A sea change is about to get under way at Discover Boating that will propel the industry's promotion of boating beyond print advertising, beyond direct-mail marketing, beyond radio and television commercials and beyond its website.
Facing the fact that 77 percent of Americans never set foot on a recreational boat in any given year, the new Welcome to the Water promotional campaign will launch around Memorial Day. It will harness the technology of social media to encourage and enable existing boat owners to share their love of the lifestyle by making it easier for them to take their "friends" boating.
Rather than provide passive information using traditional marketing platforms that prospective boaters might find useful in making a decision to get into boating, Welcome to the Water will actively encourage Discover Boating's 40,000 Facebook "fans" to do what many boaters like to do with their boats - take their buddies boating.
The campaign is based on the simple premise that boating is a social activity and that exposing more people to the pleasures of boating will grow the pie and ultimately result in more sales for all industry segments.
According to Carl Blackwell, chief marketing officer of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a new Facebook app is in its final stages of development. It will allow an individual to e-vite "friends" to go boating. With the average Facebook user having 130 "friends," the 40,000 "fans" Discover Boating has enlisted during the last few years translates into a universe of 5.2 million Americans who potentially could get an invitation to go boating.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Blackwell says Discover Boating will be buying more than 300 million ad impressions on Facebook to promote the new app. "If you have boating in your Facebook profile, you're going to see an ad from us," he says.
The Facebook app will enable each host, or "captain," to create a custom invitation for their "friends" with such basic information as where to go, when to meet and what to bring. Sweepstakes and contests will be used to incentivize each host who takes the most people out on the water.
What makes this approach so different is that for the first time the industry will use social media technology to empower experienced boat owners to invite those who are not yet in the market to buy a boat and get a firsthand feel for what boating is all about.
All segments of the industry are invited to get involved, and for those who are unfamiliar with how to use Facebook as a marketing tool, a series of how-to webinars are planned in which Blackwell promises that everyone who participates will have a Facebook page by the end of the first session.
"This new approach by Discover Boating is a novel and smart idea that could result in a sustainable social marketing platform," says Gaspare Marturano, sales and marketing director at Mad Mariner and author of the recently published book, "Socialize with Me or Someone Else Will." What makes this especially attractive, Marturano says, is that it can be "rolled out at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing."
Existing efforts to promote boating at the grassroots level through a National Boating and Fishing Week, a National Safe Boating Week, a National Marina Day or a National Get Outdoors Day have not had much of an impact in terms of growing the market for boating.
Unlike Facebook, which is extremely efficient and can be turned on with the click of a mouse, these event-driven promotions involve considerable manpower, time and effort to administer and execute - all of which are in short supply in an industry that has substantially contracted in recent years, says Wendy Larimer of the Association of Marina Industries.
To test the potential interest of those who do not yet own a boat to get out on the water, Discover Boating created an "experiential dock" earlier this year at the Miami International Boat Show offering everything from a jet boat experience to an introduction to sailing. At Sea Isle Marina, 194 people participated in powerboat activities. At Strictly Sail, 180 slots were available, and it was common to have a waiting list of more than 10 people standing by to take advantage of a no-show or cancellation.
"This is an initiative that we are going to move forward with whenever we can," Blackwell says.
Using social media to expand the industry's outreach efforts is driven, in part, by the fact that participation in recreational boating has flatlined. There has been no appreciable growth for far too many years. Although overall revenues might be up for the entire industry, sales - particularly of new boats - had been sliding for years before they took a nosedive during the Great Recession.
While it is true that many consumers are taking advantage of attractive prices in the used-boat market, most observers do not expect new-boat sales to return to the halcyon days of yesteryear anytime soon unless a major effort is made to make it easier to sample the recreational boating experience.
An unfortunate truth is that the American lifestyle that supported the growth of recreational boating in the post-World War II period has changed markedly for most American families. Fathers just don't take their children out boating and fishing like they used to. With both parents working outside the home and spare time in ever-shorter supply, kids have become captive to a computer and cable TV culture that enables them to live a near-virtual existence. My two children, who are tethered to their laptops and smart phones, are living proof of this transformation.
Social networking is a double-edged sword: It can make couch potatoes of an entire generation or it can be used to bring people together, as we have seen in recent months in the Middle East. Recognizing this challenge and understanding that social media offers an opportunity to reverse some of the demographic trends facing boating is a major step in the right direction.
Welcome to the Water is arriving in the nick of time, just as the economy is turning around and starting to accelerate. The program could be improved, however, by adding a key ingredient that's missing. Asking 40,000 fans to participate when the urge strikes them during the upcoming boating season could result in a launch without liftoff.
What's needed to motivate people is a call to action during a specific time. A national Discover Boating Week that does not compete with ongoing campaigns and in which all segments of the boating community row together would provide the missing focus.
That said, everyone in the industry whose fortunes are tied to an expanding market should touch base with DiscoverBoating.com, take advantage of what is being offered and get on board before another boating season is history.
Michael Sciulla is vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America boards of directors. During a 28-year career at BoatU.S., he built the association's brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.