Jay Baer: “Smart marketing is about helping, not selling”

“The problem with marketers is that we have been taught to be hunters, when really we should be farmers.” Speaker, author, and consultant Jay Baer believes marketing should take a different direction. Why hunt down consumers for short-term sales with pushy ads, when we could be investing in long-term trust and loyalty instead? Being useful is what helps brands stand out nowadays. Jay wrote a book entitled: Youtility – which is all about “making marketing so helpful that people are, in the long run, willing to purchase.” Back in 2014, I interviewed Jay about his belief in ‘helping, not selling’ – which requires a change of mindset, or as he would put it: “It takes courage to give away something of value without expecting an immediate return.”

Taxi Mike: a one man Trip Advisor

In the summer of 2010, Jay and his family were enjoying their holidays in Banff, a highly popular Canadian ski town bristling with bars, shops and restaurants. Obviously, there are many taxi drivers in Banff, but one of them grabbed Jay’s attention: Taxi Mike – not just a taxi driver, but also a smart marketer.

Four times per year, Taxi Mike puts together the “Taxi Mike Dining Guide: Where to Eat in Banff” – a 8.5-by-11-inch piece of bright yellow paper, printed on both sides. It contains personal and categorized recommendations for the best and cheapest places to eat and drink. In almost every hotel and tourist establishment in Banff, you’ll see Mike’s guides on the counter. Proprietors are eager to hand them out because Mike’s information is accurate and comprehensive.

Taxi Mike
Taxi Mike’s telephone number is in the “Where to Eat” guide, but he doesn’t overtly promote his own business. Yet, because the guide is so chock-full of useful information, it is the best possible marketing tool for Taxi Mike. Jay: “At the end of a night in Banff, when you’ve been to six or eight of these places and you think, ‘Wow, I really should get a cab home,’ are you going to randomly hail a taxi? No. You’re going to reach into your pocket for that crumpled-up, bright-yellow piece of paper, with the downtown map you’ve been using all night, and see: “Taxi Mike: 760-1052.”

According to Jay, Taxi Mike understands what modern marketing is all about: giving away something of value that instills trust and helps builds a relationship; a youtility which is so useful that people would be willing to pay for it. Not many companies have reached this level of usefulness in their marketing, even though content marketing is the talk of the town these days. As marketers, we are good at self-promotion. But most of us are not so good at helping others.

Be genuinely helpful

Youtility is a marketing philosophy that runs contrary to what most of us have learned in traditional marketing education,” says Jay. He cites the mobile app ‘MyStain’ as an example. In 2010, the American detergent company Clorox launched MyStain because it had noticed that many consumers go to Google to look for information on how to remove stains. With the MyStain app, consumers can look up what they should do after accidentally dangling a sleeve in ketchup or if their child creates a mess on the kitchen table. Following traditional marketing logic, you would assume that the app always recommends Clorox as a solution. But it doesn’t.

Jay: “As marketers, we’re used to position our product as the best solution to a problem. What I like about MyStain is that Clorox dares to take a different approach. They are honest about the fact that in some cases, Clorox is not the best way of removing a stain. This makes the MyStain app so much more valuable and credible. It’s more than just a promotion tool; it is genuinely helpful. And that’s what builds trust in Clorox.” Within two years time, the app had been downloaded more than 175,000 times.

My Stain Clorox
Earn trust first, reap the results later

Jay points out that the development of the MyStain app was marked by a lot of internal discussions. The app challenged classical marketing laws in more than one way. What would have seemed more logical than to attach a digital sales coupon to the app. A direct measure of return on investment: what more could you wish for as a marketer?

The marketers at Clorox resisted the temptation of a coupon. Jay praises their courage. “A coupon would change consumer’s perceptions of the MyStain app from a useful guide into an overt promotion tool. Youtility is not about short-term sales. It’s about building relationships that pay off in the long term. We should learn to trust that potential customers will reward us with their interest, purchases and loyalty – eventually.”

Competing with kittens

“With the rise of digital and social media, being helpful in your marketing has become more important”, Jay argues. “Consumers are being bombarded with marketing messages. On social media, you’re not only competing with other companies. You’re competing with your consumers’ friends and photos of their kittens. It makes no sense to keep marketing the way we’ve always done.”

“There are two ways to attract people’s attention these days”, Jay continues. Either you are disproportionately amazing – a lofty ambition for most companies – or you are helpful to customers – which is often a more realistic ambition. “If Taxi Mike can do it, why can’t you?”

Why you can’t rely on inbound marketing alone

Jay is realistic enough to know that there’s more to marketing success than creating youtilities. No matter how useful your guide or app is, there is no guarantee that people will be able to find it.

“I’m a big proponent of inbound marketing. But you can’t rely on inbound marketing alone. Inbound marketing is search-based. It doesn’t create demand for your information, products or services. It only fulfills demand that already exists. Mass media are still important. Especially if you need to reach a lot of people in a short period of time.”

That’s why you need to promote your youtilities, Jay argues. As an example, Jay mentions an augmented reality app launched by Häagen-Dazs in 2013. The app addresses a common frustration among ice-cream lovers: a tub of ice-cream straight from the freezer feels like a block of concrete. The Häagen-Dazs app makes the waiting easier: just scan the tub with your smartphone to conjure up a hologram of a violin player. Häagen-Dazs used mass media to successfully promote the app.

How to overcome resistance to change

What if creating and giving away youtilities clashes with your company culture? As a seasoned consultant who works with some of the largest companies in the world, Jay knows that companies can be resistant to change. Especially conservative B2B companies which are governed by the fear that if you give away your knowledge for free, others won’t pay for your services anymore.

How do you change an organisational culture of seeking immediate profit into one of sowing the seed for the long term?

Jay offers three tips:

1. Begin ‘under the radar’ with a small pilot. That could be anything; from a blog, an app, to a podcast. The larger your company, the smaller you should start. Allow time for success. Be wary of the pitfall of scaling up your efforts too soon, for, as Jay reminds us: “We tend to overestimate the importance of quantity at the expense of that of impact. Why publish ten mediocre blog posts when you could have more impact with three really good ones?”

2. Share a newly created youtility with your employees before sharing it with the world. Employees are often unaware of the valuable content within their company. A missed opportunity, since employees are more trusted than corporate marketing channels as a source of information. “Make it easy for employees to share content with their networks. Modern marketing starts from the inside out.”

3. Go talk to customers. A no-brainer, you may say, but Jay points out that a lot of companies tend to rely too much on data and technology. “Of course you need data, but you need a human context as well. Listen to what people have to say on social media. Take the conversation offline as well, and bring people together in one room. Had Häagen-Dazs not seen and heard customers complaining about the hardness of their ice-cream from the freezer, they would never have thought of launching an app.”

Content shock?

Over the last few years, offering youtilities has caught on as a trend. How can companies still set themselves apart in a market-place crowded with content and apps? In 2014, Mark Schaefer argued that the amount of available content is exploding to such a degree that content marketing may no longer be economically viable for some companies – a phenomenon he calls ‘content shock’.

Jay: “I agree with the notion of ‘content shock’, in the sense that there is an increasing level of noise. But I don’t see ‘content shock’ as a problem that is fundamentally different from other forms of competition. We just need to raise the bar. Good marketing will always win. Ask yourself: is my content so valuable that people would be willing to pay for it?”

Youtility: more than just a marketing philosophy

Talking to Jay, I was struck by his likeable demeanour and helpful attitude. Despite being a successful writer and a much-in-demand speaker worldwide, he is a man of great modesty. His first e-mail to me after my request for an interview puts it in a nutshell: ‘Please let me know how I can help.’

Jay practices what he preaches. He tells me he may write a second book about youtility. Because to him, it’s more than just a marketing philosophy. It’s a way of life.

I am reminded of one of Jay’s earlier statements:

“If you sell something, you make a customer today, but if you genuinely help someone, you create a customer for life.”

I don’t know when Jay’s second book about youtility will be published. But I’m sure I’ll buy a copy.


Thanks to Jean-Paul de Clerck for bringing me into contact with Jay Baer.