Attracting Future Customers Today

In late July thousands of people lined up outside electronics stores across Canada, waiting to purchase Apple's new iPhone 4. The long line-ups began to form well before dawn, sometimes the night before, in anticipation of the official July 30 on-sale date. Some shoppers waited as long as 19 hours for the chance to buy one of these sleek new smartphones. Store clerks arriving for work were greeted with cheers – it was a scene reminiscent of Beatlemania.

To no one's surprise, the vast majority of those standing in line were 20-somethingsthe so-called Generation Y – the most techno-savvy generation to date and the boating industry's target market of tomorrow.

At 82 million strong, Gen Y is significantly larger than the Baby Boomer generation. They have money, they have opinions, and they represent your future boat customers. But the time to begin sowing the seeds for future sales is right now. If you want to still be in business 10 years from now, Gen Y is a market you will have to engage.

Marketing to Gen Y calls for a different approach, and electronic media is the key. It is important to understand that Gen Y has never known a world without wireless remote controls, microwave ovens, mobile phones and computers. Because they've been raised in this electronic world, Gen Y doesn't distinguish between a bricks-and-mortar store and a website – they view both as one and the same. So when marketing to Gen Y, the focus is not just on your website, but your entire internet presence.

What makes Gen Y different from Baby Boomers is not how much time they are spending online, but how they have digital media their default method for communicating with their friends, their families and the world at large. Making your website more Gen Y-friendly today will help establish brand loyalty for tomorrow's purchases. So how does your website stack up

Speed Counts

Your web pages better load quickly, because this generation will wait only three seconds for a page to load before they click away. Websites need to be faster and easier to navigate in order to cater to a generation with a very short attention span. Gen Y demands immediacy and instant gratification.

If your website opens to a zippy flash page that requires a click to enter combined with cheesy elevator music – the ultimate web taboo – then you have a problem. Gen Y won't tolerate marketing fluff. They won't click to enter – they'll click to escape. So keep your pages simple, fast, and efficient to win.

Lose The Hype

Drop the self-indulgent 'we're number one' bravado, because Gen Y won't buy it – they  have a highly sensitive BS meter that works around the clock. Make sure the information on your website is honest. Gen Y is looking for straight-forward facts and figures – save the hype and stick with black and white. According to James R. Palcynski, retail analyst for Ladenburg Thalmann & Company, Gen Y “responds to humour, irony and the unvarnished truth.” If you can't be funny though, stick with the truth.

And keep it short – this goes for any web visitor but is critical for Generation Y. Well laid-out, bite–sized information that is easy to read, watch or listen to will resonate best. Remember you have a short timeframe to get your message across, so don't waste it. Clear, high-quality photography of boats and products is critical for making Gen Y visitors feel they are seeing the real McCoy. If you have people in your product photos, make sure they reflect your audience. Grandpa fishing with the grandkids simply won't work.

Try a variety of web mediums – text, photos, RRS feed, audio. 20-somethings are accustomed to receiving information on a variety of platforms. They don't want to just check out still photos of the latest boat models, they want to see them in action, or hear someone relate their boating experience. This is the interactive generation. They'll believe you more if they can see it for themselves.

Go Viral

If you have a message that you want to release, there's no better way than to go viral. It's not only a way to communicate with Gen Y, but the best way to generate buzz by tapping into the friends and communities with whom they connect on a daily basis. Provide them with options to join your Facebook Community or follow you on Twitter. Cue into their communication strategies. This is the 'participation' generation – everyone wants to be heard. Don't bombard them with messaging, but become part of the conversation.

Consider personalizing your viral communication. Put a name behind the brand. Everyone on YouTube loves Dave the Boating Guy. It's about personally connecting. If there was ever a reason to assign one person as the permanent in-house internet marketer – social media would be it.

A word of caution about entering the viral world, you've got to stick with it. An unattended Twitter account or an abandoned Facebook page, because you're too busy right now, sends the clear message to this segment that they are not your highest priority. That's a big mistake.

Text, text, Text

Even though they are glued to their cell phones, the Gen Y is the least likely to call you. Expect to receive a text message instead.

Can your Gen Y customer email specific individuals in your company, or is your contact info limited to one of those impersonal website forms? And if it is, is there an 'auto responder' message sent out thanking them for their query and saying that someone will be answering their question before the end of the day?

Invite Opinions

Blogging will become an even more important web tool in the next five years. This is a great opportunity to tell your story and talk about your business. Allow comments on your products or your service. Remember bad comments are just that, bad comments. The beauty of the web is the ability to publicly admit mistakes, or correct erroneous information. It's your forum, but make it theirs as well. Don't be disingenuous. It's always enlightening to know what your customers think.

Customer testimonials are a significant boost to your website.Testimonials speak to the fact that someone took the time to actually write something and send it to you. And since your customer made the effort, that lends more credibility to your business that you tooting your own.

Community Involvement

Generation Y is socially conscious and big on the environment. If you support or participate in charity events likeBoat for Hope or the Easter Seals Regatta, then let the world know. It's an expectation of Gen Y that everyone will be socially conscious, and your business is simply demonstrating that it is part of the community.

Make Your Site Fun

Consider your website as a virtual sales force that requires constant dedication and mentoring. A well-trained and supervised sales force equipped with current information sells boats, and the same holds true for your website.

Generation Y is boating's future, and the future is here today. You may not sell a boat to a 20-something buyer this month, but as Gen Y sets up house, has kids and looks to buy a cottage, the opportunities for the boating business are tremendous. Those companies that succeed will be the ones that reached out to Gen Y on its own terms, and began forging lifelong relationships years before their competitors arrived on the scene. The sales process takes time, and the clock is ticking.

Heather Robertson is a Digital Communications Consultant specializing in online marketing and communications for small business. Reach her at