Q&A with NMMA senior VP and chief marketing officer and Grow Boating president Carl Blackwell

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes
Blackwell believes that to sell boating you must be a boater. On almost any summer weekend he and girlfriend Dawn Baskin are out relaxing on Lake Michigan.

Blackwell believes that to sell boating you must be a boater. On almost any summer weekend he and girlfriend Dawn Baskin are out relaxing on Lake Michigan.

Carl Blackwell, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and president of the national Grow Boating campaign, grew up boating but didn’t take a direct path to the industry.

“I’ve had two distinct stages in my career,” says Blackwell. He worked in marketing for several major food companies, including General Mills, Dean Foods and Little Caesars (and did a stint at an ad agency) before switching over to trade associations.

He signed on with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, best known for its “Beef — It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign, and spent eight years working on that organization’s $25-million-a-year, industry-funded marketing campaign. Blackwell left the trade group as executive director of marketing when it asked him — a native of Indiana and a longtime Chicago resident — to relocate to Denver.

Soon after, he learned of a chief marketing officer position with the NMMA, and as someone who loved to boat as a child and always aspired to own a boat, he sent his resume. “NMMA was looking for someone who could not only help market their numerous boat shows, but also run a national advertising campaign,” Blackwell says. “That was 14 years ago, and I was in the right place at the right time.”

His role running a national ad campaign for boating seemed to be a good fit — the Discover Boating Facebook page, for example, took off quickly and now has about 786,560 likes. At just about any industry event you’re likely to see Blackwell discussing the campaign, what it has accomplished and where it is headed.

His task is no small one, though. The number of boat owners has decreased by more than 1 million since 2000 and the percentage of first-time boat owners dropped from 42 percent to 33 percent in 2015. The decline in the number of boaters under the age of 50 has gone from 55 percent of all owners to fewer than 35 percent.

We caught up with Blackwell to get his thoughts about the industry and where it’s headed.

carl_blackwell

Q: We discussed your professional background. Can you give me some insight into your personal background? Did you grow up boating?

A: I grew up in Bloomington, Ind., about 10 miles from Lake Monroe — one of the largest reservoirs in the state. I learned to fish, water-ski, drive and trailer boats on family and friends’ boats there. When it came time for college, I decided not to attend nearby Indiana University, although I remain a rabid fan; instead I went away to St. Joseph’s College in the northern part of the state on an athletic scholarship for football and track. I moved to Chicago after college, and in the 30 years I’ve lived here I’ve never lived more than three blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan — I’ve always been drawn to the water.

After a few years at NMMA and a few summers on others’ boats, I soon realized I really wanted my own. I went straight to a new-boat purchase, buying a 26-foot cabin cruiser, which is about the minimum size, in my opinion, to handle the waves on Lake Michigan. When you promote boating for a living, I felt impelled to practice what I preached. Owning my boat has provided me with invaluable experience and knowledge that I lean on extensively in my work.

I named my boat Champagne for No Reason. The meaning behind the name is to celebrate life every day, which is what a boat allows you to do. An ordinary name wasn’t in the cards when you do what I do, and no, it’s not meant to promote alcohol. I spend nearly every weekend in the summer and all my staycations on my boat with my girlfriend (Dawn Baskin) and her two boys.

Q: We know getting an industrywide program off the ground was a struggle. Can you talk briefly about that and also what has happened since?

A: I wasn’t around for the first two attempts to get a national Discover Boating campaign off the ground, but the third time proved to be a charm, as the industry voted in November 2003 to fund a national campaign. What was different this time around was that industry leaders mandated the campaign be grounded in consumer research. In my opinion, that turned out to be the best decision the industry could have made because it removed subjectivity from the discussion.

Research coupled with direction from industry leaders made Discover Boating a reality. NMMA president Thom Dammrich and Richard Strickler of GE Commercial Finance had the foresight to gather the industry to develop a long-term strategy to grow the marketplace. Bob Deputy of Godfrey Marine led the funding committee, which overcame the significant hurdle of financing the campaign. Phil Dyskow of Yamaha reminded us that we needed to raise the sales and service bar to keep people in boating. Larry Russo led the formation of the dealer certification program. The person I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to is John Dorton, whose marketing leadership helped us coalesce various points of view into an integrated campaign the industry could support. Scott Deal of Maverick Boats was the first chairman and a steady hand in steering the industry through the formative years.

Blackwell at IBEX, flanked by the trade show’s sales director, Tina Sanderson (left), and show director Anne Dunbar.

Blackwell at IBEX, flanked by the trade show’s sales director, Tina Sanderson (left), and show director Anne Dunbar.

Q: What are some of the successes the program has seen over the years?

A: There have been many successes — most notably, the millions of shoppers we are delivering to boat manufacturers’ websites via Discover Boating web referrals.

One of the most memorable projects for me was the production of the short film “Good Run,” which debuted in 2006 and still brings tears to people’s eyes. It is, by far, the best work I’ve ever been associated with. If you haven’t seen it, Google it and watch — it truly captured the magic that boating brings to our lives.

Discover Boating won the prestigious Effie award, the marketing industry’s equivalent of an Oscar, in 2010 for the most effective marketing campaign on a small budget. This was especially rewarding, as it was during the recession, when our budget was cut to $1 million.

I am proud to say that Discover Boating has served as a pioneer in many marketing capacities, whether it’s video marketing, content marketing, social media, mobile marketing or responsive design websites. My philosophy is to be on the forefront of marketing, but not so far out ahead of the consumer that your impact isn’t felt.

When Discover Boating launched more than a decade ago, lead generation was a significant focus of industry leaders and a lot of effort was spent optimizing our sites to convert to sales leads. Consumers were fairly willing to share their contact information at that time, but that was before the proliferation of spam and security breaches. As a result, our lead generation ability waned once we came back from the recession. But what we did to counter that dip has propelled us much further than lead generation could ever take us.

We built an easily accessible bridge to boat brand sites that had the information consumers wanted in the next step on their journey to ownership — pricing information, specs, etc. We created a web referral path to boat manufacturer sites that allows consumers — after they’ve done their research on Discover Boating — to click on a manufacturer of a boat type they are interested in and gain instant access to their model and pricing information via the manufacturer’s website. Our first year resulted in 100,000 consumer visits to manufacturer sites. Last year we generated more than 3.2 million consumer visits. What was a lead is now a web referral as consumer shopping habits evolve.

Q: What are some of the challenges as you identify them with the program and the industry as a whole in terms of backing the program?

A: We need to tell our story better, as opposed to telling a better story. We have the results: 12.8 percent of people that signed up on Discover Boating ended up buying a boat, and 75 percent were first-time boat buyers — and we saw a higher percentage buy new boats than the industry average. It has always been a top priority to effectively communicate to the industry the work Discover Boating was doing on their behalf. However, this can be challenging.

When we have quality time directly with a stakeholder to walk them through all the things Discover Boating does, we’ve been very successful in gaining their support. With the sheer number of stakeholders, who all run their own businesses, finding the quality time needed to do this is nearly impossible.

We have recognized that it’s often what we communicate, not how, that’s important. We have learned that the number of impressions our ads garner, the number of articles we place, the number of engagements we have on social media doesn’t always translate as success to our stakeholders. They are great marketing measures for the campaign, but what do they mean for the industry? We spent the last year listening to feedback from stakeholders, including at the Grow Boating Summit in December, and we will move forward by measuring campaign outcomes instead of outputs.

Blackwell “warms up” with country music star Jake Owen, who has been a part of the industry’s Grow Boating campaign.

Blackwell “warms up” with country music star Jake Owen, who has been a part of the industry’s Grow Boating campaign.

Q: Can you explain that?

A: In my mind I don’t want to report how many people saw our ads or how many impressions we got on Discover Boating. That’s an output of our marketing campaign. The outcome is that they came to the website, and then we connected them to a manufacturer’s site. That’s a result of the impressions that we made. And we’ve done this value-of-a-referral research — they’re not people who would’ve gone to the manufacturer’s website, anyway.

We compared the people who came from the Discover Boating website to a brand site to the people who just went on their own. People who came from the Discover Boating site were more likely to go to a dealer, more likely to ask for a brochure, and they were less likely to ask for a quote because they were still in the research phase.

But these people are qualified buyers. They’ve stayed on the manufacturer’s site just as long as anybody else does, and they view as many pages. They’re not just clicking on the site and clicking off and going away.

Q: I’m sure people then want to know how many of those result in sales.

A: It’s not as easy to track that, but I have no control over the sale. I can’t say people are going to buy a boat when they visit Discover Boating first because I don’t have control over that. All I can do is put qualified people on a brand’s site, and they take it from there.

Q: So, I’m sorry, I interrupted you discussing challenges — were there others you wanted to address?

A: Another challenge we face is expectations that Discover Boating is a lead-generation effort, which would mean our programs are going to deliver sales leads to the inboxes of our stakeholders. We’ve had to evolve as the consumer evolves. Bill McGill of MarineMax said it best about the Discover Boating campaign: “We don’t sell boats, we sell boating.” In fact, on Discover Boating websites, we don’t list pricing or specific model information.

Discover Boating still generates leads, but consumers go directly to a boat brand’s site 1,000 times for every one lead. Consumers don’t want 20 different phone calls from 20 different brands, which is what could happen if they fill out a lead form on DiscoverBoating.com. Today we are connecting consumers directly with brands in a far more effective way through web referrals.

Blackwell named his 26-foot powerboat Champagne for No Reason because a boat enables people to “celebrate life every day.”

Blackwell named his 26-foot powerboat Champagne for No Reason because a boat enables people to “celebrate life every day.”

Q: You mentioned some new data. If you want to lay a bit of it out here, that might be helpful — particularly something that might have surprised you or has been particularly compelling.

A: We’ve worked very closely with Info-Link to understand the latest boat owner trends. In particular, two things stood out: The total number of boat owners has decreased by more than 1 million since 2000, and the percentage of first-time boat owners dropped from 42 percent to 33 percent in 2015. This confirms previous findings that showed a decline in the number of boaters under the age of 50 — from 55 percent of all owners to now under 35 percent.

We are losing boat owners faster than we can replace them. Some of this is age-related, and some of it involves a lower percentage of first-time buyers becoming repeat buyers.

Last year Discover Boating completed the largest research study ever conducted on first-time boat buyers. Results from this research told us customers exited the boat-buying process for a couple of key reasons. The first reason was they uncovered a host of hidden costs — not the cost of the boat, but the other costs related to owning, like storing and maintenance. They felt they kept unearthing surprises to the point they gave up. Transparency is key. The better we as an industry can be about outlining the costs related to boating, the less surprises consumers discover along the way.

Second, consumers told us they won’t share their personal information until they are ready to buy. Our industry relies heavily on someone filling out lead forms. Today’s first-time boat buyers don’t want to be “sold” on a boat — they told us trust was important to them. Relationship building has never been more important.

I’m told around 1 to 2 percent of consumers who visit a boat dealer’s website will fill out a lead form. That leaves 98 percent who don’t. There are huge opportunities for those companies that address the 98 percent. Last year, Discover Boating studied consumers who didn’t fill out lead forms, but chose to link off our site directly to participating boat brand sites. We found that 78 percent of those visits — we call them web referrals — had never visited the brand’s site before.

We proved that Discover Boating web referrals sent to brand sites were of value and, with the right nurturing, could convert to sales leads. As brands study their own Google analytics, they are seeing that in many cases Discover Boating is one of their top sources of web traffic.

Companies, dealers, brands focus a lot on lead forms, and my point to them is there are a lot of people not filling out lead forms and you have to do more to get to them or you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.

A first-time buyer doesn’t want to fill out those lead forms until they’re ready to buy. They don’t want to be badgered. There’s an oversaturation of people trying to sell their products to consumers, and I think consumers are smarter these days. They will do the research first and then go find the brands they are interested in. I think the point is, the consumer’s more in control now. They need to know you’re out there and when they get on your site they have to take advantage of that opportunity, but also [you have to] answer their questions and provide them with information.

It’s called an inbound marketing strategy. If you offer people information of interest to them, they’ll give you their email in order to receive that. But you’ve got to give them a little information in order to get that contact. It really requires some marketing. It’s not just sales calls.

Q: I imagine some of that is generational. I know reaching new potential boaters is in some ways done by creating excitement around an activity and emphasizing the experiential nature of it because GenXers and millennials tend to stress experience over ownership. Is it hard to convey that some generations are more influenced by excitement or images than a traditional sales pitch?

A: At the Grow Boating Summit in December, someone told the story about a conversation a prospective buyer had with a sales rep at a boat show that went along these lines:

Customer: I’m not sure what kind of boat I should buy.

Sales rep: Well, when you figure that out, come back and see me.

Discover Boating’s recently completed first-time boat buyer research showed that these consumers tend to be turned off by the hard sell. The study also found that consumers looked to friends with boats to gain much of their information. When it comes to consumers making their first boat purchase, building a relationship with these prospective buyers first — essentially serving as the friend with a boat — could be quite productive. For a first-time buyer, the ups and downs of buying a boat are much more pronounced than for repeat buyers.

In regard to your comments about the experiential nature of Gen Xers and especially millennials, you are on to something. Our research told us that it was what happened while on a boat that sparked their desire to buy. These were organic experiences they had with friends or family while boating. The younger generations crave experiences, and boating can be an answer.

Think about your own experiences. I bet you see many of your friends posting pictures on a boat during the summer in your social media feeds. Those are special moments and experiences that people are excited to share. How can we harness those special moments and turn them into a lifetime of experiences? Discover Boating has a “Go Boating Today” section on the website, and we intend to drive more traffic there to educate consumers on how they can easily get on the water.

Q: I talked to some Gen Xers and millennials who’d grown up boating but did not envision themselves as boat owners in the foreseeable future. All would be considered middle-class. Is boat ownership still attainable to the middle class? I know we hear a lot about “a boat for any income level,” but as people are saddled with student debt, rising health care costs and pushing off home buying, for example, is it reasonable to expect them to buy a boat at any price point?

A: These are exactly the reasons why, as an industry, we should consider embracing alternative ownership models. Affordability is a challenge we face, and we need to nurture consumers on their journey until they can afford to buy a boat.

We know that student debt is growing at an astounding rate — up from $400 billion in 2004 to $1.31 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This is likely a contributing factor for declines in boat purchases for people under 50. I do believe there is a boat for every budget — you can look at the pontoon, jet boat and some of the lower-cost tow boat models as examples of boat manufacturers addressing affordability. Plus, if we want to sell new boats there will always be a pre-owned-boat market.

Q: What are some alternatives to boat ownership that still benefit the industry?

A: Intuitively, we all know that boating experiences are our best sales tool. They create those “aha” moments where you realize it’s time to get that boat. Any opportunity to provide consumers with that boating experience can contribute to the growth of our industry, whether it’s a morning out fishing with a guide, a sailboat charter on vacation or renting a pontoon boat for a day.

I would like to see us as an industry embrace these alternatives to ownership as ways to introduce more people to boating. I found it interesting to learn Freedom Boat Clubs lose 20 percent of their customers to people that end up buying their own boat — which doesn’t even factor in the number of new boats that Freedom Boat Clubs buy every year.

I consider the same opportunities for the boat-sharing models. A certain percentage of their customers are going to end up buying a boat, whether new or used.

Q: What are obstacles to boat ownership?

A: I’ve never seen the answer to this question change. Time and money are the two biggest barriers to boating. We have uncovered in our first-time boat buyer research that the way consumers shop is evolving, and I think it’s imperative for our industry to adapt to those changes. If consumers are not going to leave their contact information, how can we pursue them? We know they are shopping; we just can’t see them. Discover Boating is exploring best practices to help industry stakeholders nurture those consumers that are still researching a boat purchase, but not yet sharing their contact information.

Q: What about funding the campaign? Do you think the model will shift or change, and do you see a need for that?

A: That’s really a question for board members. I think as staff, as I alluded to earlier, we need to do a better job communicating meaningful results of our campaign. We have great results, but we need to do a better job measuring our impact in ways that relate to and resonate with our stakeholders. Discover Boating is focused on introducing new people to boating and to advance their exploration of ownership.

Not all industry-funded marketing campaigns are created equal. The campaign that I worked on when I was in the beef industry was funded at the level of $25 million annually for marketing alone. The RV industry’s successful GoRVing campaign is funded nearly at that same level. That makes it difficult for us to deliver programs that stack up to those when you have a third of the budget. But our Discover Boating team doesn’t dwell on the size of our budget — that’s out of our control. We are more concerned with getting the most out of the budget we have.

Q: What’s ahead for Discover Boating?

A: We received a tremendous amount of input from the 55-plus board members from NMMA, MRAA [Marine Retailers Association of the Americas] and Grow Boating that met in Chicago this winter at the Grow Boating Summit. Besides coming out of the meeting with unanimous support for the campaign, the consensus was that we focus on these areas:

  • Boating experience — from bringing in new participants to making it easier to get on the water.
  • Buyer education — making a first-time buyer’s path to purchase easier by providing the information they need.
  • Research. We need to continue to provide valuable consumer insights that help our industry progress.
  • Industry education — share insights and information obtained through research in impactful ways and further build industry support for the work we do on their behalf.

We’ll touch on all of these areas in our campaign launching this spring.

Q: Is the industry targeting a more diverse consumer audience?

A: We need to attract younger, more diverse consumers if we want our industry to stay the same size or, better yet, grow. If we want more people in boating, we must evolve our marketing efforts to attract a more diverse audience. It’s that simple. Our industry is an industry of niches, and every company has their own distinct target market. Not every niche needs to sell to younger customers today, but I don’t know of an owner or CEO who doesn’t want to sell more product. Discover Boating is aggressively addressing these challenges.

Q: Anything you would like to add?

A: I’m as energized by the work and our industry as I was the day I started. I feel very fortunate in my role at Discover Boating and at NMMA that we have a retail marketing effort via boat shows and a national brand — Discover Boating — to work on. This enables our association to attract very qualified candidates to our team, and one of my greatest personal accomplishments was hiring the marketing team here at NMMA. I’m amazed at how dedicated they are to our industry, how long they’ve stayed on board and how they’ve grown as professionals. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for in Thom Dammrich. And I am fortunate to be working closely with a volunteer leader who truly cares about growing our industry in Joe Lewis, our Grow Boating chairman. Here’s to another strong year. Time to take a spin on Champagne for No Reason.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.

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