“The doom and gloom is over,” proclaimed one prominent manufacturer after the U.S. Sailboat Show, along with a chorus of positive exhibitors who also posted encouraging sales results.
Whether the recession is in full recovery or not is unknown, but it does appear that our industry’s collective belief in an economic upturn is at its highest level this year. Perhaps at last, buyers are ready to move forward. Industry players, while still moving cautiously, have adapted to these challenging times by recognizing changes in customer behavior, coupled with the need to operate their businesses in the future with a clearer focus.
So what now? Where are the new opportunities for the sailing industry? And, how will a clearer focus on our respective businesses affect the way we speak to our existing customers and reach new ones? What must we do as an industry and as individual businesses to motivate and interest customers who are still reluctant to open their wallets?
REVEALING STABLE PARTICIPATION STATISTICS
At a high level, it’s important to recognize that American interest in sailing doesn’t really fluctuate much from year to year. While production and new sales may have declined significantly over the past 18 months, sailing participation seems to be holding steady. A recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association shows modest increases in sailing participation across all age categories except ages 45+ which is down 0.7%.
In addition, US SAILING claims its 2009 memberships are expected to surpass 2008 totals. Junior sailing is also alive and well, with many programs reporting record participation in Summer 2009.
These statistics bode well for sailing. The sport isn’t going away and sailboat owners aren’t suddenly going to stop being passionate about their love of sailing.
To capitalize on new opportunities, the first step is to acknowledge that your next sale can only come from two pools: existing customers or new ones. No doubt, current sailors represent the larger of the two pools. The pool of new entries may include fewer potential buyers, plus this target market will require you to seek out and provide different types of information, sometimes utilizing new channels.
You may wish to pursue both groups simultaneously but if you do so, you must allocate resources accordingly. For the pool of existing customers, it’s now more important than ever to place a high priority on great customer service and loyalty programs. For the new prospects, establish initiatives that will allow you to determine where your next customer in this category is going to come from, but be careful not to waste valuable funds targeting the masses, only to reach the few.
When targeting customers, consider two additional strategies:
- Recognize that customers today have more control than ever before. You must take steps to better understand them, know what they want and need from you, and learn what will motivate them to close a sale.
- Take the time to examine all the relationship-building tools at your disposal. Some may be familiar and some will be new, having evolved more recently while the industry was turned inwards and grappling with matters of survival rather than marketing.
CUSTOMER BEHAVIOR TIPS & TRIGGERS
We’ve already established that we’re dealing with a fairly finite pool of enthusiasts that doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year. However, we must understand that customer behavior is changing. How you handle customer service programs and interact with existing fans is critical.
Take the time to treat them like individuals. Listen to them. Understand them. Get to know them and connect with them in a way that they would expect from your company. Today’s buyers will continue rewarding those businesses who can emotionally connect with them and provide a more engaging brand and service experience.
Let’s take a look at a few of the tools you might use to reach out to customers to trigger a more meaningful dialogue.
- One area to consider is partnerships and strategic alliances. There are some obvious examples like Apple and AT&T for the iPhone, or in sailing, consider how non-endemic companies like Mount Gay Rum and Rolex have been partnering with industry players for years to help uncover new customers or maintain loyalty among existing ones. And more recently, Puma’s Volvo Ocean Race program delivered a great sailing partnership that helped to bring sailors into their brand franchise, while simultaneously introducing the Puma core to the sailing lifestyle and products. Partnerships offer a great strategy for uncovering new targets, allowing you to communicate your brand message via someone else’s marketing channels. This method allows you to speak to prospects in a way that is inclusive – not intrusive -- to their lifestyle.
- The web is also an incredibly powerful tool, but only if it is used correctly. Companies need a focus and true understanding of both whom you want to reach and the type of interactive communication that appeals to this target market.
- Your company’s own website may now be your single best opportunity to start and maintain a meaningful dialogue with your customer. Don’t think of your website simply as a tool to post information about your company and products. Everything in it -- from the design to the content -- should be created with the sole intent of facilitating dialogue with your customers. To this end, it is important to remember that your customer is a key part of this equation; too often, websites are company-focused and one-sided. Find out what type of experience your customers actually want to experience on your website, and then give it to them.
- Developing “microsites” (sometimes called mini-sites) is also an interesting and cost-effective means to communicate or share some specialized information that is of particular importance, such as the introduction of a new product, a new service capability or new technology. These dedicated sites create a great sales and marketing supplement that allow you to direct specific customer segments to the “new story” instead of trying build it into your existing website. It’s a great way to make a big impact without spending a lot.
- Another excellent way to reach new or existing customers is to maintain a robust database and to use it regularly for meaningful outbound communications. A good database doesn’t simply refer to your contacts’ names, e-mail addresses and other related information. A great database has all this and more: it includes what the customers want to know from you, and how they want to receive this information!
SOCIAL MEDIA CONSIDERATIONS
Another strategy you should familiarize yourself with includes understanding the various options for social networking. This requires you to fully analyze the options and the inherent pitfalls.
“Social networking” has always been a big part of boating, and now the growth of “social media” has evolved as a new tool, at an alarming rate. A word of caution: don’t be fooled and don’t waste valuable time and resources chasing strategies that are not relevant to your brand. Getting on Twitter or Facebook is not a social media strategy. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean its right for you. That being said, these social media initiatives can be extremely effective for the right companies with the right messaging. Both Twitter and Facebook will require a well thought-out strategy and commitment to maintaining your presence. The upside can be huge if you take the time to find out how your customers use social media, or if they use it at all. Try to learn what methods they use and their level of frequency to determine if this strategy makes sense for your business.
THE LAST WORD
It might be true that we see some real signs of life in the marine industry and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated. But if anything, this economic firestorm may have left the industry with a new and helpful sense of our own mortality, and in doing so, provided us with a renewed commitment to make every conversation -- every attempt at creating a dialogue -- a carefully constructed and meaningful one.
Doug Metchick and David Lowe are Principals at Wheelhouse (www.wheelhouseagency.com), an independent marketing consulting firm that specializes in marine and outdoor products.
For more information on Wheelhouse, contact Doug Metchick at email@example.com.