Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Good Programs Go Bad: Forgetting the Patron Perspective, by John Pappas


How much effort are your patrons willing to expend in order to attend a program? The quick answer: not much, at least not if they don’t think it will be worth it.

You really need to know your audience and their concerns and shouldn’t ask for too much effort for too little reward. Or, to put it another way, if a program requires effort, time, and planning for families or adults to get there, then they will definitely expect something palatable in return. The question remains: “Are you providing enough return for their investment?” Emotional investment. Investment of time. Investment in their children, their education, their future.

For instance, it’s important to remember that families with two bread-winners, in a working class neighborhood, may not be willing, able, or even awake in order to attend weekend family programming. They are also not able to attend the standard early morning storytime. A Saturday becomes sacrosanct in a way that outweighs the possibility of attending library programming. In order to reach them you will need to tip the scale in the library’s direction or you could try the “backdoor”. The “backdoor” may be focusing on daycare centers, day programs, and schools. All are alternatives I’ve employed successfully. But always remember, even if their level of interest is high it may not be enough to gain their time. It is important to respect that element.

Let me give you an idea of what can happen when you ask for too much effort. I was part of a community photo-archiving day. We asked members of our community to bring their old photos to the library so we could scan, label and catalog the photos into our archives. What more could you ask for? We were offering to preserve their memories so others could learn and reflect upon those pictures, and the library was going to get to keep the archives populated with shiny, happy pictures. Recipe for success, right? Erm... no. It flopped, and here is why: Our demographic was an older population. We are asking them to:

1      Crawl into their attics.
2      Find old photos.
3      Lug photos out of the attic.
4      Drive to library.
5      Find PARKING!
6      Lug box of photos into library.
7      Wait in LINE!
8      Scan and then...
9      Lug photos back home, put them in the attic and hopefully take a nap.

Bottom line was that this was a great program with a serious ROI deficiency. And I apologize, gentle reader, for so flippantly tossing out an already overused twerm (twerp + term = twerm. A twerpy term), but ROI is the only way to capture the idea. Through the eyes of the older patron, this little gem of a photo-archiving program was a massive pain in the ass.

After it flopped so resoundingly, we brainstormed a few ways of sweetening the pot for another try. Some possibilities were including a CD ROM of the digital items, having a display of some of our more obscure images in our archives (my personal favorite was a collection of 1950-60s billboards that were really cool - pure retro eye-candy), or move the scanning into the community. Take it on the road! We thought we could find the places where our patrons wanted to be and be there. These increased the return for the patron while decreasing (or holding steady) the investment.

If you’re newish to programming, let me warn you (or remind you, if you’re experienced): please be careful with the incentives. They are a dangerous game to play. Do your attendees expect an external, physical reinforcement? Will they continue to expect it and will it lessen the actual impact or <gasp> quality of the program?

A standard at many a public library is the “Lunch and Learn” (or whatever permutation of “feed them and they will come” chosen). A good rule of thumb is to imagine what would happen if you said “Next month, due to a random occurrence beyond the scope of my ability to fix, there will be no lunch for this program.” Will they show up? Bring lunches? Skip it entirely? How important is the incentive to the buy in? I am confident that the removal of food at our “lunch and learn” would not greatly impact the attendance. Sure, we would lose a couple of attendees to the flirtations of a Hardees value pack and the History Channel but most would still attend because they are getting something out of it. The return is still higher than the investment.

However,  that is not always the case. Our family evening storytimes (complete with a pizza dinner) went in the opposite direction. After realizing that my programming budget would not support the amount of pizza patrons were eating and expecting, we had to cut it. Mind you, this was after having to create rules stating that families could not have pizza until after the storytime or after a number of books were read by the parents with their child.

Either way, the people went away with the pizza.

Bottom line: Before pitching, ditching or revitalizing a program, I try to view it from the perspective of a patron’s time, expectation and investment. Then hope that it balances out. If it doesn’t then perhaps the investment you are asking is too much.

John Pappas is a Branch Director at the Upper Darby Township and Sellers Free Memorial Free Public Library in Upper Darby, PA. This is his second post for this blog; the first was "The Seven Rules of Avoiding Poutreach." Say hi on twitter  @zendustzendirt or on Google +. He writes, raves and rants occasionally on his personal blog Point of Contact.

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