Playing Catch Up: Shipping and Social Media

The use of social media is now an integral part of building a commercial brand. Social media channels are rapidly evolving into highly efficient tools that help companies communicate with their clients, drive sales, and influence market perception. However, social media has not removed the need for traditional marketing tools and strategies. But – it has changed the way businesses and individuals are using those tools to communicate. The future is already here and to ignore it is to fruitlessly fight the incoming tide.

Shipping has no control over demand for vessels, only supply. And we all know where that has got us. The oversupply of vessels means that quality providers need to set themselves apart from inferior competitors. Financial strength, environmental care, efficiency, seafarer welfare, and safety records will become increasingly important as supply chain transparency becomes a point of difference. Social media provides companies with an efficient and effective tool to get their message out to those who matter. Don’t worry; it will also remain a place to post your favourite kitten pics.

Keeping an Open Mind

I must confess that I can become rather excitable regarding social media marketing and its potential in the shipping sphere. But I’m a zealot. Given the slightest opportunity, at an event big or small, get me onto the topic and the night is pretty much over.
In shipping circles, eyes begin to roll; excuses are made; and crowds thin. Those polite enough to listen will make sure their glasses are full. Scepticism abounds. Discussions focus around why social media shouldn’t be part of shipping, how dangerous and unpredictable it is, and why it is irrelevant at best.

In other industries the debate has moved beyond ‘is there a place for social media marketing?’ to ‘how do we best use it?’ It is time shipping entered the 21st century and started exploring how the business could use social media to its advantage at both the company and industry level for a number of very simple reasons:

1. Risk Management. The opportunities social media offers to companies and individuals alike are immense, and social media is shaking up the natural order. Some company employees now have social media profiles that are more powerful and influential than their employers. Corporate risk management has ranged from ambivalence through to draconian attempts to ban the use of various platforms. Neither approach will work. Businesses are just going to have to get better at this.

2. First Mover Advantage. In the wider marketing world the cat is already out of the bag: social media, content marketing, and mobile marketing are all seen as central to building a business’s profile…but in shipping there is still plenty of room for clever companies to obtain first mover advantage. This comes back to the basics of building a brand. Maersk and Jonathan Wichmann started off on the right track, but there is much, much more that could and should be done.

3. Practice Makes Perfect. Although in times of crisis social media can be a double edged sword, it is now part and parcel of how people communicate. Minimizing social media use when a vessel is on the rocks is not necessarily a bad idea, but key people in your business should still understand how social media works and where and how it should be monitored and used. Having some understanding of how this all works is not a bad idea.

Getting Started

So, sales pitch over. How should a shipping company start to use social media?

1. Be Strategic. Make social media part of your marketing strategy. Ship managers, owners, insurers, law firms, and service providers will all have different goals and messages to deliver to their target markets. Develop a strategy around what social media is going to be used for, who will be the internal champions, and what your corporate goals are.

2. Be Realistic. Keep your use of social media manageable. Take external advice, but take it from people who know what they are doing. A 55 year old shipping communications consultant with a myspace page can be as dangerous as an 18 year old cyber guru who has seen ‘Captain Phillips’.

3. Be Sensible. Choose a platform based on your goals and what your target market uses. Is Facebook the right channel for a shipping company? I personally don’t think so, but that should be part of the debate. Also note, not using a particular channel is not the same as not owning the domain. Shipping companies, like all others, should ensure they are in possession of their cyberspace brand.

4. Take Your Time, Train, and Be Patient. Start with realistic goals and expectations. A highly targeted campaign will be far more effective than a shotgun approach. Learn how to use your chosen platforms, and use them well. Results will not come overnight. Stick to your strategy and give it time to work; around 18 months is a realistic timeframe.

Keep in mind that it’s not the social media numbers that necessarily count – it’s the people behind them and the interaction that you can drive. Remember social media needs to be…well…social. Interaction makes strangers friends, and clients advocates.

The Future Is Here

No doubt in 1991 there were numerous companies who thought websites were a fad. I understand the scepticism around how relevant social media, mobile marketing, and big data are to shipping. But as shipping struggles with its public image and its ability to attract young talent to the sector we should not be looking for reasons NOT to embrace new technologies.

Around 18 months ago I consciously stopped thinking of reasons why social media wasn’t relevant for the shipping sector, and started asking myself how we might better use the new tools available. The more people who do this, the better the results will be.

Graeme Somerville-Ryan

Graeme Somerville-Ryan is the Marketing and Business Development Director (Asia) for the international law firm Wikborg Rein. He also consults to businesses in the shipping, insurance, oil and gas, and financial services sectors on marketing strategy, communications, social media, and profile development in Asia.
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