In the early days of the Web, boat manufacturers were like most other businesses. They didn’t understand how to leverage the new medium’s potential, so they did what they knew, putting up specs and photos — the type of information customers might have picked up at a boat show or in a dealership.
Basically, they used their websites as digital brochures, according to Betsy Lazzara, vice president and brand manager of Bayliner Boats.
Today, things are different. Modern manufacturer websites still have all the technical information a consumer could want, but they also feature videos, blogs, forums, apps and a host of other ways for people to interact with the boating lifestyle.
“It has transitioned more into a destination for boating consumers,” Lazzara says. “Whether or not they’re in the market for a boat, some people just like to get online and look at boats because they enjoy the lifestyle.”
At the same time, the Internet offers new ways for manufacturers to communicate and share information with their distribution networks, helping dealers better utilize the resources and experience of the brands they partner with.
“We’re continuously trying to make sure we have the right level of engaging content on our website — for consumers to engage in, to start dialogues around, to talk to dealers about,” says Lazzara. “Separately, we’re always trying to enhance the tools our dealers have access to — to use on their sites, or to use in targeted messaging to consumers.”
Same goal, different methods
Despite everything that’s changed online, the main purpose of a manufacturer website remains the same: to generate leads.
Phil Walker, e-business director of MasterCraft Boat Co., says his company evaluates its site the same way today as a decade ago.
“We measure our success for MasterCraft.com on the conversion of leads to warranty registrations,” he says.
Mike Menne, who spent 10 years as Premier Marine’s director of marketing and now helps manage its website at marketing firm Take it to Eleven, echoes those thoughts.
“Our end goal is to generate the contact information and generate the lead information,” Menne says, “so Premiere has the info, and we can continue to market to that customer, so the customer gets the resource information to their closest dealers, so they can walk through the dealership doors, touch the product, feel the product and really take that next step.”
Although the goal remains the same, strategies for drawing people to boat builder sites and educating them about the brands have evolved significantly, with search engine optimization, social media, viral videos and other improvements leading the way.
“What hasn’t changed is the need for information — both for our dealers to sell the product and to understand it, as well as consumers and a need for information in the sales process, the researching and the buying process as well as the post-sale process,” Lazzara says. “I think what’s changed is the access to that information and the ability to engage in a dialogue around that information.”
One of the biggest online challenges for dealers and manufacturers in recent years has been learning how to work with social media.
Most have moved past their initial hesitation and now feel they have a better understanding of the medium and how to work with it. Along with early uncertainty about how to leverage social interactions and quantify the results, one of the most prevalent fears was what might happen when consumers were empowered to publicly broadcast negative feedback.
“You open yourself up to all of the honesty around your product and your experience, and that could be good or that could be bad,” says Lazzara. “And that depends heavily on the products you represent, the way you treat customers, and the brand that’s backing you in the market.”
When Bayliner opened up to Facebook a little more than a year ago, the company did it knowing that someone could get on Bayliner’s Facebook page and say that they had a bad experience, she acknowledges. But the company went ahead with it anyway, trusting that its product quality was high and that its dealer experience was good.
With about 25,000 fans of the brand on Facebook today, Lazzara is glad the company took the risk. The feedback is 99 percent positive, she says, and when there are issues, the company addresses them directly.
“If we see someone who wants a part or has had an issue with their product that they’ve had difficulty getting serviced, they could be in a territory that’s not serviced well, or have a 1984 boat, our customer service group will contact them directly and handle that offline,” Lazzara says. “And sometimes we’ll see that person come back on the forum and say, ‘Hey, I was contacted. Really happy about this.’ And sometimes they won’t, and that’s fine with us. We just know we’re servicing the consumer as best we can. But this medium has actually given us the ability to do that.”
“If a consumer is raising their hand and they have a problem, we’re there to recognize it,” he says. “People will air their dirty laundry on our Facebook page, but we have the processes in place to deal with that in the place where they’ve chosen to raise their hand, on Facebook.”
Sometimes, the best representatives of a brand are actually its customers. When one person writes something negative on a manufacturer’s social media site, customers will often come to the defense of the brand, something Bayliner has experienced on its Facebook page a few times, according to Lazzara.
Observing Bayliner’s experience with social media has also encouraged many of its dealers to jump in themselves, something Walker encourages.
“People who are kind of afraid [of social media], maybe don’t understand the power of it, maybe they’re afraid because it’s going to shed some bad light on a process or a business practice that they have,” Walker says, “but essentially social media is creating transparency that allows us to have even more insight into our consumers.”
PCs and tablets
and smartphones, oh my
People’s online browsing habits involve sitting in front of a traditional desktop computer much less frequently these days. That’s why MasterCraft has started working with a content management system that formats content for whatever device viewers are using.
The new website for Hydra-Sports (a brand MasterCraft purchased in 2010 after Genmar’s bankruptcy) has an auto-detect feature that allows it to serve content in different formats depending on how viewers access the site. Conveniently, despite the number of ways the content can be displayed, it only needs to be loaded once on the back end.
“It will take the same image and render it for a high-def LCD monitor at a boat show, or while you’re standing at the boat show on your phone,” Walker says.
MasterCraft chose to go with this technology because it wanted content to be visible to all customers, regardless of the platform used to access the Internet.
“In the beginning, when we started looking at mobile and apps, we wanted to make sure we didn’t go down the same path as everyone else and just focus on the iPhone and iOS,” says David Kirkland, chief information officer at MasterCraft. “We wanted to really able to reach out and touch all groups.”
Initially, MasterCraft did a lot of research to determine which platforms it should focus on. However, at the time of the study, the company found that no platform owned more than 25 percent of the market. It was concerned that if it focused on one, it would miss the opportunity represented by the others.
Similarly, Bayliner designed its virtual tours to accommodate both touch-screen and mouse-and-keyboard devices.
“All of our cruisers have touch-based virtual tours,” Lazzara says. “So if you hit our virtual tour from an iPad, it’s all touch-based. If you hit from a basic laptop or desktop, it’s via the mouse. It’s making sure the platform goes both ways depending on the technology you’re using.”
These boat builders recognize that the way people get information and interact with brands is constantly evolving. For example, MasterCraft is looking at platforms like online gaming as a way to spread its message.
“We’ve even talked about in-game placements for MasterCraft because we know our consumers are in the gaming environment,” Walker says. “That’s their media of choice.”
Recreation in motion
One thing a website can do that a brochure cannot is show a product in motion. A boat is an emotional purchase, and a well-produced video can help customers connect with boating on an emotional level. Not only that, it can give them a feel for how the boat runs without a test ride and help them picture themselves at the helm.
All of those benefits used to be achieved with videos or DVDs, but mail order is no longer the best way for manufacturers to share that type of content. Video has made a rapid migration online in recent years, though not every boat builder uses the same strategy.
At MasterCraft, the company has always had its own branded video player, as it didn’t want to rely on a third party or have YouTube watermarks on its site. However, it also uses YouTube to connect with consumers.
“Our videos do transcend the MasterCraft.com website,” Walker says. “They almost premiere on MasterCraft.com and then they’re put into the YouTube channel and are shared and commented on.”
Bayliner takes a different approach, using YouTube heavily as its base for consumer videos. Lazzara says that’s because YouTube makes it easy for dealers to make use of the video, thanks to convenient embed codes.
Bayliner has also added a different type of video to the mix. In addition to walk-arounds and running shots, the company shares customer videos.
“Consumers, in a lot of ways, are a bit wary about content that comes directly from a manufacturer,” Lazzara says. “They’ll always look for some word of mouth to validate that one way or the other.”
These videos are available to more potential viewers than ever before. However, despite serving a similar function as previous video efforts, today’s online video isn’t a precise substitute for what came before it. One difference is that customers have shorter attention spans online. At Premier, every boat listing is accompanied by full screen HD video. As with many manufacturers that use video, each clip lasts just 60-90 seconds.
Ahead of the curve
A few years ago, the addition of build-a-boat features to manufacturer websites was all the rage. They serve as a fun way for customers to design the boat of their dreams and act as an efficient way to gather leads for dealers.
Today, the trend seems to be mobile tagging. MasterCraft kicked it off when it first used a mobile tag in a brochure two years ago. Its 2010 brochure had a tag that brought people to a microsite of downloadable wallpaper. Premier has also experimented with quick response tags — the company put QR codes on each page of a recent brochure and in all its national advertising, which led to videos of whatever boat was being showcased. That resulted in a year-over-year increase of video views of 36 percent from smartphones alone.
Another example of manufacturers’ willingness to try new things is Premier’s launch of an online parts store in February that both dealers and consumers can utilize. Dealers can log in and purchase at their discounted prices, or consumers can go online and order the things they need to keep their boats in shape.
Here to stay
Engaging people in the boating lifestyle is an important part of both the boat sales process and the industry’s ability to keep customers in boating. With improved convenience, interactivity and content, today’s websites aid that goal.
“Our content, whether it’s on YouTube or the website, is a way for them to continue to experience the brand even in the winter months when they’re not on their boat,” Lazzara says. “They can chat and see what’s happening in Australia in the middle of the summer.”
That’s important because the prominence of the Internet in every boat consumer’s purchase process is not going away. More than 90 percent of Premier’s customers have their first interaction with the brand online, Menne estimates, and whether due to site improvements, better market conditions, an increased reliance on the Internet or some combination of factors, leads generated by Premier’s website from April 2010 to April 2011 increased by 500 percent.
That shows something about where customers are increasingly going to find their information: “It’s all online,” Menne says.
The increased reliance on the Web poses challenges — like getting people into the dealership — and offers advantages, like the ability to interact with consumers on a daily basis. Ultimately, however, even with an information delivery mechanism that is rapidly transforming, what the consumer needs hasn’t changed that much.
“It’s going from a little bit less face to face in the beginning, where that was all we had. To now, being able to present the same information in a meaningful manner over the Internet,” Lazzara says. “And having the same message understood by the consumer, and then giving them a reason to come to our dealer. And helping them understand the value that dealer provides them, both in the sales and service experience, and the brand itself. So I think it’s funneling that information, and giving the consumer the same answers, just delivered in a different way multiple different places.”