What digital marketing is and why you should care

When it comes to marketing and communications, shipping companies combine an ‘old-school’ mix of brochures, PDF newsletters, tradeshows, and simple websites. Generally speaking, they don’t see how digital marketing applies to their business. But, as almost every other sector is discovering, it does. Digital marketing is borderless, it reaches across cultures, it’s mobile, it’s highly visual…the digital marketing tools currently available are pretty much designed for the shipping industry.

Digital marketing is a term that covers a multitude of communication and marketing technologies: search engine optimisation, websites, apps, blogs, email (spam), community engagement, PPC, banner advertising, social ads, mobile, location, and in-game advertising…and that’s just from a quick Google search. Then add in social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, WhatsApp, WeChat…the list goes on and on.

So what is digital marketing? I would define effective digital marketing as using the right platform/technology and tactics to reach the audience that will buy your product, or read your articles, and (ideally) engage with your content.

The digital options are changing daily, but clearly some platforms should take priority.

The numbers should terrify (or excite) you

The most obvious digital marketing game-changer is social media. Interestingly, shipping companies can develop content which is in high–demand online. An easy instinctive response to the question of social media use is “social media doesn’t relate to the shipping business.” The Monthly Active User numbers suggest otherwise: LinkedIn: 340m, Facebook: 1.15bn, WhatsApp: 600m, Twitter: 240m, YouTube: 1bn, Google+: 327m. Even if the corporate entities who are your clients aren’t on social media (and they are), the individuals who make the decisions in those businesses are, and they are regular users.

The numbers, and their marketing potential, aren’t ‘interesting’, they signal a fundamental change in the way information is collated, delivered, and consumed. And social media is a sector which has only been around for roughly 10 years.

If you need a tangible example of the impact of digital on traditional business models look no further than changes in publishing (from print to online) and television (Top Gear’s previous presenters signing with Amazon). In every business sector the digital influence has moved beyond websites and has shaken things up…shipping is no different. It’s worth thinking about when you develop next year’s marketing strategy/Business Development plan.

What’s in it for shipping?

The ‘experts’ will tell you that you need digital and social media. And it’s easy to paint a picture of shipping companies being left behind…your follower numbers are down, your competitor’s ‘likes’ are up, your content is ‘unengaging’ – there’s no picture of a blond child at the launch of your new vessel, you haven’t saved the rainforest (online)!

From within the shipping community, social media has recently been described as a technology for marketing and PR. But this tells only part of the story. Because, when it is used effectively, social media is an excellent way of supporting sales and BD teams.

Shipping is a personal business, with great importance placed on connections and individual reputations. This is exactly what social media is really about – engaging with, and influencing, individual connections.

Snake-oil and self-gratification: What is digital marketing success?

Some companies, and individuals, in shipping are promoting themselves as digital marketing success stories. But do the metrics back-up their self-proclaimed victories (more on that next time)? Is setting up and running a dozen social media platforms a success? What about 1m+ likes and/or 100,000 followers, is that a success?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so…I used to, but not anymore. Because having 100,000 followers, or 1m followers, means nothing if all this activity doesn’t achieve a strategy and add, hopefully, something to the bottom line (sales).

Shipping companies are too-often being sold a lemon. In most cases senior managers don’t understand digital/social media – they suspect they need it, but don’t understand why or how it should fit into the business. Sometimes the “improve awareness of the general brand” pitch is enough, and that is fine if that’s what you want to spend your money on. But CEOs, COOs, Sales Directors, and CMOs (if they exist), should be asking hard questions of the social media snake-oil salesmen. Questions like:

  • Who are we trying to influence and why?
  • Why are we using these social media/digital channels?
  • What will success look like, and how will we measure it?
  • What type of content will we be producing and why?
  • How is this to be coordinated and who are our champions?

I’d love to be paid to manage 10+ social media accounts for one client, but my first “digital marketing” questions would be “why are we wasting time and money on so many platforms; why are we using the same content over and over; is our content getting to the right people; and is our content effective? “

Don’t be dazzled by the raw numbers, be they high or low. Ask yourself the question: is success having 1,000,000 ship-spotting followers, or 100 of your closest commercial contacts actively using and engaging with your digital content?

Ego aside, I know what I’d rather have.


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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