Web pros say success is dependent upon easy-to-navigate sites and fast e-mail responses
At a time when sales prospects are so badly needed, marketing experts say marine dealers are letting a surprising number of them slip through their fingers because of inadequate Web sites and poor response to e-mail.
"There's definitely a lot of room for improvement," says Evan Davis, founder of Pro Lead Management in Charlotte, N.C.
Davis and other online marketing professionals help dealers develop Web strategies for improving their bottom lines by managing leads and capitalizing on the fact that the Web has become the "front door" for many businesses. "Clearly, more and more customers are choosing to initiate their buying experience online," says Davis. "They've gotten more comfortable with it."
Consumers are drawn to online shopping for a variety of reasons, says Peg Kiedinger, general manager of Wisconsin-based Marine Web Services (a division of Soundings Trade Only parent company Dominion Enterprises). Online dealerships are open 24/7, for example, and consumers can come and go as they please without sales pressure, checking prices and product availability before entering a brick-and-mortar retail store.
More than 80 percent of consumers with annual household incomes that exceed $75,000 go online to conduct research before making an in-store purchase, according to data compiled by Sterling Commerce and Forrester Research.
"Unfortunately, the industry is still trying to sell the old way," says Davis. "They're not responding to e-mails and inquiries from their Web sites.
"How we handle that lead can set us apart from the competitor," he says. "The dealers who do it better are going to see a faster rebound when the economy recovers."
Like any good marketing campaign, a dealer's Web strategy should revolve around lead management - the process of generating, capturing and converting leads into sales.
Web sites can generate leads by incorporating calls to action, such as e-mail correspondence or ordering a brochure. The next step is to capture the right information about each consumer. Conversion involves making sure the lead gets to the right person and then tracking the dealer's action and the final outcome.
The concept of lead management has been around for a decade or more - since consumer information databases became more affordable - but marketing professionals say it didn't catch on in the marine industry until more recently. "Five years ago this didn't exist anywhere in the marine space," says John Trkla of Chicago-based Red Oak Marketing. "There weren't the tools just a few years ago to truly manage these leads."
However, it's not enough to simply have the right tools. The dealer also must understand consumer habits - what draws them to a Web site and keeps them there - and must have the commitment and discipline to follow through on every lead, says Trkla.
Ease of navigation
Consumers visit dealer Web sites to see product, and the way it's presented is a component of generating leads. "There's been a shift from lifestyle-
oriented Web sites to a clean site that is focused on product, inventory and price," says John Lintvet, CEO of Virginia-based online lead management and marketing firm Channel Blade.
Channel Blade founder Chuck Lewis says consumers want to see plenty of images and adds that there should be calls to action built into every page of a Web site. Consumers shouldn't have to hunt to contact the dealer, he says.
Trkla says consumers should be able to find everything they're looking for in three mouse clicks or less. "When it goes up to four clicks, you lose 20 percent of the consumers," he says.
Kiedinger of Marine Web Services says dealers must view their Web sites as online versions of their physical stores. "If you merchandise and change up your dealership floor on a regular basis, so should you merchandise and change up your Web site," she says. "Repeat visitors want to see something new. Keeping navigation consistent is a good idea, but content should frequently offer new options."
Other Web strategies include clear links to "moneymaking" pages such as inventory, service, parts and e-commerce; and search-engine-friendly content, such as brands carried, models serviced and locations. The site should be advertised everywhere: business cards, letterhead, cash register receipts, throughout the dealership, newspaper ads, online directories, direct mail advertising, and so on.
Kiedinger and others also advise dealers to post any promotions they're offering. Citing a 2008 Sterling Commerce study, Davis notes that 32 percent of customers who do their research online use a coupon or incentive found on company Web sites when making offline purchases.
Channel Blade's Lewis says dealers can also use their Web sites as part of a boat show strategy. By pre-marketing the show online, they can present promotions, generate interest in attending the show and, ultimately, boost sales. "With this model, dealers are able to get more pre-boat-show traffic, increase sales at the show, and get good follow-up after the show," he says.
The marketing professionals interviewed for this story offer software packages to help dealers capture information about potential customers, communicate better with them, and manage the leads that come through dealer Web sites. However, they acknowledge that the software alone is no magic bullet.
"The discipline is not only in the technology," says Red Oak Marketing's Trkla. "Does the dealership have somebody who's watching these leads and responding immediately?"
One of the biggest issues is response time. Trkla points to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on lead response time that shows an immediate response is 10 times more likely to bring in a customer than a 30-minute wait time. If the wait is 60 minutes or more, the customer is 20 times less likely to stay with the dealer.
Pro Lead Management conducted its own study this spring, requesting information from 771 dealers in the marine, RV and power sports industries through 42 manufacturer Web sites. Included with each request was a phone number and e-mail address. Davis reports the following results:
- Only 45 percent of retailers responded to the request.
- The average response time for those who did respond was 31 hours.
- Of those who responded, 55 percent did so by e-mail only.
- Most e-mail responses were so poorly written that they detracted from the customer's perception of the retailer and the brands it represents.
Trkla says both manufacturers and dealers need to coordinate timely responses to online customers. He says many of the consumers who were logging on to dealer Web sites for information are now turning to manufacturer sites for product information, but some 90 percent or more of manufacturers aren't set up to deal with that. Instead of responding immediately, the manufacturer often funnels the inquiry to a dealer, delaying response time.
"We promote very strongly that manufacturers embrace this consumer and work with the dealer as never before, and move the consumer to the dealer only after a first response has been made to the consumer from the manufacturer," says Trkla.
Also, he says, dealers must focus on improving their relationships with manufacturers. This involves all facets of satisfying the customer, including service work as well as sales.
"They have to adapt to the channels by which consumers are turning to," says Trkla. "All of this will help with service and brand and customer loyalty."
Some online marketing professionals also point to social networking sites - Twitter and Facebook, for example - as good ways to build brand recognition and loyalty.
Lewis and Lintvet of Channel Blade say these sites offer yet another way for dealers to engage with both existing and potential customers by fostering community-building.
"There are a lot of good ways you can stay connected to a customer or a potential customer, such as event marketing and promotions," says Lewis.
Kiedinger, from Marine Web Services, says one of the biggest benefits a dealer can get from social networking is increased traffic. Maintaining profiles on these sites gives the dealers a platform to create inbound links to their Web sites, which can help draw more visitors.
Social networking also allows dealers to build brand awareness, manage their "online reputation," and connect with loyal customers, Kiedinger adds. While this is geared more toward communicating with existing customers, she says, social networking can still help generate new prospects. For example, satisfied customers may write posts about their experiences or recent purchases that their friends will see, or a dealer may post a comment on a customer's profile thanking him or her for the business or mentioning a special offer that other friends may see.
However, Trkla and Davis caution that overusing social networking sites as a prospecting tool can backfire. "Too much influence by the corporate world, and the audience moves on," says Trkla. "They [consumers] want more control over this space."
He sees social networking as more of a "soft influencer," where consumers find out what their friends and other advisers think of a product. "When it comes to branding, social networking is huge," he says. "[But] it comes from seeing other people using the product, not direct marketing from the company."
Davis agrees. "If it's an existing customer, social networking is great," he says. "People can post photos and tell stories of the adventures on their boat. It's overrated as a sales and prospecting tool."
• Channel Blade, www.channelblade.com,
• Marine Web Services, www.marinewebservices.com, (877) 246-7915
• Pro Lead Management, www.proleadmanagement.com, (704) 992-1674
• Red Oak Marketing, www.redoakmarketing.com, (847) 363-4400
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.