Wow! Good news for a change. I've heard positive reports from exhibitors at major boat shows in four different parts of the country - Newport, R.I.; Annapolis, Md.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Fort Lauderdale. I'm treating this encouraging show buzz as a sign we may be turning a corner.
Why so much credence in boat show reports? It's because I've found that in these tough times, most company executives have abandoned puffery and spin and become more candid in their assessments of business conditions.
Like others, I temper my optimism with caution. I'm just not certain whether what we're seeing is a short-term anomaly or the emergence of 18 months of pent-up demand. Time will tell.
Whether it's a brief microburst or something more substantial, companies that want to cash in whenever the recovery comes must be aggressively active.
All it takes is a glance at the skinny sizes of the leading marine magazine titles to determine that advertising budgets have been slashed. From my perspective, too many marine businesses have been in hibernation mode. The time to reawaken your marketing activities is now.
A few companies have continued to aggressively market through the sales drought and some of them were recognized during the Marine Marketers of America Neptune Awards program at the Fort Lauderdale boat show.
I was impressed by the high-quality work submitted by 19 companies and agencies. From ads to newsletters, product literature, e-blasts and examples of marketing innovation, there was evidence that marketing has continued to thrive in some pockets. Bravo to those firms that have kept their marketing efforts on course. I bet they're among the first to see the benefits of a turnaround.
In addition to the awards, NMMA chief marketing officer Carl Blackwell delivered a superb keynote presentation, explaining how the NMMA is using social media in its overall marketing activity and as part of the Discover Boating campaign.
I've often been a Monday morning quarterback when it comes to our industry's consumer campaign - both in its creative aspects and its funding priorities. I've staunchly championed the outreach, but I've argued that more emphasis should be placed on attracting former boat owners and less on the wider population.
What I heard from Blackwell, however, was inspiring. The NMMA deserves a standing ovation. Its skeleton crew has done an awesome job of juggling multiple balls and figuring out how to convert a limited amount of money into some high-impact, economical marketing activities.
Blackwell made the case for NMMA's leap to social media, noting it has emerged as the top-ranked activity on the Internet. Some of the data he shared:
These are mind-blowing numbers.
Among the things NMMA has done right on its limited budget is to host a terrific "I Discovered Boating" contest on several populated sites. The contest produced an avalanche of original video and photo content from boaters across the country. For a measly $30,000 in prizes, the NMMA was able to cobble together four emotionally powered TV spots that, in my estimation, are better in many ways than the slick "boating wave" and "spot the dog" messages produced by a big-bucks agency.
Granted, these new TV spots are homespun and lacking professional polish, but they ring with authenticity, warmth and honesty. Two of them really struck an emotional chord with me, and I am not alone. I believe they will engage prospective boaters with a message about how the boating lifestyle has positively impacted lives and relationships.
I was also delighted to see four different boating segments showcased: sailing, fishing, water sports and general interest. Dollar for dollar, this was a very clever promotion that delivered an excellent ROI. I look forward to the integrated and viral marketing campaign scheduled to launch in 2010.
Other smart initiatives launched recently include a new social room with a daily boating blog on DiscoverBoating.com, as well as Twitter and Facebook updates, Boat TV with Boating Guy videos, an advice archive with most-frequently-asked questions and a Discover Boating channel on Technorati. The channel has already generated 5 million impressions, 124,000 visits during the contest and 3,200 DiscoverBoating.com visits, with 2,468 of those visitors using the boat selector tool.
NMMA also is using social media to promote its boat shows. Its Facebook site claims 7,000 opt-in fans already. It is also delving into other new frontiers like wikiHow, where it recently enjoyed "rising star" home page positioning for "best new article" - a piece on boat maintenance.
While I'm an avid user and devoted student of social media, Blackwell shared several new apps and a wealth of resources.
What really blew me away, however, was a quick chat with NMMA honcho Thom Dammrich at the conclusion of the event, when he let me steal a peek at his hand-held, which revealed literally dozens of tweets that had exploded about Blackwell's presentation ... several before he was even done, courtesy of Twitter alerts. Talk about being in the moment - that was amazing.
While the presentation was packed with positive strategies, Blackwell cautioned marketers to use care in these social media applications and platforms - especially in the use of blogs and forums. He demonstrated what can happen when companies "don't pay attention" by showing a YouTube video excerpt from Domino Pizza employees, in which two pizza-makers add their own gag-inducing ingredients to the dough. Ugh. The company CEO had to make a somber apology in an attempt to quell the cyber firestorm.
I couldn't agree more about the need for vigilance in protecting your brand's reputation online. The NMMA has already been the victim of a cyber masher who sabotaged the online Discover Boating video with inserts of disturbing war images.
As for capitalizing on a boating business recovery, every marine company needs to carefully analyze its marketing activities and strike now while we're feeling the first bite. There are plenty of media and marketing firms hungry to earn your business. Even if your budget is tight, allocate a sufficient amount to target your top-tier customers. Find out where they go to get their information and drop your marketing anchor there. If you don't know, ask.
None of us has time, resources or energy to waste. The clock is ticking, and sales are starting to turn. Can you really afford to miss the boat?
Wanda Kenton Smith is president of Kenton Smith Marketing (www.kenton smithmarketing.com) and president of Marine Marketers of America (www. marinemarketersofamerica.com). For information and future topic suggestions, e-mail her at wanda@kenton smithmarketing.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.