Free advice. ROI TBD.

I couldn’t help but laugh at first sight of the sign promoting an old boat and trailer combo I spotted on a leisurely drive this summer. “FREE BOAT,” it screamed out to the thousands of cars that passed by each and every day. “TRAILER $300.”

It was hard to determine at 65 mph whether or not the trailer was actually worth more than the boat — or the piece of plywood it was advertised on, for that matter — but needless to say, it was an attention-grabber. I confirmed with my wife, the only credible expert within earshot, that this, indeed, qualified as savvy marketing. And to back up our expert opinions, I guess, is the fact that not only has the sign’s message stuck with me for the past three months, but that old boat did, in fact, disappear from his lot.

It occurred to me as the boat-and-trailer combo was shrinking in my rearview mirror, however, that this seller is the type of guy who outperforms our dealers in the pre-owned boat market. Although, I suspect he’s not what we’d consider a marketing genius. He’s just your average boater with a sense of humor.

We’ve gathered some marketing knowledge for ourselves recently. Through a survey of more than 220 marine dealers, we dug into some of the financial aspects, the hurdles and the ROI of their marketing prowess. While you can see a summary of this survey on page 32, it might or might not be worth noting that not one dealer suggested a high amount of traffic or ROI, from a spray-painted plywood strategy.

What we did find, however, was that these dealers are becoming more sophisticated, or at the very least are finding greater value and spending more money, online. Their own Web sites were cited as the No. 1 medium for driving traffic and sales, for generating the highest ROI, and for increased expenditures in 2007.

While that may seem as obvious as most dealers’ hesitance to use plywood signs, I have to admit, it surprised us. Why? Three of our editors signed up to receive the Discover Boating DVD and to date, only three dealers have contacted us. None of them were certified. Additionally, in discussions with some of the top dealers we know, some of whom are certified and some who are not, there admittedly has been a near universal lack of commitment to these leads, except perhaps, from a select few boat builders that are sending these leads to their dealers—both certified and non.

So, while we understand the difference between a commitment to Web site development and the potential customers the Discover Boating campaign provides, the leads, the prospects, the traffic, are virtually, no pun intended, the same.

If you’re spending all this money on developing your Web site, you better make sure a fair portion of that is being budgeted for proper lead management. It doesn’t do you or your customers any good to have a fancy new Web site if the leads you’re generating are finding nothing but a dead end. Your ROI would be much higher if you bought some plywood and a can of spray paint.

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