New Web tools let the dealer target ads to the ‘real’ buyers

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That the Internet represents an integral part in the present and the future of effective marine marketing is no secret. The million-dollar question if you run a small, regional dealership is: How do you stay on the front of that wave?

The Internet is no longer a tire-kicking forum, a haven for the young and penniless; it’s the world’s largest marketplace for users of every demographic. And while big purchases still happen in buildings with street addresses, and traditional advertising methods remain vital to any campaign, an effective dealership Web site can serve as a second marketplace minus the brick-and-mortar overhead, with lead-generating reach beyond a traditional advertising vehicle. The problem is, outside the ranks of Web marketing pros, who really understands the voodoo of search-engine rankings, of site traffic reports, of analytics?

In a marina whose marketing guru also hauls mooring balls and mans trade-show booths, there simply aren’t enough hours in a week to effectively run a fully integrated marketing campaign. Luckily for the marine industry, which was slower than most to see Web marketing’s advantages, other industries have spent years addressing the problems it now faces. Thus, as the marine sector begins to tackle the Internet, it can draw useful parallels from, among others, the automotive industry.

There’s a conceptual rift between the automotive and marine industries, mainly because consumers’ pre-purchase processes are markedly different. An average car buyer is motivated by necessity: He needs it for commuting, grocery shopping, picking the kids up at school. It’s a generally recognized rule that the window from research to executing a purchase spans 90 days. Car dealers, then, must stay in front of that prospective buyer with consistency — and tact — while that clock’s running.

Boat purchases involve leisure, and so the shopping-around phase is protracted, maybe a year or more from research to execution. Naturally, a tricked-out 32-foot center console also carries a dramatically higher price tag than a late-model minivan does. Still, from a marketing standpoint, the basic principles are the same: Stay on the buyer’s radar early and often with the right message as he weighs his options.

Faced with a longer buying cycle, boat dealerships must carefully balance visibility with cost — especially in the current economy. The businesses best weathering the highly competitive marketplace are those allocating dollars most intelligently. Two simple guidelines should be dictating your advertising expenditures, no matter which media vehicles you’re pursuing: ability to track and measure results and a high return on investment per marketing dollar spent. Your Web site can provide a consistently reliable way to traffic incoming customer information and its associated customer relationship management (CRM) tools.

A boon in recent advertising campaigns has been the rise of analytics — that is the ability, through your Web site, to carefully trace the routes by which potential customers have reached your dealership. If you fully understand the technology of integrated customer relationship management platforms, you can now not only determine which media are generating qualified leads, but follow incoming customers’ footprints through your Web site. In short, you can see not only where the steadiest streams of leads are coming from, but exactly which models are generating the most interest.

Once you’ve captured some basic customer information, you can launch into a second phase of contact, often reaching a motivated buyer with targeted and also inexpensive sales tools like e-mail blasts or newsletters.

The snag here is that, unless you have a full-time, in-house point man to marshal all the available information together in a useful format, your sales force won’t reap the benefits.

And there’s the somewhat larger consideration of whether your existing Web site is constructed in the most intuitive, customer-friendly way, then “positioned” in the sprawl of cyberspace to be found immediately by your buyers. Even if television or print are generating leads, you still need to give your Web site due attention. With more and more of your buying audience glued to the Web, your ability to stay on top of organic search-engine rankings, and to manage the output of “pay-to-play” lead-generation tools like Google, Yahoo or MSN, will have much to do with the return on your marketing investment.

One of our clients, Larry Russo Sr. of Russo Marine in Medford, Mass., recently told me his Web site is now doing a lot of the selling work for his staff.

“These days, we’re not seeing a customer three times before he makes his decision,” he notes. “Often, the first time he comes through the doors, he’s done his shopping — in his living room at 2 a.m. — and he’s ready to talk about hull color.”

As powerful a sales tool as the Web site has become, there’s also a lot of pressure on it. Your site is your first impression and the foundation of the pitch. If the site’s less than top-flight — or, despite good content and visual elements, it’s buried on the third page of a Google search — it could prove a liability.

The sharpest dealerships are becoming increasingly ruthless about measurable results; there’s simply no room for “goaltending” ads or expensive trade-show booth spaces for reasons of “general visibility.”
If you have the technology to closely monitor incoming phone traffic via dedicated 800 numbers, and to scrutinize the circuitous paths customers follow to your Web site, you know which ads are providing results, and which should be pulled.

Smart car dealerships are also constantly A/B testing (or split-testing) messages, search words or offers through their sites. Unlike direct mail and other traditional advertising vehicles, Web sites — updated daily and monitored constantly by dedicated staff — allow dealerships to test almost instantly the effectiveness of certain messages or offers with specific audience segments. This lets them highlight successful concepts, and modify or dump the duds on the fly, saving money and message “downtime.”
A constant challenge for dealers in both the automotive and marine industries is cultivating a strong sense of identity — that is, knowing who the real buyers are, and what they’re buying.

As simple as this sounds, it’s amazing how many small dealerships squander precious revenues on campaigns that never bear fruit, largely because they don’t understand the core of their business. The beauty of a campaign channeled through your CRM platform is that you can, with some diligence, amass a wealth of information about the folks who make up your customer base.

When you can follow incoming customers’ paths through your site, you see which boats they’re consistently checking out, and start to zero in on the models they want. If 75 percent of your site traffic is landing on 24-foot center consoles, it makes no sense to push the 38 expresses with 60 percent of your ad dollars. If you’re ranked No. 1 in parts and service, you’d better come up in the top three when a potential customer Googles “outboard repair.”

The technology is there. You can now understand more about your customers and their buying processes than ever before, and eliminate a tremendous amount of duplicated effort by integrating all your incoming information into a CRM (customer relationship management) platform. Analytics take the guesswork out of media buying, making it possible for you to put together a surgical mix of ad schedules. Now you know your buyer, know the boat he’s eyeing and, most importantly, know how best to follow up.

As much as it’s a daunting task to harness the available technology — especially when the dealership’s salary base can only support a skeleton crew — the greatest benefit to embracing the Web is how quickly and cost-effectively you can increase traffic to your business and market to motivated buyers. The point is not that you should cut out print media or television and put all your eggs in the Internet basket. Rather, you should know you’re getting results on every ad dollar you invest.

Gone are the days of running a couple of display ads in a couple of established enthusiast publications, then waiting for the phone to ring — what one of my colleagues calls “surviving on the low-hanging fruit.”

It’s important to understand that while the recession isn’t helping the marine industry any, many of the evolving marketing challenges predated the softening economy. With the rise of the Web, consumers are getting information differently and shopping differently. Smart dealers, then, are marketing differently.

Thankfully, with the pain of learning the technology come the rewards: communicating your messages cheaper and more effectively, saving on duplicated work and — above all — getting better mileage from your limited advertising budget by spending it smartly.

Eugene Allen is CEO of Allen Roche Group (www.allenrochemarine.com), a 30-person direct response ad agency based in Somerville, Mass. He has produced more than 3,000 client-driven multimedia projects in the last 20 years and has managed integrated media programs for many Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s top automotive manufacturers. He was introduced to the marine industry five years ago when he became the producer of the recreational boating and sportfishing television series “Port O’ Call” and “On The Hook.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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