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OPINION: Obama campaign success has lessons for marine industry

By now you’re probably pretty tired of hearing about the reasons President Obama won re-election. While the pundits and the 24-hour news cycle are still spinning their post-election analysis ad nauseam, one campaign development should be of particular interest to the recreational boating industry.

Behind the scenes in a section of Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters known as “The Cave,” top campaign strategists created what Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green terms a “tech-centric juggernaut” computer operation.

According to Green, Obama for America digital director Teddy Goff wasn’t boasting when he said, “If you look at the numbers, we raised more money online this time than last time, had more donors, more volunteers, registered more people to vote online and did all kinds of revolutionary stuff through Facebook and Twitter.”

Campaign sources say donors increased from 3.95 million to 4.4 million, fundraising online rose from $500 million to $690 million, online voter registration jumped by 50 percent and about 1.25 million more 18- to 24-year-olds turned out to vote for the president.

All of this was accomplished while “hope and change” was supposed to have run out of gas — a victim of the Great Recession and Washington gridlock.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with recreational boating?

The answer is relatively simple. If you can convince thousands, if not millions of voters not only to vote for you, but also to get their friends to do the same, why can’t you identify potential boaters through existing boat owners and then encourage them to consider buying a boat or at least go boating?

Think this is pie-in-the-sky material? Green quotes none other than Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt as saying, “There’s a lot of carryover from political tactics to business tactics. … In particular, the technological and data-analytics advances that drove the re-election effort could have significant commercial applications.”

One such technique is known as “target-sharing,” in which Obama supporters were provided with individually tailored messages to share with friends and acquaintances, based on the premise that a friend’s endorsement was more powerful than traditional forms of advertising.

Although the whole concept of “friend get a friend” marketing is not new, the Obama campaign was able to fine-tune such appeals because it built a single database, collecting vast amounts of data, including online activity, integrating it and then acting on what the data said rather than relying solely on the intuition or “gut instincts” of political operatives with years of experience in past campaigns.

Although Obama’s team of number crunchers, reportedly numbering more than 50 people and costing untold millions of dollars, is beyond the scope of individual members of the recreational boating industry, there are ways to achieve similar results. To paraphrase the indomitable Ben Franklin, “ We either hang together or hang separately.”

According to Michael Peterman, founder and CEO of VeraData of Fort Myers, Fla., “The power of big data is undeniable. Today it is both plentiful and raw. But all of the data in the world won’t help grow your business unless you can organize and analyze the information effectively.”

A longtime boater who grew up on the water, Peterman says databases exist or could be created that the boating industry could use to reach potential consumers who are not being reached by traditional means.

“Our servers store over 1 billion consumer records containing information on every adult in America; their demographics (hundreds of data points — from age/income to square feet of home, net worth — even boat ownership details — length of boat), psychographics, attitudes, channel preferences, buyer behaviors. … The list is endless. VeraData's core competency is machine-based predictive modeling. Our custom-developed infrastructure enables our cognitive scientists/statisticians to simulate tens of millions of formulas within minutes.”

What can companies such as VeraData offer the boating industry? “We can very accurately develop the right formula to identify who is going to buy what and when they are most likely to buy and where they prefer to be contacted (i.e., online, direct mail, phone, etc.). Each and every boat manufacturer, from Boston Whaler to Sea Ray, from Lake & Bay to Grand Banks, has a specific type of buyer,” Peterman says.

Peterman says his database infrastructure allows VeraData to accomplish in 10 minutes what traditional systems/methodologies would typically take 30 days to accomplish.

“Ten years ago the speed of computers was ‘X.’ Today the speed of computers is 100 times 'X.' In the marketing space 98 percent of all companies are using software that was developed 10-plus years ago. Because of the enhanced computational speed new and different analytic methods can now be deployed (provided you have the software) to take advantage of much more complex, contemporary mathematics driven by machine learning (more broadly known as artificial intelligence),” Peterman says.

Peterman says that when he started his company the idea was to change the paradigm. “We custom-built, from the ground up, our entire infrastructure — from building our own vertical databases to writing the code enabling a data architecture capable of analytic speed never before used in this space.”

Not convinced? Peterman points not only to what the Obama campaign was able to accomplish, but also to Wall Street, where machine-based algorithms dominate electronic trading.

Even though such advanced tools are now available they are probably beyond the reach of even the largest companies in the marine marketplace.

Nonetheless, Peterman believes that the NMMA, a coalition of marine associations or a new third-party organization could create a Recreational Boating Data Repository through which all contributors/participants would benefit from the collective intelligence derived from a shared database.

“It’s been done before many times over in other industries,” Peterman says, noting that the repository, coupled with the hundreds of data points and analytics, could help the industry optimize its efforts from all perspectives: marketing efficiency, cross-product sales, converting recreational vehicle buyers to boaters, etc.

“Longitudinal models could be developed that construct the most predictive snapshot of current owners at the time they made a purchase. This snapshot would accurately show the series of 'triggers' leading up to the purchase, enabling the industry to formulaically identify individuals/households who not only share the same lifestyle interests, but who possess the same purchase/income patterns leading up to the transaction. A monthly/quarterly list of individuals by geographic area could be created who are perfect candidates for receiving solicitations from each manufacturer or dealer,” Peterman says.

How could Obama’s use of “targeted sharing” apply to the boating community, i.e., getting boaters to convince their friends to buy a boat?

“Social evangelists, people who have over 100 friends and who regularly post on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, are the key,” Peterman says. “The [repository] could easily identify social network members and append to that database the number of friends each individual has within their network, thus giving us an indicator as to their potential sphere of influence.

“The buying cycle on yachts can be longer than most people realize,” Peterman says. “Data analytics can tell us who is at the beginning, middle and end of that cycle to more effectively communicate with the prospect and deliver the right message at the right time.”

Given the stagnant state of the recreational boating industry over the past two decades, isn’t it time to stop talking and start acting on these new capabilities while we still have a huge baby-boom generation around who can still share the boating lifestyle with newcomers? Shouldn’t this be a top priority of the new Recreational Boating Leadership Council that was just formed in the wake of a number of NMMA-sponsored “summit” meetings in Chicago?

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of Marine Marketers of America, and is a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.



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