The little library that could: Lessons from Orkney Library on being a little fish in a big pond on social
It’s easy to assume that flashy brand campaigns, celebrity musings and of-the-moment memes wear the crown on social media. One small library on a remote Scottish island—population 22,000—consistently proves otherwise.
Orkney Library & Archives has won the hearts and feeds of over 77,000 on Twitter, including celebrities and giants of the literary world. What began as a way to promote the library and its local history (after all, it was founded in 1683) has ballooned into a global fan base and consistently positive press coverage, thanks in large part to social media.
The Purrs-day Miaowder Club surely. Someone should write this.
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) August 24, 2021
“When we started on Twitter, it seemed like a good thing to communicate, to show what we did and talk about what was going on in the library,” John Peterson, Library Assistant at Orkney Library & Archives who oversees its social media efforts, told us. “And probably a bit to change perception because libraries can have a stereotype, which is not really how we are.”
Building an organic following, one Tweet at a time
There is no dedicated social media manager behind Orkney’s online presence—existing library and archival staff have shaped the strategy since day one, which contributes to its charm.
“Many times I’ve been struck—and confused—by the fact that people who do social for other library organisations are told they have to post 10 things a day between this time and this time,” said Peterson. “We don’t operate like that at all. We do it almost entirely as we go along.”
Orkney Library’s unstructured, hyper-organic attitude toward social is a clear deviation from that of a traditional marketing department. Yet, this unusual approach is what yields posts that feel genuine, playful and smart. The subject matter expertise of Orkney’s team skews more literary and historical than internet culture, but the content they post on social expertly blends the two.
eBook, audiobook, DVD, large print pic.twitter.com/ENDwxY9bjv
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) July 16, 2021
Instantly improve your timeline by looking into the eyes of photographer William Hourston's dog. pic.twitter.com/vCj9AkWFsk
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) July 8, 2021
“When a colleague finds something in the archive upstairs, they’ll give me a phone and say, ‘Look, we’ve just found this thing. It should be interesting.’ And that might end up becoming a Twitter thread.”
Every organisation needs to find the degree of formality that works for them and their strategy. Social is a spectrum, not an exercise in absolutes. Even teams with a more structured publishing calendar and workflow can experiment with ways to bring subject matter experts into the content creation process, or identify a timely trend to inspire new posts.
Finding a knack for cheeky humour starts with trust
Orkney Library’s voice on social is a delightful departure from what you’d expect from a more than 300-year-old institution. (Note the continuous jokes made at the expense of the spherical sculptures that adorn the Library’s exterior grounds.)
It's good to have the sun on our balls again. pic.twitter.com/RqpBoKVq2e
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) June 22, 2021
“If I were to look back at the 10 biggest things we’ve done, they would probably all have some element of humour,” said Peterson. “Sometimes a lot of it is bad humour. There’s a lot of tongue in cheek, dad joke stuff going on.”
As we all know from scrolling through our own feeds, comedy is hard to master on social—particularly for brand accounts. Orkney’s success starts with subtlety.
“It doesn’t have to be hilarious. It just has to be a light touch. It doesn’t have to be something with a punchline,” said Peterson.
A man just came into the library to ask if we knew which book had the best cliffhanger ending so we told him it was definitely#NationalTellAJokeDay pic.twitter.com/3T4XyTK95X
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) August 16, 2021
For plenty of marketing teams, writing the copy is only step one on the path toward creating a social media presence known for levity. For every post that makes it into the publishing queue, there are often dozens lost to lengthy social media approval processes.
“I can totally understand, in a hierarchical situation, that you can’t just let somebody freely post because things could go wrong. But at the same time, you need to be able to have trust in the person who’s doing it to self-regulate,” said Peterson.
“If I had to explain what I was about to post to somebody, I probably wouldn’t bother posting it at all. I think there would be a huge portion of ‘I just don’t get it. What are you talking about?’”
3 bits of advice for small brands to make a large impact on social
Much like a great novel, Orkney’s standout Twitter presence didn’t materialise overnight—it’s the product of more than a decade of consistent effort. For new brands or small organisations looking to get started on social, consider these three tips from the Orkney Library team:
1. Stay active, and interactive
John Peterson’s top recommendation may seem simple, but it requires grit and persistence.
“Post regularly. Get in the habit of being an active account.”
"Life finds a way" -Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
— UNT Libraries (@UNT_Libraries) June 7, 2021
Social, however, is a two-way street. Regularly engaging your audience, be it consumers or other businesses, goes a long way toward building goodwill and a long-lasting community.
“Interact with people, find people doing the same things. We connect with a lot of other libraries and publishers and authors and book shops. But if you were at a bakery, connect with other bakeries to see what they’re doing and what’s happening in that world,” said Peterson. “Connect with businesses that are maybe not in the same industry as you, but they’re local. Make connections.”
2. Mind your visuals
Whether you’re trying to get a joke to land or promote an upcoming event, “showing” on social media is just as critical as “telling.”
you can always tell when A-Ha have been in to return their books pic.twitter.com/nE3h81HTAC
— Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary) August 21, 2021
“Any Tweet you make, if it’s just text, people will scroll past it. They won’t stop,” said Peterson. “If we had something to say, but there was really no image to go with it, I would simply use a photo of the outside of the library. People stop for the image and then they read the text.”
The right visuals don’t necessarily need to be highly produced, or require a full creative team to support. Have your pick from the multitude of apps available to spin up engaging imagery (no formal design chops required), or curate user-generated content to breathe life into your feed.
3. Remember: size doesn’t matter
Orkney Library is living proof that even small, faraway institutions can compete with household names on social. Don’t underestimate the impact or reach your brand can have.
“I think social media is a great leveler, because it means that whatever you are, wherever you are, you can open up to the whole world. People everywhere could potentially follow you. You’ve just got to create the conditions for that,” said Peterson.
Sprout’s own research confirms that setting trends or playing into pop culture isn’t what consumers consider the hallmark of best in class brands on social. Instead, it’s brands that engage their audience on social and prioritize transparency that are seen as true leaders.
“Find the thing that makes you different than everyone else, and use it,” said Peterson. “We’re a library and archive, so we’ve got stuff that loads of other people will have. But we’re the only one in Orkney and we’re the only Orkney.”
In other words, treat social as a place to be authentic, staying true to your mission, your expertise or even your locale. Social is where consumers go to discover new brands, trends and people—make a first impression rooted in the real you, not a fictitious version.
“Never underestimate what your audience’s interest will be. Most of the people who see posts about our archive have never been to Orkney and never will; they probably don’t even often know where it is. But everybody can relate to an old photograph, an old document or an old map, and everybody can relate to books.”
Everybody loves an underdog story
Amid the fast-paced, often chaotic plot lines that dominate social media, Orkney Library & Archives stands out as a character everyone can (and does) root for.
Whether they’re staying on top of local cat Twitter or promoting new library programming, John Peterson and his team have charmed readers around the world. Beyond the loyal following, Orkney’s social presence has generated serious recognition for the little library, from industry awards and visits from world-famous authors.
“Social media, like all media really, can go very dark. Everything you scroll through is news and politics. So when somebody comes across something that makes them smirk rather than grimace, I think even that is quite valuable.”
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