Don’t get lost in cyberspace; connect personally, too

Posted on Written by Wanda Kenton Smith
Wanda Kenton Smith

All we seem to hear about today is the newest dish served up in social marketing. Whether it’s Facebook’s latest enhancement (the adoption of Skype) or the most recent viral frenzy on YouTube or the hottest new tweet, social media saturate cyberspace and compete for our mind share.

OK, I admit it. I’m an addict who requires my daily fix of posts and RSS feeds as much as the next social media junkie. But from a purely business perspective we’re missing the boat if we rely solely on impersonal cyberspace relationships to win customers.

We need to engage at a personal level — to press the flesh and walk the walk. We need to see and be seen by our customers — to visit with them, listen to them, read body language and pick up on those little cues that are missed in an exclusively online relationship. E-mails, texts and even online chats are ideal for fast messages or as follow-ups to simple questions, but they can’t deliver the warmth and conviction that can be conveyed through good one-on-one conversation.

We must not forget how critical personal contact is when selling our products and services. We must create regular opportunities to connect with our customers and our prospect pool. Although social media are a great complement to our marketing activities, it’s still critical to plan for personal touch points.

I have been reminded of the importance of this during the last five months by working with a real marketing machine. My client Legendary Marine is the Gulf Coast’s largest boat dealership, with four locations from Panama City, Fla., to Gulf Shores, Ala.

I’ve been in this industry for more than 30 years and I’ve worked with hundreds of boat dealers and many leading boat manufacturers. I’ve never worked with a more exciting, marketing-driven organization.

Working with Legendary is fun. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Although I hope I bring plenty of my own experience to assist in their marketing activities, I have been taught a great deal by Fred Pace, the dealership’s managing partner and a retail marketing master.

Let me be perfectly clear. Legendary Marine is spot on when it comes to social media activity, with a strong Facebook, Twitter and YouTube presence, along with weekly e-blasts and ongoing customer and prospect communications. Its website took top national dealer recognition honors a few years back. But what stands out is its special-event marketing agenda, which is second to none.

Several years ago Pace and his marketing and marina management teams created a “Destinations Cruising Club.” You might think: so what? Lots of dealers have cruising clubs. But how many have a calendar of more than 35 events in a season?

Beginning with the annual launch party gala that brought together more than 200 customers and select prospects for a night of fun, food and entertainment, this dealership organizes a series of events that makes my head spin. Every week from May through September they rotate between an evening fireworks raft-up at a popular beach, where the sales and marina teams grill burgers and dogs, and a weeknight cruise to a waterfront restaurant. I’ve been impressed by the number of boaters who participate and the way in which customers and staff shoot the breeze in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. This is outside-the-sale relationship-building at its finest — and it works.

Legendary’s Destinations program includes a mix of day trips to watch the Navy’s Blue Angels, snorkeling and kayak expeditions, picnics at Crab Island and weekend overnighters to Biloxi, Miss., and Panama City, Fla. The Panama City trip even includes a spa and golf package and more. Announcements of the events are broadcast electronically to the dealership’s 17,000-plus opt-in database.

The dealership’s educational arm also falls under the Destinations umbrella. Marina manager Jeremy Holcomb tells me the overall program is designed with two primary goals in mind: to get customers comfortable with their boats so they will have more confidence and use them more often, and to create opportunities for the Legendary sales, service and marina teams to connect regularly on a more personal level.

Holcomb is a licensed captain who teaches a series of three ongoing educational programs throughout the year — a Boater Smart Basics course, Ladies at the Helm and a newly launched Castaways course geared for those active cruisers who want to learn more about distance cruising. Each of these events is included on the Destinations Cruise Club calendar, and each typically fills to capacity. Holcomb provides his business card with cell phone number to all who take the course in case questions arise when they are on the water.

If the cruising and educational agenda isn’t enough, Legendary also has hosted additional headliner events that have been a blast to plan and a beauty to behold. This season we launched Cobalt and Marquis Yachts to the market with a series of parties that parallel any special event I’ve ever planned at the manufacturer level. Imagine putting a 25-foot sportboat, and later a 42-foot yacht, into an infinity swimming pool at a yacht club and conducting a brief feature-benefit presentation at sunset, surrounded by cool underwater lights and the whole works, including a fireworks show, a co-promotion with Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW with luxury automobiles on site, entertainment by a local pianist playing a baby grand at poolside and catering by a nationally recognized chef who cooks live at the grill.

Customers flock to these events because Legendary knows how to give parties that create buzz. Best of all, the return on investment is measurable. Cobalts and Marquis have sold, as have other models. We have produced a swordfish tournament with Hydra-Sports that was a huge success and have a major demo day event planned with Four Winns this summer that includes a major-market advertising and promotional campaign.

Events continue in the offseason, with a wine-and-cheese party and a dessert party, even a football-viewing event. The service team also has hosted steak nights at the yacht club for service and dry storage customers.

This place is hopping, and the secret of the dealership’s success is the involvement of the sales team in all of the activities. The myriad special events give the sales team plenty of reasons to connect with customers and prospects in a friendly role that far surpasses traditional selling.

Excuse me for bragging about my client Legendary Marine, but I’m a born-again believer in the power of special events.

In summary, yes, we absolutely need to stay on the leading edge of marketing technology, and yes, we need to take full advantage of all of the exciting new media platforms available. But at the end of the day we must always remember that the single most important thing we can do to sell our products and services is to engage with our customers and to regularly connect in a very personal and direct way.

Wanda Kenton Smith is an award-winning, 31-year marine industry marketing veteran based in Destin, Fla. She is president of Kenton Smith Marketing (www.kentonsmithmarketing.com) and president of Marine Marketers of America. She also edits two online sailing publications.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.

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