The elephant in the room
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Forget Pokemon Go. Your library has real problems

Ok, I admit, that’s a bit of an incendiary headline, and I’m not really advocating that your library forego taking advantage of the viral new trend that is actually pretty advantageous for libraries.  But, I do worry that libraries are spending too much time on new, shiny stuff and missing some of the elephants in our room. We seem to be missing (or perhaps ignoring) some pretty important trends. Maybe because they’re just not as fun or as easy to accommodate as Pokemon Go?

There are three (3) major shifts that I believe libraries really need to start prioritizing. Maybe your library has already faced some of these head-on. I sure hope so.

SHIFT #1:  Mobile devices aren’t just increasing in number; they’re replacing traditional desktop access entirely.

In July last year (2015), a study concluded that 20% of American households only use mobile devices to access the internet. That percentage was even higher if the household’s income was less than $25,000. Keep in mind that that data is already a year old, so the number is probably even higher now.

Why is this a problem for libraries?

In my last post, I wrote about how 38% of Ohio’s public libraries do not have responsive websites.  I don’t know what it’s like in other states, but I suspect this problem is not limited to Ohio or to public libraries.  If your library has a separate mobile site, that is not the same as responsive and will actually get your site penalized by Google.  If your library’s website is only designed for desktops, that means around 20% of patrons can’t even use it. If your library’s building wasn’t usable by 20% of its users, wouldn’t you do something? Fast?

SHIFT #2: Algorithms are taking over social media.

If you’re annoyed that your Facebook feed isn’t chronological and doesn’t show posts from bunches of your friends, you can thank Facebook’s algorithm. It determines what you get to see, generally based on who you interact with the most and what posts have the most engagement.  No doubt you also noticed, some time ago, that organic (free and unpaid) reach of your content on Facebook went from meh to miserable.  That trend is getting worse on Facebook, making it so that organic reach, for an organization or business, is starting to range from unlikely to impossible. After all, Facebook is a for-profit company…and some of us forgot that.  So we moan about these changes.

Instagram and Twitter are now doing much the same thing.  Rather than simply getting a stream of content from these major social media channels, now we get something that has essentially been tampered with. Which means, our patrons do, also. Algorithms are deciding what people see, even if those people wanted the content they’re not seeing.

Why is this a problem for libraries?

I’ve been saying for a while that Facebook, realistically, is now “pay to play.” Yes, you can still post for free. But it’s rarely worth the time.  If you want to bring it down to a purely financial perspective, figure out how long a piece of content took to plan and then create, and figure the staff time cost. Now, if only 15 people see that content, what kind of ROI is that?  Especially if only 15 people saw it, and there was little or no engagement, either?  See the problem?  Libraries are often reluctant to start paying for what was once free. Understandably so. But our reluctance doesn’t change the fact that the game rules have shifted out of our favor. If you’re doing anything on Facebook for your library, get a budget.

SHIFT #3: Dark social. It’s here, and it’s growing.

Let’s start with what “dark social” is. Basically, it’s messaging. Think What’sApp, Kik, SnapChat, and Facebook Messenger.

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs. (Technopedia)

Why is this a problem for libraries?

Dark social, or private media, can’t be measured, and it’s likely libraries may not even be able to effectively participate in some platforms. Considering that marketers and content managers are already struggling to figure out metrics for social media (ones that matter, anyway), this trend is adding more stress to their jobs. Regular social media isn’t going away anytime soon, but as dark social continues to gain more traction, it’s going to present more problems for us. There are no really good answers right now, and this shift is probably far murkier than the first two.  Keep an eye on it, and learn more about what’s happening with it and some possible interventions.

You can go back to ignoring the elephants, now. Unless they’re Pokemon, of course.