The untapped branding power of utility content

When most people think of content marketing, they think written, visual, or audio-visual media: words, pictures, photos, video, podcasts, and perhaps graphs, charts, and infographics. It can be pretty persuasively argued that in a digital environment, tools count as content, too. They can be educational, informative, helpful, decision making and buying aids, entertaining, interactive... and above all, useful.

Think of them as utility content. And think how many times you've used them yourself.

Think financial services sites offering loan calculators, retirement calculators, and applications that do comparative math for different types of mortgages, or help calculate savings goals. Consider how many times you've visited eBay, or UPS, or USPS.com, or Amazon to figure out shipping rates, shipping speed, package tracking, or if a parcel has arrived yet.

Financial tools extend to automotive dealer sites as well, but so do utilities that help you to select and configure a vehicle. Two doors or four? How does red look versus green? How much extra for the souped-up audio system or heated seats? These utilities don't just help prospective buyers make decisions, they also put them into the position of weighing all their options. And it's not only manufacturers. Sites such as AutoTraders have this type of tool so buyers can pinpoint the vehicle for sale in their area that comes closest to their dream machine.

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These types of utility content not only aid in decision-making, but also help bring prospects closer to purchase. Such tools go beyond packages and cars, sometimes getting very personal. Retailers have built tools to help find jeans that will flatter your body type and show you an image of what you'd look like in them, not some 6-foot tall, 98 lb. model. Not dissimilarly, any number of sites allow you to upload a headshot to try a virtual makeover on for size. Testing different hairstyles, colors, or makeup looks online is another step toward conversion, just as it is at the department store counter. It's also a step toward the potential customer, offering them tools and information to help them in buying and decision-making.

Utility content can range from the super-simple to the mega-slick. At the low end, it can be as simple as publishing glossaries or dictionaries of highly technical or industry-related terms to help newcomers navigate a new field of knowledge.

Utility can also be a matter of packaging content so it's easy to consume or use on the go. An obvious example are publisher sites like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, which provide apps on smartphones and tablet computers. That same use of utility content shows up when conference or seminar organizers publish agendas in mobile formats that contain functionality such as schedules (official and personalized), directories of who's attending, and perhaps even the event newsletter, or a map of the trade show or convention center. Some would argue that these are tools not content. But is there really any reason why content can't be both?

Many content utilities are, in essence, searchable databases. They're rife in the food industry. No celebrity chef worth his or her salt is without one; Martha Stewart, Jamie Oliver, and a host of others have searchable recipe databases with additional functionality such as nutrition information and the ability to churn out a shopping list. Kraft Foods has its own recipe database, complete with apps and additional tools that help shoppers find in-season produce. In the same vein, so does Weber's, only its offering is geared toward customers who are interested in grilling, marinating, and finding food and recipes in line with the company's selection of grills and outdoor cooking products.

Fast food outlets from Dairy Queen to Taco Bell to Panera Bread have nutrition calculators for their menu offerings. So do sites for diabetics, and other health- and disease-oriented businesses. Domino's and Pizza Hut offer apps and tools that help you sift through their menus and order food online or via phone. Some of these have tracking functionality so buyers know when their order has been received, is in the oven, and is ready for delivery.

Even some of the most unlikely products you can think of have come up with ways to provide users with utilitarian content while keeping the brand top-of-mind. SitOrSquat, an app sponsored by Charmin toilet tissue, is a geo-location sensitive database of the best places in the world to find clean restroom facilities. Users have the ability to update the information.

Most major banks offer similar tools that help you to find the nearest branch or ATM machine. Chase even allows you to make a deposit online or by smartphone by taking a digital photo of the check, then uploading it to your account.

There are other ways to help users buy on a geographic basis. Burpee, the venerable seed catalogue, has information on the proper plants and flowers for different growing zones. By entering your ZIP code on the site, not only is shipping information more accurate, but products are tailored to your area, as are suggestions for planting and planning a garden. Plan-a-Garden from Better Homes and Gardens has similar functionality -- delivering more relevant content to its readers.

Interactive online tools are almost de rigueur in digital publishing -- and remember, brands are now publishers. When I led one of the largest sites covering digital advertising, we published literally hundreds of articles every week. But week in, week out, one of the most-visited pages on the site was the years-old CPM calculator, which helped online advertisers calculate how much they were paying for their online advertising. A company that offers training in online advertising, the Laredo Group, offers a tool that tracks return-on-advertising spend, known as the ROAS calculator. Similarly, sites like DPReview.com allow shoppers to make side-by-side comparisons of different models of digital cameras by price and feature.

Technology companies are, unsurprisingly, big on tools, either to help prospective customers better understand their businesses, or to let them sample the more robust commercial versions of their offerings. Alexa and Compete both offer website ranking and competitive analysis. You can learn a lot, both about how your own site is performing, and the power of analytics, by diving into the free versions of their software online.

Search engine marketers often turn to free keyword research tools offered not only by the major search engines, but also those offered by companies such as Wordtracker. Not dissimilar are utilities that analyze on-page keyword density, or tools for email marketers that calculate the likelihood of a message being flagged as spam based on trigger words in the subject line and message body.

Another industry in which content utility is rife is healthcare. Users can remain engaged and educated when offered the opportunity to calculate their own body mass index, risk of contracting certain types of cancer, or tracking their level and optimum times for fertility.

Big brands bring big splashiness to utility content. Take Nike. Not only does the company offer a sophisticated Shoe Finder to help runners find the right shoe for their style of running, but Nike iD allows them to custom design shoes, selecting their own colors and custom sole. They've even taken utility to the extreme with Nike+, which combines a running shoe and an Apple device that tracks a customer's runs and then logs them online. In this case, customers buy the product not only because of the gold-standard brands (Nike and Apple), but because the functionality allows them, in effect, to create their own content. They can track miles run, calories burned, and other fitness benchmarks, and compare them with friends' progress, map routes, and a host of other running-related information.

The above examples just scratch the surface of what must be hundreds of thousands of content-related utilities out there that bring people that much closer, for that much longer, to brands, products, and services. But utility content isn't the first resort of most content marketers. Generally, you'll need the help of developers or programmers to get an initiative off the ground. It's a somewhat more daunting prospect than writing an article or blog post, or investing a small amount of money in a digital camera.

The barrier to entry is higher, but not much higher, and it's becoming easier every day. Moreover, as the digital environment increasingly shifts to mobile platforms, it will become increasingly important to offer a degree of functionality (where's the nearest john?!), not just information or entertainment.

What do your customers need to do, find, learn, or understand and how can your brand help fulfill this need? It's your job to figure that out and provide the utility to get them there.

Rebecca Lieb is globally recognized as an expert on digital marketing, advertising, publishing, and media.

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