Much to my dismay, just about every marine company has slashed its marketing budget to the bare bones. We seem to be in pure survival mode, hoping each day the latest stimulus package will come along and save us.
So what’s a boat-related business to do when sales are few and far between and marketing funds are all but depleted?
Regal Marine handed me that challenge when it asked me to speak to some of its dealers at a multi-day strategy summit in early December. Smart move, I thought, bringing its key players together at a traditionally slow time of year to charge their batteries and do some much-needed brainstorming.
I was assigned the topic, “Low-Budget, High-Impact Marketing Strategies.”
To develop my content, I reflected on my own marine marketing experience (pushing 30 years now), coupled with some terrific insight drawn from a panel presentation I moderated at the MRAA national convention in November. Panelists — all of them leading retail marketers and Web experts — included Top 100 dealers Fred Pace of Legendary Marine and Larry Russo Sr. of Russo Marine; Wayne Sorensen of MasterCraft Dealer Services; and Web experts Bob McCann of Channel Blade and Courtney Chalmers of BoatTrader.com.
All the dealers endorsed the same marketing priority: customer contact and retention. They practice the old-fashioned guerrilla marketing philosophy I’ve been preaching for years — get on the phone regularly with your customers. One-on-one contact is paramount. You should also have a tracking system in place and top-down management buy-in.
I’ve never understood what makes dealers reluctant to work the phones this way.
Chris Poole of Canada’s Buckeye Marine suggested it might be fear of rejection. I suspect it has to do with not knowing how to steer the conversation, other than going right for the jugular and jumping into the sales pitch. A much smoother approach is to invite the customer to a new-boat preview or other VIP event, or to share dealership news about shop promotions or other incentives. Every company should have at least five things to talk to its customers about.
Randy Kelly of Kelly’s Port says he commits himself to writing a minimum of two personal note cards a week to customers. That’s more than 100 a year. He believes that even if customers aren’t in the market right now, this relationship-building strategy fosters loyalty and has a long-term payout. It’s a super idea, and the price is right — a few minutes a week and a few postage stamps.
Other low-cost connection strategies include regular e-mail blasts and direct mail, along with printed or (more efficient) e-newsletters. If you don’t yet do this, assign someone to get the job done.
All the dealers agreed it’s crucial to remain highly visible in their markets. Russo has taken this concept to a new level by accepting an RV in trade and wrapping it with billboard-style branding. Salespeople take turns driving it for a week at a time to and from work. In a year, this drive-time exposure in the Boston metro market has been phenomenal — 5,000 miles tracked to date.
We need to carefully analyze our own media and markets to determine the best return on investment. Gone are the days when you can be anywhere and everywhere. Pace says he analyzes his results weekly through 1-800 tracking numbers and detailed Web monitoring reports. Smart thinking.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all the dealer marketers fully endorse investing in boat shows. While I’m a firm advocate of show participation, the cost-versus-return issue has been debated for years in the industry. However, these dealers say the shows work for them, particularly when there is well-executed pre-event and on-site promotion designed to generate traffic.
I was blown away by the promotions MasterCraft’s Sorensen uses to attract kids — techniques that keep the parents (the ultimate buyers) glued to the booth or coming into showrooms. He uses everything from game show contests to Guitar Hero performances to movie showings — including premiering the latest wakeboarding flick on a giant screen, with families comfortably lounging in boats. Maybe now is the time to invest in new thinking for your show presence.
Special events give customers and prospects a reason to regularly come in to the dealership. It might be an open house with new product introductions, seminars with experts or even a weekly study group for owners who want to get their captain’s license (such as Pace hosted).
It doesn’t have to be a major production. Why not mix it up? Rendezvous, cruise clubs and tournaments are proven successes. Pace, for one, finds ways to reduce the cost of these events by co-promoting with other businesses. Take advantage of whatever co-op funding is available through marine partners, while also seeking outside cross-promotional opportunities.
Finally, the panel unanimously agreed that a developing trend is the move to Web-based marketing. Chalmers says traffic at the BoatTrader Web site was up 22 percent last year, and the number of boat searches increased 73 percent from the previous year. What does this suggest? We might not have a lot of folks laying out the hard cash for boats, but apparently a lot are online doing their research.
I loved Russo’s statement that the Web site is “the new front door of our business.” It is, indeed, the first impression for many, and we need to make sure we are maximizing that opportunity.
Both Chalmers and Channel Blade’s McCann agreed Web sites have to be a priority. Content should be updated and refreshed regularly. Navigation should be easy. Some suggestions included promoting a sales message on the home page that rotates out, hosting a dedicated “specials” area and incorporating a “request-a-quote” mechanism — none a costly proposition. Unfortunately, both Web experts reported that the leads follow-up is dismal on the sites they track.
Let’s quit bemoaning the lackluster sales activity and focus on just one or two of these proven, low-cost marketing strategies so we can help jump-start to spring and get our engines revving up again.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.