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Grow Boating delivers power-packed program

Pre-IBEX marketing summit provides a boatload of smart ideas

Our current boat-owner population is rapidly aging, from an average of 35 to 39 in 2000 to a spike of 55 to 59 in 2015. For the long-term health and growth of our industry, we must nurture a younger audience, including more first-time buyers.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a small but hardy crowd of 105 gathered for the inaugural Grow Boating Marketing Summit, held the day before IBEX in September. Although the late notice on the event likely affected attendance, the content and the speaking panel had sufficient draw to lure the marketing faithful to pay an extra summit entry fee.

In addition to Carl Blackwell’s welcome and introduction, there were five power-packed presentations jammed into a half-day. I measure the success of an educational event by how much I can take home and directly apply to my business. My team and I brought home a boatload. Here are the highlights that I found the most beneficial and insightful.

Respected industry researcher Peter Houseworth of Info-Link Technologies, in his presentation “The Challenge Ahead,” provided an overall estimation of industry performance. Between 2005 and 2010, we lost about 2.9 million boat owners, with only an estimated 2.4 million entering the market, for a net loss of about 520,000. Between 2010 and 2015, we gained about 2 million boat owners and lost an estimated 2.6 million, with a net loss of about 564,000.

Thus, over 10 years, the industry attracted about 4.4 million boaters while losing an estimated 5.5 million.

Houseworth also shared a growing concern. Although we have enjoyed a loyal customer base of passionate boaters who reinvest in our industry’s products and services, the proverbial clock is ticking. Specifically, our current boat-owner population is rapidly aging, from an average of 35 to 39 in 2000 to a spike of 55 to 59 in 2015. For the long-term health and growth of our industry, we must nurture a younger audience, including more first-time buyers.

Perhaps the most disconcerting of the statistics Houseworth shared was the retention and defection rate of first-time buyers. In a study of year 2005 first-time buyers, 71 percent sold their boat, 27 percent purchased another boat and 73 percent left boating altogether.

Yet another startling wake-up call: In the year 2000, 42 percent of all new and pre-owned boat buyers were first-timers. In 2015, it was 33 percent. Obviously, the sooner we can hook and fully immerse boat owners into our sport and lifestyle, the more opportunity we have to engage and retain them over a lifetime.

For the past few years, there has been lots of chatter in industry marketing circles about attracting and snagging the country’s 32 million millennials. As Houseworth shared, we’re not alone in trying to figure this one out. Other industries, including motorcycles, golf, automotive, vacations and fitness — even beer and college sports — are struggling with the same challenge.

He shared a pretty sophisticated calculation that indicates 44.6 million households with millennials were exposed to boating growing up. As he noted (and as I can personally attest because of my experience with Freedom Boat Club) many millennials have embraced the “sharing economy” and like boating. We may have some intrinsic leverage, but there’s no doubt we’re competing against every other industry for this coveted, elusive market.

Houseworth wrapped his segment with five key points:

  1. We need to continue to cater to the needs of our loyal base to keep those boaters in the fold as long as possible.  
  2. We need to identify and increase the number of boating participants from all segments.  
  3. We need to find ways to remove obstacles between consideration and purchase.  
  4. We need to determine what we can do to increase the retention rate of boaters and to reduce churn among first-time boaters.  
  5. We need to recognize and understand that boating may be consumed in ways that differ from our traditional model.  

It would be easy to feel pretty despondent after Houseworth’s sobering presentation, if not for the results that presenter Meredith Englen shared of an 18-month Grow Boating study about first-time boaters and why they enter and leave boating.

That study took a multi-pronged approach, including analysis of existing data, live interviews (including 20 first-timers who sold their boats and left boating), and three surveys: of 2,000 prospective first-time boat buyers, 550 first-time boat owners and 250 people who stopped shopping for their first boat, among others.

The result was identification of six types of first-time boat buyers, each with specific motivations and interests, as well as key indicators and buying assists. There’s not enough space here to explain them all, but the research also produced a first-time boat buyer’s journey that incorporated five D’s: develop, desire, dream, decide and do. Interestingly, Englen said 70 percent of people take less than a year to move from the desire to the do stage, a time period fraught with emotional ups and downs. The study includes a set of key barriers for each stage, with specific tips on how to overcome those objections.

Perhaps the best news was a focus on lapsed shoppers who had begun the process of buying a boat but stopped in midstream. Research showed that 42 percent stopped because of surprise or unexpected costs; 35 percent couldn’t find a boat within their price range; and 33 percent encountered a personal event that caused them to re-evaluate their priorities. Another 21 percent thought they didn’t know enough about ownership to throttle forward. Other reasons included new access to boating via friends or family members; the boat-shopping process being difficult or overwhelming; and dealer intimidation, among others. (Some shoppers had more than one reason.)

The reason these numbers are good news is that many of these objections can be positively reversed through industry education. We must do a better job of educating our prospects about the true cost of ownership, and we must help shoppers find boats they can afford. We can teach prospects about what is involved in owning a boat and make the path to purchase easier. Boat retailers can become more transparent and more helpful to first-time buyers, to alleviate intimidation and amplify trust.

For your business, how about creating a simple cost-of-ownership spreadsheet for different types of boats or products that you sell? Include a realistic and comprehensive itemized list instead of simply listing the cost of the boat, engine and trailer. Dealer education basics include boat and engine types and options; ownership responsibilities such as trailering, storage and operation; and pricing, including financing and the expenses of ownership, such as maintenance, insurance, storage, dockage and more.

The study also provided tips on how to re-engage lapsed shoppers in each of the six persona segments, as well as this smart retail advice: Remember where the shopper is coming from. Balance the need to sell with the need to serve, and be transparent about the total costs and responsibilities.

Marcus Sheridan  

Marcus Sheridan gave an excellent presentation that I won’t get into here; readers may recall my piece based on his IMBC presentation last year. Visit to review that column. I’m a huge Sheridan marketing groupie because I know firsthand that what he teaches works. We followed his marketing advice, and today we have generated more than 100,000 organic leads with sales conversions. If you want to be in the know, buy his book, “They Ask You Answer,” and visit the website

Armida Markarova, a former NMMA staffer who has launched her own firm, Marketing Strategy Hub, tackled “The Conversion Path: From Website Visitor to Customer.” She shared a statistic (that Sheridan also mentioned) that 70 percent of a customer’s journey takes place before any contact with a salesperson. The journey typically involves heavy online searching — hence the need to have a top-notch website.

She suggests using tools such as Question Analyzer by Keyword, and Ask the Seeker, to discover the most popular questions for any topic or keyword. By analyzing the types of questions consumers have, you can develop and share relevant content with your targeted audience on your website.

Secondly, she recommends bundling content so related topics are packaged together, making it easier for the customer to binge-read and find answers in a one-stop shop via your website.

She also recommends the Hemingway app to test your website pages for clarity and readability, as well as including micro-conversions. The latter may include links such as Request a Brochure, Sign up for the Newsletter, Request a Quote, and so forth.

Building credibility on your website for your audience is also critical. She showed examples of specific wording that might be employed to drive response, such as the number of customers you have served, the number of boats sold and customer testimonials.

One point that resulted in a lively debate was her recommendation to include links to review sites or forums, which might include negative product reviews. Her point was that today’s consumers demand transparency. If you want to be credible, sharing legitimate reviews — good and bad — helps to build trust.

Boating Relationships in Today’s Digital World  

In a related presentation, Steve Pizzolato of Avala Marketing spoke on “Boating Relationships in Today’s Digital World.” He showed examples of email marketing campaigns, including weak ones that lacked content or personalization, as well as their positive counterparts. Not surprisingly, the emails with engaging visual content and personalization scored much higher in response rates.

Pizzolato said the average industry boat sale takes 210 to 230 days to close, based on his company’s research. He included an example of a prospect’s “interaction timeline” that traced all online activities during the nine-month journey. The findings included how many leads the prospect submitted, the number of nurturing and separate promotional emails he received, and the number of websites and pages he viewed.

Pizzolato concluded with 10 questions to address the strength of your company’s digital relationship with potential customers:

  1. Are you creating and publishing content that is of interest to potential customers, or are you only publishing content about your boats and your company? 
  2. How sticky is your website? What is your bounce rate? Time spent on site? Pages viewed per visit?  
  3. Is your website fully optimized for organic search?  
  4. Do you show up on the first page of Google results when customers search using a relevant, unbranded keyword such as center console or runabout? 
  5. How does your organic search visibility compare with your competitors’? 
  6. Does your website prominently feature lead-generation activities and capture contact information whenever a customer builds a boat, requests a brochure or signs up for your factory tour?  
  7. Do you send a series of nurture emails to a prospect after he submits a lead? Does your effort extend beyond 180 days? 
  8. Do your auto-responses include images and content specifically about the prospect’s model of interest? 
  9. How do your email open and click-through rates compare to others in the industry? 
  10. Do you know which lead sources and digital media are generating the highest returns on investment? 

These summit highlights can all be powerful assists. When the opportunity arises, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to attend firsthand so you can enjoy the full meal deal, beyond my highlights.

I also want to invite you to attend the Marine Marketers of America meeting at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, where guest panelists Carl Blackwell and Peter Houseworth will join Joe Lewis of Mount Dora Marina, John Giglio of Freedom Boat Club and Olivier Pierini of BRP/Evinrude to continue this discussion of capturing first-time boat buyers. For information or to sign up, visit

Hope to see you there!

Wanda Kenton Smith

Wanda Kenton Smith

Wanda Kenton Smith is chairwoman of the RBLC New Markets Task Force, chief marketing officer of Freedom Boat Club and president of Marine Marketers of America. Email:

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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