If you've been avoiding social media because you believe it's a waste of time, a fad or just for kids, it's time to rethink your position. Social media (or Web 2.0) sites are growing in influence every day. The ability of these sites to enable dialogue and foster a sense of community provides boat manufacturers and dealers a versatile and powerful sales tool.
While there are more than 400 different social media sites on the Web, there are only five that are truly important at this time: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter. Here's a brief rundown on the sites and how you can use them to sell more boats.
Originally created in 2004 as a private student network at Harvard University, Facebook has grown to more than 250 million registered users, more than two-thirds of whom are beyond college age. In fact, the fastest-growing demographic on the site is adults over 35.
Facebook users can create profiles, upload photos and videos, and keep their "friends" apprised of what they're doing. Businesses can create fan pages to communicate directly with customers and prospects. Once your page is created, you invite people to connect with you. Those who accept your invitation have then given you permission to market to them. By including one or two keywords, like "boating" or "fishing," in your profile you can also make your page easy to find by people searching Facebook for those terms.
Tigé Boats updates its Facebook page regularly, adding photos, videos and links to magazine articles and blogs about its boats. The manufacturer's 800-plus fans also add their own photos and comments to the page with regularity. Beacon Point Marine, a Connecticut dealership, posts boat specials, links to boating-related articles and information about its events. And SeaArk Boats even enables its fans to post their used boats for sale.
As a social media tool, MySpace is very similar to Facebook. While it claims fewer users than Facebook, it has one distinct advantage for marketers over its larger competitor: MySpace pages rank in search-engine results, and links from MySpace to your company Web site can improve its search-engine rankings as well. MySpace also allows you to create custom backgrounds for your company profile, as Larson Marine and Northlake Marine (dealerships in California and Louisiana, respectively) have done in very different ways.
Malibu Boats has nearly 700 friends on its MySpace page, where the company posts news, photos and videos. And those "friends" - most of whom are customers - post questions and comments, interacting directly with the company.
From its inception, LinkedIn was intended as a tool for businesspeople to network with each other. As a result, it's more "business" than social. And unlike MySpace and Facebook, you can't create company profiles, just individual ones. However, that doesn't mean LinkedIn isn't a valuable tool for your business.
The unique aspect of LinkedIn is the "groups" feature. Once you've created your individual profile, you can request permission to join groups, up to a maximum of 50. Do a search on LinkedIn, and you'll find hundreds of groups related to boating, fishing and water sports. Upon acceptance into a group, you can ask questions, join in discussions, and post links to news stories and blogs.
You can also create your own groups, as manufacturers such as Sea Ray, Boston Whaler and MasterCraft have done. A few dealerships and boat shows have even created their own groups.
While not the only video-sharing site on the Web, YouTube is by far the largest. Users can upload professional or amateur videos and even create their own "channels." Viewers often forward or post links to videos they like, resulting in "viral" publicity.
While funny videos tend to be forwarded most, instructional videos, coverage of events and interviews are also very popular. And fans of your boats are often eager to check out video of your newest models.
Your videos may be professional productions, like Triumph's "Bubba Test" and "Divine Intervention Test" videos, but they don't have to be. Ironically, the more amateurish the video, the more credibility it has in the eyes of viewers. The videos posted by Ducky's Boats, a dealership in Pennsylvania, are obviously amateur, yet they've been viewed by thousands of people.
What kinds of videos could you display? On its YouTube channel, Chris-Craft has posted a video history of the company, a tour of the factory, and trailers for movies and television shows featuring its boats. Many of Chaparral's videos feature dramatic wakeboarding sequences. In addition to guided tours of its available used boats, Peters Marine, another Pennsylvania dealership, offers a safety gear overview, a boat trailering demo, and knot-tying primers.
Probably the most hyped and least understood of the social media sites, Twitter is a "micro-blogging" service. Users can post messages (known as "tweets") of up to 140 characters at a time. While that may not seem like a lot, it's amazing how much information you can convey in such a restricted format. And there's no limit to the number of times you can post in a day.
Formula has used Twitter to promote its boats, events and an owner photo contest. South Shore Marine, a dealership in Ohio, uses Twitter to announce its recently acquired used boats, weekend weather forecasts and local boating news. And Defender Industries, a Connecticut-based marine retailer, tweets specials, hurricane updates and maintenance tips to its nearly 1,400 followers.
The big question
As with any sales or marketing tactic, the big question regarding social media is: does it work? The answer: Absolutely. Danny Gutierrez, director of marketing for Tigé, says that every time he updates the company's Facebook status, the page gets 50 to 150 hits. Of those visitors, typically 25 percent click the link to the Tigé Web site, resulting in real live inquiries.
Like any other marketing tool, however, its power depends on how well you use it. Simply posting a profile won't get you very far. Fortunately, creating a strong social media presence doesn't require as much time as many people fear. You can create a beautiful profile in less than an hour. And updating any of the above sites takes only minutes, which means you can post several items a week with a miniscule time investment.
Keep in mind that the more items you post of an informational nature - as opposed to promotional - the bigger a following you'll develop. Also, when most of your posts are useful and/or entertaining, your promotional posts will be more effective.
So whether you work at a dealership, a manufacturer, a boat show or any other kind of marine company, the time is ripe for you to leverage the massive potential of social media. Check out these five sites and set up your own accounts on each one. (They're free - what a deal.) Then, do a little exploring and get comfortable with the technology. It's easier and faster than you might think. You'll soon start to see great sales and marketing opportunities.
The social media revolution is under way. Don't be left on the sidelines.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.