A man in his early 40s — we’ll call him Matt — sat down at his computer to figure out how to spend some quality time with his wife, Christy, and son Chase. He’d been working late a lot and wanted some good bonding time during the weekend.
He began perusing some outdoorsy ideas — it was supposed to be a nice weekend, and the family liked spending time outside — and eventually this culminated in Matt and Christy walking out of Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina in Florida with a 20-foot Monterey runabout with a tower. It was about a $45,000 boat.
“They were the perfect demographic,” says Mount Dora owner Joe Lewis. “They came to us, bought the boat, and they keep it in the marina. And because he is the target, the people we are looking for and trying to actively get into boating, we had dinner and I wanted to pick his mind about what brought him to us.”
It was DiscoverBoating.com.
Matt didn’t know it, but one day as he was trying to figure out how to spend leisure time with his family, he wound up on the Discover Boating website. He looked around and was referred to Monterey’s website after plugging in what he and his family would like to do with a boat via Discover Boating’s boat selector tool.
“Eventually he was referred to me,” says Lewis. “And here’s the kicker — he didn’t even know it. He told me the key was a boat selector tool. He was saying he was on this site, and it was really neat because he could say what he wanted to do with the boat, how many people would be using it, and it led him to me. It wasn’t until we sat down at dinner and started talking that he even realized he was on the website.”
That’s not the ideal way for this to unfold, Discover Boating president Carl Blackwell acknowledges. Blackwell is working hard to increase the brand awareness of the national industrywide campaign, which is designed to draw more people to boating. “Why do you care about brand awareness? It helps us with credibility,” Blackwell says. But either way, he will take it — the website, the campaign and the tool did exactly what they were designed to do.
“My biggest challenge is keeping him,” Lewis admits. “His boat’s got 10.5 hours on it after a year. So affordability and time are a huge issue. Now Chase is in baseball. Their affordability isn’t dollars and cents. It’s the time factor.”
And thus goes the story of Discover Boating. Any discussion about whether the campaign is working and doing what it is designed to do (essentially get people boating) inevitably runs into certain realities — changing family dynamics, time spent in kids’ activities on weekends and affordability. Those issues just might not be addressable by an industrywide campaign.
The crucial juncture
There are lots of numbers involved with Discover Boating — impressions, website visits, manufacturer referrals — but as Lewis says: “We can’t always definitively say what that has meant quantitatively. Once they go from Discover Boating’s website to a manufacturer website, we’ve accomplished our mission,” says Lewis, who sits on the Grow Boating board that he chaired for a number of years. “That’s all we can do. It’s then the responsibility of the industry to turn that person into a person on the water. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
“The Grow Boating initiative and Discover Boating were never meant to be sales promotions,” Lewis adds. “They were always meant to be awareness campaigns.”
It’s indisputably a lot of awareness. As Larry Russo of Boston-based Russo Marine says, there are metrics to measure consumer responses and impressions. “All those metrics are up over the last several years,” says Russo, who also sits on the Discover Boating board.
“We have an integrated marketing plan that involves website, social media, public relations, and that is all working very effectively to drive people to DiscoverBoating.com and get them to manufacturer websites,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “And it’s the manufacturer’s job to sell them and pique their interest further to refer them to a dealer.”
“Just look at the results,” says Lewis. “One of the most shining examples I can give you now is the number of referrals to manufacturers’ websites from Discover Boating. We’re up over last year by 83 percent.”
Of the 3.4 million people visiting Discover Boating.com, 1.8 million clicked on manufacturer websites — something that takes some clicking around on the website, Blackwell says.
“As we have educated people about this strategy and talked to people about this strategy, what we find is that among the builders who look at analytics, most tell us Discover Boating is in the top three or top five of Internet referral sources for traffic. So we are sending a significant amount of traffic their way,” says Dammrich.
That is because the site is much more engaging than in the past, Russo says. “Our Facebook metrics are way up. We’re making a difference. It ultimately trickles down to how many leads get referred to manufacturers. That’s the ultimate drive to the success of Discover Boating. If we continue to grow that result and put more names of customers into the hands of manufacturers that trickle down to dealers, it gives us more opportunities to sell boats. And we see those numbers going exponentially up and up.”
Never gonna happen
When Dammrich joined the NMMA 15 years ago, the industry had been discussing an industrywide growth effort for 25 years, he says. There had been widespread criticism of a United Growth Effort because nothing was happening. The prevalent mindset in the industry seemed to be that there was no way to get everyone on board with any funding mechanism.
It was soon after that the NMMA decided to do some research and “base decisions on how to move forward on research rather than opinions,” Dammrich says. “That was different than any other previous efforts, which were based on opinions.” Along with a growth initiative discussion, certification programs were implemented to improve products and customer experiences at the dealer level, Dammrich says.
Funding was based on the horsepower of engines, starting at $1 and going up to $72 for inboard and sterndrive engines larger than 300 hp. Some funding comes from membership dues, such as the Marine Industry Certified Dealership Program, which was launched in 2005.
The 700 accessories manufacturers that are members of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, of which Blackwell is marketing vice president, have had their dues — which vary based on sales — raised 25 percent in recent months. That cash goes directly into Discover Boating coffers, Blackwell says. “We have a slew of new contributors this year,” he says.
“If we can get more parts of the industry to contribute so it doesn’t all rest just on the backs of engine manufacturers, boat manufacturers and dealers, I think that’s how the industry wins,” Blackwell says. “So having the accessories contribute, as well, was a nice win for the campaign and a nice endorsement for us.” The group lost “one or maybe two” members after the increase. “But we’ve more than made up for that because we’ve gotten new members since. They’ve embraced it.
“If we can get some of the other niches out there to contribute, that’d be great,” he says.
Lewis says the numbers show that Discover Boating is having an impact. “Are we having the impact I’d like to have? No. But we just don’t have the budget we used to have.”
The program enjoyed three years with a “great budget” until the Great Recession, Dammrich says. “We continue to certify boats, and certify dealers through the Marine Dealer Certification Program, and a third of the funds continue to very effectively promote the boating lifestyle,” he says.
Some critics point to the RV industry’s campaign — GoRVing — as an example of how they’d like to see the Discover Boating campaign work. But there are a few inherent differences between the two, Dammrich says. “They’re back to selling 350,000 units a year, and we’re selling half of that. I’m confident boat sales are going to increase slowly over the next five years and we’ll get to some number over 200,000 units.”
Also, the RV industry has been at it for 20 years. “We’ve been at it for eight,” Dammrich points out. “And I would agree, the whole RVing industry is highly unified behind the campaign. But that’s true for us, too. You hear the occasional gripe and complaint, but I think for the most part manufacturers and dealers largely are united behind DB.”
“Anytime I heard a dealer offering criticism and comparing Discover Boating to Go RVing, it’s because it’s on cable TV and media other than social media,” Lewis says. “With our budget, we’re just not throwing out a large enough net.”
Board members today would like to see funding increased, Russo says. “But you have pushback from major corporations, and they have a lot of sway.”
Dollars per unit of horsepower have not changed since 2006, Lewis says. “I think that’s part of the hangover factors … from the recession. People are very, very against talking about increases.” Although Lewis understands that businesses are still pressed, “Where else can you invest that small amount of dollars to increase a future market for yourselves?”
Dammrich stresses that even with the current budget, Discover Boating has an integrated marketing campaign that involves a website, online marketing, social media and public relations, and he says it’s all working very effectively together.
“If we had more money, what would we do with it? I think we would get onto cable television,” Dammrich says. “That would allow what we’re doing very effectively to be magnified by its ability to reach more people. It would make what we’re already doing better.”
What the campaign is doing has gotten the attention of Facebook, where company officials wanted to know how Discover Boating had earned more than a half-million fans so quickly, earning the campaign a Gold Effie Award in the small-budgets category. “There’s a long list of things we need to do,” Blackwell says. “The industry seems to be doing well, which is great for us, and it’s great to have some momentum going. Yet I still think, from a Discover Boating perspective, there’s a lot of work for us to do.”
The message is getting out there, and Lewis thinks commercials such as the one that shows a GMC truck pulling a boat and comparing the luxurious interior of the truck to the boat, is a result of more visibility around the brand of boating.
“I’m noticing more of that, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m in boating,” Blackwell says. “But I see more boats in commercials, on TV and in movies, I think, a lot more than I used to.”
The campaign seeks to integrate boats into popular culture, sort of in the way that Andy Samberg, formerly of “Saturday Night Live,” accomplished in the rap video (with explicit lyrics) “I’m On A Boat.” “That became a part of pop culture,” Blackwell says. “That is sort of the kind of thing we try to do and capitalize on. Like the term #boatie. We had thousands of people tagging selfies on boats #boatie this year. We’re going to try to continue to weave boating into popular culture. I would love to get ‘boatie’ into the Webster dictionary.”
Whatever they’re doing, they try to be where the consumer is, he says. “I think it’s pretty cool to have a mobile-responsive site, and now 40 percent of our traffic is coming from those devices. Now we’re into video.” The Stories of Discovery that were shot last year were videos with different boaters — country star Jake Owen, a Hispanic family, for example — and the numbers of people who watched the videos from beginning to end were off the charts, he says.
“We’re seeing a lot of traction,” Dammrich says. “All of it works together to create the traction. Our strategy this year was focused much more on what’s known as content marketing. Stories of Discovery are content, and we’re creating other content. We place our advertising so it doesn’t look like an advertisement — native content. We’re continuing that and developing more Stories of Discovery. Video has been a big part of that from day one. Video sells boating very effectively, though one of the things you’ll find is that Discover Boating videos are more focused on people’s faces, full of emotion, rather than boats flying across the screen.”
Moving the needle
One point that sometimes goes unnoticed is that 50 percent of Discover Boating visitors are current or lapsed boaters, Blackwell says. That means the project is not only targeting entry-level boaters, as some manufacturers complain — particularly those not selling entry-level boats. But when Blackwell gets a chance, he sits down to show critics how the dots are connected. “The thing is, somebody’s got to be out there promoting boating. Discover Boating’s mission is to get the pie bigger, so we have to start somewhere. And for those people who are getting into boating today, at some point they’re going to buy that second and third boat.”
“These changes occur gradually over time. They don’t happen overnight,” Dammrich says. “It’s step by step, inch by inch. Discover Boating can only do so much. We don’t sell boats. So the industry has to pick this up and run with it. Discover Boating can provide an example and leadership, but the industry’s got to pick it up and run with it.
“The biggest message I have is what we’re doing is working,” he adds. “If we had a bigger budget it would work better, but we’re not counting on having a bigger budget, so the money being invested is working very hard for the industry and the industry needs to pay more attention. It has to make better use of the resources out there for them and have a better understanding of what is being done for their benefit.”
For example, the Stories of Discovery videos have been popular and are available for dealers and manufacturers to embed on their websites. That can increase optimization during web searches — that is, potentially get your dealership to pop up over a competitor’s.
Teasing out the issues
Affordability. Ethnic diversity. Millennials. Shifting family dynamics. The question becomes, are these issues that can be addressed by an industry campaign? “I applaud the overall initiatives,” Russo says. “We always have to be getting our minds together on solutions to our problems. This is a shrinking industry. What do we do to stop the shrink? How do we make this a more attractive resource to Gen Xers and millennials. Boomers have the gene, but they’re dying.”
The millennials are more educated and loaded with more debt than any other group in the history of our country, Russo says. They have been distracted by other forms of social interaction, and boating is not top of mind. “How do we reach that demographic and influence them positively about boating?”
The average boater age is about 55 today, and it increases six months a year. So that means that in a decade, the average age will be 60, Blackwell says. “I don’t want to be one of those industries like golf. I saw something where they close a golf course in this country every day.”
Part of how Discover Boating addresses those issues is through research, he says. For example, research showed that people ages 25 to 34 had far fewer barriers and far fewer perceptions that cost even was a barrier than the 35- to 54-year-old category. “Part of that probably is the life stage they’re in. They don’t know about the barriers because they haven’t bought the boat yet or maybe they’re a little naive. My point is if we can reach these folks at that age, before they make that decision to buy that RV or second home — if get them thinking about boating earlier, before life happens, they’ll probably stay in boating longer. That information was startling to us. It was pretty eye-opening.”
That’s why affordability has been such an issue. Time and affordability are big challenges, but gateways to boating are emerging, Blackwell points out. “If we were to reach a younger demographic, they might even go in together and buy a boat” or turn to boating clubs or time shares or companies that allow owners to rent out boats when they’re not in use. “The industry’s starting to provide more opportunity to have experiences on a boat.”
There are many ways to get boating to cost less, Lewis says. “In terms of getting people to recreate on the water, there are a lot of ways they can do it. But we’ve got to make sure we’re positioning ourselves in that way, and that’s what Welcome to the Water is all about.” (Welcome to the Water is a campaign within Discover Boating.) “If we get them out there and they develop a passion for it, they’re going to figure out how to do it.
“That’s when affordability comes back into the value equation,” Lewis adds. “Can we make that 10.5 hours worth it in their minds? Fortunately, with Matt and Christy and Chase, I’m winning that battle.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue.