The idea of being helpful, of providing content and resources to prospective and current customers that may not have anything to do with your organization, is a new and radical concept for many marketers.

"You mean you want me to publish content that doesn't sell my product?" The idea is simple: give people want they want and eventually they consider you a trusted resource.

But is being helpful enough? Is helpfulness really useful? Or are marketers spinning their wheels creating content that, even though it's helpful, no one really wants?

Although being helpful is something marketers should strive towards as a way to foster engagement, useful should be the end-goal: giving people content they need to solve their problems, when they need it, and in the specific format they want.

There's been a fair bit written lately about how marketers need to be helpful. Look no further than the best selling book, Youtility by Jay Baer.

Instead of pitching products, marketers and organizations need to offer content that helps people...even if it doesn't help the organization sell anything!

A great example of this is River Pools and Spas in Warsaw, Virginia [1]. In 2009, then the U.S. economy was in a depression, people weren’t spending money on luxury items like building custom pools. And like many other pool builders, River Pools and Spas was circling the drain.

So Marcus Sheridan, the co-owner of River Pools and Spas, did what any scrappy business owner does in that situation. He went outside the box. He decided to look at his business from a different perspective, the customer’s, and came up with a simple plan to turn his website into an information source.

He took all the questions that he’d ever answered for customers (well, those that he could remember which numbered in hundreds) and turned them into individual blog posts.

The key thing here is that he wasn’t answering questions about his products or his services. He was just answering questions about pool building that people had asked him over the years. These were simply answers that people needed. Then he began to add posts to the website every week and slowly realized that it was having an impact on the business.

More traffic was coming to the site from people that might not have ever known about them (because the traditional outbound marketing never reached them).

Understandably, this radically changed sales appointments. Rather than spending time educating people about his product, he often spent time with prospective customers who’d already answered many of their own questions by visiting his site.

Not only were they talking to the expert, they were talking to the person who’d created all the content they’d found on the Internet! The result was a radically shorter sales time and a higher likelihood of turning the prospect into a customer.

But the big “ah-ha” came in looking back at the impact of the change in River Pools’ marketing:

  • In 2009, the website was 20 pages. In 2013, it’s close to 850.
  • In 2007, when the economy was high, the company spent about $250,000 in advertising to achieve roughly $4m in sales
  • In 2011, when luxury spending was in the dumps, it spent $20,000 in advertising to generate $4.5m in sales.

What Marcus Sheridan discovered is that being helpful generated far more business and revenue than blasting people with his marketing messages. But is being helpful enough?

Consider this example. You walk into a store and know exactly where you need to find the product you want. But instead of just offering a smile and a wave, an employee cuts you off and offers to help you find what you need.

Each person in your audience might have a different expectation and need for helpfulness. To some, helpful might actually be bullet point content. To others, it might be deep and meaningful conversations via Facebook.

In face, we have identified four different relationship types in the digital world:

  • You do not see me. For whatever reason, some people want a relationship that is invisible. You know I am here and I know I am here, but I do not want anyone to acknowledge it. Men like these relationships a lot.

    It is the reason they never ask for directions. How does it translate to the digital world? By ensuring that you have provided all the details about how your company helps people, what it sells, how your product/service works, etc. This enables these people to help themselves while internally singing your praises for being informative and helpful.

  • Acknowledgement. Some people want a relationship that just says, “Hey, I see you there.” Maybe it is a head nod or a tip of the hat. In the digital world, this translates to liking their comments on Facebook or maybe even replying but never sending them a direct message.

    They do not want one-to-one interaction. They want to feel like they are part of the conversation but only actively participate on their terms. This person will probably click a lot on the links you post into social media.

  • Attention hound. You know these people. In grade school, they always had their hand up. They always had the loudest voice in group discussions. But these people are also the talkers. The gabbers.

    They may not explicitly try to dominate social settings, but they have an incessant need to share everything from how their cat is feeling today to what the weather is like. They want to be heard.

    How do you have a relationship like this in the digital world? You elevate them in the conversation. If they are talented enough, you invite them to write some content for you. You write thought-provoking content that enables them to comment with their ideas and their opinions. You empower them to hold court.

  • BFF. The top of the digital relationship pyramid. People have made a deep, emotional connection in these intimate relationships. Maybe they read a piece of content (and think you “get it”). Maybe they have had a few conversations via social media.

    Whatever, they feel like you understand them (and it helps that they love your product and rave about it to friends). In the digital world, BFFs usually are not Attention Hounds, but they want to feel involved.

    They want special attention (i.e., a members-only section on the website or part of a special committee). Let’s face it; you are asking information from them for a reason, right? Give them sneak previews. Give them red-carpet treatment. Produce content just for them (that they can send to their friends).

Being helpful, or seeming to be helpful, is easy. But being useful is really hard because it requires that you understand how someone might apply your helpfulness to his or her specific needs.

Ultimately, there are two ways to transform helpfulness into usefulness.

First, there is a lot of technology you can bake into your digital experiences to help you do this. Technologies that can analyze what kind of content people have been accessing in your digital experience, where they have come from, what industry they might work in, develop a  history of their behavior, etc.

Second, you can also glean need through engagement. Your audience is going to ask you questions through Facebook, through Twitter, through a myriad of social networks, through email, and more. And they are going to comment on your brand and your product and your company in their own social circles.

Monitoring and engaging through these activities will help you develop profiles that you can use to configure the technologies you've implemented in your digital experiences. Together, the technology and engagement can help you target the right kind of content and messaging to the right kind of relationship type.

Still, there's more.

Being useful is only the first step. Remaining useful requires that you constantly shift your marketing approach for those relationship groups as your audience moves between them. Think about it.

One day, you may know exactly what you want at the local hardware store so the most useful thing store employees can do is stay out of your way. But on another day, you may come in with an entirely new problem for which you have no idea how to solve.

That's when employees need to react, engaging with you early, offering stories, listening to your problem, and helping you solve it.

But if you are a B2B company, you may not have employees milling about in the digital equivalent of store aisles. That's where your content comes in.

Being useful in the digital world requires you to not only understand need but provide the right type of content to match the need. Marketers have become increasingly excited about video, for example. But not everyone wants to watch a video.

When people are in the "compare their options" stage, they may want bullet points. Or even when they are in the "discovery stage" they may appreciate being able to read stories about your organization or product at their own pace (which video doesn't really afford).

My point here isn't that video is bad. Quite the contrary, video is amazing for lots of different reasons. My point is that the kind of content you produce represents the way you engage with your audience digitally. Each content element is like a digital store clerk.

Really then, understanding the relationship that your audience wants with you is directly related to the kind of content you provide them.

The thing about being useful, as a step above being helpful, is that it's not a strategy. It's a cultural change to your DNA. And this isn't just a B2C thing either. As I say in many of my keynotes about relationships...B2B2C.

The people buying enterprise software are the same people buying shoes from The consumerization of IT carries far beyond employees want to use their own devices in the workspace. It also represents the application of consumer expectations to the B2B industries. We all want to be treated like people.

So the next time you sit down to pen a blog post or develop some product marketing materials, ask yourself, "to which relationship type does this apply?" Because only when you can answer that question are you truly being useful...not just helpful.

[1] This content is paraphrased from Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences That People Want to Share

Jason Thibeault

Published 10 December, 2013 by Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault is Senior Director of Marketing Strategy at Limelight and a contributor at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (5)

Andy Smith

Andy Smith, Director of Communications at

An insiteful point, Jason. I have a tool drawer with a lot of "helpful" tools that don't get used very often. There is a difference between being a marketer that could help, and one that does help. It's about reaching out to our clients and saying, "Here's a solution, use this!"

over 4 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks


Thanks for the comment. I think we all have a lot of "helpful" things in our drawer that we expect people to flock to because it's helpful. Only when we realize that helpful does not always equate to useful that we can really start creating targeted content strategies.



over 4 years ago


Jay Baer

Thanks so much Jason. I love the four relationship types construct, and may want to incorporate that somewhere in the next version of Youtility.


over 4 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks

What can I say, Jay? You've inspired me!

over 4 years ago



Here's a good example of both useful and useless 'help'

At Bed and Bath the other day, Christmas shopping. Ask a clerk where something is located. Rather than just give me directions, Mr. Helpful insists on walking me half way around the store to show me where it is. Honestly, Bed and Bath is pretty hard to get lost in, and I don't think I look like an idiot. But he made me feel like one, following him through the crowded aisles. Useless helpfulness. I wanted a "you don't see me" relationship at that moment. Get me and out fast, no fuss. No I do not want to chat.

Same trip - same store. My wife now wants something that is out of stock. Only available online. can't use the ubiquitous 20% off Bed and Bath coupons online. Conundrum. Over walks Mr. Helpful again. This time he traipses us half way around the store to a hidden gem of an ordering station. He finds the item, has it shipped to our home for free, and takes 20% off with the coupon. I am now OK giving him my home address, asking for advice on the color, wishing him a Merry Christmas. Usefully helpful.

over 4 years ago

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