Build New Community Connections with Partnership Marketing

Trenton Smiley /

Originally written and published on 27 July 2022 to OCLC's Next blog by Trenton Smiley, Marketing & Communications Director for Capital Area District Libraries in Lansing, Michigan.

a hand holding a cell phone near coffee cup

Most high-level library marketing goals aim to expand services into new communities and increase engagement with current users. But traditional library marketing is often geared toward reaching people who already know and love the library. Partnership marketing can help meet all your library marketing goals and it can reach entirely new audiences, while also showing a different side of the library to people who may have a narrow understanding of available resources and services.

What is partnership marketing?

Partnership marketing is simple, but powerful. It refers to working with organizations that can represent your services within their business activities and vice versa. Rather than paying for ads or lists, you try to understand how to help each other reach mutually beneficial marketing goals.

When I worked as a producer and on-air personality for commercial radio stations, I discovered that, while money can buy limited access to specific audiences, the most effective programs are built through creative partnerships. Now that I’m the Director of Marketing for the Capital Area District Libraries (13 branches serving 23 different municipalities in the Lansing, Michigan, area), that lesson has been incredibly useful.

Take stock of everything you can offer

If you’ve ever asked a local organization to put library announcements in its publications—or done that for other groups in your materials—that’s a very basic form of partnership marketing. But swapping email lists or social media posts is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the following when approaching channel marketing partners:

DeDe's weekly downloads flier with woman and text details

  • Space. A lot of potential partners may have limited or no physical space at all. If your library has rooms that can be made available, partners may be thrilled to have you co-host an event. Make sure to list related details, such as the availability/number of seats/tables, built in A/V, copy/printing, and even bathrooms.
  • Lists and platform details. Write down all the ways you communicate with your users and the numbers associated with them: email newsletters (how many recipients, open rate, how often they go out), social accounts (how many subscribers, how often you post), direct mail (how many, how often, purpose), print distribution of flyers or handouts (quantity, distribution methods), podcasts, training videos, storytime numbers, and anything else. You never know what a potential partner might be interested in.
  • Curation. Your staff is already great at putting together reading lists, study guides, tutorials, etc. You can do that on behalf of partners, too, by providing links, resource descriptions, and instructions that they can pass along to their audience.
  • Networking. Make a list of local library supporters and civic organizations that you regularly work with. Sometimes, partnering means introducing two other partners to each other.

Libraries are also highly trusted by many in the community. While hard to quantify, you can certainly lean into that value while making your pitch.

Get creative about reaching your audience

If you want to make inroads with new users, think about all the organizations and media that they enjoy and trust. For example, to improve our reach with African American users, we pitched a local radio station with the idea to run on-air and online ads that featured the star of a popular radio show promoting titles from our digital collection. The library isn’t charged for production or the airing of radio ads, which air 20–25 times per week. In return, we promote the program on our webpage and through other social media platforms, such as YouTube and Meta (Facebook). A television ad was also created. Now in its third year, this successful partnership has evolved into the promotion of library card signup and summer reading.

Dream big, start local

person holding mobile phone with information about a Disney Frozen ticket giveaway

If I told you that your public library can partner with global brands like Disney, the Olympics, and the Grammys, you might think I’m overpromising. But in many cases, top-tier brands already work with local organizations. You can partner with them and take advantage of their existing relationships.

Our work with the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts at Michigan State University is a great example. Big shows make stops at Wharton and many library users are huge fans of the theater. We produced podcasts with cast members from Disney’s FrozenAladdin, and the Lion King. We also co-branded a special Christmas Eve Storytime and featured it in our printed holiday guide. In return, Wharton provided promotion for the library, including free tickets to shows.

Those tickets, and other promotional items from partners, help us improve our overall email marketing, too. We’ve started a regular “Friday Freebies” item that has boosted our overall open rate by 15 percent. When we can, we schedule bigger prizes in issues that include important information about key library efforts, such as an upcoming millage.

The library value proposition

As library marketers, we want to get more people to use our important resources and programs. What we offer is a community good, not a commercial proposition. But many businesses also want to support things like lifelong learning, kids programming, family time, media literacy, and career support. Think about potential partners’ business goals and customers in terms of how they might benefit from a relationship with your library. You can support them—and they can support you—in ways that benefit everyone involved. It’s a beautiful win-win.

Images provided by Capital Area District Libraries.

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Trenton Smiley, Marketing & Communications Director at Capital Area District Libraries, has an MBA in marketing and more than 20 years of experience. He also serves as Board Treasurer for the Library Marketing Conference Group, which oversees a national conference and other professional development activities. Trent has given marketing presentations around the country and has earned numerous awards, including the prestigious John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award and the Michigan Library Association’s Award of Excellence.

Community engagement

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