Book Review: Youtility / Rants about businesses running like libraries

Recently I read the book:

Baer, Jay. 2013. Youtility: why smart marketing is about help not hype.

Although this book is squarely aimed at business, I think it is a book that librarians ought to pay attention to. We should pay attention for two reasons: 1) The book has a number of good promotional tips, not all applicable to government-connected institutions like libraries; but more importantly 2) because it is the story of how a number of businesses haven gotten into to the information space in social media. I don’t begrudge the businesses listed in this book for taking the actions they do, but librarians should not let this space go uncontested.

The heart of Baer’s argument is the twofold observation that people tend to use friends to make decisions and that in the social media space, businesses appear in feeds on a fairly equal footing with friends and family. So if businesses shift from being self-promoters to advisers and helpers, they might be able to cash in the potential of friend influence on people’s decisions.

Another way of putting this is Baer believes successful businesses will abandon “Top of Mind” marketing (Putting out so much promotion you think of that brand first) to “Friend of Mine” marketing (You’ll come to their brand because they’ve been a helpful friend in the past.)

The book backs up this idea of help as marketing with a number of examples, including one found in the forward to the book about River Pools and Spas in Warshaw, Viginia. Partner Marcus Sheridan explained that after his business started badly tanking in the Great Recession of 2008, he decided to differentiate the company by think of their web presence as a swimming pool consumer instead of a swimming pool installer. This lead to the creation of a blog at where Sheridan posted answers to to “every single question I’d ever received from a prospect or customer.” (Sort of sounds like a library blogging its reference questions, doesn’t it?) Sheridan reports that these questions, aimed at information without promotion, started showing up in people’s search results and really boosted their business to the point that they were thriving while other pool companies were going out of business. Flash forward to today, and their business still exists and it seems like the company is keeping up the blog.

Jay Baer’s book was written in 2013 and some of the examples he cites go back as far as 2008. As a public service, I’m listing some of those examples along with whether I can tell that they’re still active.

After explaining the value of “Friend of Mine” marketing, Mr. Baer writes about three facets of Youtility that librarians might find familiar:

  • Self-serve information
  • Radical transparency
  • Real-time relevancy

This is followed by a six step prescription to create Youtility:

  • Identify Customer Needs
  • Map Customer Needs to Useful Marketing
    Market Your Marketing (Have a great resource? Let people know!)
  • Insource Youtility (Getting members of your organization to use social media to help others)
  • Make Youtility a Process, Not a Project
  • Keeping Score

While I think libraries could use help in consistently identifying patron needs and mapping those needs to useful marketing, it was the “Keeping Score” chapter that I was looking forward to. So much has been writing about doing social media in the library field, but so little on evaluating the success of those efforts. Limited resources are close to a permanent reality for libraries. While we ought to experiment, long term activities should be confined to what advances a library’s mission of serving its patrons. Is social media a good route to service? Or is it a distraction? Ultimately only good metrics can help us to decide that.

But, you’re only going to find a little help in the “Keeping Score” chapter. First it tells us what most people should already know – that “Consumption Metrics” (how many “likes”, views, downloads, etc) isn’t enough to tell us if social media is working for an organization. He proposes three additional metrics: “advocacy and sharing metrics”, “lead generating metrics” and “sales metrics.” He finishes with a Return on Investment (ROI) exercise with what he admits are made up numbers – just to show the calculation.

“Advocacy and sharing metrics” – defined as “Measurements of how often your helpful information is forwarded to a friend, tweeted, shared on Facebook, or other behaviors of similar type and circumstance” might be helpful to libraries. If there are libraries (or archives or museums) tracking these sorts of measurements, I’d love to hear them.

“Lead generation metrics” – Tracking when people are thinking about buying something. As far as I can tell, this does not have a library counterpart.

“Sales Metrics” – For the library library field, this could be when a patron either consumes a library service or checks out a library item. But tying such things to specific social media efforts could be tricky.

In the end, it is the Return on Investment portion of Keeping Score that disappoints so badly. The admittedly made up example shows a profit from a blog, but I think it would have been more interesting to run the calculations (or several times) to demonstrate the break even points from blogging.

Overall, the book is decent for what it is, a handbook to business marketing. Despite the weakish evaluation examples, the trend of businesses flocking to the point of need information space should be worrying to librarians. We don’t have a particular ax to grind and our profession has high trust ratings. How can we get into this space? And have we as a profession listened the idea of running libraries like business for so long that we don’t notice when businesses are running themselves like libraries?

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