Lessons from the library booth at a local festival: or how not to engage customers

This weekend, my library is participating in the town’s local festival. Of course i sent AskUsNow! swag to be given out, but I also helped man the booth for about two hours yesterday.

It was very fun, but also very educational in a way i didn’t expect.

When i started my shift, dressed in my AskUsNow! polo, i grabbed some of our highlighters and stood in front of the tent, talking to people and handing things out. Everyone who passed had to verbally turn me down if they didn’t want a highlighter (few did), everyone else got one. I gave away 400 highlighters in about an hour.

It wasn’t until later on, when i took a 5 min food break, sitting on the sidewalk behind the booth that i realized what was happening. Here are my observations and tips for having a successful festival and public encounter:

#1. Don’t create a fortress (or ref desk) with your tables.
Tent/booths at festivals usually can be set up any way you want. You usually have tables to put your swag on that you can put anywhere you like. The library tent set theirs up in such a way that they shielded themselves from the public. Two tables on the side, meeting up with one table in the dead front of the tent. The only way to get INTO the tent was to go around back and enter through a small space that wasn’t being blocked by the book carts.

Most of the other booths in the 5 or so block area of the festival set their booths up to INVITE people INTO their booth, to talk to the people, and get some swag. The library’s tent was a barracade.

#2. Look inviting and engaging. Talk to people! Invite them over!
A lot of people came up to the library booth when i was out front, talking to people, being friendly, and handing out stuff. I noticed when i wasn’t doing that, no one else was. They just sat in the tent, behind their table full of swag, and waited for someone to come up to them. No one was saying “hello” to people when they got anywhere near the booth, and no one looked excited to be there. Frankly, they all looked like burnt out librarians and this was NOT the time to look like that. You don’t have to be a sales person, but you AT LEAST have to look alive, interesting, and be the first to talk to people… because they’re generally not going to be the first to talk to you. (I’m generalizing to make a point, there was one person there during part of my 2 hours that took my place in the front handing stuff out and talking to people when i had sat down for lunch. I think he realized no one was coming to the booth unless invited.)

Don’t people know you have to look interested in your own product before anyone else will be? Don’t people know you have to TALK to people and engage them before they’ll come over to you? The only way you can sit there and not talk to anyone at a booth is if you’re giving away free money. That sells itself.

#3. Don’t worry about running out of swag.
People were worried that we’d run out of stuff. This sounded a lot to me like “we can’t do IM, we’ll be bombarded.” Well good! Because my new shipment of highlighters hadn’t come in yet, i only had 400 to give away and i did so in about an hour. This seemed to cause panic because “we still have two days here.”

Here’s my theory on that: Day 2 was probably going to be rained out and not a lot of people would show. Plus, in my experience, more people show up to things like this on Saturdays versus Sundays.

Also, if you give everything away- all those people know about your product and services versus hording your stuff and potentially not giving it all away and missing opportunities with customers.

Sure, no one on Sunday got an AskUsNow! highlighter. But 400 people on Saturday got one and i’m betting a good percentage of those people will go “hey what’s this website…” and try us out. I rather have no swag, then miss potential customers.

#4. Sell the item, not the service
This isn’t universal, but i find it much easier to get people to take swag with your info on it if you sell it as the item. For example, I wasn’t saying, “AskUsNow! interactive online service for all your question needs!” I was saying, “free highlighters.” It was a soft sell, but people have short attention spans as they’re walking by your booth and you have to grab them with something cool (or something free). More people looked up to see i was standing in front of the library booth when i was saying and giving out highlighters, than when we tried to sell the library. For some people, it’s still an unhip, book place. Those are the people who need to hear “highlighter” instead of “library stuff!”

#5. look like you belong
I was wearing my AskUsNow! shirt, looking like someone you’d want to take free swag from. I was representing my service. All but one of the 5 people i encountered wore regular street clothing. They could have worn a summer reading tee, or something else that branded themselves as belonging and really caring about their products and services. Otherwise (esp when you don’t smile or talk to people), you just look like someone pulled off the street to make sure stuff doesn’t get stolen while the real booth person goes to the bathroom.

Generally, libraries have an image. We need to break out of that image if we’re going to survive and grow with people. Take every public moment you can to break that stereotype.

At the very least, smile and look like an interested human being outside with the people on a beautiful weekend.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from the library booth at a local festival: or how not to engage customers”

  1. i like these thoughts julie. i agree about setting the tables up so that people have room to enter the booth. other things i have done to suck people in:

    put the swag at the back of the booth (only works if you have really good swag)
    give out cupcakes
    have lots of balloons or something else people can see from far away
    project website/vr service at back of the booth
    hold the books and hawk them like you are a depression-era newspaper boy (i did this promoting ‘oregon reads’)

    but yeah, talk to people. it’s not something that most of us expect to do.

  2. Nice post!

    The way you describe your table setup sounds like the way the reference desk at my branch appears to me. It’s standing height, it has displays of flyers and handouts on one side (which add to the height), and it is a wood stain reminisce of most teacher desks in detention. It’s not exactly the picture of approachable, especially with younger patrons or parents with their children. It’s a fortress of a desk.

    When I was at an Chamber of Commerce expo representing the county, the way we had the booth set up did pretty well for drawing people in. It had one table, set up along the side of the booth. So, in order for people to see everything on our table, they had to enter the booth. This put us in the position that Paco (at the NJLA keynote) described as “hip to hip” with people. Of course, we really cheated for a draw to the booth: we brought our Wii. So, I would stand out in front of the booth, Wii remote in hand, say Hello to everyone who went by, and offered people a chance to bowl for a free t-shirt. So, after showing them how to bowl a frame or two, I would end with “Do you know about the business resources we have at the library?” and mention a few databases by name. If they wanted to know more, I would hand them off to our business librarian Joan (who holds a knowledge of business resources that approaches omnipotence) who would delve into the nitty gritty. Then, with Wii remote in hand again, I would step out and look for more people.

    As the economy has shifted to a service industry, so has the library. It was a lot easier to market the library before this dawn of new technology: if you wanted to borrow a book, you went to the library. If you wanted to buy a book, you went to the bookstore. Now, we offer so much more, that paradigm of marketing is outdated.

    I will be minding the table at the town’s street fair this year. I’m looking forward to it, but I have yet to think of a good hook to bring people over for a deeper conversation. I’m thinking about finding out a handful of odd facts to share with people, so I can hook them in with a “So, you wanna know where I learned that?”

    If anything, this is more fun things for Pres4Lib!

    1. Great comments, guys.

      Andy, I love your idea about the fun facts to pull people in to your booth! i’m going to steal that the next time AskUsNow! has a table/booth somewhere. :-)
      And you’re totally right- we need to do all we can to shift the image. I really hate when people talk about libraries *only* in the book context. some books is okay, but when the conversation is *all* about books, i do a lot of mental facepalms. (and of course, join in the convo to help reframe it when i can)

  3. Having worked the art show circuit, I would echo the comments on the booth setup. We almost always set up our tables in an inverted U so that we sat at the back of the booth. This creates a place that draws people in and gives them a place to browse. In your case, it gives people a place to stand and talk where they don’t feel buffeted by the flow of traffic passing the booth. In our case, we had our wares to draw people in but for the library booth, having someone out front to talk to people is probably necessary to draw them in.

    ” They just sat in the tent, behind their table full of swag, and waited for someone to come up to them. No one was saying “hello” to people when they got anywhere near the booth, and no one looked excited to be there. ”

    Is this how they act at the reference desk in the library? Was this a volunteer activity for staff or were they required to man the booth? Not everyone is cut out for this kind of public interaction. It requires a lot more effort than just sitting behind a desk and waiting for people to walk up. Also, it doesn’t sound like the people assigned to work the booth had much direction about their job that day. I would have let people know in advance that they had to wear a library-branded shirt and that their job was to talk to people. Absent direction, some people will pack the path of least resistance and least effort.

  4. All your points are those we use when we set up our library tables at community events. No one sits around the table, everyone is out and about handing things to passersby. Also it is true about wearing something to identify you with the “library” or whatever you are representing. Its called marketing and making yourself( your brand) known. P.S. We were recognized as one of the most frriendly and welcoming exhibits at the county fair one year.

  5. This is a great article. Thank you for writing it. I am doing my first booth at my kids school fair that has around 700 people come and I am a little nervous. I will use some of your tips.

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