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Social media sites offer savvy marine businesses a powerful outreach tool

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One morning in July, Discover Boating made the following post on its Facebook wall for more than 16,000 fans to see:

"Anyone else in a mid-morning rut? Let's play a little boating game! Here's how it works: The first person posts a boat brand or manufacturer that starts with an 'A' (Alumacraft). The next person comments with a 'B' brand, then 'C,' 'D,' etc. I wonder if we can make it all the way through the alphabet? Twice? Extra points if you've owned the brand you post!!"

Within six minutes, there were more than 25 comments and three hours later there were nearly 90.

That's almost 100 people talking boats - boats they own, boats they'd like to own, boats they've seen, boats they're now going to check out.

Chances are the post didn't spur any direct sales that morning, but it got a lot of people thinking about boating. And people who are thinking about boating are potential boating customers.

That's the power of social media.

"Social media is not a fad anymore," says Carl Blackwell, senior vice president of marketing for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "Forty percent of Americans are on Facebook."

"We're trying to bring boating to people's computers," he says. "If we can get them thinking about boating when they're on Facebook, then hopefully they're going to be thinking about boating when they're off Facebook."

Social media - media designed for social interaction using Web-based technologies - is everywhere.

"It is a fundamental change in the way people communicate, get information and interact with each other," says Correct Craft president and CEO Bill Yeargin.

John Kavaliauskas, founder and president of BoatFlorida.com, says he has more than 6,500 fans on Facebook, as well as about 3,000 followers on Twitter.

"It's an entity that really has proven that the boaters, the customers, the people that are interested in buying boats, buying the merchandise and the accessories are online," he says, "They are engaged and they are interested in learning more. Like it or not, it's here and you really need to embrace it and capitalize on it."

Consider these statistics:

  • According to www.alexa.com, a Web information company, Facebook is the second most popular site on the Web, bested only by Google. YouTube is third and Twitter is 11th.
  • Facebook has about 400 million "active users." (Facebook defines "active" as someone who has logged in within the last 30 days.)
  • LinkedIn has more than 70 million members and says a new one joins every second.
  • According to comScore, Twitter chief operating officer Dick Costolo says the company's internal statistics show Twitter gets 190 million visitors a month and 65 million tweets a day.

Use of social media has "been really great for us," says Malibu Boats marketing manager Amy Mauzy. "We've seen our Web traffic go up, we've seen our leads go up quite a bit, not to mention the traffic we get on the social media sites themselves and our ranking with sites like socialmention.com.

"It seems to blend into almost everything we do now."

Facebook

Many who spoke with Soundings Trade Only agree Facebook is the most useful social media site.

"It seems to be the social medium that our dealers and anglers and customers have the most affinity for," says Martin Peters, manager of communications and dealer education for Yamaha Marine Group. "We do have a Twitter site and it just seems to have become a little less popular."

Yamaha's main Facebook site has about 5,100 fans, he says - a number it reached in about five months of active use. Recently, the company began uploading videos to Facebook, including information on repowering, using silicone lubricant to maintain the rubber parts on outboards and other topics.

The company also gets questions from consumers, such as a recent one about how to make a boat powered by a 90-hp engine go faster.

"We realize if you're going to put yourself out there on Facebook, you've got to be able to respond and answer questions," Peters says.

MasterCraft marketing director Jason Boertje also sees Facebook as a social media leader.

"We can engage customers with images, video, links, status updates, event calendars or promotions - all in a centralized location," he says. "And because people come back to Facebook over and over to check in on their network of friends, we are able to be in front of them more frequently, as well. While a Web site is a crucial piece of the business, Facebook and Twitter provide more compelling reasons to come back over and over and over, so that is the place we need to be."

Before jumping into Facebook a company should have a plan in place - a clear objective for what it wants to gain and a dedicated person in charge of the account, says Mike Dickman, a marketing consultant specializing in social media.

Also, says Dickman, it's a good idea to have others within the company who are aware of the plan and can serve as "fire starters."

"When the person who's in charge of the account posts something, those 'fire starters' can then go on and make comments, which generally help get the conversation going," he explains. "Not everybody likes to be the first to start making comments."

Facebook is the No. 1 social media site for Malibu, too, says Mauzy.

"That's where we've actually seen boat sales - direct-result boat sales," she says. "I'd probably say that Facebook is the most bang for our buck right now."

The others

Though not as popular as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other sites still pull in millions of followers.

Dickman says he considers Twitter - a microblogging site where people send messages of 140 characters or less to their followers - more of a tool than a resource. He recommends companies link their websites to a Twitter account.

"What that does is create a constant update of relevant content on those pages of their websites, which is a positive influence in search engine optimization," he says.

For individuals, Dickman highly recommends LinkedIn, which creates a professional network of contacts and also hosts groups that people can join for specific businesses, organizations or interests. The key here is involvement.

"You have to get engaged. You have to join these groups that are relevant to what you're interested in and then participate in those conversations, because no one's going to call you up and want to do business with you just because you have a LinkedIn account," Dickman says. He says he's met people through group discussions on LinkedIn that have led to consulting opportunities.

Dickman also suggests a company start its own YouTube channel as a place to house videos. An example of how a boating business can use YouTube, he says, is to create "do-it-yourself" videos and post them on the company's channel.

Mauzy says Malibu, in addition to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, also uses Flickr, a site for photo sharing, and Delicious, a social bookmarking site. It also creates blogs.

"We're a bit spread out - at least that's the way it might appear," Mauzy says. "But it helps us in a couple of different ways - No. 1, with search engine optimization. Being in all those spots and really using the keywords that people seem to use when searching for wakeboard or water ski boats - that helps our rankings on the search engines organically."

Peters says Yamaha recently started its own YouTube channel and, "We're starting to see the views pick up."

The NMMA's Blackwell is getting more involved in LinkedIn and has created a group for those looking to attend the International BoatBuilders' Exhibition & Conference in September. As of mid-July, the group had 229 members - and that's with more than two months to go until the show.

Yeargin gets directly involved in Correct Craft's social media efforts through his CEO blog. The company also takes advantage of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube.

"I am proud to say we were doing social media before it was popular," he says, adding his company views these sites as a brand builder, not a direct sales tool.

Connecting, not selling

According to a recent report from Knowledge Networks, most social media users - 83 percent - turn to social networks to interact with others, not to seek guidance on purchasing decisions.

"People create Facebook or Twitter pages because they want to know what their friends are doing and they want those friends to know what they are doing," says MasterCraft's Boertje. "It is an electronic form of socializing. Therefore, we must play by the same rules."

Boertje continues: "People engage with us because they want to know what we are up to and let us know what they are doing out on the water." And, he notes, "We will share information with them, like images of new boats or video of our athletes, but it is purposed as an FYI. Our social media strategy is not directly designed to push them to buy anything."

Mauzy says she uses social media to publish information on Malibu promotions, though it's "probably .5 percent of what we do on social media."

Dickman agrees with these strategies and says hard selling goes over like a lead balloon. He cringes, he says, when he sees brokers or dealers posting, "I just listed this boat. Here are the specs."

A better idea, he says, is to post a photo album of boats you've sold, because any broker or dealer with such an album obviously knows what they are doing.

"You want to portray yourself as an authority within your business," he says. "The message you're sending out should be informational. You should be trying to educate in some way and give them information that's relevant to your business, but also provides them with some sort of knowledge.

"Every time you're doing that," he continues, "you're creating that authoritative position or role."

Time is money

Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites may be free of charge, but staying current with them takes time.

"Social media is not free. It requires human resource time," says Blackwell. But, "If you do it right, it will pay for itself over and over."

Mauzy says there are five people in Malibu's marketing department, and no one is solely dedicated to social media - it's a responsibility everyone shares. She estimates 30 hours a week or more are spent on it.

"You're constantly checking from your phone, whether you're at work or not," she says. "It's not a 9-to-5 thing. It's weekends, too. You're kind of always checking in to see what's going on. It seems to blend in to almost everything we do now."

Kavaliauskas of BoatFlorida.com says there's a payoff for keeping sites updated.

"The more relevance and more [timeliness] in your posts, the more successful your whole environment's going to be," he says. Also, users can set up the sites so they feed into one another - Facebook posts can go directly to Twitter, for example.

"You have to monitor it every day," says Yamaha's Peters. "As the number of followers grows, it will probably become more difficult, but it's something you have to do."

What it can't do

Despite the huge growth in social media, experts agree it will never eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction.

"I know of a yacht broker in Southern California who claims he has sold two boats off Facebook, but at some point he had to sit down face to face and probably do a sea trial," says Dickman.

"I think [social media] is a great opportunity for an introduction and a great opportunity to showcase yourself as that authority or that expert," he adds. "But people typically don't part with big chunks of money through PayPal."

The boating industry is social, he says, and customers will always want that personal interaction.

Boertje agrees and doesn't expect that to change - no matter what forms of social media develop.

"While the Internet in its various forms allows consumers to find out everything they want to know about a MasterCraft, when it comes to buying a boat, our buyers will develop a relationship with their local dealer," he says. "A boat is a huge investment - it is not a book or a T-shirt - and because consumers are going to write a big check, they want to build a relationship with the dealer."

What's next?

Just as 10 years ago no one could have foreseen Facebook or Twitter, there's no way to know what's coming in social media.

Blackwell says video is something more people will likely embrace, and points to "gaming" as a rapidly growing phenomenon, especially within Facebook.

Farmville, a game on Facebook, attracts 70 million players a month. Fishville another Facebook game, had 25 million to 30 million players within 90 days of launching. Some 70 percent of those players were males over 30, he says.

To get in on the trend, Discover Boating launched "Making Waves" in June on its Facebook page. The game puts the player in the virtual captain's chair to experience the fun of life on the water.

Blackwell says there's also a sweepstakes tied to the game in which one person will win $25,000 toward a new, NMMA-certified boat, and people can also sign up for Discover Boating DVDs.

After about two weeks, 10,000 minutes of game-playing time had taken place, there were more than 4,000 sweepstakes entries and 1,730 DVD requests, Blackwell says.

"We're able to tie the Facebook game back to our lead nurturing program," he says. "That's the beauty of all of this."

Others say more attention will be paid in the near future to formatting information for mobile devices, such as iPads. And more and more businesses are creating "apps" for the iPhone.

"I don't know what the 'next big thing' is, but I know there will be a 'next big thing.' If I knew for sure what it was, I would be the next billionaire," says Yeargin. "I think the important thing is that we don't get stuck in the status quo, but always be open to looking at what we do in a new and better way."

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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