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Internet marketing and sailing have a lot in common

On my vacation last week, I got to go sailing. I’ve sailed since I was 12. In the last 15 years, I’ve only gotten to do it every 2-3 years, at best, but I at least know my port from starboard.

I sailed a boat called a Hobie Wave:


image from hobiecat.com

We nearly ended up having a major disagreement, the Wave and I.

“Ready About!… Dammit!!!”

When you’re sailing, you do this thing called tacking. The simple version: You can’t sail straight into the wind. You can, however, zig-zag into the wind. The zigs and zags are called tacks.

Normally, you tack by turning the boat towards the wind until the wind crosses the front of the boat (the bow). You yell “Ready about!!!” and then “Hard a-lee!!!”. The boat whips around, the wind starts blowing into the other side of the boat’s sail, and you’re zipping happily along. All is right with the world:


OR, the boat steers into the wind, slows down, stops, starts going backwards while the sail flaps around like a flag and any waves make you bob up and down like a cork. Then the boat decides, in spite of your pleas, curses and attempts to keep turning, to go back on the original tack:


That’s what the Hobie Wave just loooves to do. You try a normal tack and it mocks you.

And no, for you sailors out there, the boat did not have a jib, or any other headsail. Just a mainsail.

I fought with the boat for at least 2 full sailing runs around Sandpiper Bay. I considered cutting it in half and sailing back in one hull, like a canoe. I pondered bouncing it off solid objects. And I considered leaving it and walking back (the bay is pretty shallow).

We reach an agreement

But the Wave and I finally reached an agreement. It doesn’t like the wind crossing the bow. But it’s just fine with the wind crossing the back (stern) of the boat. That’s called jibing.

I was raised as a sailor to believe that jibing a sailboat can create a space-time rift that would devour the very fabric of reality. Or that it would smash your boat to smithereens. Regardless, it was A Very Bad Thing. In the 95-degree heat of Sandpiper Bay, I stubbornly refused to believe sailboats could’ve changed in the last 30 years, or that jibing is sometimes a good tactic.

But the Wave, with its teeny sail, light weight and lack of rigging, loves jibing. It jibes with flair. With panache. With enthusiasm.

Jibing changed our relationship.

That sounds so… wrong… when I read it.

Why this relates to internet marketing

Sometimes, customers are like Hobie Waves. You know they ought to approach your product a certain way. Then they do things that make zero sense. You want to hit them with 2×4′s:

  • On Google, they use the ‘wrong’ phrase to find your services. They might use ‘bike tires’ to find you, when you feel you produce ‘bicycle racing tires’;
  • You want them to use your online form to buy from you, but they keep calling, instead;
  • You want to sell them your newest coolest product, but they keep breaking sales records buying the old one;
  • They all watch the online video, but you want them to order the DVD.

When that happens, they’re refusing to tack. You steer one way, they go another.

Then you have three choices. You can:

  1. Start cursing, and keep trying the same thing, again and again, while everyone else laughs; or
  2. Abandon ship. Give up. Swim to shore; or
  3. Try something else.

I vote for number 3.

The customer isn’t always right. But, if all your efforts to do things the ‘right’ way bring you to a standstill, you’ve got no choice. Find how your customers want to do things. Consider the ‘wrong’ way. Will it really smash your ship to smithereens? No? Then give it a try.

The goal remains the same. The perspective is what changes.

Even when the Hobie Wave refused to point into the wind, we still had the same goal: Get from point A to point B. Preferably with a cool little wake proving our speediness. I just had a very different way to accomplish that goal.

When I changed to jibing, instead, I tried the ‘wrong’ way to achieve the same goal. To the Hobie Wave, my ‘wrong’ way was the ‘right’ way. It worked. We both got what we wanted.

Your customers still want a nice pair of shoes, or SEO services, or a cloud computing solution. They still want great service and value. They just picture going about it differently. Solve that puzzle—match your common goal with their desired path to that goal—and you become:

  • Zappos, who lets people return shoes, no questions asked;
  • Apple, who has conquered the smartphone market with a phone that doesn’t work that well as a phone;
  • Toyota, who delivered the Prius years ahead of everyone else;
  • Or even Hobie, who created an inexpensive, durable sailboat that, while somewhat cranky, is lots of fun for the typical wannabe sailor.

Or, you find a way to connect your vacation to your business, and then use that to ease your way back to reality.

Other stuff

CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. I followed what you said about Internet marketing, but I lost you on the sailing. Am I right to understand that the boat was a pain to sail into the wind by tacking but a dream to sail downwind (jibe)? Or is there some way that I’m not seeing to sail upwind by jibing?

  2. @Mike a jibe is another way to change direction when sailing into the wind. You just turn the boat so that the wind crosses the BACK of the boat as you move to a new tack. Sorry, not doing a great explanation.

  3. Honestly, the only reason I ever remember which is port and which is starboard is because port, like ‘left,’ has four letters. (And if I have them backwards, then…well…s***.)
    I gotta imagine there’s a more intuitive way to remember them. But short of reading about it on wikipedia, I’ll just have to remain in the dark. 🙁

  4. Hi Ian,
    Nice comparison. I would also point out how important it is when you’re sailing and you come about (or figuratively when your market changes), that you remember to DUCK so you don’t get clocked in the noggin by the boom. I’ve been hit in the head by a boom both literally and figuratively, and it’s no fun. 🙂 Sheila

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