Kevin B. Leonard
May 18, 2009
Case Study Contents
Archivists are in the business of communication. Traditionally, they work to transmit information across a divide of time, between the creators of records in one era and the consumers or users of those materials in another. Archivists, to engage with disparate groups of donors, custodians of records and manuscripts, and patrons, must be effective in their own forms of communication. Web 2.0 technologies offer exciting new means to reach diverse audiences. Blogging, the technology under consideration here, permits its adherents to communicate using the power and reach of the Internet. Reach, however, does not equate with efficiency. Effective blogging must find its way to an audience primed and ready for its content. The formal techniques of marketing, common to business but less appreciated in the archival world, should be employed to identify, attract, and engage an audience. Marketing, when married to blogging, allows archivists to use the Web as a powerful aid in communication.
Basically, a blog is a website, created and maintained typically via one of several easy-to-use software packages or blogging platforms. Because of its user friendliness, a blog (shorthand for “Weblog”) lends itself to frequent updates. As such, blogs have become extremely popular vehicles for the widespread dissemination of news, opinion, and special interest commentary. They can often take the form of personal, confessional accounts, much like online diaries. And because of their flexibility of format and ease of use, they’re fun, interesting, informative, and—for archivists—potentially very useful in reaching patrons.
If you choose to blog about the world of archives, then join the small but talented club already out there. But what blogging can offer to most archivists is the opportunity to take a relatively new technology and use it to engage in an important but, in our profession, underappreciated endeavor: marketing. Common to business and effectively embraced by nonprofits, marketing largely has been neglected in the realm of archives.
The combination of blogging with marketing (called, amazingly enough, blog marketing) provides archivists a great chance to marry low-cost electronic publishing with proven business practices, to promote collections and services.
So, what about marketing? Heck, most of us went into archives because we didn’t like the real, scary world of business, right? You probably scoff at the very idea of marketing and view it as an unnecessary and possibly debasing intrusion of commerce into the pure empyrean of research and knowledge. Well, if that is true, you are badly mistaken. Of course, marketing is closely associated with commercial enterprise and management. Marketing, as an academic course of study, is a key and indispensable feature of business education. Unfortunately, it remains outside the training of most archivists. It is, however, a central element of nearly all endeavors involving an organization—both commercial and not-for-profit—and its patrons or customers. Archivists have patrons. In fact, most archivists want more of them. Blogging will help.
Marketing, simply put, is the process by which an organization connects its products, services, and ideas to the needs of its customers.1 It is a way of managing patron relations and, whether you know it or not, you are doing it already. If you advertise your collections, perhaps by means of a brochure, you are engaged in at least a rudimentary form of marketing. If you offer services—acquiring collections, maintaining a reading room, assisting with research, engaging in user education—you have adopted a posture with regard to your patrons. If you maintain office hours, unlock your door at the start of the day, and turn on your reading room lights, you already are shaping patron behaviors. You have in place some basic elements with which to develop a marketing plan. Marketing, more formally considered, looks at organizational activities as opportunities to satisfy patron needs and to build mutual benefits into a relationship. It views patrons as assets to be managed and maximized.2
Okay, so what is the connection between marketing and blogging? Blogging is a structured form of communication that is easily directed at market niches and can be manipulated to develop or reinforce an organization’s brand. Branding—the effort to create associations with an organization, a product, a service—is a significant tool in successful marketing: adding value to relationships and allowing an entity (the archives, in this case) to connect with its public.3 An established brand is the product of constant communication, designed to form clear associations. Blogging, then, can permit effective communication to defined populations or market niches. It can be instrumental in building an archival brand.
It is true that archives can generally support an occasional endeavor with wide public appeal like, for example, genealogy. It is also true that most of the products and services archivists do offer have modest appeal to a mass market. Most individual archives possess limited attraction for large numbers of people. As such, archives have few—if any—opportunities to profit from broad campaigns of advertising and marketing. Too few potential patrons are reached to justify the effort and expense of those campaigns. This likely explains why archivists are largely unfamiliar with marketing principles at all.
New technologies, especially Web 2.0 platforms and blogging in particular, offer archivists low-cost means to communicate with their market niches of core consumers. For the limited investment of time and effort needed to create and maintain a blog, archivists can have at their disposal an effective means to engage patrons; to focus their messages to known, specific constituencies; to engage in sustained branding and marketing; and, potentially, to grow their audiences.
Before moving to the specifics of this case, it is useful to assert the value of word-of-mouth appeals in marketing campaigns. An organization may profitably promote to an audience the utility of its goods or services. If or when a third party promotes that good or service, the effect of the recommendation is greatly magnified. In essence, that is viewed as an unbiased, honest testimonial. (It’s one thing for me to tell you, “Visit my archives, it’s great!” You should take that statement with a grain of salt; I am not, after all, a neutral observer. It is quite another thing for you to receive that same message from a non-affiliated third party. That is an endorsement that should carry more weight.) Web 2.0 technologies are alike in their abilities to engender two-way communication, from institution to consumer as well as from consumer to institution. They can be deployed additionally to foster consumer-to-consumer sharing of institutionally provided resources. Blogs (and other Web 2.0 applications) are well adapted to facilitate word-of-mouth marketing. Word-of-mouth endorsements are extremely valuable in building a loyal consumer base or—in the archival context—an audience for collections and services. Marketing efforts that reach audiences in this manner, which spread in a “viral” fashion, are known to be remarkably effective.4
The specifics of this case involve the efforts of the Northwestern University Archives to develop a blogging program. The point of that endeavor was to increase exposure for the archives, its collections, and its services, with a secondary goal of increasing traffic to the existing departmental website. An unstated hope was that greater exposure and traffic might drive more patrons to our door and expand the number of reference inquiries handled on a monthly basis.
The Northwestern University Archives is an institutional repository, established primarily to acquire, maintain, and provide reference services for the valuable records and publications of Northwestern University, its host institution. Supplementing this core mission, the University Archives also acquires and services the personal papers of Northwestern faculty, students, and alumni. In general, it is a very typical university archives.
The University Archives is a department of Northwestern’s main library. Its physical placement lies outside of major pedestrian traffic flows, a little bit out of the way and somewhat difficult to find. In a modest way, blogging may be seen as a means to establish an engaging and rewarding Internet presence, supplementing the traditional website and overcoming some disadvantages of the department’s physical location.
Patrons of the University Archives continue to seek information or assistance through traditional means: in person, over the telephone, or through the mail (now mainly e-mail). However, staff members of the department are well aware of broad, new trends in patron use of our facilities. Increasingly, libraries and—to a lesser extent—archives are becoming virtual destinations. Our patrons are ever more likely to expect information resources and services to be readily available in digital fashion. Search engines are the first places used to find information; human mediation is important but secondary.5 Blogging allows our Archives to easily place at least a limited amount of resources on the Web, exposes those resources to search engines, and also allows us to communicate the enormous non-digital resources within our collection. We remind our patrons that significant volumes of material still require mediation for access.
For the present, blogging permits us the ability to highlight an active role for archivists in patron service and education.
Pre-blogging efforts to promote our department, its services, and holdings relied on necessarily infrequent mass-mailings to university faculty and staff, traditional print media approaches to students, and the occasionally placed feature in the university’s alumni publications. These efforts had the advantage of reaching large aggregations of people. There were significant disadvantages. Traditional publicity campaigns reached large, but not well-defined, populations. There were logistical difficulties inherent to major promotional campaigns. Finally, the frequency with which these campaigns could be mounted was limited.
With blogging, promotional work has been narrowed to appeal not just to known patrons but to subsets of those patrons. It targets interest-based communities and, since blog entries are so easily rendered, times their release proactively to seasonal events and anniversaries, or reactively to breaking news. Some entries are posted with specific patrons in mind, and others are written to attract the attention of other bloggers. The intention in nearly all cases is to encourage readers to recirculate our entries. To that end, we have equipped our blog entries with the AddThis widget, a suite of sharing tools.6 Each blog post carries with it mechanisms which allow a reader to e-mail or embed that post with minimal effort.
For its blogging efforts, the Northwestern University Archives uses the Movable Type publishing platform from Six Apart Ltd. Movable Type is available in both commercial and open-source versions. Levels of user support and access to selected add-on functions vary according to version. Movable Type’s website offers information and instructions on installing, configuring, and using the software.7
Movable Type is installed on a user’s Web server, is customizable, and supports an unlimited number of blogs through one installation of the application. For example, the Northwestern University Archives maintains two separate blogs, both linked to our website—and integrated with our website design—through Movable Type.
Movable Type is a sophisticated application, yet remains easy to use by novice bloggers with relatively little training. More powerful features become readily apprehended with familiarity and experience.
Of particular importance to Archives’ staff, Movable Type supports syndication formats. We have taken that feature to make our blog posts available for RSS “feed” subscription. The RSS mechanism gives us the ability to push our posts to interested subscribers. Those subscribers need not visit the blog for updated information: the posts go directly to them via RSS feed readers.
In 2008, the Northwestern University Archives chose blogging as the Web 2.0 tool it would use to market its collections and services. Early efforts were halting and sporadic as members of the staff learned to use Movable Type and, more significantly, learned to communicate via a new medium. It has been a struggle, and remains so, to find the right voice or tone to communicate in the blogosphere. Confessional? Witty? Fun? (Not us.) Blog communication is a little different from writing a standard press release. We reviewed other popular blogs and tried to mimic as best we could the terse, breezy style typically encountered. I’ll admit it doesn’t always come naturally. We are works in progress.
Our first attempts to present ourselves at the Internet dance were dressed up, polished, scrubbed behind the ears—and unsuccessful. We forgot to bring our date. It’s one thing to blog, but remember, the point of the exercise is to reach an audience. We had none. We tried increasing the frequency of our blog posts. Ratcheting up production is important, although difficult when there are always other pressing tasks at hand. (A word of advice: make time to blog. No one will listen to you when you have little to say.) Still, we lacked any confidence that our efforts were finding a readership. We found no immediate uptick in patronage and no one was calling in to say how much they enjoyed our posts. We discovered and employed concepts from the arcane field of search engine optimization, more or less using and emphasizing selected words and phrases most likely to be employed in online searches. Then, we sat back and waited for the world to change. It didn’t. Who, after all, would seek out our archival pearls if they had little idea that there was an archival oyster? That’s when we hit upon the idea of marketing our blog.
In the summer of 2008, we developed a marketing plan, with a goal of making our blog known to a subset of the academic community, the students. Marketing plans identify goals to be attained during an established interval of time. They then set out actions—broad strategies implemented by specific tactics—used to achieve those goals.8 Our specific goal was to put our blog before the eyes of a few hundred students during the initial week of the academic year. Students, you might well imagine, are traditional users of our holdings, visiting the University Archives to engage in research both substantial and frivolous. Students also constitute an important group of donors to our department; we hold a significant number of collections of student manuscripts and of the records of student organizations. Additionally, students form a closely-knit population on campus. They communicate with one another and share information and opinions both quickly and willingly. We felt that if we could introduce our blog and, through it, the department, to a selection of students, we could depend on at least some of those students to share their knowledge of the Archives with their peers: roommates, classmates, and friends. All were considered potential users and future donors of materials. We hoped that students who became familiar with our blog would reinforce our efforts through their own word-of-mouth recommendations.
We felt that we couldn’t rely on students to find our blog on their own; why would they? We had no established path leading them there. We elected to contact students with an e-mail message that would allow them a look, an introduction to the blog. So, a mass mailing to all incoming students was in order, right? Not quite. Unsolicited e-mail is known commonly as spam, and spam, generally, is unwelcome by its recipients. Spamming the student body seemed a dangerous tactic, more likely to win enemies than friends. We wanted to e-mail students who possessed some basic knowledge of our Archives, students who had or might express a willingness to receive an approach, students who would accept our message with at least a bit of curiosity: lovers of tradition, scholars of history, and unbelievably gullible suckers.
The only thing a student likes better than free food is free clothing. The offer of a free T-shirt became the bait in our attempt to hook students on the Archives. The Archives printed up one hundred T-shirts (about all we could afford on our limited budget) bearing the name of our university in an ornate, antique font (see figure 1) taken from the masthead of the school newspaper of the 1880s.
The design was both attractive and unusual. By itself, it communicated associations with tradition and history, the strong suits, naturally, of the Archives. The back of the shirt carried the statement, “I found it in the Archives,” a short and clever slogan devised by my colleague, Janet Olson. The slogan answered the question of the shirt’s origin (as in, “Yo, dude, where’d ya get that shirt?”) as well as established our department’s new branding campaign. The branding simultaneously associated the Archives with tradition and with research, implying that the answers to at least some of life’s questions (if not an endless supply of free clothing) will be found within our domain.
During the initial days of our university’s programming for new students, a few personable student employees of the Archives were assigned the task of hanging out along a well-traveled route, enrolling 250 passersby in our drawing to giveaway the T-shirts. Each consenting passerby agreed to accept an e-mail message from the Archives when they registered for the drawing. Registration involved providing us with their e-mail address. Our subsequent message was planned to include a few items about school tradition and history—appropriate for new students—but also links to departmental resources, including the blog. Additionally, those who agreed to be placed on our mailing list were given a printed informational handout about the Archives, a specially printed and branded pencil (“I found it at the Archives,” done up in school colors) and, to the delight and prosperity of dentists everywhere, as much hard, sticky candy as they could stomach. By directing these efforts to peak hours over just a few days, we reached our enrollment goal and were ready to move to the next phase of action.
After waiting a couple of days, we held our T-shirt drawing, contacted the lucky winners, and sent our promotional e-mail to all the names on our new mailing list. Winners were asked to pick up their free shirts at the Archives, a manipulative scheme designed to familiarize a significant number of students with our physical location and, through the materials commonly displayed there, our holdings. At the end of the contest, several hundred students—along with some participating faculty—had received material from the Archives and had been linked to our blog. All had been exposed to our branding, and one hundred happy people were wearing branded T-shirts that advertised the Archives: gifts that have given back to us throughout the school year (see figure 2).
With that campaign, a small but somewhat engaged subset of our campus was put to work, voluntarily spreading news and associations about the Archives by word of mouth. In the ensuing months, we have been able to expand our mailing list to about five hundred names. Each month we send those individuals an e-mail newsletter announcing recent acquisitions, highlighting research projects, soliciting materials, discussing institutional history, and always linking back to our blog and to other online resources. New blog entries typically form the core content of the newsletter. Of course, the newsletter consistently reinforces our branding effort in its graphic design and in its overt attempts to associate the Archives with tradition and research. Our first attempt at blog marketing was the successful marketing of our own blog.
A second goal in making our department more widely known has been to market our collections and services to other blogs and bloggers, allowing information about the Archives to ripple through the blogosphere and to reach individuals and market niches generally inaccessible through our own distribution channels. As students and, especially, the editors of student publications have become more aware of our blog and the digital resources that it contains, they have appropriated those resources to their own ends. Again, we encourage that use by incorporating sharing mechanisms, via the AddThis widget, into our posts. The readers of other blogs and publications become consumers of our materials once removed, and knowledge of our holdings expands to a level beyond what we might be able to reach on our own. It has come to our attention indirectly, for example, that a few of our posts featuring embedded video had been incorporated into blogs and websites previously unknown to the Archives. We were delighted by the reach and popularity of some selected items.
While it’s great to have materials discovered almost by chance, we do devote some time and effort to placing posts with specific outside bloggers in order to leverage our influence. Given that ours is a university repository, a sizeable amount of our holdings pertain to collegiate athletics, especially football. At present, we are engaged in a campaign to support efforts to digitize a large collection of football game films. We hope to draw attention and interest to these materials from as wide a group of potential fans and supporters as possible. Tying into that campaign, our posts relating to football have been circulated to other blogs far and wide (see figure 3). We searched for blogs with pertinent affinities via search engines, including Google and Technorati. With some thus identified, we sent out links to our own resources, and have been gratified by the response. A small number of sample game films, digitized and posted initially on our blog, have been picked up and re-advertised by other bloggers to great effect: our films; additionally posted to Northwestern’s branded YouTube channel, have attracted several thousand viewers within a few months. Not Gone with the Wind, true, but extremely successful by our own modest standards. We expect to expand our offerings of like materials on a seasonal basis.9
A third and final goal of our blogging has been to attract more viewers to our online presence. The departmental blog is reached most commonly through our standard website, a source of useful information about the Archives, its holdings, services, and activities.10 The website is fairly static, and we have used blogging as a mechanism to enliven that site and to draw visitors. To boost traffic, we positioned a second blog on our site, called “This Day in NU History.”11 That blog features a brief item—an event—from our institution’s past. The feature changes each day, is equipped with an RSS feed mechanism, and has been publicized to campus periodicals and public relations staff. Items taken from that blog have reappeared as features in local publications or have engendered interest, supplemented by research, in pertinent collections held by the Archives. “This Day” is now under consideration as an element to be incorporated into our university’s main website when that site is relaunched during the next academic year.
Our two blogs, we hope, encourage patrons to spend more time on the departmental website. We have incorporated into the blogs a variety of digital formats to make them appealing and interesting: digitized photographs and other graphics, scanned documents, audio clips, and embedded video. The expectation is that lingering on the website should expose its other features, assets that could be overlooked on a more cursory visit.
Policies in place at our parent institution have made meaningful assessment, calculated in the form of hard numbers, difficult to achieve. Operational procedures have precluded our department from adopting analytical software that would track Web statistics. We lack, at present, the ability to review blog usage in any sophisticated manner. To date, analysis has been based upon information drawn obliquely from benchmark measurements of other departmental activities. Since the adoption of marketed blogging, indicators of reference and public service activities are well above baseline numbers, usually by a double-digit percentage, from our pre-blogging past. Blogging may not be the sole reason for our increased patronage. I am convinced, however, that it has played a very major role. Anecdotal evidence of blog impact—from telephone calls and e-mail messages received after postings, from research inquiries prompted by past blog posts, from news stories and press releases based on our communications, and from the recirculation of post content on other blogs—suggests a healthy measure of success.
Blogging, combined with efforts to develop an audience and to market our blog to interested parties, has been a successful undertaking of the Northwestern University Archives. The targeted use of this 2.0 technology has raised our departmental profile with key individuals and departments of our host institution. This has resulted in a more intense level of attention to our work and to our collections than we typically enjoyed in years before blogging became both possible and widely popular. Efforts to promote ourselves to selected, influential segments of our market—donors, patrons, and resource allocators—are working. Of particular value have been attempts to amplify our communications by engaging public relations and campus news outlets.
Directing subject-specific posts to other, targeted bloggers has been profitable on occasion. Bloggers develop their own constituencies. Successful outreach to blogging peers brings access, when desired, to their audiences. It likely has helped in the expansion of our own.
In an effort to solidify our position in relation to departmental donors, we posted on selected new acquisitions and then relayed our posts to interested parties. This served as a way of demonstrating appreciation. It also displayed to donors and potential donors a willingness to aggressively promote the use of new materials. Acquisition and collection-related posts are directed easily, when necessary, to potential patrons with known subject-area interests.
Not all efforts, unfortunately, were well received. Some entries to the blog met with little or no fanfare. They passed into obscurity without generating interest or reuse by local public relations and news departments or by other bloggers. With a mission of promoting our work to market niches, it is true that a number of our communications failed to achieve any noticeable impact. However, as long as our posts are maintained on servers and remain searchable, even those posts that failed initially to connect with an audience may produce a result sometime in the future.
Failures are instructive reminders that we must know our target audience and keep that audience in mind as we invest our time in communication. Blogging without an attempt to reach an intended market might enjoy an occasional success. More likely, however, it will become diffuse, ineffective, and a drain on resources.
With that, resources need to be directed where they will realize significant objectives. Blogging, as an institutional activity, does take effort and time. In our context, those expenditures have been worthwhile. An extended period of blogging activity at Northwestern has resulted in a considerable amount of publicity for our department. That publicity has provided us with a much enhanced level of patronage.
Our plans are to continue blogging and to incorporate more blogging activities into our regular work routine. During the next academic year, we expect to double our efforts and to publish at least one item per week. Sure, this is a remarkably low level of activity when compared with major and even not-so-major blogs devoted to news, politics, or cultural affairs. Still, it represents an increased commitment on our part and an attempt to showcase our activities and holdings to a carefully developed audience.
We will continue to employ marketing principles in the effort to place blog communications before a targeted audience. Our goal is to become more widely known within our institution as a key source of information, a center for research, and a repository for records and manuscripts. We look to blogging, directed at market niches, as a primary means of attaining that goal.
Blogging has been a useful, productive experience for the Northwestern University Archives. No, we are not as proficient as we should become with time. Still, the activity has been an effective, low-cost, and easy-to-learn means of communicating to market niches. We have used blogging in association with basic marketing techniques to create and reinforce a departmental brand, to attract patrons, and to expand our business. Try blogging for yourself, give it time to work, and market your efforts to clearly identified groups and individuals. Let others, other bloggers especially, reinforce and amplify your efforts. You will be pleased with the results.
Blogging, like swimming, tennis, or golf, is a kinetic activity. You can read about each of these activities all day long, and there is no shortage of published books and articles offering salient and good advice for the novice. Before too long, one comes to recognize that practical experience is the best teacher in all these endeavors. However, a decent, introductory guide to blogging will make a good companion to the beginner and a useful resource even for the more experienced. Since blogging platforms do evolve over time, it would be advisable to secure a recent guide which incorporates current features of the landscape. Don’t be put off by titles directed obviously to neophytes; they commonly feature good information.
Marketing, too, is a discipline thick with books of guidance and advice. Several of the titles authored by the noted authority Philip Kotler are central to the field and offer help in both basics and advanced applications. Kotler has written extensively on not-for-profit marketing, an area of pertinence to most archivists.
Following is an abbreviated list of useful works.
Calkins, Tim. Breakthrough Marketing Plans: How to Stop Wasting Time and Start Driving Growth. New York: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Hayes, Tom, and Michael S. Malone. “Marketing in the World of the Web,” Wall Street Journal, November 29-30, 2008, A13.
Kotler, Philip. Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Kotler, Philip, and Gary Armstrong. Principles of Marketing, 13th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2009.
Li, Charlene, and Josh Bernoff. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008.
Scoble, Robert, and Shel Israel. Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2006.
Shuen, Amy. Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide: Business Thinking and Strategies Behind Successful Web 2.0 Implementations. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2008.
Stauffer, Todd. How to Do Everything with Your Web 2.0 Blog. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Tonta, Yasar. “Libraries and Museums in the Flat World: Are They Becoming Virtual Destinations?” Library Collections, Acquisitions & Technical Services 32 (2008): 1-9.
Weil, Debbie. The Corporate Blogging Book: Absolutely Everything You Need to Get It Right. New York: Portfolio, 2006.
Wright, Jeremy. Blog Marketing: the Revolutionary New Way to Increase Sales, Build Your Brand, and Get Exceptional Results. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
1. Tim Calkins, Breakthrough Marketing Plans: How to Stop Wasting Time and Start Driving Growth (New York: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2008), 2.
2. Ibid., 2; Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong, Principles of Marketing, 13th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009), 4-5.
3. Calkins, 51; Philip Kotler, Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 295-296; Kotler and Armstrong, Principles of Marketing, 223, 231.
4. Tom Hayes and Michael S. Malone, “Marketing in the World of the Web,” Wall Street Journal, November 29-30, 2008, A13.
5. Yasar Tonta, “Libraries and Museums in the Flat World: Are They Becoming Virtual Destinations?” Library Collections, Acquisitions, & Technical Services 32 (2008): 2, 8.
8. Calkins, Breakthrough Marketing Plans, 2, 5.
9. See, for example, YouTube, “Northwestern vs. Iowa State, 1945,” YouTube, LCC, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OrldrPoTNk&feature=channel_page (accessed May 19, 2009).
10. Northwestern University Archives, “University Archives: Northwestern University Library,” Northwestern University, http://www.library.northwestern.edu/archives/index.html (accessed May 19, 2009).
11. Northwestern University Archives, “On this Day in NU History,” Northwestern University, http://www.library.northwestern.edu/archives/onthisday/ (accessed May 19, 2009).