‘The Antidote’: Jay Baer on How Brands Can Stop Annoying People and Start Earning Trust

In the marketing world, Jay Baer is the equivalent of that incessantly optimistic, smart kid on campus armed with a sign-up sheet: He wants you to start helping people, and by the time you’re done talking to him, you’ll be convinced it’s for your own good.

Baer’s 2013 bestseller, Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is About Help, Not Hype, took a fairly simple idea—that brands benefit by focusing on helping people—and packaged it in a way that has convinced CEOs to follow his lead. His method of persuasion was storytelling; the book is filled with entertaining case studies that show how marketers can do a lot better.

Since the book was published, Baer has been traveling the globe, speaking to and consulting with brands about how they can ditch intrusive advertising and help people with content and other services. Simultaneously, he’s been keeping the rest of us in the loop on the Convince & Convert blog. On the first day of SXSW, I caught up with him by phone—he was happily skipping the madness to spend spring break with his kids in Arizona.

Do you think that Youtility resonates so much with marketers because they just love puns, or is it more the overall idea of brands actually helping people?

[Laughs] Well, it resonates for a few reasons. The concept is popular because it’s true. There are a lot of concepts out there that people write books about or give speeches about that are neat in theory, but they’re not actually true or effective. Youtility is popular because it’s true and it actually works. Once you’re aware of the concept, you start to see examples of Youtility in action all around you.

I think that the larger, macro issue is that marketers gravitate towards the concept because they know they need something new. They know that the old ways of marketing, the old ways of just shouting louder, don’t work anymore. Everybody knows it. Everybody’s looking for the antidote, and I think Youtility is partially the antidote. It’s the right idea at the right time.

Do you think that brands are getting better at being helpful and useful, especially when it comes to content?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to make a categorical statement because there are so many brands, and I think it’s still a very small percentage of overall brands. The nice thing is that some of the great examples out there—some of the classic examples of Youtility—people know about now, and they talk about them. That drives awareness of the premise and the concept, and other brands say, “These guys are doing it. I can do it, too.”

One of the key tenets of all this is recognizing that you can’t only do Youtility, you can’t only do content marketing. It cannot be 100 percent of your marketing. It doesn’t cover enough bases. And you still have to do some top of the funnel awareness stuff, and you still have to do some direct response stuff. But increasingly, what we see on the consulting side of my business is companies putting more time and more dollars into content and Youtility at the expense of time and dollars dedicated to the historical “Let’s just shout from the rooftops” approach.

When I was talking with Steve Rubel for an interview earlier this year, he said something interesting: that he didn’t think that all brands should try to do content marketing. He said that some brands are set up to do it better than others, structurally and in terms of the nature of their brand, and some others are not. Do you think that all brands should do content marketing?

I don’t want to put words in Steve’s mouth, but it sounds like his issue is more operational. That there are some organizations that just don’t have the ability to make it work. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but there’s no question that there are brands—many of them—that are not culturally ready to embrace content. What you have to understand is that the companion to content marketing, and the companion to Youtility, is elongating your time-horizon for success.

The whole idea is that you give away things of value and that you trust—and that’s the magic word—that some portion of customers and potential customers will reward you for that eventually. But “trust” and “eventually” are the big words there. If you’re going to say, “We’re going to bringing the content, and we’re going to give away things of value in a Youtility scheme,” you also have to understand that that means you can’t expect everybody to give you money tomorrow on one click.

A lot of organizations simply are not culturally ready to do that. It’s too different to how they’ve been taught. It’s too different than how business has been done for a thousand years. It’s not about whether they can “do it” operationally, it’s just that they don’t believe in it.

So say you’re a marketer in an organization that doesn’t have that culture. What advice would you give for starting to evangelize a new way of thinking about content so that it can work?

All the good implementations of Youtility have always started off with one idea. It’s not “Let’s change our marketing philosophy today, and say, ‘As of tomorrow, we’re going to try and implement usefulness and use that as the tip of the spear.'” [It] doesn’t work like that.

Usually it’s “Here’s a really nice idea, a pilot program, a test and learn opportunity, but we can create one thing. Let’s create one useful thing. Let’s measure the success of that one useful thing, and then use that as a way to get approval for the second thing, and the third thing.” Then you look back a year later, and all of a sudden you have a program.

Because the impact of content marketing is, as you said, so much more long term, it’s not that immediate “click-buy” profit. What metrics do you recommend for measuring success when it comes to building that trust and setting up the foundation for the returns that come later on?

[There are] lots of opportunities to do that. I talked about that a lot in the book. There are four categories of success metrics. You have content consumption metrics, you have got sharing metrics, you have lead generation metrics, and then you have direct revenue metrics. All of those are valid. Sometimes it’s easier to track one type of metric versus the others based on where your idea is executed.

For example, if you had a mobile app, it’s hard to track because Apple and Google don’t give you a list of who downloads your app. That’s not how it works. So you know that this app has been used, you know this app has been downloaded, but you’re not sure by whom. So to say, “Let’s tie that back to revenue” gets a little bit tricky.

What we see sometimes is people doing real research to determine what the ROI is. One of the biggest challenges is that people want to just press a button and have it spit out your ROI, and it’s not that easy. In some cases you’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s the ROI of calculating ROI?” There’s a lot of work and expense involved in doing so. The key isn’t so much what you’re tracking—the key is to understand what you’re going to track before you build out the idea.

This happens all the time. We get called into these scenarios constantly, where brands come up with some nifty idea. “We’re going to do this thing, it’s going to be awesome, and the thing is almost built. Okay, Jay, how should we track it?” I’m like, “We probably should have figured that out before so we could have built it so that it was trackable.”

It’s really hard to figure out the metrics after. It’s like pinstriping a car once it’s moving. What you want to do is ask, “What can we track? What software do we have? What’s our business model? What are our funnel stages? What do we have at our disposal?” And then build a program around that so that you have a statistical analysis at the end of the day that makes sense. Usually people go idea first, metric second, but it really should be metric first, idea second.

When a lot of people hear “Youtility,” they probably think about content that delivers pure informational value. But entertainment is a significant part of content marketing as well. Where’s the balance between content that provides informational value and content that entertains on the Youtility spectrum?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether it’s informative or entertaining. What they both are is relevant. That’s what you’re really trying to do: Be relevant enough to gain somebody’s time. That is the game. That’s the whole game.

Every single marketer in the world is guilty of the same thing, which is saying, “You know what our problem is? Our problem is that our customers are too busy. They’re just so busy now that it’s really hard for them to pay attention to us.” That is utter bullshit. Customers are not too busy. When somebody doesn’t have time for your marketing, what that means is not that they’re too busy—it’s that your marketing isn’t relevant enough. What you find is that when you give people things that are relevant, it magically creates time.

It’s kind of like thinking of your content as an extension of your product.

Absolutely. That’s what I say a lot about in the Youtility speech. Youtility is marketing as a product.

Really, it depends on the industry. You guys are doing a great job at it. There are lots of people in the content marketing space that are doing great content marketing. I guess that probably should be expected. Look at what Buffer does. Buffer’s blog, which was started as an afterthought, is perhaps more noteworthy now than Buffer’s software. That’s remarkable to think of. McDonald’s does a great job with Youtility content. Columbia Sportswear does a great job with it.

You see all these different brands now being really, really good at hyper-informing customers. That’s exactly what they have to do. Everybody wants to get information first and then the human interaction second. Nobody wants to call unless they have to. If somebody has to call you to do business with your company, you’re doing it wrong. You start to see companies embracing this idea and providing more and more useful and interesting content so that people don’t have to necessarily get on the phone with the sales guy or whoever else.

That seems like another measurement of ROI as well: the way that content and the education it provides can improve so many different parts of your business.

Totally. It’s a little bit harder to track because people call for different reasons. In sophisticated scenarios, where companies understand what the call is about, if you say, “We used to get 200 calls a month, and now we get 100 calls a month, but revenue is staying the same or going up,” that’s great news. What that means is that people are successfully educating themselves and deciding to buy without wasting somebody’s time on the phone.

That’s something I know we see at Contently. When our clients are more well-informed about content marketing, it makes our job easier. Do you think that holds true to all industries?

All industries. Where that really makes a huge difference is in the nature of sales. Content marketing is totally changing what sales teams are supposed to do. If you do content marketing well, by the time you talk to a salesperson that customer should be way more educated than they typically were in the past. The salesperson has to understand that and offer that prospect something that they can’t get already.

Think about how the car business has been transformed. It used to be that someone would walk into the car lot, and they’d kick the tires, literally, and say, “What you got and how much are you willing to haggle?” Now, 99 percent of the time, people walk onto the car lot and they know as much, if not more, about the car as the person trying to sell them the car. And that’s because they’ve been all over the web and they know what the invoice cost is and all that.

That same concept of the highly educated potential customer is becoming true in every industry. The same way that car sales people have had to get a lot different in what they think about, the same thing is true in your business, in my business—in everybody’s business. Even think about working at Five Guys or something. People know what the fat content is in a Five Guys burger, they know what the calories are, they know what the supply chain is. They know a lot more about their hamburger and their fries than they did in the past.

Speaking of industries, you go around and you talk with so many different companies in so many different industries. Do you think that any particular industries are more advanced when it comes to content than others? Have you spotted any trends?

Some of the most interesting and innovative case studies are in consumer products. Restaurants, hospitality, consumer goods, those kind of things. They reach such a broad audience.

But if you ask me what is the industry where content is the most important, it’s 100 percent B2B. They have highly leveraged, expensive, highly considered products. It’s where content isn’t just nice to have—it is 100 percent required. What industry can not afford to go to sleep on content marketing and Youtility? Definitely B2B, because they need so much more information before they make a purchase.

You travel so much around the world, speaking and working with brands. Do you think that the United States is particularly more ahead of the curve when it comes to content marketing than other parts of the world, or is that a misconception?

That’s a great question. I would say that the U.S. is ahead of the rest of the world in having a framework and a taxonomy and an economy around content marketing. The concept of content marketing was invented here. Many of the conferences and blogs and software companies, and everybody else that are satellites to the concept, are here. The way content marketing is considered today, globally, is primarily an American construct. But I do not believe that the U.S. is necessarily ahead, or not very far ahead, of the rest of the world, in terms of the actual executions of things that we would consider to be content marketing.

There’s amazing content marketing being done all over the world; it’s just that most parts of the world haven’t had as much time to call it content marketing, to understand what that means, to organize their marketing needs accordingly, go to conferences, buy software, and do all of the things that we do here. That’s still a little ways off, in some cases, but they get it. They’re still doing it. Some of the best examples anywhere are outside of the U.S. They just don’t quite have the framework yet, but they’re getting there.

I guess it’s like people always have the instinct to tell stories, marketing or otherwise.


Do you think that there are any parts of the world that are particularly strong?

Canada is particularly good. There are some great examples up there. I’ve done some work in Australia, and there are some really terrific Youtility examples out there. Brazil has some amazing stuff down there. You can find good examples just about everywhere.

Last question: Who is your favorite wizard?

My favorite wizard… That’s not a question I’ve ever had.

Well you’re the wizard and the wand guy.

[Laughs] My favorite wizard… I’m going to go with a contemporary NBA reference and say John Wall.

Amazing. I love it. Are you a Wizards fan?

Not particularly, but I like John Wall.

His game is absolutely beautiful.

He’s the only guy from that school I can actually tolerate.

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