With technology transforming the way people and businesses interact, the value proposition of the Mad Men approach to marketing—using outbound messaging to generate hype and an immediate return in the form of a sale—is in inexorable decline. Social media consultant Jay Baer, host of the weekly Social Pros podcast and author of “Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is about Help not Hype,” advocates sharing content that “transcends the transactional” and avoids overt selling in favor of building trust and long-term good will. He spoke with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Ryan Rieches about key principles behind what he calls Youtility: sharing and publishing information to help, inform, delight and inspire.
Rieches: Could you give our listeners your thoughts on “Youtility”?
Baer: Absolutely. The challenge is that the significant majority of content that companies make is about their products and services. A lot of what we see today that’s called “content marketing” is, essentially, just a brochure in a different form. Just because it’s in a blog or LinkedIn doesn’t mean it’s not, essentially, a brochure.
What Youtility does is, it says, “Look, content can meet a higher standard. You can create content that people cherish; not just content that people tolerate.” The way you do that is to create content that has intrinsic and inherent value… content with so much value baked in to it that people would pay for it if you asked them to do so.
Rieches: It’s a great idea. Examples?
Baer: One of my favorite examples of Youtility in real time is from Hilton Worldwide. They started off very humbly, with volunteers. Now it’s much, much bigger. They’re operating this program across hundreds of different locations across the world.
What they did is, they took volunteers and said, “Look, we know that you have a job in the hotel. You might be in food and beverage, concierge, housekeeping or whatever. What we’d like you to do is, in your spare time just pay attention to Twitter. And if you find an opportunity to help, well, just help.” That was the end of the instruction manual.
That’s what they do. They’re always out there proactively looking for opportunities to jump into conversations and assist people who need help. It’s not people who are tweeting at Hilton. It’s people who are asking for restaurant recommendations or, “Hey, do you know what time this business opens?” If they know the answer, they should jump into that conversation and provide the answer, which is very useful, very real time and really breaks through the enormous competition for attention that we’re all faced with.
Rieches: How can you use this concept to break through the clutter? Any trends or stats on this topic of how much information overload we’re getting today?
Baer: What’s interesting is that we certainly do have more and more sources of information. At the same time, we actually want more and more sources of information. That’s partially because our ability to access information has gone up so much.
I don’t care what kind of business you run: Your customers are hyper-researching everything before they do business with you. There’s an amazing stat for B2B that says 70% of the purchase decision is made, on average, before the prospect ever contacts the company.
I guarantee that everybody listening today has been on a website, and probably more than once, and been interested in that product or service, but then purposely did not fill out the contact form because they didn’t want to be e-mailed or called by a sales rep.
Only once you have fully educated yourself with content and you can no longer educate yourself any more do you begrudgingly say, “Okay, I guess I will contact them now.” If you think you’ve got enough information on your website, you probably do not.
Rieches: It’s really all about establishing trust so people trust that you’re not going to be intrusive. They trust that your data, your content is smart and relevant.
Baer: Trust is the key to the whole enchilada. Without trust, nothing else matters. Price doesn’t matter. Customer service doesn’t matter. Marketing doesn’t matter. Trust is the prism through which all business success must pass. It turns out that one of the best ways to gain and maintain trust is to be disproportionately honest. That probably seems self-evident. It is certainly not. The typical business playbook, for the last 50 years, has not started with, “Make sure you’re as honest as possible.”
It absolutely works. Domino’s Pizza has a corporate positioning that they adopted three years ago which essentially says, and I’m summarizing: “Our pizza used to suck. Now, not so much.” That’s basically their whole playbook.
Since they adopted that radically transparent theme, they have had eight consecutive quarters of increasing stock price. You’re seeing companies, especially in retail and consumer goods, saying, “You know what? We’re just going to be the honest guys. We’re going to be the transparent guys.”
On a broader scale, customers of all shapes and sizes are using not just content created by companies, but content created by their peers to make decisions.
Rieches: How can a B2B executive use this concept of Youtility to create that confidence with their audience beyond just transparency? Does it really go back to help and being able to provide useful information without coming across as a salesman?
Baer: There are two different approaches there. One is to work backwards, to work very methodically and say, “What are all the different stages of our sales cycle? Who are the people within our customers’ companies that are involved in each stage of this cycle and what questions do they have to have satisfactorily answered about us in order to get to the next step?” Literally, write those questions down.
To get from “I’m aware of your company” to “I want to do a demo,” these questions must be satisfactorily answered. Answer those questions with content in a bunch of different ways. That’s the part that gets missed all the time. People say, “Well, we have a page on our Web site that answers that question.”
Guess what? Any one page of your site is typically not seen by any more than five or six percent of your overall site traffic. You’ve got to do it in different ways. Take that question and answer it with a blog post, video, e-book and an infographic. Take those answers and execute them in different ways.
The second piece is to give yourself permission to make the story bigger. One of my favorite examples of this in action is Columbia Sportswear.
Columbia, of course, makes outdoor gear. They’re one of our clients. They have a mobile application called What Knot to Do in the Greater Outdoors… shows different ways to tie a knot. If you’re camping or hanging off the side of a cliff, it’s a super-useful thing.
What’s interesting is that Columbia doesn’t sell rope. They’re not in the rope business. They’re not in the knots business. Yet, they realize that their customers, who are largely outdoors types, sometimes need to know how to tie knots.
They have transcended the transaction. That’s the next- level utility that companies need to embrace: “What can you do that your customers will find useful that isn’t necessarily just about your company per se?”
Rieches: Let’s talk about social media.
Baer: What we say is that content is fire and social media is gasoline. If you create that level of content and then you use social media to draw attention to the content, you will be much better off.
The problem with social media is that most companies use it as the world’s shortest press release. That doesn’t work. You have to realize that you’re competing for attention—not just against other companies but against your customer’s friends, family members and loved ones.
The message from your brand, or your consultancy, or your company is being seen adjacent to somebody’s Happy Birthday message from their mom. That’s a pretty tough competitive set. You’ve got to use social to draw attention to things inherently of value.
Rieches: Any final thoughts or insights to share?
Baer: The number one thing to understand is that this type of marketing—where you are giving something away of value to delight, educate and inform your customer—will absolutely work. I see it every day. It typically works, eventually. You can’t give somebody something that’s useful and expect them to transact in the next five minutes.
This style of marketing requires courage. It requires patience. It requires trust that your prospective customers will reward you at some point down the road. While Youtility is definitely a marketing system, it is just as much a corporate culture, a belief system.
Rieches: I couldn’t agree more. Many companies and clients have their best intentions. They get things started, but then things fade. It does require continuity, consistency. You have to really build it into a corporate culture.
Baer: No question. It’s hard to make that switch overnight. What we typically advise is to take one piece of your business, one product, one division, one tactic, one something and make that really useful. Embed Youtility into one corner of your business. Give it some time to work and prove out. Then expand it across the entire organization.