Will What Worked For Groucho Work for Libraries

Reading this Seth Godin post I had to contemplate the situation librarians have found themselves in as the type of experience the users want has shifted to low fidelity, high convenience. As it exists today the library experience is best described as mostly high fidelity. Our profession is urged again and again to change its practices to meet the current market expectations for information search and retrieval. We’ve heard that convenience trumps quality every time, and that we need to follow suit and go low fidelity.

Godin almost perfectly describes this exact predicament in which we librarians find ourselves:

Perhaps the most plaintive complaint I hear from organizations goes something like this, “We worked really hard to get very good at xyz. We’re well regarded, we’re talented and now, all the market cares about is price. How can we get large groups of people to value our craft and buy from us again?” Apparently, the bulk of your market no longer wants to buy your top of the line furniture, lawn care services, accounting services, tailoring services, consulting… all they want is the cheapest. The masses don’t want a better PC laptop. They just want the one with the right specs at the right price. It’s not because people are selfish (though they are) or shortsighted (though they are). It’s because in this market, right now, they’re not listening. They’ve been seduced into believing that all options are the same, and they’re only seeing price. In terms of educating the masses to differentiate yourself, the market is broken.

At one time we certainly were the kings of information delivery. When our user communities needed anything beyond a basic encyclopedia, a phone call or visit to the library was standard practice. But now all information and those who provide it are the same to the average citizen, and there’s no clear rationale for using the library. As Godin states, we’ve been focusing too much attention on trying to figure out how to get them “to buy from us again” instead of figuring out how to fit into their world so that we are of use to them on their terms – at least enough to build the relationships that can be our bread and butter. But can we librarians make the shift to the next big thing in a seamless fashion – as Groucho Marx did? Godin explains it:

The Marx Brothers were great at vaudeville. Live comedy in a theatre. And then the market for vaudeville was killed by the movies. Groucho didn’t complain about this or argue that people should respect the hard work he and his brothers had put in. No, they went into the movies.

Then the market for movies like the Marx Brothers were making dried up. Groucho didn’t start trying to fix the market. Instead, he saw a new medium and went there. His TV work was among his best (and certainly most lucrative).

It’s extremely difficult to repair the market. It’s a lot easier to find a market that will respect and pay for the work you can do.

That last section should really resonate with us librarians. As hard as we may wish for its return, the old model in which we served as the gatekeeper and primary information intermediary isn’t coming back. We’ve tried to repair the market and it hasn’t worked. How would we replicate what Groucho did in his career? What new service or platform could we move to in creating a completely different environment for library services. In some ways we are doing that now. Students learn in online environments supported by courseware. We are there. People text each other to chat, share ideas and ask questions. We are there. People use Twitter to communicate. We are there. In these ways we are moving on to the new media – just as Groucho did when the last big thing collapsed and he moved on to the next big thing. Groucho was probably highly effective at trendwatching and knowing what move to make next – or he had the right people doing it for him.

So we may have the capacity to change our stripes, figure out where the market is headed and find a way to integrate ourselves and our services. It fails if we only do it when it’s too late, and we get there screaming and kicking the whole way. But there may be something of value in leaving part of what we do in the past. Godin closes his post with a simple but meaningful caveat for librarians:

Please note that nothing I wrote above applies to niche businesses. In fact, exactly the opposite does. You can make a good living selling bespoke PC laptops or doing vaudeville today, even though the mass of the market couldn’t care a bit.

We need to remember that while it’s important to follow the market and trends and be there, there’s value in differentiating ourselves from all the other ways and sources people can go to for their information. Want to get help finding information from a skilled human – that’s the library’s niche. Want to get access to highly specialized information products – that’s the library’s niche. Want to build a relationship with someone who can recommend books and movies – that’s the library’s niche. Want to have a caring person read a story to your children – that’s the library’s niche. It may require us to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, but if we can play it both ways that’s only going to make the experience we deliver all that more memorable.

Differentiating The Information Commodity

One of the core components of creating a unique user experience is making it clear to the end user or customer that a product or service is differentiated from competitors so that it compels the individual to seek out this different experience. At DBL we’ve discussed the importance of identifying ways to differentiate the library. From the end-user perspective, what is it about the library that makes it different and unique from all other potential sources of information – especially the ones that are more convenient to use.

One of the challenges librarians face is that their primary product, information, is a commodity that is difficult to differentiate. It used to be that academic libraries could emphasize their scholarly content as different from what search engines offered, but Google Scholar changed all that. The end user perceives all information as relatively the same, especially when they can find it on their own, and it all seems to relate to the question or topic of choice. And even if it isn’t the highest quality information, if finding it is convenient and fast then it’s good enough.

The Branding Strategy blog explores how one might go about differentiating or branding a commodity. In fact, one of the bloggers there, Brad VanAuken, said “I am a firm believer that everything can be branded/differentiated. I have never encountered a product or service that I could not brand/differentiate”. In that same post he provided some examples of branding products for differentiation. In a more recent post VanAuken wrote more specifically about how to differentiate commodities. Commodities, like the information contained in articles and books, is difficult to differentiate. What is different about the information found in a book in the local public library and the same or a similar book found online via Google books or Amazon?

The answer is nothing, at least nothing much different than the vodka found in bottles from two different companies, or for that matter much of the water sold in plastic bottles. Can you really taste the difference between two brands? But why does one brand command a higher price and why do more consumers know the name or can recite its tagline? The reason is differentiation. It’s the same thing with information. It may be the same but one provider may have more brand recognition, another may offer great convenience and yet another may deliver unique packaging. Libraries offer books and other information for free. You’d think that would be a significant and desirable differentiating factor. But when you factor in questionable convenience, difficulty finding out what the library offers and some complexity in getting to the information, free looks like less of a bargain. Then again, the vodka example shows consumers will pay more if they believe they are getting higher quality or more value for their money. But will they go to more trouble and spend more valuable time to get it?

So what advice does VanAuken offer for how to differentiate any commodity? Some are the sort of things you’d expect: superior quality control; great customer service; best range of product availability. While all of these would be desirable for any library, doing them all well in order to compete with an Amazon or Barnes & Noble could be quite a challenge. He also says that one way to differentiate with commodities is to identify unique categories of customers and focus on meeting their unique needs. This is one area in which libraries of all types might be most successful. We often know our user segments (children, teens, college students, professionals), and we often know more about them and their research needs than the competition.

One way in which libraries, particularly academic libraries, might differentiate their information is to better connect the end user with highly specialized resources that may be linked to a specific issue or discipline. The same could be said for the mostly unique content in special collections. While Google is digitizing these unique materials from its library partners’ collections, there still remains much that is unique and valuable for differentiation. Promoting these unique databases and collections will present a challenge since they have small numbers of potential users. But reaching these smaller groups, over time, can convert to a large user base. We are challenged to differentiate the library’s core commodity – raw information – but as VanAuken says, “Everything can be branded/differentiated.”

Differentiation Is At The Core Of The Library Experience

I hadn’t thought much about the the differentiation factor being an important component of a library user experience until I attended a presentation by Bill Gribbons, a user experience consultant to industry. He made a good point. In any industry where it has become difficult to compete on price, quality, speed of delivery or any other factor where all the competitors are perceived as relatively equal, establishing differentiation is a competitive strategy. Think about it. If people searching for information perceive all sources the same in terms of the quality of the information, why should anyone bother to make use of the library’s information resources. If there’s no difference between the information I can get from a Google search, a Wikipedia article, a request for help from my Twitter followers or any other web-based service – and all of them require less work and effort than a trip to the library – what’s the compelling reason to use a library at all?

Identifying how the library can differentiate itself from all the other services that provide access to information is a critical challenge in designing a library user experience – and if we can create that differentiation it may help us attract a new generation of library users. But a recent study reports that the ability of companies to differentiate their services and products is on the decline. Consumers find less differentiation in the marketplace and more mediocrity. What exactly is differentiation? You probably know it when you see it or experience it, but what is the quality of being different? According to a post on differentiation at the Branding Strategy Insider blog it “exists on the basis of a product or service owning values – real or perceived, rational or emotional – that occupy a place in the consumers’ minds beyond the consumers just being aware of them”. I like that definition because it is based on having some core values that the consumer recognizes on some level and that in their mind sets that product or service apart from similar products or services. As Gribbons stated in that presentation, building a user experience starts with having a clear set of core values and understanding what your business is.

The BSI post then comments on the Brand Keys analysis of nearly 2,000 products and services in 75 categories in which consumers were asked for their response or reaction to them. What this created was a continuum on which the products and services were placed based on their degree of differentiation. The study found that only 21% of all the products and services examined had any points of differentiation that were meaningful to consumers. Gribbons made a good point. There is far less differentiation between products and services (there was a 10% drop in this benchmark since 2003), and those who can really differentiate their product or service are likely to attract more consumers with a unique experience. You can read this blog post to learn more details about the study and the four categories of differentiation (commodity, category placeholder, 21st century differentiated brand, human brand). One important detail is that the differentiation factor can really vary between industries. Among bar soaps of all things there is 100% brand differentiation. But in banking and 20 other categories there are no differentiated brands. People may know the name but they find nothing particularly different about that company, product or service.

I have to wonder if the study included the information industry and companies that are search engines or information portals. Perhaps not, but it would certainly be interesting to learn more about whether there is any perceived difference in these services as sources of information. In a future post I’ll focus more specifically on the three things I think our libraries can do to differentiate themselves from other information providers.