Fully aware that banner ads take advantage of only a tiny portion of the Internet's networking power, Sumerset Houseboats (winner of the General Excellence category in the Inc. Web Awards 2000) has put most of its marketing efforts into expanding Sumerset's houseboating community. "We try to follow what Harley-Davidson has done," says Thomas Neckel Sr., Sumerset's CEO. "It has a production backlog and motorcycles that appreciate. So it maintains strong customer rapport to get that repeat business." Integral to the strategy are the Harley "road shows," events around the country to which the company invites Harley owners to show off what they have and trade up for what they want.
One of the first things Neckel did when he bought Sumerset was to establish regular houseboating regattas, which now number six a year, to help the company build a Harleyesque sense of community. Sumerset now uses its Web site to publicize, and accept registrations for, the regattas. Customers who can't attend can "watch" the goings-on over the Web, as CIO Cecil Helton Jr. posts daily updates and digital snapshots. Neckel says that the seemingly passive form of marketing is actually very effective. "By bringing customers together as a group, they produce their own testimonials," he says.