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Library Superusers: Find Out Who They Are and Why They Matter

Velveeta cheese has hardcore users? Who knew? In an age when consumers are focusing on natural and organic products I would have thought that Kraft’s Velveeta processed cheese would be struggling to keep it’s place in the dairy section. While you can forget about finding Velvetta at Whole Foods, the reality is that the product is not only still found on supermarket shelves, but thanks to Velveeta lovers, it is in demand. Few cheese products can in fact claim to have caused a “Cheesepocalypse“.

It wasn’t always that way. As consumers began to show a preference for natural and organic foods, the trend suggested a processed cheese like Velvetta had a shaky future. When Kraft, owners of Velveeta, conducted consumer research they found that the majority of Velveeta buyers purchase it once or twice a year. They discovered something else – that only ten percent of their buyers accounted for forty to fifty percent of Velvetta sales. The individuals in this much smaller, yet active cohort were called “superconsumers”. In their article “Make Your Best Customers Even Better“, the authors state that a superconsumer is defined:

by both economics and attitude: They are a subset of heavy users who are highly engaged with a category and a brand. They are especially interested in innovative uses for the product and in new variations on it. They aren’t particularly price sensitive. Superconsumers tend to have more occasions and “jobs” for a product.

My key takeaway is that understanding superconsumers makes for a big change in the way we think about marketing our services. The conventional thinking is that to be successful we need to keep expanding our services to the non-user, light user or lapsed user. How can we get them to see how great our product or service is? Those who advocate identifying superconsumers and concentrating on them believe success is achievable by finding ways to appeal to these incredibly loyal customers – who are typically demanding more new resources and services. Once the superconsumers are identified, it is easier to connect with them, build a stronger relationship and encourage them to make more use of the library (and share their love of the library with others).

Consider a new approach many academic librarians are trying, the personal librarian. This requires a considerable investment in making contact with every incoming freshmen and possibly transfer students as well. The point is to provide academic support to a new student who is rather unfamiliar with the library services, but it’s also an opportunity to convert some new students in to regular library users. Perhaps that investment would be better applied to identifying library superusers and giving them more personal service. Done well,that might lead to the superconsumers communicating the library story to the new folks on campus.

So how would a library identify its superusers? What are their characteristics, and what distinguishes them from the “heavy user”? It’s about more than quantity. Heavy users may come through the door every day or they might borrow large numbers of books, but that alone may not qualify them as superusers. What differentiates superusers could be:
* variety of the resources and services they use
* willingness to try new services
* they love to tell other people to use the library
* they have an emotional attachment to the library
* have built a relationship with a library worker
* would be angered if we eliminated a service

I’m not sure if these are the right ones, but I believe they suggest we would need to do some new assessment and analysis of our community members to identify the users who demonstrate one or more of these characteristics. Superconsumers, once identified and contacted, are more open to giving permission to the company to send e-mail or text messages. Kraft found it much easier and more economical to just focus on their superconsumers rather than trying to reach everyone. As I’ve written before, no library is ever going to connect with every member of the community – just as Kraft knows not everyone wants to eat Velveeta. The superconsumer strategy may be a better way to engage existing passionate users and encourage them to make even more use of the library.

As the authors suggest, a library can do well by showering those who love the library the most with more attention and caring.

Making Eye Contact Makes a Difference

What’s the first thing you do when making a personal connection with a community member? If it’s not eye contact then you need to rethink your steps of service. Librarians should not underestimate the importance that good eye contact plays in getting a service transaction off to the right start at every personal touch point in the library.

It’s the start of the customer journey for the community member who needs to find their way into your collection and the expert guidance you bring to it. Think about what’s when community members approach you in need of assistance. Are your eyes fixed to a computer screen when someone approaches? Do you only slowly shift your gaze away from the text or images on the screen to that person waiting for your help? If that’s the first step in the journey then it could be getting service delivery off to a bad start.

According to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University found the if eyes were placed on consumer products (e.g., the the Trix Rabbit on the cereal box), and manipulated so that the gaze connected with human eyes perusing the shelves it could lead to that product being selected over competitors. Researcher Brian Wansink said that “Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspired powerful feelings of connection”. If a cartoon character on a cereal box, using no more than a gaze, can connect and ignite a potential relationship, you certainly can.

Need further proof? Just go back to the Great Retail Shopping Experience in North America Study, research into what makes the best possible user experience. In interviews with hundreds of consumers, the Study found that five key components combine to add up to great user experiences. One of those five was engagement. Making immediate eye contact is a simple yet powerful way to show you are ready and willing to get engaged in a service transaction.

Kate Murphy, writing about the study for the New York Times, in “Psst. Look Over Here”, says to think of eye contact as a “cognitive jump-start” that occurs when you lock eyes with another person. In addition, eye contact may help you to personally contribute to the improvement of the library experience. Eye contact is proven to make us more socially aware and empathetic, keys to building relationships. When we look away at our e-mail or get too focused on the screen, it can degrade the connection. So if a service transaction requires you to do some computer work, be sure to look back to the community member every few moments to give some reassuring eye contact. Murphy reports that research as far back as the 1980s indicates that people who make eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Add it all up and everything points to the importance of making eye contact as one of your first steps in connecting with community members, whether it’s in the primary service zone, your office, the stacks or even random encounters in the community. It’s a simple thing every library worker can do to make the library experience that much better.

One other piece of advice. Try not to let your eye contact turn into a stare. That could be just a little bit creepy.

Age As a Factor In Experiencing The Library

Academic librarians mostly encounter community members in the 18-22 bracket, but we serve older individuals as well be they faculty members, alumni, second-career learners and members of the public.

We encounter no where near as many senior citizens as public libraries though. The elderly are often treated as a special user segment in the public library sector, and librarians develop programming geared to their needs. It makes sense to segment some service delivery by age in public libraries given the need to serve the full age spectrum of community members from infant to child to teen to adult to senior. Each segment needs and responds to different resources and service programming – and has different experience expectations. Age segmentation is less common in academic libraries, say, as opposed to segmenting by discipline or academic status, but then the segmentation of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty provides a somewhat natural division by age. There are exceptions, such as adult learners completing undergraduate degrees.

When contemplating the design of the best possible library experience for the full spectrum of the library community, it’s likely we treat our distinct user segments as one. We want all of them to have a good experience. If the methods we employ to design and deliver that experience are successful the likelihood is that it is equally distributed across the age spectrum. But there may be good reasons to think about how age impacts the way people have experiences. There is new evidence to suggest that as people age their attitudes about the experiences they have, and what makes then good or bad, tend to change.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to learn more about extraordinary and ordinary experiences and how we define them. They studied 221 people between the ages of 18 and 79, asking them to recall both types of experiences and how it contributed to their happiness.

An ordinary experience might be going to the library and finding an interesting new book, while an extraordinary experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. The researchers had other individuals rate the reported experiences as ordinary or extraordinary. One of the discoveries was that a participant’s age affected their perception of how an experiential event contributes to personal happiness. Older individuals reported that ordinary events contributed as much to their happiness as extraordinary events did for the younger participants. As the authors of the research report discovered:

“Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

As library experience designers, we may have overlooked the possibility that a great library experience may be defined or appreciated differently by members of different age groups. I have previously shared my observation that library workers, because the typical library user’s expectations are set so low (e.g., using the library = pain, confusion, anxiety, etc., excepting perhaps children) compared to expectations set for other services, are able to exceed them by giving community members the basic help they desired but for which they were to terrified to ask. For community members who rarely use the library, receiving assistance from a dedicated, experience-driven library worker can be a WoW experience.

It can certainly help to understand what goes into a excellent experience, as a way of knowing that each encounter should meet a certain standard of performance. My big takeaway from the impact of age on experience research is that it should serve as a reminder, that when it comes to experience, each person – or in this case each age cohort – receives an experience differently – and that the younger the library community member the more challenging it might be to exceed their experience expectations.

Build It And They Will Come

Proposals to build a new library facility will almost always be met with some community resistance these days. Taxpayers who are non-library users will question why they should be required to contribute to a new library building when everyone can get all the information they need from the Internet – and they can get any book they need from Amazon. Even armed with all the data and Pew research that confirm how important libraries are to their communities – and knowing the value a modern new facility delivers – convincing the naysayers is a difficult task. College and university trustees may raise similar questions. New library projects, depending on the funding streams, may cause a tuition increase – something to avoid as much as is possible. The institution must balance meeting its deferred maintenance needs with the expectation it will continuously add an awesome new building. With so many competing demands and limited resources, it’s understandable that plans for a new library will be subject to intense scrutiny.

In municipalities and campuses around the country these questions are routinely asked, and choices must be made about investing in new facilities when it’s not entirely clear if they will meet their potential. It’s the age old question. If we build it will they come? When it comes to library buildings both new and renovated, we know both quantitatively and anecdotally that the investment pays off with significant returns. It’s not unusual for gate counts to quadruple when a new library opens. With new study spaces, new service areas, better event areas and much more, few community members can resist the draw of a better library facility that gives them a far superior experience.

These success stories are found elsewhere in our communities too. When I moved to a new suburb outside of Philadelphia (after 24 years in a house about 15 miles in the opposite direction), my spouse went in search of a new fitness center. There were four from which to choose, one of which was the local YMCA. When we went to check it out it was a pretty tired looking building and space. Although it was the closest, the sad state of the facility put it at the bottom of the list. We also found out why it was badly in need of renovation. The regional YMCA, recognizing it was losing out to area competitors, was already in the early stages of building of a new facility about 5 miles away.The existing building would be obsolete soon enough. For a number of reasons, but mostly owing to the convenience factor, my spouse chose another fitness center. On a few occasions though, we found ourselves driving past the new Y as it was under construction. It was clear this was going to put that old Y to shame.

Fast forward about 18 months and the new Y has been open for business for a short while now. Guess what? They built it and boy, did they ever come. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Haverford Y quickly became the fastest growing YMCA in the United States:

With more than 20,500 members, it has become so popular that as cars pull into the expansive parking lot, attendants with flags direct them to the few available spaces…the Haverford Y’s membership numbers have far exceeded expectations and surpassed those of Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA’s 16 other branches.

Yes, the new building is attractive. Its brand new equipment offers the latest technology. There are three swimming pools so you can always find a lane. It is easily accessed from a major road in a densely populated community. So newness, location and demographics are in the new Y’s favor. But the planners have also designed the experience in a way to attract singles, families and senior citizens. They offer something that appeals to everyone in the community. Administrators at the regional headquarters of the YMCA, seeing the success of the Haverford Y, are encouraged that building similar or even better facilities will get people off their couches and into their neighborhood YMCA.

No doubt all of us in libraryland would be eager to replicate the success of the new Y, but few of us will have such an opportunity in our careers. For the majority who must work with the library they have, it is critical to make the design choices that will provide community members with the best possible library they deserve. When our facilities create barriers that work against this goal, we must work at understanding the needs and expectations of community members, and doing our best to exceed them. It’s unlikely the result will increase usage three or four times beyond what it is now, but with hard work and persistence we can make it a much better experience for our current users – and if each of them tells just one other person about their great library experience it can make a difference.

Creating a Better Library Experience…For the Birds

We like our feathered friends. Unfortunately, many of our library buildings have a notorious track record when it comes to giving birds a bad library experience. In fact, it’s the worst experience they can have. Our buildings, with their many over-sized windows, kill the birds. There’s an experience we need to improve.

An Internet search will yield quite a few articles about libraries and birds colliding with the windows. Here’s one about my library building. Paley Library is recognized as one of the most dangerous buildings on the Temple University campus for birds because of the trees surrounding the building and the extremely large main level windows. Many of the birds don’t stand a chance.

While plate glass is invisible to birds, they do see the reflections of trees, the sky and other elements that make them think they’ve got clear sailing ahead. They may even see interior plants through the glass. It’s not uncommon to find dead birds around our library perimeter. Even those birds that appear to just be stunned and fly off often die later from brain injuries.

Over the years the University has tried different strategies as deterrents. Unfortunately, attaching plastic hawk figures to the library’s exterior and putting a few bird decals on the windows has made minimal difference. In 2012, a new strategy was devised. Students at our Tyler School of Art participated in a competition to design a more effective solution. The result was a new type of stencil to apply to windows that proved more effective in repelling the birds before they made contact. The winning designs appeared to improve on past solutions, and they also added attractive window graphics to the building.

The good news is that we are finally beginning to install these decals on windows around the Paley Library. Installers added these bird-repelling decals to a small segment of the buildings windows. The photo below gives you an idea of what the window looks like after the decals are installed.

birddecal

I believe that representatives of the local Audubon Society occasionally do counts of dead birds found around campus buildings. This may help us to determine if the decals are reducing the bird fatalities. We still have many windows in our building that are a threat to the birds. I hope that we are just at the start of an initiative to install more window stencils in the library, and that we can decrease the number of deaths from bird-window collisions.

When we talk about the impact of library design on the quality of the experience, we typically think in terms of our human community members. Seeing the decals installed reminded me that our facilities and their design also affects the animal life in our community. This is just part of the larger challenge of creating sustainable, environmentally-friendly buildings. Let’s be thinking about how our buildings, and the experiences they deliver, can be designed to minimize collateral damage.

No solution has yet proven to be 100 percent effective in ending all fatal bird strikes, but perhaps this new style of window decal will help to decrease the numbers of birds that meet an untimely death because of our libraries.