Online Best Practices

There are still those stubborn few that refuse to get online, insisting that doing business the way they’ve always done it is good enough — for them and their customers. But you won’t find those people among the ranks of the best dealers the boating industry has to offer.

Far from fading away, the influence of the Internet continues to grow in the marine industry. Innovation and opportunity are limited only by the initiative of the businesses themselves.

Every year, we have the privilege of an inside look at many of the industry’s leading dealers and how they run their businesses. In our efforts to continually share those insights with you, here’s what some of the best businesses in the boating industry are doing online and some of the lessons learned from those efforts.

Getting noticed

“Along with steady improvements we wanted to make to our website, our biggest goal for 2009 was simply to be found on the Internet.”

That quote from Karena Blanton, owner of Gone Fishin’ Marine in Dixon, Calif., epitomized one of the biggest trends seen in the online efforts of leading dealers during the last couple of years: a push to ensure their websites are found by the customer.

Search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising were mentioned frequently by these dealers as an effective way to do just that. Dealerships that have achieved online success view their websites as an additional location — they see themselves as a three-location dealership with two bricks-and-mortar stores and a website. But those dealers also realize even the best website on the Internet is useless unless people can find it.


One method popular with leading dealers for driving visitors to their sites is pay-per-click advertising. Using the PPC model, advertisers only pay the websites hosting their ads when a visitor clicks on one. In the case of search engines, advertisers will bid on keyword phrases relevant to their target market, while host sites that contain content often charge a fixed price per click instead of using the bid system.

Sites that host PPC ads display them when a keyword query matches the list of keywords the advertiser has bid on, or when a content site displays relevant content. These ads are the “sponsored links” or “sponsored ads” you see when doing a search on Google, for example.

Google AdWords is one of the most popular providers of PPC ads. Advertisers select their keywords and the maximum amount they will pay per click. When a search is done on Google, the ad will appear either above or to the right of the results. How the ad is displayed in relation to the other ads on the page is determined by the bids of the other advertisers and what is known as the “quality score” of all ads shown for a given search. This is calculated using the relevance of the advertiser’s text in the ad, keywords used, account history, the historical click-through rates of the ad and other methods Google does not divulge. AdWords also allows advertisers to focus on specific customers or markets using geographic or demographic targeting tools.

“By using Google AdWords, we are able to target people within 50 miles from our store,” says William T. Fulton, Jr., owner of BMC Boats in Longwood, Fla. “We have run campaigns for specific boat models, boat brands, dockage and our marina. It is interesting that when we run these campaigns our website activity increases, which ultimately increases our store activity.”

At Sail & Ski Center — based in Austin, Texas — the company says one of its key marketing initiatives over the last few years has been the development of a comprehensive pay-per-click advertising campaign for the main search engines as well as separate campaigns for each of its markets.

“Inside of each campaign we have different ads for each part of our business that send prospective customers to the relevant page on our website,” owner Rod Malone says. “This program has launched Sail & Ski to the top of search results pages for products we carry where the search was initiated from an ISP in our market area. We have seen increased traffic to our website which increases customer awareness for our dealership and our brands … Each pay-for-click ad directs customers to customized landing pages allowing us to maximize our investment.”

In order to generate more traffic for its website, Gone Fishin’ Marine expanded its pay-per-click campaigns last year with both Google and a similar service offered by Yahoo. However, the company said that due to a decline in Yahoo’s search market share and because “Google had become a verb, and Yahoo had not,” Gone Fishin’ dropped Yahoo and boosted its efforts with Google.

“We increased our PPC spend by 45 percent over 2008,” says Blanton. “The breakdown of peak Web traffic was 30 percent paid search, 21 percent organic search, 30 percent direct traffic, with the remaining 19 percent coming from referring domains. So in terms of generating additional traffic, paid search was definitely valuable. And over the course of the year our bounce rate for paid search channels decreased enough to see the effectiveness of our ongoing ad refinement.”

But Andy Larson, owner of Minnesota’s Midwest MasterCraft, has had a different experience with pay-per-click advertising. His dealership first directed its own PPC campaign for a year, then hired a respected advertising agency to take control of it in 2008-09, and spent $1,500 to $6,000 per month on the effort, only to be disappointed with the results.

“After a year with outside expert help, we found that they could not raise our conversion ratio so we have cut PPC spending to nearly nothing,” Larson says. “During this same time period we also spent considerable effort on search engine optimization and have seen our Web traffic and sales increase even though we have essentially stopped using PPC. This has greatly cut our advertising costs. Currently 80 percent of the visitors to [one of the company’s websites] are referred via a search engine for free. data shows that gets the equivalent to $34,946 in pay per click traffic from our top 20 organic (free) keywords from Google per month. The result is that our search engine optimization efforts have been really rewarding.”

Search Engine Optimization

Often referred to as SEO, search engine optimization is the art and science of making Web pages attractive to search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Websites with pages that are optimized will appear above those that aren’t in search results and that’s important because, at least according to one frequently cited study, as many as 87 percent of users will not navigate beyond the first page of results when searching.

SEO focuses on making sure each Web page has appropriate title tags and meta tags, and that keywords or key phrases for the page are distributed throughout the content in a way search engines will respond to. Since not all search engines operate the same way, an entire industry has emerged to keep pages atop the results as the engines, and the way they operate, continue to evolve.

Russell Marine, based in Alexander City, Ala., placed an emphasis on SEO in the last year and has seen a dramatic increase in the visits to its website as a result. Traffic is up 62.58 percent for the second quarter of 2010 vs. the same quarter in 2009 and nearly 80 percent of that traffic is from new visitors.

Kevin Roggenbuck, president and owner of Seattle’s Lake Union Sea Ray, says the SEO program his company put in place in 2009 proved to be a “tremendous success” in less than four months, driving increased traffic to the dealership’s website. While Lake Union currently gets many of its leads through manufacturer websites and programs — with 38 percent coming from its own site — Roggenbuck says that with the SEO in place for over a year, the company expects that percentage to grow to 50 percent.

Analyzing the results

As Andy Larson’s earlier example illustrates, whatever efforts a dealership makes to drive traffic to its Web pages, metrics that detail a site’s performance are vital if a business is to make sound decisions about content, SEO, PPC and every other aspect of its online presence. Once again, Google provides a service many dealers said they have found useful.

Google Analytics is a free offering that supplies users with detailed statistics about the visitors to a website, tracking people referred from search engines, display advertising, pay-per-click networks, e-mail marketing and other sources. Underperforming Web pages can be identified and Analytics can tell where visitors came from (referrers), how long they stayed and their geographic location.

Castaway Marina — based in Queensbury, N.Y. — uses Google Analytics to track the traffic on its website.

“Every Monday we receive an e-mail explaining how many people searched our website, what browsers they used, how long they were on each page,” says General Manager Thalia Chase. “It also breaks out our hits to the day and time as well. This information is used to see which boats are in the most demand at any particular time. Also, we can use information to help us decide when to send out e-mail blasts. For instance, if we see that most people consistently are browsing our site on Wednesday mornings, then we have the best chance of having them open our e-mail blast if we send it out then.”

Social media

Along with optimizing a website so it stands out from the crowd, taking part in the online conversation about all things boating is also a great way to get noticed and promote the business. And this is becoming another very popular trend among leading dealers.

From Facebook to Twitter, blogs and YouTube, these dealerships have recognized the opportunity that social media provides for communication with customers and targeted markets, strengthening brand awareness and providing valuable feedback on the products and services a company offers, in addition to feedback on how the company itself is performing.


Hampton Watercaft and Marine — based in Hampton Bays, N.Y. — has created a strong presence on social networking sites as part of its strategy to become a resource customers can rely on to enhance their boating experiences.

“Our customers aren’t just buying a boat, they are joining a family, our lifestyle,” says Tony Villareale, Hampton’s president. “Through Facebook, we are able to market our brand, products and services. We are more than just a dealer, we are a part of the community. Our fans and friends are able to access cool and exciting pictures of our events and happenings surrounding our family. We keep our fans in the loop to upcoming events, ie., Boater’s Safety, Dock and Dines, and Rendezvous, as well as great specials and deals on boats.”

Sail & Ski says it has also jumped onto the social media bandwagon in “full force” to not only connect with current customers, but gain new ones.

“The boating community is a tight-knit, targeted group of people who all share a common interest,” Malone says. “Facebook is a way for these people to reach out and connect, with Sail & Ski just the facilitator. For this reason, we have created specialized pages for specific events.”

One such page was created for the AquaPalooza Signature Event Sail & Ski hosted this July. A huge undertaking that ultimately saw nearly 70,000 people attend a daylong party/concert headlined by Brad Paisley, Sail & Ski’s Facebook page was a sounding board for questions and concerns, and the dealership said it became the most effective way to communicate procedures and safety messages to attendees.

“In a single week, this page had 12,383 active users, 787 wall posts and almost 30,000 page views,” Malone says. “We believe that the ease of communication through our Facebook page strongly influenced the positive outcome that AquaPalooza’s Signature Event ended up being.”


Another frequently mentioned Internet platform that dealerships use to connect with customers is Twitter, and many have found it useful for networking. However, several said it was not as popular with consumers as Facebook, or as effective.

“Our customer base seems to be more connected with Facebook,” says Cory Archbold, general manager of Dry Dock Marine Center in Angola, Ind. “We think it is because there is more content such as pictures and details that can be on a Facebook page vs. a Twitter account.”


Dry Dock has also started a blog on its homepage as another way to get information to its customers, who can subscribe and receive notifications every time something new is posted. The company says the blog has really helped its website get recognized by search engines and that it saw “a massive increase in our Web presence” once the blog began.

WordPress and Blogger were two of the most frequently mentioned publishing platforms for blogs. Buckeye Marine — located in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, Canada — has three blogs, one on WordPress and two on Blogger. The WordPress blog was just launched this June and is a site for members of the dealership’s Cruise Club to access and communicate with one another and Buckeye. A member might ask how to navigate to a particular location and/or invite other members along for the trip.

Carly Poole, Buckeye’s director of marketing, says the site allows customers to share their experiences with one another and also allows the dealership “the chance to see how they are using their boats and answer any boating-related questions that come up.”


Joe Hoffmaster — president of Hoffmaster’s Marina, located in Woodbridge, Va. — says that while social media is being touted as the next big thing in e-commerce, he has, so far, experienced mixed results. YouTube videos, however, have been a useful tool for him as he works to make sales. Hoffmaster tells the story of a husband who was having trouble getting his wife to free up time to come see one of the dealership’s boats but, because Hoffmaster’s had placed several videos about the boat on YouTube, the wife viewed the vessel online instead and the couple eventually purchased an even larger model.

“The main holdup on these videos for me is just taking the time to make them,” Hoffmaster says. “My next goal is to have a wider variety of videos. For example, a 10-minute video about Hoffmaster’s Marina itself, newsy videos shot at boat shows and dealer meetings, informational videos about operating boats and safety issues that are designed to take the intimidation out of boating are all videos I think a customer would want to see.”

For its part, BMC Boats has used YouTube for several videos of its dealership and trips taken by members of its Cruise Club, saying that they are “a great way to into our website and other different sites.”

The front door

Whether it’s a video, blog, Facebook page or the behind-the-scenes work necessary to make a website come up first when someone does a search for “fishing boat,” putting your best foot forward on the Internet just makes good business sense. A dealership might have the best location in town, a full-page in the Sunday newspaper and an hourly ad on the radio station everyone listens to, but these days chances are the first “visit” a customer makes to a business is going to be online. The best dealers understand this and take advantage of it.

“The evolution of the Internet has forever changed the boat buying process,” says Dan Bair, CEO of Florida’s Quality Boats of Clearwater. “Our website is the front door to our dealership. While the Internet can be viewed as a negative antagonist to price shopping on new boats, we use it as a tool to inform and educate our customers and prospects on the excellence of our boat suppliers, their boats and their reputations.

“We have learned that most people do their research at home on the Internet before they ever see the boat of their interest in person at the dealership. We see this as preemptive qualification; if someone is going to take their time to view our boats at our dealership after all the research they have done, we already know they have narrowed their search to our boat, thus we understand clearly that we have one chance to make a good first impression. That realization has made us better and forces us to always strive for eternal improvement as we know the customer can find someone else with a click of the mouse.”

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