January 15, 2015

This past fall, I attended a presentation by Jay Baer in which he talked about “Youtility.” Marketing and customer service are colliding, and less than half of the public trusts advertising, according to Baer. As I listened to him describe the state of advertising, one statement stuck out. He said, “Stop trying to be amazing and start being useful.” There is a promise of benefit to the brand in approaching marketing in this way. If you become useful to your audience, instead of trying to “go viral,” you’ll be providing Youtility. 

What if how you communicated were useful? People forward useful emails 30% more than emails that only advertise products. What if your brand were tied to useful emails? Baer outlined three ways to think further about Youtility in marketing. 

We live in a world of self-serve information. 

“If you make a bad decision,” says Baer, “you’re just lazy, because you have all the information you need in your pocket.” Will I enjoy eating at this restaurant? Check Yelp. Will this kitchen tool be effective? Check reviews. When it comes to spending your money, for the most part you can find what you need to make an informed decision. Are you providing the information the customers need to make a buying decision, or do they have to fill out a contact form to learn more? A person will self-educate before turning to the contact form. They’ll seek the information wherever it is provided, if you don’t provide it. Consider this in terms of higher education. Does your department's website provide relevant information for prospective students? Does it adequately describe what life and learning will be like in your department? 

Trust is essential. 

Transparency and humanity together build trust. Baer explains, “Trust is the prism through which all success must pass.” He described businesses that run toward mean, attitude-filled questions. A recent example that reminds me of this principle is Hootsuite, which produced a video called Mean Tweets: A Hootsuite Dashboard Update. People hated their dashboard design and often tweeted about it. Hootsuite listened and improved the dashboard, while keeping a sense of humor about it all. Don’t build distance between you and your key audience. Or, in the words of Baer, don’t run your department so “it feels like a Borg to the outside.” 

Focus on real-time relevancy. 

It’s better to be the best solution for a particular situation than to try to be the best solution for everything all the time, and fail. And market sideways – what do your services go well with? If you sell jam, are you partnering with the bread-makers? What does this mean for an academic department? Focus on what people would search for in a time of need. What is your audience trying to get done? Ask yourself, how does what I communicate help people fill their needs? For example, can prospective applicants quickly and easily find all the information they need to complete an application, or is the information scattered and hidden across your department’s website? Sadly, many academic departments’ websites are the latter, even though they’ve done a great job at communicating their research news and awards announcements. 

Baer said, “Success is not a lake you visit, it’s a river that flows through your organization.” Think of ways your communication is useful to your audience. What does your audience need, and how do you fulfill that need? Answering that question may change your content in great ways. 

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Stephanie Hatch Leishman

Stephanie Hatch Leishman

Former MIT Social Media Strategist

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