Case Study: Sailing Company Leverages Online Reviews to Maximize Sales

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Merchant: Kai Kanani Sailing Charters
Location: Kihei, Hawaii
Platforms: Facebook, GetFiveStars, Google Adwords, Instagram, PonoRez, TripAdvisor, Yelp
Bottom Line: Local businesses can leverage free online platforms to make their marketing budgets go further.

Online reviews can make or break a business in the tourism industry, which is one of the reasons why Kai Kanani Sailing Charters works hard to collect as many positive customer testimonials as possible. The Hawaii-based sailing charter company is pulling out all the stops to drive a higher volume of reviews on third-party websites like Facebook, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, including using GetFiveStars to solicit feedback from recent guests.

“Our digital strategy, at the most basic level, is to maximize direct sales while leveraging as many free online platforms as possible to make budgets go further,” says Kai Kanani’s Jennifer Lysaught. “We also utilize paid search to maximize our presence with audiences actively searching for branded, non-branded, and long-tail keywords within our category.”

Although Lysaught uses free platforms whenever possible, she isn’t afraid to spend what’s necessary to meet her marketing benchmarks. She estimates that Kai Kanani spends anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per month on digital marketing, and she attributes a 26% growth in year-over-year direct sales mostly to optimizing and increasing the budget for paid search campaigns.

“Compared to 2015, our digital marketing expenditures have increased,” Lysaught says, “but we have been able to drive more sales at a lower cost-per-sale.”

Because a customer’s journey to booking a sailing charter is usually not one-dimensional, Lysaught uses a combination of digital tools to help attract new customers. She relies on Google Analytics data, and other webmaster tools, to gain insight into which channels are “influencing versus introducing” customers to the Kai Kanani brand, and she’s discovered that paid and organic search is the first touch point for most new customers. It’s during the discovery or research phase when potential customers start looking to review websites for feedback and opinions to influence their decisions, and that’s why Lysaught is working so diligently to increase the volume and quality of reviews posted about Kai Kanani.

“[The] feedback loop also allows us to take guest feedback and make improvements to both our daily operations and marketing communications,” she says. “We have been able to identify areas of customer confusion as well as value propositions to improve everything from website content to email communications.”

One of Lysaught’s biggest accomplishments since joining Kai Kanani has been streamlining the online booking process. The company now works with A3H and uses a product called PonoRez, which is a cooperative online reservation system owned by its users.

“Over the past year, we have been able to shift a higher percentage of sales through direct booking, versus commission based sales,” she says. “In the first six months of 2016, the split was 50/50 direct versus third-party booking agent, versus 40/60 in the first six months of 2015. This shift is 100% attributed to online bookings.”

As a small business, Lysaught says it’s important to be “nimble and flexible” in order to make budgets go further. She’s also found that when you bring in too many external resources, efficiencies go down.

“Oftentimes [it’s] because there is a learning curve to understand your business, and at the end of the day, the resource expenditure doesn’t justify itself in terms of performance.”

From her vantage point, Lysaught says the biggest marketing mistake she sees local merchants making is not paying enough attention to the data. With so many free resources to generate analytics, and webmaster tools that allow businesses to optimize their websites, messaging, and back-end code, she says there’s no reason not to try some out.

“I see a lot of SMBs and start-ups that jump into promoting via social channels like Facebook and Instagram before they even have a holistic digital marketing strategy,” Lysaught says. “Social channels should be part of your online strategy, [but] don’t lose focus on the fact that there is a digital ecosystem at play and all potential touch points in the customer journey need to be addressed and work together.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

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Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.