HARTFORD, Conn. – The marine industry is behind the curve when it comes to social networking, social media and social marketing – and not only are boating businesses paying the price, so are current and prospective boaters, according to Gary Druckenmiller, Jr., founder of TheOpenSea.com.
Today, those looking online for information about boating often have to search hundreds of Web sites to get their questions answered, explained Druckenmiller in an interview on Wednesday. And those marine businesses experimenting with social technologies often get lost in the mainstream noise of sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. That’s why he and co-founder Todd Russell recently launched the beta version of TheOpenSea.com, an online B2B and B2C community for the recreational marine industry.
“Getting into boating can be a daunting thing for many people,” he explained. “What are some of the things we can do to ease the burden of taking that first step? Once you’re in, it’s hard to leave the experience because people tend to fall in love with it. We want TheOpenSea to nurture that process and make it come alive. The ability to converse with experts and get pre-purchase feedback is vital.”
TheOpenSea.com, which the founders say is “built on the pillars of boating discovery, education, safety, and enjoyment,” is intended to unite the recreational boater and the boating professional while meeting both of their needs.
Boat builders, suppliers, dealers and other marine professionals can use the free, password-protected site to communicate with each other and with boaters. The site’s features allow companies to create their own profiles, chat with each other and boaters, post blogs and events, upload pictures and videos, and collect and respond to user feedback.
Boaters can post boating videos and pictures, rate their boat, maintain a cruising log, sign up to attend boating events, start enthusiast clubs, and provide and receive expert feedback on boating topics.
Putting the pieces together
Given the site’s ability to connect boaters with both manufacturers and dealers, it begs the question of how TheOpenSea.com might impact supply chain relationships. Druckenmiller believes it will actually allow for improved control over the flow of information from industry to end-user.
“Unlike a car owner or someone that buys a fridge, if a boater has a major problem with their $100,000 investment, they’re going to call the manufacturer,” he said. “They want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. The customer is always going to define how the relationship works, not the other way around.”
Today, manufacturers are constantly fielding calls from customers, many of which could be avoided if consumers knew they could find all the information they needed in one place online, Druckenmiller argued. On TheOpenSea.com, companies can manage conversations with their end-customers, directing owners or prospective owners to the appropriate contacts within their company or their dealer network.
“Social networking provides an enormous opportunity to fix a fragmented communications tier and supply chain of knowledge by activating a functional structure, namely TheOpenSea.com,” he stated.
Not only can this drive efficiencies, Druckenmiller predicts that within five years, online tools like those offered by TheOpenSea will allow many small and mid-sized companies to replace their current customer service programs.
TheOpenSea expects to be around in five years through a business model in which it will garner revenue from multiple sources, including advertising, sponsorships, business program and applications. Participation in TheOpenSea.com is free and is expected to remain that way.
The turn to niche
As more people join mainstream social networking Web sites, people are getting overwhelmed by the amount of information there and instead are turning to niche environments like TheOpenSea.com, Druckenmiller explained. At the same time, marine businesses are finding it hard to make their mark online.
“Those limited marketing dollars are scattered thinly around a bunch of sites with little or no impact and little recognizable ROI,” he said.
Through TheOpenSea, companies now have access to Web 2.0 technologies it may not be able to otherwise afford. In addition, Druckenmiller suggests marine companies will “absolutely” discover that social networking can generate a return on investment.
“It will only prove positive to those who find the right recipe and stick with it,” he said. “Don’t give up after a moth. It’s a long-term investment. Be skeptical. Think logically and do what makes the most sense for you. We have been working on this concept for a year to get it right. Prove us right or wrong.”
TheOpenSea.com founders look to become “that marine site with 1 million users,” but it isn’t expected to happen overnight.
“If things comes together the way we want them to, we hope to reach between 100,000 and 200,000 users by the end of year one,” said Druckenmiller.
That will require the founders – both of which bring years of boating, Internet and marketing experience to the table – to continue to grow the encouragement and participation they have already generated from a few dozen industry companies and associations.
“The industry is on life support. Marketing budgets are dying. Manufacturers and dealers are closing up or changing strategy all together,” concluded Druckenmiller. “Ask yourself: what will you do to survive? To make things better? To make more sales? What do you have to lose to try something that seems different? Why would you not join TheOpenSea.com? It’s free. All it can do is improve your business and your life.”
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