Indie Influence: How one agency exec turned his classic boating hobby into a brand

An image from WoodyBoater.com, the site founded by SmithGifford chief executive Matt Smith

Welcome to Indie Influence, a series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring SmithGifford's Woody Boater, a website created by the agency for the antique and classic boat community.

Advertisers are notorious for being obsessed with the new and the next, a phenomenon that explains why agencies and brands alike have invested ample resources into virtual reality campaigns in recent years even though the nascent technology is far from reaching mass adoption among consumers.

This general propensity for the latest and greatest is why it may seem odd that Matt Smith, founder and chief executive of Virginia-based agency SmithGifford, spends much of his time running a website that’s dedicated to a relic of the past: classic wooden and antique boats that are no longer made. Called Woody Boater, the website - which Smith says attracts roughly 3,000 to 5,000 visitors daily - is a go-to resource for wooden boat enthusiasts who enjoy sharing and reading stories about their favorite pastime.

Smith started Woody Boater 10 years ago as a way to bring together a disjointed community that didn’t have any real online presence at the time, something he attributes to the fact that the hobby is “by its very nature populated by people that like being in the past.”

“There was nothing on the internet, believe it or not, 10 years ago," he said. "There were websites to join clubs, but even then the way that they communicated was big group emails. They hadn’t even build web forums yet. It’s way behind because if you go back to why this hobby exists, [it’s] to preserve old stuff, so you don't think of people that want to preserve old stuff as wanting to dive into new technology.”

When launching Woody Boater, he was hoping to create a platform that would serve as a hub of information, news and stories about classic and wooden antique boats for anyone interested in the hobby, regardless of whether or not they own a boat themselves. Being an agency owner, he also viewed it as an opportunity to learn more about how to build an online platform and find an audience for it, particularly since he launched the site around the same time that the advertising industry was beginning to truly be upended by the rise of digital.

“I was learning how to, on a firsthand basis, help create a community and a culture online,” he said. “What I saw was an opportunity for myself to benefit from this and help the hobby grow.”

Building a brand

10 years later, Woody Boater has become a full-fledged niche publisher with daily stories, social media accounts, sponsors and even a line of merchandise. According to Smith, more than two million people have visited the site since 2011, with 60% of readers returning on a regular basis.

Smith keeps Woody Boater up and running with help from his agency, but he’s the one in charge of making sure the site has fresh content every day. He prides himself on the fact that a day hasn’t gone by over the past 10 years where that hasn't been a new Woody Boater post, including weekends and holidays.

The site normally runs one to two stories a day, and the content of each post varies — some are on-the-ground reports from boat shows and events, while others are musings on topics like whether or not rare boats are worth more and how robots could affect wooden boat culture. Sometimes, “Woody Boaters” - the name that Smith has given readers of the site - will send him photos and write-ups from trips or events they’re at, and he’ll put together a post if he thinks it’s something people will be interested in. Each post normally attracts dozens of comments, with readers throwing in their two cents on the subject at hand.

Smith adopts a lighthearted and conversational tone in his posts, which are often dotted with misspellings and missing words. For him, these imperfections are all part of the Woody Boater “brand essence,” which aims to be inviting and not take itself too seriously.

“I certainly make mistakes, but that’s the secret to being able to do it and have fun with it,” he said. “It should be as fun to do and as fun to read as it is to go boating.”

Making it work

While Woody Boater has certainly become a passion project for Smith over the years, it hasn’t exactly been raking in cash. In a recent post that marked Woody Boater’s 10th anniversary, Smith admitted that it’s a “miracle” when the site manages to break even, joking that the $500 profit it made two years ago was likely a mistake.

Smith has chosen to monetize Woody Boater through a mixture of sponsorships and donations, a business model that he likens to that of PBS. Sponsors of the site, which include a number of companies that offer boat restoration and maintenance services, are featured on banner ads and within content.

Smith is adamant that all advertising on the site be vetted, which is why you won’t see any Google-supported ads on Woody Boater. He does this to ensure that his readers won’t “click on someone that's a crook or someone that's going to take advantage of them.”

“To be featured on Woody Boater or to be a sponsor of Woody Boater, you have to be a vetted service,” he said. “You have to be someone that does good for the hobby, so to speak.”

As Smith looks to evolve Woody Boater and keep it going for the next 10 years, he and his team at SmithGifford have been busy coming up with ways to “dimensionalize” the brand to make sure it keeps up with the times. One way the agency has done this is through the creation of an app that Smith says will make it easier for classic boat enthusiasts to find one another when they’re out and about. Complete with a geolocator, the app - which is still awaiting approval from Apple - will allow users to find fellow “Woody Boaters” as well as recommended restaurants, marinas, hotels and the like.

“You’ll be able to find other Woody Boaters that you can contact,” he said. “You’ll be able to go to a lake you’ve never been to and know where the cool, old restaurant is, where the hotel is that you can stay, where you can put your boat, where it can be fixed — all those things.”

In addition to the app, Smith said the agency is also thinking about doing a video series for Woody Boater that would feature different places to take your boat. However, he’s wary of creating the series “just because everybody's doing video,” and wants to make sure there’s a clear strategy in place before time and resources are invested into it.

Having to think about these kinds of things on a regular basis is part of the reason why Smith enjoys overseeing the site. Apart from providing him with an outlet to contribute to one of his favorite hobbies, Smith says Woody Boater helps him succeed at his day job since he has personal experience with building a brand from the ground up.

For instance, Smith is able to provide firsthand expertise and advice to clients who come to him wanting to start a company blog or some sort of content endeavor.

"The benefit to the agency is that we’re learning new platforms without experimenting with someone else’s business or dollars," he said. “This little website that helps this hobby has changed the way I approach business.”

Indie Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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