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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Worlds Apart? The Relationship Between Teaching and Marketing and What It Means to Academic Librarians

Jill S. Stover

Undergraduate Services Coordinator, Virginia Commonwealth University

When I talk about library marketing with fellow librarians, they often react to my thoughts based on one of two points of view. While most librarians accept the notion that certain ideas from the business world can further our profession, some reject the premise that marketing practices have applications in library work. I have a difficult time understanding this resistance. Not only are marketing techniques compatible with the missions and values of libraries, but they also offer a practical—and increasingly necessary—means of connecting our work to users' needs.

Part of the reluctance of librarians to embrace marketing is due to the misperception that businesses and libraries operate in entirely separate and independent spheres. Businesses, after all, are out to make money. Libraries exist to enrich their communities. This false dichotomy ignores the fact that both marketers and librarians engage in strikingly similar activities all the time. Unfortunately, this thinking also erects barriers that keep librarians from taking advantage of the useful ideas marketers can offer our profession. To bridge the marketing and library worlds, it may be useful to compare marketing to something familiar and comfortable to librarians, namely, teaching.

The ultimate aim of any teacher or marketer is to modify behaviors and thinking. Instructors develop learning objectives that specify the behaviors and skills students are to have mastered by the conclusion of the course. Outcomes could include the ability to understand theoretical concepts, articulate ideas in a clear manner or critically evaluate works based on acquired knowledge. Teachers assess students' progress toward the objectives by means of tests, papers or other exercises. Achieving these outcomes requires that students think and act differently than before they entered the class.

Prompting changes in behavior and thinking is also what marketers aim to do. Common behavioral marketing objectives include encouraging trial or purchase of a product or service so as to increase market share or expand the current market. Often customers must be educated about the benefits and features of a product before they will risk spending their money on it. To educate customers, marketers take on the role of teacher by using their communication channels to explain how the product solves particular problems.

Instead of tests and papers, marketers usually measure their success in terms of sales, which indicate whether customers adopted the desired behavior of choosing their product or service over a competitor's. Sometimes the desired change is not sales per se, but a change in customers' thinking. For instance, marketers try to position their products and services so they are perceived by customers in a specific way. They do this by teaching people to associate their products with desirable characteristics. In addition, some marketers, like teachers, also seek to obtain positive social change. Social marketers, for example, strive to alleviate problems like drunk driving by correcting people's damaging behaviors.

Both educators and marketers are adept at tailoring their strategies to specific groups of people. Teachers, for instance, know that not all students learn equally well with a single instructional method. Visual learners prefer diagrams, videos and illustrations, while others respond better to lecture. Instructors address the variety of learning needs, in part, by grouping students into classes by categories such as grade levels, honors, special needs and disciplines, so that they can adapt their teaching methods accordingly. Marketers also understand that not all customers will respond in the same way to product offerings. Much like teachers, marketers group similar customers together on the basis of demographic characteristics, lifestyles and past behaviors. Marketers call this process segmentation, and it's intended to ensure that the right products get to the right customers with a minimum of wasted effort.

Furthermore, teachers and marketers are skilled in understanding and utilizing motivation. If you have ever rewarded reluctant students in your library instruction sessions with candy, you know how important motivation is! Students and consumers are motivated by both internal and external factors. Some people seek education or products because of an inner drive for self-improvement, while others do so in response to parental, peer or societal influence. Teachers manipulate motivation by offering opportunities for extra credit, creating competitive awards and mandating group projects to get the students' best work. For their part, marketers adjust prices, devise reward programs for repeat purchases and attach prestigious logos to products like clothing to prompt purchases.

Interestingly, teaching and marketing practices appear to have evolved along parallel paths in that they have both become more participatory in nature. Active learning—an approach favored by many educators—asks students to take responsibility for their own learning by becoming involved in the teaching process. Through active learning, students explore ideas and teach their classmates what they discover, while the instructor assumes a facilitating role. The same is generally true of modern marketing practices. Rather than "pushing" products on people as they once did, marketers now recognize that today's customers are increasingly savvy and empowered, demanding greater involvement with the products they consume. In a movement referred to by some as open source marketing (Cherkoff, 2005), customers now adopt many of the roles that were formerly the exclusive domain of marketers. They generate new product ideas, create advertising campaigns, participate in customer-driven communities and share their opinions directly with corporate decision-makers.

Done well, both teaching and marketing empower people by giving them the intellectual tools, products and services they need to achieve their goals. The point of this comparison is to demonstrate that marketing practices are not drastically different from the activities we librarians observe and engage in every day. Since the library and marketing worlds have much in common, it's reasonable to conclude that both professions have something to offer the other. Just imagine what librarians could accomplish if they matched their knowledge of information and their local communities with the abilities of marketers to communicate how their products and services solve customers' problems. I don't advocate that we librarians become business people, but only that we think broadly about where we derive ideas that promise to advance our own work.


Cherkoff, J. (2005, February). What is Open Source Marketing? Retrieved July 31, 2007

Published in
September 2007
Volume 2, Issue 3
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