Hilton Worldwide (the parent company of Hilton Hotels and their sister brands like Doubletree Hotels) has a program on Twitter called Hilton Suggests. In 2012, @LTHouston wrote on Twitter, "Good places to eat near the Magnolia Hotel in Downtown Dallas for Saturday?"
@HiltonSuggests answered back, "@LTHouston, Wild Salsa on Main or Campisi's on Elm are awesome, both within walking distance of your hotel in Dallas, enjoy. VAC." (VAC are the initials of the @HiltonSuggests team member who sent the reply.)
Useful and kind, right? But here's the difference-maker: The Magnolia Hotel in Dallas isn't a Hilton property. Hilton Worldwide is going out of their way to provide real-time restaurant recommendations to a person who isn't a current customer. But someday, @LTHouston is going to be in a different city, and she's going to need a hotel, and she's going to remember the help that @HiltonSuggests provided.
Nearly two weeks earlier, in a different city, Melanie J. aka @RockstarExtreme wrote on Twitter, "Anybody know who's hiring in Orlando for professional positions at this time? It seems like it's at a standstill."
@HiltonSuggests answered back, "@RockstarExtreme, Check out OrlandoJobs.com for a comprehensive list in Orlando."
Now, if I were @HiltonSuggests, I would have said, "Hey, Melanie J., maybe one of your problems is that your Twitter handle is @RockstarExtreme, and perhaps that's not sending the best signal to potential employers." But that's why I'm not in customer service.
But, if Melanie J. manages to get a job and has money to travel, and she's going to stay in a hotel, where do you think she's going to reserve a room? Hilton.
The @HiltonSuggests program is currently a pilot initiative in approximately twenty-five cities worldwide with high levels of leisure travel. In each, Vanessa Sain-Dieguez, the social media director for Hilton Worldwide, worked with local hotel managers to find employees who wanted to listen and help on Twitter.
The tweeters aren't all professional question answerers, either. In fact, few of the @HiltonSuggests team are from the concierge desks of the participating hotels. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, many of them had no prior experience on Twitter. They're just hotel employees who love their city and want to help visitors better enjoy it.
And there's no question Hilton understands and is thinking about the long-term benefits of Youtility, especially unexpectedly. "I think that's actually our biggest opportunity, when we reach out to someone who's staying at a competitor's property or not staying with Hilton," Sain-Dieguez says. "That's where we can make a difference, because they're not experiencing our hospitality within the hotel, and if you're not in the hotel, you may not be getting the same service, and we could win you over."
But that takes time, she acknowledges. "We're not looking to win your stay on this trip. We're looking to make a real, authentic connection with you and hopefully gain a customer for life."
One of the most critical elements of this program is the way it combines Youtility – which I define as marketing so useful, people would pay for it (if you asked them to) - and a human touch. Twitter is a personal channel, and Hilton is essentially eavesdropping strategically. That could be misinterpreted if the payoff was more robotic and less deft. Most travel and hospitality organizations would think about a program like this and then try to jump into conversations on Twitter with an exhortation to download an official visitors' guide or mobile application. To not do so was a very specific choice made by Hilton.
"The whole idea there is, you might say, ‘I'm looking for a restaurant,' and I could give you twenty options. But they may not fit what you're looking for, and you have to sort through those options," Sain-Dieguez explains. "So we teach the team to ask questions about specifics like, ‘Are you with your spouse? Are you looking for kid friendly? Do you want to go somewhere inexpensive?' Then, based on their feedback, we can make a real recommendation."
This isn't just a hospitality program, either. While of course the @HiltonSuggests team provides traveler recommendations most often, they are taught to help wherever they can. Perhaps the best example of this ethos came in the early days of the initiative, when a Memphis resident tweeted that his dog was sick, and he didn't know where to take it for care.
The @HiltonSuggests representative in Memphis saw the tweet, knew a vet that he liked, and supplied the vet's name and address. Everything worked out fine, and the dog owner tweeted afterward how amazed he was that Hilton would take the time to recommend a vet to him.
"It's funny," says Sain-Dieguez. "When you help someone and they come back and say thank you, it kind of sets off endorphins or something. The team gets really energized by it, so I think it almost makes them even more eager to look a little more broadly beyond travel, and see where they can help. It's really worked out very well."
She recognizes that the economic impact of @HiltonSuggests is small in comparison to the company's overall marketing efforts. But she believes Youtility pays long-term dividends. "It's a huge value to the consumer to know, ‘No matter where I am, no matter what brand I'm staying at, I can still ask @HiltonSuggests because they helped me in the last five cities I was in.' That's tremendous."
Tremendous, indeed.Taxi Mike and the Power of Low-Tech Youtility
Youtility isn't solely available to larger companies. Any company, of any size, can be utterly useful - if they choose to do so. I figured this out while on vacation in
Canada with my family in the summer of 2010.
Banff, Alberta, is a ski town. Nestled in the soaring Canadian Rockies, it glistens with bars, restaurants, and tourists galore. There are, of course, many, many taxi drivers in Banff, but there's one taxi driver who absolutely understands the power of Youtility. That's Taxi Mike (who also does web design and computer repair).
Four times per year Taxi Mike puts together the Taxi Mike Dining Guide: Where to Eat in Banff. If you're a local or a frequent visitor, you might think to visit the TaxiMike.com website. But for tourists, your encounter with Taxi Mike will
likely be via a very simple, 8.5-by-11-inch piece of bright yellow paper, printed on both sides.
Taxi Mike updates his guide every quarter with his latest recommendations for best sports bar, hottest nightclub, best place for cheap drinks, and more than a dozen other categories.
Taxi Mike makes a few hundred copies, folds them into thirds like a rack brochure, and delivers them to every restaurant, hotel, bar, or tourist establishment in the area. You'll see them on counters all around Banff, and if you don't see one in a particular place, just ask. They have them behind the bar, guaranteed. Proprietors want to hand them out because Mike's information is accurate, and just about every place is listed in Taxi Mike's guide somewhere.
He categorizes. He sorts. He recommends. Taxi Mike is a one-man TripAdvisor, but he's not a social network: He's just a guy.
And he puts it all together for nearly free—he inserts just a few ads each edition. The "Where to Eat Guide" is such a hit that Taxi Mike even has groupies, and signs autographs for passengers on occasion.
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 walk out on the corner and just raise your hand? No. You're going to reach into your pocket and see the crumpled up, bright-yellow piece of paper that has the map of downtown you've been looking at all night and see "Taxi Mike: 760-1052."Why Isn't Youtility Universal?
Hilton Worldwide, Taxi Mike and hundreds of other companies are using Youtility to build relationships with their customers and prospects using information.
For them, Youtility works. So why isn't every company doing it? Why aren't you?
In most organizations, there are two barriers standing in the way of this new type of marketing. One is psychological, and the other is operational.
On the psychological front, the truth is that the tenets of Youtility—making your company inherently useful without expecting an immediate return—is in direct opposition to the principles of marketing and business deeply ingrained in practitioners at all levels. We've been trained to think that marketing activities and outcomes follow a linear progression. We've been told over and over that we sell more with bigger budgets and better targeting, and by perfecting the crafts of interruption and inbound marketing.
Youtility is something entirely different. It requires companies to intentionally promote less at the point of consumer interaction, and in so doing build trust capital that will be redeemed down the road.
Youtility turns marketing upside down, and many businesspeople simply are not prepared to embrace a situation where the time horizon between input and export is elongated. In fact, executives advocating for this strategy often have to expend considerable internal capital to get budget approval for these initiatives—
despite the fact that most Youtility executions do not require substantial resources to produce.
Tim Kopp, chief marketing officer of interactive marketing software company ExactTarget, uses the internal credibility he's earned through years of product-oriented marketing to successfully advocate for new marketing efforts that are
rooted in helpfulness.
"I have that battle with internal executives sometimes who say, ‘This is crazy. Help me understand. Why are we doing this?'" Kopp explains. "I say, ‘I'm telling you this is the right way to do it. If I'm wrong, four pieces into it, we'll stop and do it your way. But this is going to be the right way to do it, and the results will speak for themselves.' But if I hadn't already earned the credibility to do it, it would be much harder, because it does feel unnatural and counterintuitive."
In most companies, creating marketing that customers want is a colossal shift from the norm. As a result, many current programs of this type represent the first time the business has tried useful marketing. Because there is no internal history with it, the operational barrier to Youtility centers on roles and responsibilities. Who should be in charge of this? Marketing? Guest Relations? Some other department?
But once you work through the internal hiccups and embrace Youtility, you'll find customers and prospective guests rewarding your useful information with attention, bookings, loyalty and advocacy. Jay Baer is a digital marketing expert and president/founder of Convince & Convert, a social media and content marketing consultancy. He is the author of YOUTILITY: Why Smart Marketing is About Help Not Hype (June 27, 2013, Portfolio), and co-author of the social business book, The NOW Revolution. Jay has consulted for 700+ companies on digital marketing since 1994, including 29 of the FORTUNE 500. firstname.lastname@example.org