Kayak Maker Finds Value in Uncharted Social Waters

If you’ve been navigating mank, sending out some deep pluggers, or upgrading to get some air out of your loops, you just might be a Confluence Water Sports customer. If you have no idea what these phrases mean, that’s OK, too, because the high-end sporting goods equipment manufacturer is not for the casual or faint-of-heart outdoorsman. Confluence is so sure of its expert customer base that the company has rolled the dice on creating its own social networks — five in fact — when more careful competitors have opted for the decidedly safer eddies of Facebook and Twitter.

“They have an incredibly passionate audience, but with that passion comes a very skeptical view of traditional marketing,” said Kevin Purcer, director of interactive media at Erwin-Penland, the Hill Holiday affiliate that began working with Confluence in June 2008. “We wanted to overcome that by using the actual content generated from that audience. They know the spaces and the places where they paddle and fish. They’re the ones that can show what’s possible with these products.”

Confluence has five kayak and canoe brands, all with different customer groups. The company’s goal is to bridge the communications gap between the brand, its products, and these expert advocates. For example, Perception, its recreational kayaks brand, is aimed at family and recreational customers. Dagger, on the other hand is an extreme, whitewater kayak brand that appeals to a more competitive customer. Purcer said the initial effort involved building Web sites using images, technology information, and language that appeals to each group.

That effort got the company a step closer to customer groups. Then it wanted tighter connections to individual advocates.

Because Confluence knew its advocates were more technically savvy, and already sharing information on niche blogs, it saw the next opportunity in proprietary social networks. Budgets, according to Purcer, were an issue because the project required so many different designs and the audience numbers were not expected to scale high enough to attract outside advertisers. So, to bridge the resource and personnel gap EP enlisted Ning, a self-service social networking company.

Purcer said Ning’s platform allowed for the differences in design and customized content that made each of the five brands stand alone and attract different levels of audience expertise. For example, the terms like “mank” (water clogged with plants and mud), “deep pluggers” (dramatic dips), and “air out of the loops” (executing tight turns) are common terminology seen on Wave Sport, Confluence’s youth-centered kayaking site. Visitors to Adventure Technology, which specializes in competitive paddles and accessories, on the other hand, takes a more scientific approach to language. There, a new paddle is described as having a “dual axis bend for optimal ergonomics.”

After launching in April with minimal promotion, Purcer said the communities’ average about 300 members each. He expects the number to grow through trade show, dealer, and web site promotions, as well as word of mouth.

Confluence Web Marketing Manager Craig Ray admits that the Confluence customer is “reluctant” to enter mass-market social media, and would be skeptical of the quality of content found there. The brands do have a Facebook presence, but it is not promoted anywhere on the company’s product pages or community sites. According to Ray, the Facebook pages were launched after the branded community sites strictly to create a new touch-point for kayak enthusiasts.

Confluence’s social presence has also spurred the formation of several expert groups who provide content like photos, videos, event reports, and recommendations for paddling; they now serve as mini-focus groups. A group of kayak anglers (they fish from kayaks) advises on new kayak design, for instance. In turn these advocates will be the first to receive new product news.

“We had all played around with Ning and some other niche social sites within the office,” said Purcer. “But when you apply it to a group of brands you walk the balance of promoting the brand and integrating it within people’s lives. I think you can do both. These are definitely niche communities and I’m sure they like the fact that they have their own sites outside of Facebook. They are limited in number. But we have generated brand advocates from a completely organic level.”

In the near future Purcer expects Confluence and EP to incorporate more open source applications into the social sites such as water level reports from popular river systems like Colorado’s Eagle River and Vermont’s Mad River. He would also like to offer members more sneak peeks at products in development.

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