Today, marketing is more challenging than ever before. It's a hyper-competitive environment that forces businesses to compete for attention not just against other businesses, but against everyone and everything. To break through, businesses must transcend the transactional and focus on delivering useful resources and information to their customers and prospects.
A study by the Wharton School of Business of 7,000 New York Times articles (opens as a pdf) over a six-month period found that useful articles were 30 percent more likely to be on the "most emailed" list. Consumers value (and share) utility, a principle embodied by The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company.
Scotts is the world's largest marketer of branded consumer lawn and garden products, including the Scotts brand of grass seed and lawn fertilizers, and the Ortho brand of lawn and garden pest-control solutions. The company also has a robust services division that provides regular lawn care to commercial and residential addresses throughout the United States.
With the exception of the Miracle-Gro line of household plant fertilizer and nutrients, the majority of the company's products are used seasonally or circumstantially. Making sure customers understand which product to use in which situation, and when, is a major objective for the company, and they've embraced it in nearly every operating division.
The Scotts brand offers "Lawn Care Update," a monthly email newsletter that dispenses specific, useful and seasonal lawn and garden advice to subscribers. Operating since 2009, the update is produced in six different regional variations to ensure that the advice is relevant. After all, what Michigan residents should be doing to their lawns in October is far different than what Floridians should be doing at the same time. Beyond the regional editions, the update has even more customization capabilities, as subscribers can specify what type of grass their lawn includes, and other criteria that result in a highly personalized, instructive email delivered to them each month.
While the email does recommend which Scotts products to consider, the overall effect is much more educational than promotional, which is a best practice when creating useful marketing centered around help, not hype.
One of the key consumer trends powering the creation and propagation of Youtility—marketing so useful people would pay for it if asked—is self-serve information. Today's consumers, armed with always-on Internet access via smartphone and tablet, want the opportunity to find answers themselves.
Ortho provides tremendous self-serve information opportunities to customers of that brand, as the Ortho Problem Solver mobile application (iOS, Android) enables users to find recommendations customized to their current location. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, I evidently should be concerned about 33 types of broadleaf weeds, including the insidious White Dutch Clover.
For each potential issue—which also includes pests such as mice, ants and lawn grubs—the Ortho Problem Solver app provides a description, seasonal circumstances and possible remediation steps. Agrarian hypochondriacs should think twice before downloading it, as you have nightmares about weevils and dandelions. The app also allows customers to take a photo of a lawn or pest issue and upload it to Ortho help desk personnel.
With more than seven hundred thousand customers, the Scotts Lawn Services division knows a lot about grass, and successfully imparting that knowledge to consumers makes a meaningful difference in company results, according to Beth Dockins, director of Customer Service at Scotts Miracle-Gro.
In many parts of the country, lawns are aerated in the spring or fall, depending on grass type. This process creates hundreds or thousands of tiny holes in the turf, allowing oxygen to better circulate under the surface, and enabling fertilizer to penetrate more deeply into the soil. Many experts, including those at Scotts, claim aeration is one of the keys to a healthy lawn. The aftermath of aeration, however, can be pretty ugly, and customers not familiar with the process can be shocked and dismayed, thinking their lawn has been ruined.
Dockins says Scotts Lawn Services has produced many videos demonstrating the aeration process, and emails to them during aeration season to avoid misunderstandings and surprises.
This type of seasonal education makes good business sense, too. According to Dockins, the average customer service phone call costs the company six dollars to field. Every call that is avoided through videos, answering customer questions on Facebook—where the company maintains a two-hour response time—or through the My Scotts Lawn mobile app, saves Scotts Lawn Services several dollars.
"We're very enthusiastic about the new mobile app, and it's particularly relevant for our customers," says Dockins.
"We're trying to help you create an experience on your lawn, and if you have a question or concern, it's much easier to work on that through a mobile application than it is to lug your laptop outside," she says.
To maintain optimal results, the Lawn Services division asks customers to water and mow to precise specifications provided by the company based on grass type and region. To help consumers better adhere to these guidelines, the new mobile application will have a built-in ruler to help measure mowing height, and the company provides free water depth gauges to all customers.
"We test and measure this all the time," says Dockins. "And the customers that interact with us and our information online or through mobile apps have greater loyalty to Scotts, and are more likely to promote us to their friends and family members."
Jay Baer is president/founder of Bloomington, In.-based social media and content marketing consultancy Convince & Convert, and is the author of "Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help Not Hype", and co-author of the social business book, "The NOW Revolution." Reach him on twitter @jaybaer.