Do you have ideas on virtual reference service in academic libraries?

From a library listserve – another library person reaching out for ideas! We are posting a few of the suggestions other people have offered. If you have other ideas, you can leave them below; and if you are facing this issue hopefully you get some ideas!

“Has anyone working in an academic library providing virtual reference services tried increasing usage?

If so, how did you market/promote this service? What were the results of the plan you generated?
At this time, we are beginning to test the waters of a promotion plan geared towards increasing usage of virtual reference. Particularly those of a research nature. Currently, most questions are directional, informational or instructional (unrelated to research).
The big roll out will be in the fall as we will work over the summer to develop specific marketing based upon student demographics such as: international, online, graduate, undergraduate, non-trad, traditional, commuters etc…. Going into finals, we are running a contest to encourage students to use virtual reference while conducting research for papers and projects. The prize for both weeks will be a pair of wireless headphones (Skullcandy). Keeping our fingers crossed…?
Thanks for any feedback you’d like to share”

  • I’m actually at a public library, but we’ve actually had a very robust VR service (350-450 questions/mo) for many years here. The main trick to increasing numbers is to make your service as visible as possible on your site, especially within the catalog, patron accounts, etc., since that’s where they’re going to have questions. Odds are they won’t search the site for a help link, but if the chat widget is a consistent part of the site layout, that will automatically drive usage upwards. Likewise, if you’re promoting SMS/email, etc., having that link as visible as possible is important. Occasional promotion in newsletters, etc., may produce “spikes,” but placement trumps everything else. 

    I contributed to an OCLC document about this:


    It’s meant for the OCLC/Questionpoint community, but the principles are the same, regardless of which chat tool you use.

  • Our library dramatically increased usage of chat reference by switching to a proactive chat system created for online businesses called ZenDesk (previously Zopim).  When we switched to ZenDesk, the first day we received 47 chat questions, and we’d received 8 the day before with our previous system.   That happened immediately with no change in chat hours, marketing, or staffing. 

    At present, we answer about 22,000 chat questions per year.  Almost 60% of the questions come after the system prompts the user to ask a question.  For example, if a user stays on our “Find Databases” page for more than 60 seconds without hitting a keystroke, a chat box pops up and asks, “Can we help you find a database?”  Having a larger, bright, attractive, customized chat widget is another helpful feature of the system.  The widget appears on most pages on the library web site and in many databases.


    We did not market the service outside of the chat system—usage jumped up right away as soon as we started using it.   In case it would be helpful, below is the citation to an article my colleagues and I have written about our experience with proactive chat.  I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

  • Adding the proactive/pop-up chat option has dramatically increased our usage. We had previously done a lot of marketing; and will continue to do so, but now usage is not dependent on attractive flyers, signs, etc. as our pop-up is sufficient to induce them to click on it and chat with us. 

    Best thing we did in terms of Virtual Reference.

  • I have also seen that for academic libraries having a link on the header of Libguides can be useful.  It is easy to replace a header and it updates all the Libguides at once.  The link will always be in the same place and students learn to look for it. Here’s an example of what I mean.  It does not have to be this fancy, it can simply link to a different page
  • Although we do have links to the Ask A Librarian page (where users will find chat, FAQ search box, and a “contact us” email form) on most of our web pages, none of them proactively slide out after a given time frame. This service is promoted by: our instructors promoting the service to their classes, and a slide that periodically appears in a rotating gallery of “news.” 

    Although we don’t have proactive chat on our website, very soon we will be going live with proactive chat widgets embedded in two of our main database platforms. We’ve worked with vendors to make it so, and are excited to see how it might impact usage of those resources.

  • I agree with several of the comments here about proximity.  We don’ t have proactive chat, but our chat box is embedded in all our databases and our catalog, so it is like we are sitting beside the student all the time.   We also have a couple of proactive-like features.  For example if a student doesn’t log into the databases correctly, the login error screen has our chat box on it.  Getting our chat into the places where help will be sought has significantly boosted our numbers. 

    One other aspect that a couple responses alluded to is planning for increase.  When we initially started, only one person was logged in which meant that when the desk was super busy , the chat was off.  When we went to having back ups in the offices (later a service) and chat stayed live all the time, students began to rely on it more.

  • We have done a bit of integration of the chat box in our databases, catalog, etc. but we also installed a floating chat button that is available on every page of our website. If you have LibAnswers, the button is easy to create.