To market, to market

Getting in front of the consumer is one of every dealer’s top priorities. It includes staying in the good graces of current customers, being top-of-mind among those new to boating and maybe even convincing competitors’ customers to do business with you.

Deciding how to spend the dealership’s marketing dollars to accomplish those goals can be tough. What works for one might not work for another. Tactics to target a rural, working-class community in the Midwest won’t work for a gated community in the Southeast. The good news is that there is no shortage of marketing ideas to choose from in creating your own successful formula.

In today’s digital age, the opportunities for customer outreach are seemingly endless, from traditional print ads to Google packages that put local dealerships at the top of Web searches to videos on dealer Web sites.

Boating Industry’s 2006 Top 100 Dealers featured a wide range of marketing strategies, many of which included best practices others may be able to incorporate into their unique marketing formula.

Map it out
Having a plan always gives a business a leg up; this is particularly true in marketing, where a plan can be modified depending on financial results or in response to changing market conditions.

The average Top 100 dealership spent 3.1 percent of its sales on marketing materials and activities, including advertising. This included planned marketing initiatives as well as unique opportunities that popped up during the year.

Many Top 100 Dealers hold marketing planning meetings each fall to discuss the coming year. Among the agenda items are often creating a marketing calendar and a budget for individual promotions. Rambo Marine, Inc. (Ranked 73) and Arrowhead Yacht Club (Ranked 8) are two dealers who consult with David Parker of Parker Business Planning Inc. when laying out their annual marketing strategy. At Sea Ray of Cincinnati, Louisville & Lexington (Ranked 59), the general manager of each location is charged with developing a unique plan for his or her dealership with help from the company’s marketing director.

Developing a slogan or theme to accompany your advertising and marketing efforts can boost its effectiveness. It could be a short-term slogan, perhaps to cover a sales push, or it could be an ongoing one, such as Crystal Pierz’s (ranked 5), “This way to the lake.”

Print and beyond…
At the very least, most marine retailers use traditional advertising mediums. They place an occasional ad in the local newspaper and maybe send out a direct mailer to the neighborhood. In fact, newspapers were the traditional medium the Top 100 turned to most often to spend their advertising dollars.

Magazine advertising can offer a more targeted alternative to newspapers. Many dealers from the 2006 Top 100 opted to advertise in their regional edition of Boat Trader. Others opted for local resort and tourism publications.

The debate over the fruitfulness of advertising in publications such as the Yellow Pages, with the Internet so much more readily and cheaply available, rages on, with some dealers dropping advertising there altogether, while others still consider it a must.

Alternative advertising venues abound. Sea Ray of Cincinnati, Louisville & Lexington (Ranked 59) made an arrangement with its local cable provider to position its television ads after Grow Boating ads aired. Silver Lake Marine (Ranked 88) runs a video during intermission at a local drive-in theater. Munson Ski & Marine (Ranked 66) hangs posters with its calendar of events at waterways and other frequently visited areas nearby. Short’s Marine Inc. (Ranked 78) places ads in its local bus shelters.

Into the world
Beyond advertising, there are marketing materials and activities that can be used to further dealership and manufacturer branding and name recognition.

Off-site displays can be used to situate product in front of a new audience. Choose a display site that fits the target demographic for the display boat. Park Boat Company Powersports (Ranked 38) displays boats at area malls, Wal-Marts, Sam’s Clubs, West Marines, local campgrounds and large industrial sites, while Boat Town, Inc. (Ranked 49) displays boats at a waterfront resort and community several times throughout the year and over major holidays.

A dealership publication can be great marketing tool, whether it’s a weekly newsletter or quarterly magazine. “Boats Ink,” Boats Inc.’s (Ranked 37) newsletter, which covers local fishing regulations and fish tales, puts the company in front of its customers and prospects regularly.

Strategic partnerships can bolster marketing efforts. JOA Marine (Ranked 63) partners with local branches of companies like GM, Hooters, Anheuser Busch and Miller Lite, as well as local radio stations for ongoing promotions that include lake events and local concerts.

Dealership branded clothing is a walking advertisement. Gordy’s Lakefront Marine, Inc. (Ranked 15) has found great success among customers with its Gordy Gear.

Cooperation makes things happen
Co-op funds can be a welcome addition to a marketing budget, although they can be tricky for dealerships to take full advantage of, depending on the stipulations manufacturers attach.

While all the Top 100 dealerships strive to use every penny they are allotted, a handful have elected to have dealership personnel monitor co-op usage. To make sure it uses all the co-op dollars it has available, Park Boat Company Powersports (Ranked 38) pays an employee a percentage of the co-op acquired.

The majority of co-op funds the Top 100 dealers received were spent on boat shows, but they also helped fund everything from the usual print ads to customer gifts (Tri-State Marine, Ranked 79) and a lounge, complete with boatbuilder-logoed furniture (Gordy’s Lakefront Marine, Inc., Ranked 15).

Dealers have found that creative marketing ideas can sometimes lead to additional funds from some manufacturers, particularly for brand-specific events. Thunder Marine, Inc. (Ranked 40) has partnered with its manufacturers to promote complementary products and services, including an electronics seminar put on by an electronics installer and a yacht care seminar presented by a cleaning detailer.

Getting bang for your buck
To really track how well your advertising dollars are working for you, it’s not enough just to ask your customers what brought them into the store anymore. There are sounder ways to track how many dollars you bring in for those you spend in particular advertising venues.

The most predominant way to track return on investment is to contract with a company that can provide a slew of toll free numbers and create reports about the numbers’ usage. Legendary Marine (Ranked 52) purchased 75 toll free numbers from Who’s Calling, which the dealership rotates through its media initiatives. Clarks Landing Boat Sales (Ranked 41) does the same through CallButton.

Having a call to action included with ads can also help dealers track the response they get. Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina (Ranked 91) tracks its new advertising avenues by offering purchase incentives and a timeline to react.

Dealers can also track the effectiveness of their Internet spending. Through its Web services provider, MacCallum’s Boathouse, Inc. (Ranked 94) can track how often consumers visit its Web site, how often they return, what pages they visit and for how long. With Marine Web Services, Causeway Marine (Ranked 48) can also find out what area code and zip code Web views are coming from.

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