Imagine creating a piece of marketing so helpful to your audience that if they had to, they’d pay for it if it were no longer available for free. “Useful marketing is a process not a project. You can create things that matter.” So says Jay Baer, American marketing consultant and author of the New York Times bestseller Youtility.

I heard Jay speak at the Fusionmex Content Marketing Conference last week and after a long, hot day (due to an unfortunate air con malfunction) he came on as the last keynote of the day and blew me away. I stopped fantasising about a very cold, cold beer and starting hanging onto his every word. Because actually what Jay espouses is quite radical in the world of marketing. The concept behind his book Youtility is that smart marketing is about help not hype. In Jay’s words, “It’s about being good at business because of content marketing. Help someone and create a customer for life.”

Use social media to play the long game

We’ve coined a phrase at Southerly that content marketing is a marathon not a sprint. And according to Jay, great content marketing is definitely about playing the long game. He gave us a great example of that in his talk – Hilton Hotel’s current social media campaign, Hilton Suggests (@HiltonSuggests).

Think about the best hotel concierge you’ve ever had transported to Twitter and you’ve got an idea of the kind of digital service that Hilton provides. Except this Twitter version is the equivalent of just walking in off the street and asking the concierge where the best place to get steak is and him telling you, even though you are not a guest in his hotel.

Hilton listens in on online conversations and when someone asks a question like where is the best place to eat near, say, a Marriot hotel, Hilton will still offer a suggestion based on their knowledge of the area. They do this without any expectation of immediate return – they hope that next time, that person will remember how helpful Hilton was and choose a Hilton hotel instead of a Marriot.

“They are OK with ‘eventually’,” says Jay. “This approach is important because our personal and professional lives have converged online. Think about your Facebook feed – there will be a mix of family and company posts in your feed. And it will be the same on all other social media channels too, and especially in your email inbox.

“You are competing for attention with everyone, so how do you cut through? With Youtility – you need to create marketing that’s useful. Focus on being useful and give it time to work.”

Provide your information for your audience

Another very valuable takeaway from Jay was that if you use your marketing efforts to teach your potential customers something you will sell more. “People needed 5.3 sources in 2010 before making a purchase, in 2011 they needed 10.4 sources. That’s twice as much information before buying the same things. We need more info because we have more information.”

Think about it – most people these days have a smartphone, which means they have access to a world of information sitting in their pocket. If you are not providing the information about your brand or engaging in the conversations about it, then potential customers will find their information from somewhere else. A study by Forrester Research (2012) confirms the role that digital content plays: customers rely on it to do their research online until the final 30-40% of the sales journey.

Audiences online can also smell a rat so transparency is key – deleting negative comments on social media feeds for example, instead of addressing them is a big no-no. Also consider, are you giving people what they really need with their content marketing? Have you actually had a conversation with your customers to gain insights? “Marketers are surrounded by data but starved of insights,” says Jay. “Insights come from customer conversations.”

Once you know what you need to say, you need to market your marketing. “You’ve got to promote your content. Content is fire, social media is petrol. But many companies still use it as a short news release. Instead, use it for amplification.”

All too often, marketing is simply seen as a cynical attempt to get people to buy more stuff. We all want return on investment and good content marketers want to flex their creative chops when they work for brands, but after hearing Jay’s talk I came away believing that marketing should be something more. Let’s not create a load of old hot air – at least not, please god, in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Antwerp, the air con there is in enough trouble as it is. Let’s banish the hype and create content that helps.