Using Direct Mail to Make Your Case for Library Advocacy

This article appeared in the July edition of Trustee Hotline published by Library Journal.

The decision has been made. Your library is going to the ballot for a budget, funding proposition, or  building referendum. You’ve figured out what your message is going to be. Now, the question is—how to communicate with  voters?

You’ve got social media (“Using Social Media To Advocate for Libraries,” March 27, 2017 Hotline). You’ve got one-to-one communication—in person and online via email and social media. You’ve got public presentations. You have stories to pitch to the local news media (whether text, audio, or video-based). If you have the budget and capacity, you also have the options of advertising in all those outlets, and/or on billboards, public transit, or even in local movie theaters. And you’ve got direct mail.

Some might think that direct mail is past its prime, but that’s not true. With YouTube and streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix, live TV has lost viewership. Social media is terrific but episodic—you only see it when you go online. Direct mail ends up in your mailbox no matter what. Email can be deleted with a simple key stroke when the recipient has seen no more than the sender and part of the subject line. Direct mail has to be taken out of the mailbox, giving you more opportunity to get your message before a voter’s eyes for at least a quick read that might lead to a more thorough investigation.

Just like any other messaging, direct mail must be clear and concise. It also has to be visual—you have to grab the reader’s attention. Direct mail has three types of reader audiences:

  • 3–4 second readers who will look at headlines, pictures, library name, and a singular, clear message
  • 10–20 second readers who read and absorb headlines and scan the copy, and
  • Readers who want more information and will read the entire piece

See what I did here to get you to understand these types of readers? Bullets. They are your friends. Use them wisely to get your point across. Direct mail is not a doctoral dissertation. Obviously, grammar, punctuation and spelling have to be correct, but you also need to speak to people visually and quickly to get your point across.

Direct mail enables you to lay out your case for support using visuals for emotion (pictures of young children reading, for example) and copy to extend the emotional impact through the appeals to values (our community cares about opportunity) and facts (passing the budget equals one-on-one computer training for adults).

For example, when the Mount Vernon Public Library in New York went to the voters in 2014 for its very first public budget vote of $4.35 million, it used the value of opportunity (which reflected both what the library offered and what the community wanted) as well as facts about the initiative to inform and persuade voters. “Where Opportunity Awaits” became the library’s new tagline, and its materials and messaging provided examples of concrete benefits to the community if the budget passed.

Your direct mail should be professionally designed. It needs to look good. You’re asking people to make an investment—how your materials look is the first step in making a positive impression. Find a printer who likes the library so you can get good rates, and then find a mail house (sometimes printers will manage that process for you) so that the mail is processed properly. Make sure you have a nonprofit mailing permit (for the library’s public education mail) and that the Friends have the same for advocacy mail.

However, library campaign direct mail and other materials shouldn’t look too slick. Even though four-color printing is getting cheaper, going black-and-white or black plus one color gives the impression that the library isn’t wasting resources. For Mount Vernon, we used black and green. In one well-off community in upstate New York, we used only black and white, as the library was concerned about perception. That concern paid off—the library now receives $380,000 annually from the taxpayers.

There’s never a good time to ask people to raise their taxes. And with the rise of the anti-tax movement, getting voters to move in that direction has become more difficult. So don’t call it a tax—reframe your message as “community-based funding.”  Is it a tax? Sure. But the reframed language speaks to the voter differently—it gives them a say as well as ownership.

And having that sense of ownership leads to our ultimate goal—it’s my library and I’m going to vote yes!

Libby Post is president/CEO of Communication Services, a boutique library advocacy  consulting firm. She was recently elected to serve on the board of United for Libraries and also serves on the ALA Committee on Advocacy.