaigns with EveryLibrary.

Email is the key to the Internet because everything on the Internet is connected to an email address, and all email addresses are connected. Whether you’re ordering products from Amazon or filing your taxes, you need to have an email address. If you have a job, you were likely assigned an email address. If you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other online account, you definitely have an email address. Unlike social media, though, email works across platforms. While you can’t message someone on Facebook from Twitter, you can email someone with an AOL email account from a Google email account. There are almost no barriers among email platforms, servers, or providers. They all play well together.

Social media platforms change

Remember MySpace? Does your library still have the connections or data that it spent so much time and energy collecting? If you’re like most other organizations, you probably don’t and you’re probably extremely lucky if you can even remember your password. But email doesn’t change as often as people switch many of their other online accounts. Email is arguably the most stable mode of contact on the Internet. Most people keep their personal email account with them through their digital lives. I still have and use mine from the first time I got online when I was in high school. If you want to stay in touch with your patrons, you must make sure you don’t lose contact when they change social media platforms. Email is still the best way to do that.

If another social platform becomes the norm, your library can use your email list to build your connections on that new platform. Often social media let you upload a list of emails to your account for the purpose of sending invites. It’s very easily done with Facebook and LinkedIn, for example. Even if that particular social channel doesn’t allow you to do that, you can still send emails to your list asking people to connect with your library on the new platform.

How to get email addresses

There are lots of ways to build a solid email list. Buying a list from a vendor isn’t one of them. Instead, make sure you take every single opportunity in (or outside of) your library to get email addresses. Send around a clipboard at story times, book sales, and other programs. Ask for sign-ups during any outreach or meetings with the public. Have sign-ups on all of your digital platforms. Create perks for people on your email lists. For example, during my time at Sunnyvale Public Library, CA, we had a secret story time that happened about once a month that you could only find out about if you were on the email list.

Your digital platforms should be used to get emails from your followers, supporters, and patrons. There are many third-party app integrations that can be used to help you collect addresses from the people who want to opt in. Facebook has a Constant Contact and Mailchimp native opt-in app, you can place widgets on your website, and you can put links in your Twitter bio. Other platforms can be used to gather addresses as well. For example, if you use Eventbrite to manage your activities, download the email addresses of everyone who registers and send them an opt in email. Every contact with a patron is an important opportunity to ask for an address!

Best practices

There are many theories about how email lists can best be used. A quick Google search reveals thousands of self-­proclaimed professionals giving seemingly endless advice. However, many of the old standards work best.

HOW OFTEN AND WHEN? Everyone on your lists should receive around one or two emails per week. Any less and the open rates drop drastically. Any more, and people will opt out of receiving them. I tend to avoid using lists on Mondays since many people are catching up on emails from the weekend and preparing for the week ahead. Still, this is just my preference, not a hard and fast rule.

The most important “when” to sending an email is when you a have a good reason or purpose. Don’t ever send a filler email just because you feel the need to get something out. Send because you need to communicate critical information.

TO WHOM? The most effective campaigns use targeted lists that ensure that people only receive email in which they are likely to have an interest. Never send out a blanket monthly newsletter unless individuals have opted in, specifically, to a newsletter. Instead, send a notice about something happening in the next week based on what they have indicated as being of interest. If people receive email about children’s programming when they have selected to receive only news about adult book clubs, they will either stop opening your alerts or opt out. Understanding why people are on your lists and what they want to know about is the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful campaign.

CURATING YOUR LISTS Curating lists can be a long and time-consuming process, but it is the most important part of effective use of email. If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this: you should have as many multiple list segments as you can, and it’s OK if people are on more than one segment. The number of lists you have should only be determined by your capacity to manage them. The more smaller lists you have, the better. The two biggest requests libraries receive are about new materials and programs. Having one list for children’s programs and one for children’s materials is a great start, but consider segmenting lists even more if you can.

Chart courtesy of Tara Hunt

Writing for email

I often get asked about what’s considered “good” writing for email. My usual response is that good writing is just good writing. People want to sense that there is a person behind the email and behind the organization. Most emails can be written in a conversational voice (it needn’t be stuffy professional writing). You are trying to connect with and build a lasting relationship with your users and supporters. People don’t want a relationship with a government bureaucracy, they want a relationship with their library. People don’t respond well to technical language, so avoid jargon, and find a way to keep your notices entertaining. If you have someone on staff with a great knack for communicating and connecting with your users, they should be tapped to write your emails. Finally, emails should always be signed by a staffer to add a personal touch.

Ladder of engagement

Email is a way to keep people informed about what the library is doing. But the larger purpose is to help patrons move up the ladder of engagement (see image at left). The ladder of engagement is a model from community organizing. (For a more detailed explanation of how the ladder of engagement works, see The first goal is to make people aware of your library and services and, ultimately, to truly believe in and love the library itself. This won’t happen because you sent them an email about an upcoming LEGO program or because you’re providing a seed library. You have to demonstrate, consistently, why the library is important. Sharing stories and pictures of impact helps you show your users how the library makes a difference in their community—plus, they’ll also learn about what the library provides. You can do all this with email. Get on a list for your favorite cause and read the mail it sends to convince you of its beliefs. With a large enough email list and a platform to send them from, you can move the world (Archimedes said that, I think).

Patrick Sweeney is a founding board member and Political Director for EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries. He is a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker

To learn more about the latest technology trends impacting libraries, come to LJ’s daylong virtual event, The Digital Shift.The event will include presentations on digital outreach, including a session by Patrick Sweeney (author of this column) on digital community organizing.

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