Five Libraries, One Month, Twitter: What I Learned about Social Media Campaigns from Buy India a Library

by Andromeda Yelton

In late December, Twitter user @jaffne noted that for only 1250 pounds, a British charity, GoodGifts, would build, outfit, and staff for two years a library in India. I don't know this Twitter user. I don't know Ned Potter or Jan Holmquist either -- they live in the UK and Denmark and I live in the US. We've never met but we follow each other on Twitter, so I noticed when they both retweeted @jaffne's link. Ned said he wanted to save up his charitable giving budget until he could afford to buy a library. I said, "You know, 1250 is more than I can swing, but I bet it's not more than Twitter can. Wanna join forces?"

So we did.

The three of us , plus enthusiastic cheerleader Justin Hoenke, started working together to rally the internet, hoping that with lots of small gifts from our social media networks we'd be able to raise enough to build a library. As a fallback plan, if we didn't raise 1250 pounds, we'd instead fund African bookmobiles through GoodGifts at 100 each. Between our launch January 6 and our final donor February 9, we raised 2420 pounds. That's almost $4000 or one extra-large school library in India, a newspaper subscription and additional books for that library, and four donkey-drawn mobile libraries in Africa.

Five libraries!

This campaign made us think about a lot of themes: the value of community and collaboration, the speed and reach of social media, and the surprising power we all have to change the world. I'd like to talk about something more practical here, though, something you might be able to apply in your library: what I learned about how to raise money with social media.

Here are five things I learned, or found most useful, in our social media campaign:

Be multimodal

We often speak of Buy India a Library as a Twitter campaign because it started there and that's where a lot of the conversation took place. But in fact we used multiple platforms including a blog, a Facebook page, and face-to-face interaction. In fact we chose our launch date of January 6 because I would be at ALA then where I could make a public announcement to a room full of well-networked Emerging Leaders. I taped a QR code to my badge that led people to our mobile site (and made a good conversation piece), and handed out more for others' badges so they could spread the word. We received ALA media coverage in American Libraries Magazine: here and here.

Twitter is an amazing way to engage with a lot of people and get a message to go viral fast, but all of these platforms are dramatically more powerful when they're used together. Face-to-face connections make the online message more salient, and the multiple online platforms meant we could engage with potential donors in their favorite spaces. Multiple platforms also made it easier to come up with content: ALA coverage became the topic of blog posts and blog posts sparked Twitter conversations.


Having multiple project leaders was tremendously helpful. For one thing, the idea itself came from conversation. But having multiple leaders, all of whom took a lot of initiative, both improved the campaign and kept the workload manageable for all of us. No one of us alone would have thought to set up all those different platforms. And no one of us alone could have written 10 blog posts, interacted with the 129 people who tweeted with the #buyalib hashtag, thanked the 100 donors, or handled all of the myriad logistical tasks. The disparate time zones (6 hours from the east coast to Denmark) even worked in our favor, since it meant at least one of us was usually awake to respond to our public in realtime. As it was, we had an intense few weeks, but nothing we couldn't handle, even atop our jobs and classes and families.

Collaboration means reaching out to the audience, too. After others blogged about the project, we found spikes of traffic to our blog, and increased donations. We tried to make our audience feel included, informed, and valued, and it turned out much of the energy and publicity came from them, not us. Collaborative engagement works better than traditional directive leadership on the internet.

Have a deadline -- mostly

We knew from the start we didn't want to be permanently committed to this project, and it quickly became apparent we couldn't sustain the intensity forever; we'd burn ourselves out and annoy people. However, we didn't pick a target date until a little way into the project, when we'd seen what the rate of donations was like. In addition, we were deliberately a little slow to take down the donate buttons after that (to catch last-minute stragglers), and negotiations with a major donor took until past the closing date. Social media campaigns usually need to run on Internet time -- faster than fast -- but judicious exceptions help, too.

Be 90% ready

Be 90% ready before you launch. We needed a way for people to donate (our PayPal button), learn more (our blog), and join the conversation (our #buyalib hashtag) in place when we started. Momentum on the internet happens breathtakingly fast and if there's nowhere for the energy to be directed, it's gone. That said, there were things we figured out on the fly (especially how exactly PayPal works). If we'd waited for everything to be perfect, we would've missed the chance for a splashy launch at ALA, and we might have run out of momentum ourselves before we did anything real. It's crucial to launch with good energy and with a way for the public to support and engage with you, but it's okay to make up some of the details as you go along.

Have a really good idea

What made Buy India a Library successful was that the idea was so unexpected and so captivating. Who knew we could build an entire library for what is (in the first world, at least) such a small sum? The good cause inspired people and the small price tag made them feel empowered, so they wanted to engage with us.

Ultimately, the first four lessons (be multimodal, collaborate, have a deadline, and be 90% ready) are the things we had to do not to fail. Even a great idea can fail to catch on if it's implemented poorly. But the great idea is still necessary to succeed. Of course there's no formula that can guarantee great ideas (if only there were!). We found ours by engaging with our networks, paying attention to the outside world, and landing on something both inspiring and surprising -- that is, something that could capture both hearts and minds. Now, in the spirit of Buy India a Library collaboration, I'd like to turn it over to you. What else is important for a successful social media campaign? What kinds of social media campaigns have you run? Let's take the discussion to Twitter with the hashtag #nmrtsocmedia. See you there!

Andromeda Yelton blogs, tweets, writes, and searches for her first professional library job.