Youtility: useful for your brand, or not?

I've just finished reading an advance copy
of a new book with the snappy title: "YOUTILITY: Why Smart Marketing is
about Help not Hype." The premise of the book is that brands can
"create a customer for life by through marketing that is truly,
inherently useful". Author Jay Baer goes as far as saying that  "Youtility is marketing so useful,
people would pay for it." 

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Examples of Youtility in the book include:

– The @HiltonSuggests program that tweets
useful travel tips for anyone, Hilton guest or not

– Clorox's free myStain app that gives away
self-serve stain solution information

– Geek Squad's free online self-help videos
to solve IT problems

Here's my take on Youtility, in terms of
what I agree with and what I don't.

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YES: Focus on being useful, not amazing

Jay suggests you don't have to "win
hearts and minds with knock-your-socks off service, or fundamental changes to
corporate culture." Instead, he proposes, you can grow by being
useful.  Now, this isn't revolutionary,
but it is a point that can be forgotten, in a world where we are all urged to
"innovate or die". I posted earlier here on the idea of incremental
product and service improvements to be "simply better".

YES: be found when people search

The book reveals that we need more and more information to make a purchase decision. In
2010 shoppers needed 5.3 sources of information, whereas in 2011 they needed
10.4! This is sad in a way, showing how we are becoming addicted to technology
and seemingly incapable of acting without it. But there you go.

The implication of this trend is the need
to be found when people search. This is more relevant in high value categories
where people take time to decide what to buy (e.g. cars, holidays and white/brown
goods) than it is for everyday grocery items that we buy on autopilot.

One way to be found is of course simply
paying to appear following a Google search. An alternative is to create content
that people find, that will then lead them onto your brand. For example, River Pools and Spas created a blog with useful tips on fibreglass pool maintenance, which helped the brand appear when people searched for help
online. The owner was able to increase sales by 10% whilst decreasing ad spend
from $250,000 to $20,000. Type in "Fibreglass pool installation" to Google, and River Pools Youtube video pops up as the top non-paid-for result (below).

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This can also work for consumer goods brands,
by getting your brand's content to appear when people search for help online. For
example, Knorr is creating recipes to try and appear when millions of people search
each day for help on "What to cook for dinner tonight?". 

A couple fo tips here: i) Youtube is one of the main ways people search, so it's a good home for useful branded content, ii) use "native" search terms that people type into Google or Youtube, such as "What to cook tonight?", rather than brand messages such as "Knorr's new Dinner Delights range".

NO: expect no immediate return

My fundamental problem with Youtility is
the suggestion that you should "Make your company useful without
expectation of an immediate return." This is where Youtility risks becoming a
charitable offer, rather than a new and cost effective way to "SMS"
(sell more stuff).  

Indeed, the book contains few examples with proven ROI. The killer quote comes in the very last paragraph of the book,
from the person running the @HiltonSuggests program: "The program has
almost zero immediate value to the company." Hmmm. Jay does make a valiant attempt to
help assess ROI, but has to resort to a theoretical "thought
experiment" to make the point.

The other problem here, as covered in
previous posts on social media, is that most consumer goods brands don't sell
online. This means that online Youtility services are at best a new way of
creating brand awareness. So, we are asked to hope that by using Charmin's
"Sit or squat" app to find a local public lavatory, we are more
likely to choose that brand of toilet tissue the next time we visit the
supermarket. In contrast, online brands such as Expedia, Amazon and little old
River Spas have more to gain, as they can make a direct link from online Youtility
apps and content to lead generation.

In conclusion, I heartily applaud the idea
of harnessing digital technology to be useful, rather than spewing out
irrelevant social media messages. However, I would be reluctant to spend too
much time and effort on Youtility where you can't make a direct, measurable
link to direct sales.