Book Review – Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype by Jay Baer

Perhaps the most enjoyable memories of my early working life are of brainstorming ways to reimagine brands for the brave new Web. It was 1995 and the web (let alone the agency) was barely out of nappies but there we were proposing route-mapping software development to the RAC, digital postcards to Carlsberg (C-mail) and an entire social network for the Allied Domecq portfolio of drinks brands. We weren’t short of bold ideas but one thing that we seemed to come back to time and again was that being useful was the best way to make people engage with brands via this new interactive medium.

The inherent benefits of being helpful to people and its suitability to digital media is a theme I have returned to throughout my career so it was with great interest that I learned about Jay Baer’s new take on the subject in his book Youtility. The fact that Baer was trying to move the ubiquitous Content Marketing argument on somewhat also appealed because, while agencies start to wallow in the supremacy of content, it can often seem like so much verbage for very little point – one giant and growing haystack with very few glimpses of a marketing point.

Baer establishes his theme by listing the familiar content marketer’s litany against traditional paid media (on and offline) which he describes as aimed at ‘Top-of-Mind Awareness‘. Besides the fragmented media landscape that is easily recognisable, he points out the prevalent consumer distrust of Brands as compounding the problem. Baer points out that, in 2013, the “Edelman Trust Barometer” found businesses were trusted by just 58 percent of survey respondents globally. In fact the situation could be even worse as Havas Media’s comprehensive 2013 Meaningful Brands survey revealed that the majority of people do not care if over 73% of brands ceased to exist.

He then dismantles the ‘Frame-of-Mind Awareness‘ that Brands have been obsessed with over the past decade illustrated particularly by Search Marketing which is designed to capture people when they are showing an (unbranded) interest in a particular product or service via search engines. He points out the classic flaw of Search Marketing which is that it filters latent demand rather than generating new demand. He then points out that search engine usage is weakening in the face of our increasing familiarity with the opportunities and limits of the web and the increasing use of social media as our source for all things new and interesting highlighting that “in the past seven years the role of search engines in locating websites has declined by nearly one quarter”*. He then blames the typical Brand’s social media ineptitude in building follower numbers and then bombarding them with sales and promotion messages for the rise of the “The Social Breakup” which has seen people increasingly unfriend Brands.

Then Baer coins the term ‘Friend-of-Mine Awareness’ to describe the need for Brands to compete with news and content shared between people as part of their social media stream which has become the most important and frequently checked medium for many us; “companies are competing against real people for the attention of other real people”. However, as he points out, the messages that people will tolerate from Brands in this space are very different from those they would normally use in interruption advertising; “For the first time, companies have to compete on the very same turf as our family and friends, using the very same tools and technologies and media and messaging as consumers”. He argues that people will only accept Brands in their social stream if they are useful and provide some genuine unique functionality that people cannot get elsewhere; “if, like their friends, you provide them real value, if you practice Youtility rather than simply offer a series of coupons and come-ons, they will reward your company with loyalty and advocacy, the same ways we reward our friends”.

Instead, Baer claims, “you can’t survive by shouting the loudest and relying solely on anachronistic interruption marketing… What if instead of trying to be amazing you just focused on being useful? What if you decided to inform, rather than promote?”. He points to the Coca-Cola Content 2020 strategy videos ( and which I would urge any brand marketer to watch to understand how a major Brand taking this to heart is looking to generate, curate, and foster compelling brand marketing for the future. Indeed Baer goes further to announce the Death of the Salesman citing that in 2010, shoppers needed 5.3 sources of information before making a purchase decision which increased to 10.4 just a year later. He highlights other examples such as the Clorox myStain application and the @HiltonSuggests twitter response initiative as ways in which brands are consciously avoiding sales messaging in their provision of a service to people (not just their own customers).

Perhaps the most interesting revelation for me in this book was the exhortation to Market Your Marketing. He says, “creating Youtility is often an inexpensive proposition when considered in the context of the overall marketing program of a company, these efforts are viewed as relatively minor and thus don’t receive dedicated promotional support, even at launch. This not only dramatically curtails exposure—counteracting the entire premise of the Youtility—but wastes an opportunity for the company to combine top-of-mind awareness and friend-of-mine awareness in interesting, evocative ways.” The combination of paid media to promote owned media particularly when that owned media is primarily functional and not promotional is interesting as I can see this working by being both helpful by drawing attention to useful content as well as pleasantly surprising to see ads from Brands about content rather than directly about their products. He also talks interestingly about the need to empower employee advocates and to release some (content related) marketing from being a single job role to a skill of all employees that can be coordinated but preferably inspired to work for the Brand out of a sense of genuine belief. “In a world where personal relationships and social connectivity are the coin of the realm, your employees are your single greatest marketing engine.”

Baer has appeared on Mitch Joel’s excellent Six Pixels of Separation podcast twice in quick succession earlier this year (here & here) and on the second show dedicated to this book, it is clear that Joel harbours some scepticism about Baer’s evangelism of the “Youtility” concept even though he makes claims to have invented it himself at the same time. For me, the flaws in the book are probably both linked to the speed at which Baer admits to have written it. He makes cursory and unsatisfying reference to measurement towards the end of the book and doesn’t even mention attribution which would need to be a core part of any marketers argument to implement and sustain budgets to fund Content Marketing let alone the concepts extolled in Youtility. Baer also seems to miss the rise of programmatic audience targeting in his dismissal of media buying. He says, “Now, one of the toughest jobs in the world—and most certainly one of the most difficult and thankless in marketing—is media buying, because there are countless ways to reach audiences… But … no place where you can reach everybody, not like you used to be able to, which makes top-of-mind awareness much more difficult as a marketing approach.” Programmatic changes this and makes targeting people through media buying easier than it has been for decades, definitely easier than the majority of ‘Hit-and-Hope’ Content Marketing concepts let alone being ‘Youseful’.

In the end I can’t help but agree instinctively with the premise of being useful and I think it has been around for many years as a core tenet of successful online marketing. Creating compelling functionality is one way to do this but I think being associated with compatible functionality is another that Baer doesn’t seem to promote. Brands should certainly go out of their way to express their values by creating useful apps that are relevant to their target market but they should also recognise the value of investing in brand compatible functionality created by others. That means sponsoring functionality, funding the development of relevant features and functionality or getting conspicuously involved in funding relevant niches of the startup world with all the risk and rewards that come with it all of which would prove a Brand’s commitment to a cause without the traditional and sometimes tiresome need to own it.

* VanBoskirk, Shar, “The Forrester Wave: US Search Marketing Agencies, Q1 2011,” Forrester, January 31, 2011, accessed January 21, 2013.

Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype