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I updated our governance board last month on our last awareness campaign. We have been placing marketing ads on public transit across the county. The idea was that we needed to bolster awareness post-lockdown. I struggle with the purpose of marketing, because I think it tends to be very woolly in law libraries. In our case, we ended up with data that is conflicting and, while I think the outcomes are positive, I don’t know that I’d call any of it successful.

That is not to say I’m concerned about the outcomes. But it’s sort of like when you would like an outcome and it’s just not possible, given context and resources available. And it’s not possible because you those constraints inhibit the primary goal: knowing.

Why Even Bother

Our law library started doing public transit ads in 2022. We’d clarified our mission was to serve people without a legal background to find legal information for their legal issue. We also wanted to give a bump to getting foot traffic going again, as we only returned to being open for 40 hours in June 2022. It was time to remind people that we were there.

Let me pause, though, because I want to deal with what I think is a misconception. There is a feeling that, because someone doesn’t know about the law library, that they should know about it: “I spoke to Bobbi Su and they hadn’t heard about the law library!” The misconception is that we need to reach 100% of the people in our county or whatever audience it is we’re serving. It’s impossible. And it’s pointless.

People need a law library when they have a legal issue. That’s true whether it’s law firms, where lawyers intermediate the library access, or public law libraries, where we don’t. A member of the public isn’t going to care about the existence of a law library until they have need of one. A lawyer or judge is 100% going to know whether a law library is available and also whether they need to use it. It’s about purpose. And it’s not hard for most people to find one when it’s needed. I think it is to misconstrue the challenge to say that a person who says “I don’t know about the law library” would also say “I am unable to learn about or consider the existence that a law library may be available.

It makes me a bit jaded about the point of marketing law libraries. If we assume that people are unable to conjure up the image of a law library and type it in a search box, we are treating people as if they’re pretty dumb. We are also assuming that there is only one way to find a law library: via our marketing.

A flow chart of the legal research process as pictured by David Whelan and the relative costs of each segment
A chart showing a lot of boxes. The far left side (the “No” flow) is the law librarian space. Most of the rest can be done without a librarian.

I like this chart for a lot of reasons (I first put it together nearly a decade ago for this post focusing on where costs occur in a law library’s collections operations). But it also has stuck in my mind because it shows that a lot of legal research doesn’t require a law library, which is distinct because it often has information no one else has (access to). That’s primarily the left side of the chart, the “No” flow that takes people through information sources.

Law students, lawyers, and self-represented individuals are also using the other paths: ask a colleague/friend, yes (I already know the resoruce I need), and refer to a colleague/friend. Librarians are adding value in the green boxes but the researcher may also be able to navigate those by themselves. This is not to say that the resources are used expertly, with or without a law librarian being available. But people navigate legal issues and legal information without law librarians all the time.

People often find their own ways to legal information, which sometimes mean they find their way to an answer via other people. We know that friends and families remain among the top referral sources for people who have a legal issue to find a lawyer. This 2019 survey by Martindale shows a bunch of website tools and family and friends at the top.

A chart titled Consumers' research tapped a variety of sources (to find a lawyer). 47% use online sites and directories, like the chart publisher.  43% use Google.  43% also use referrals from family and friends.  Lawyers are 36%, legal services 16%, social media 10%, print ads are 9%.  The chart has titles on the left with green comparative bars and a number and percentage sign on the right.
A chart showing resources used to find a lawyer.

This is not to suggest we should not care about people’s awareness. We also know that a lot of people who need help do not seek it. Those people, both the ones that seek legal help and those that don’t, may still want to avail themselves of free legal information and guidance on how to use it.

A chart titled Percent of problems for which low-income Americans sought legal help in the past year.  There is a chart with three blue and red bars.  The red portion is on the left and indicates "did not seek legal help".  The blue portion is "sought legal help".  19% sought legal help for any legal issue.  25% sought legal help for problems with substantial impact.  14% sought legal help for problems with less impact.
A chart from the Legal Services Corporation’s 2022 Justice Gap Report (p. 44) showing that, even when faced with a legal issue with a substantial impact, only a quarter or fewer people sought legal help.

This is one reason that, although I was enthusiastic about the idea of doing some awareness building, I didn’t necessarily worry to much about the outcomes. For one thing, we will never have the money to do regular marketing campaigns to reach 4 million people and retain their awareness. It’s a simple fact of dollars and cents. In order to do that, you need to build a high effective frequency rate and sustain it over time.

This is a difference between public law libraries and law libraries serving judges, lawyers in a firm, and students and faculty in a law school. In those contexts, you have a more narrowly defined population and tools like email addresses or databases or practice group Teams channels—technology, in other words—that would allow you to track engagement and, potentially, conversions. It is more abstract when your law library, for privacy and other reasons, doesn’t want to track email and personal information and the audience is, well, everyone.

The thing is that we can forget how many people don’t know a lot of things. I would venture to say that most people who will read this blog post have some knowledge of the current news, however you define that. And you will probably have heard of Catherine, Princess of Wales, and her “absence” and, most likely, the conspiracy theories about it.

Well, one-third of respondents to a YouGov/Economist poll hadn’t heard about her absence by March 19, which was nearly 2 weeks after the #Kategate Photoshop non-event.

A chart that asks the question "Heard about Kate Middleton Absence: how much, if anything, have you heard in the news this week".  20% said they'd heard "a lot", 47% said "a little", and 33% said "nothing at all".
A screenshot of an Economist/YouGov survey showing that 33% of respondents knew “nothing at all” about Kate Middleton’s “absence”

Can you even comprehend the amount of media that the Duchess of Kent’s attempt to deal with her illness in private garnered, compared to any law library media initiative? It felt like it was wall to wall, to the point that I started to put on news filters to block it out. Lots of people were searching the internet too, showing that people will look for things when they have a need but don’t know what they want to know.

A screenshot showing a chart.  The line for search term "kate middleton" is steady and then spikes to nearly 100% and remains there.  The line for the search term "law library" remains at essentially zero for the entirety of the time period.
Screenshot of Google Trends comparing the search terms “kate middleton” and “law library” in the first two weeks of March

So I think there is something to be said for having some perspective. Yes, we do important work. Yes, we are an important resource. Also, we are just one thing seeking attention among many, many more things.

I got some great advice, which is that, for this marketing campaign anyway, we should think of the law library as a pre-paid insurance policy. You don’t need it until you need it. But that’s also out of sight, out of mind. So we would rely on friends and family. We hoped they would be exposed to the concept even if they didn’t need it now. And that they’d remember when they, or their family or friends, needed it in the future.

More importantly, we would not focus on “things we have” and instead we’d focus on “things we do”. We often market our databases and our books (and when we have new books and new databases) and I don’t believe that’s an effective approach except for insiders who are already hyper-aware of the library.

I had a really fascinating chat with a bunch of lawyers recently and they seemed at sea about a common legal information platform. They were aware it existed but not about this feature, which was the one feature they wanted it to have (and it does and has had it for years). The reality is that that feature wasn’t going to matter to them until it mattered to them, and no one would know until they asked about it.

But the challenge with marketing is measuring it. I still recall this awareness building Clermont County (OH) did. It remains for me an example of what you want to do, because, since it was web-based, there were all sorts of opportunities to measure engagement and conversions.

There is the measurement of the activity itself, which is easier to do if you are using technology. It is harder to do if you are not or if your effort cannot capture all of the conversions in the appropriate funnel: how are people being driven to your law library?

Measurement, But Also …

As a rule, if there’s nothing to measure, I am reluctant to move forward an initiative. I have had a lawyer tell me that “if one person can help themselves, a [$200,000 database subscription] is worth it.” I should note that they weren’t paying the $200,000. And I agree, we can’t put a price on someone successfully resolving their legal issue. At the same time, we don’t know that that the database was the causal factor in their resolution, or even that it was a necessary factor. This is a just-in-case mindset that I don’t buy into.

In fact, that’s one of the huge challenges for law libraries: what is what we do worth?

There are times, though, that you can tack a bit of learning onto an iniative that is on the woolier end of the spectrum. From the outset, it was clear that we would not know if someone on public transit saw our ad AND then used our information services (converted).

You could implement a step in your public services interactions (“how did you hear about us”) or on your law library’s website to ask, but even that can be soft. Some people don’t want to say. Some people will say “my family member” and that family member may have seen the ad, so you lose the thread. Frankly, even with technology, these conversion data are soft. As more people set up ad and tracker blockers, I think this data will become more and more unreliable.

We did have people volunteer the information, when they arrived at the reference desk for the first time, that they had seen the ad. So we know, from that alone, that it was being seen and causing people to find the library. That’s always good information. But it’s only a step above anecdata and isn’t something that could be used to review the cost/benefit of an initiative.

Mostly, I viewed our transit ads as an experiment. They can’t hurt and we could afford to experiment a bit. And then we added the QR code.

Marketing image used in San Diego Law Library’s public transit ad campaign

It’s funny, really, because we debated a QR code on the ads and decided against it. But our law library has a square logo and when we sent the ads to the advertising bureau, some of their employees tried to scan the logo and were frustrated when it failed to work. So we merged the logo and a QR code so that the code would be on the ads and we could see what impact that had. Again, it couldn’t hurt.

The upshot is that we had people interact with the QR codes, which was interesting. When we repeated the ad campaign in 2023, we changed the QR codes so that they were distinct to the type of vehicle (trolley or bus) on which the interaction occurred. It let us know that trolleys had higher interaction rates, and we guessed (which is so much of what marketing is about) that it was due to (a) length of travel and (b) stability of vehicle motion (fewer turns, potholes, etc.).

A chart comparing transit ad QR code interactions on the 2022 and 2023 campaigns on San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).

I won’t go into the technical aspects of how we used UTM codes but that’s how we could differentiate. They would click, the UTM code would register in Google Analytics, and we could do a comparison. What was weird was that we saw people still using the 2022 ad campaign QR codes during the 2023 ad campaign. We guessed, again, that either (a) they had bookmarked and reloaded the linked page or (b) there were old advertising signs on the vehicles.

As you can see, there was a huge drop in numbers, about 40% fewer interactions in 2023 than in 2022. This was surprising because we had expanded our advertising campaign geographically. The initial campaign was just on the southern and eastern parts of the county. The 2023 campaign included the remaining, north county sections. From that perspective, we thought the numbers would have been higher.

Reasons why not?

North County is more affluent, and so people may not ride public transit as much. It also has its own transit system, so the ads would not be on every vehicle. Many of the MTS vehicles are express, and the seating configuration is often cramped and involve a double, articulated bus, so fewer people might see an ad placed at the back of the bus. There are no trolleys in North County. Also, people who might use a law library in downtown San Diego were probably taking the commuter train and not buses or trolleys. Or perhaps even already knew or used our partner site in North County. So many unknowns.

As I prepared my report for the Board, it was really with the mindset that none of this mattered. It was interesting, sure, to know that we were more likely to get engagement with the QR code on a trolley than a bus. That might direct some of our future marketing campaigns—we are going to do a very targeted one on a commuter train in 2024—but I would not exclude buses in future just because QR codes engagements were lower. Maybe some people get motion sick on buses; I do. I believe that people with legal issues ride buses. If we’re doing awareness building, we can’t exclude an audience based on QR code engagement.

It was important to emphasize in my report that, although it generated data, the point of the ads had not been to get engagement with the QR code. The point was to get people thinking about the law library, to know it existed, to go or refer friends and family. And we can’t really know whether the ads had that impact. Again, resources and causality.

We do know that reference interactions went up.

A chart comparing 6-month periods in 2022 and 2023 showing reference interactions that occurred during the time that transit ads were present on trolleys and buses.

But again, so what? The data point is great and maybe someone selling widgets could make a persuasive case for a bonus, but I don’t think you can tie it to the marketing directly. You need to be able to also explain the context in which all of this happens:

  • in 2022, we’d hired a bunch of new reference librarians. By 2023, they were all more experienced (they’re pretty fantastic) and so it makes sense that they could answer more questions with more experience. The reference question bottleneck is having enough people to answer them and your reference question data point is based on your staff numbers. You don’t need AI in order to answer more reference questions, you need to have experienced reference librarians.
  • we had a few positions open for parts of the time periods we were contrasting. That could also have softened reference numbers since our staff count was lower or staff were getting up to speed with our library.
  • in 2023, people were that much further away from the lockdown, and people may have been more conscious that they could go to a law library after there being so many organizations closed.

That’s not accounting for any weather anomalies or other unknowns. You may think I’m looking for reasons that our marketing campaign was inconclusive. I’m not.

I just think that, in some initiatives, you have to be clear that what you’re doing isn’t measurable. The fact that you generate data may be interesting and useful but it isn’t going to be useful to measure the fullness of the initiative itself. It doesn’t mean you don’t do it. We can’t measure the value of law library services but we do them anyway, because we know there is value in it even if it can’t be measured by revenue.

In a commercial setting, we would either not have done it or perhaps had a better system (and purpose) for tracking conversions. We might have excluded disadvantaged populations so that we could focus on technology-only marketing: requiring an app or advertising on a paid platform. And when you have a quantifiable outcome, people may focus on it even though it isn’t the purpose of the initiative. We value what we can count. In law libraries, though, we sometimes do things that are intangible and unmeasurable.

My recommendation to our board is that, while this has been interesting, I think we should give it a rest for at least a few years. Because we don’t know much more than we knew before. We don’t know that more questions would have been asked without the advertising, for example. It will be worthwhile to see how our foot traffic and reference interactions and website and catalog visits trend. Then revisit. So many unknowns.

Despite the soft outcome, I wouldn’t do anything differently. In non-commercial environments, we sometimes do things that do not have either a quantitative or monetary outcome. Additionally, I think it was a good opportunity to experiment and we were fortunate to have the resources to tinker.

I think we have made what we could of this effort in getting some actionable data. And, as the whole concept from the beginning was this can’t hurt, from that perspective we were correct. It won’t have hurt. We will never know if it helped, either. And, so long as the law library can live with any opportunity cost, that’s okay with me.