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Case study: ShipServ

10 min read

ShipServ designed a social media strategy which evolved around using social media platforms as beacons to drive traffic to their main site, in order to qualify the “readiness to buy” of the visitors by tracking and nurturing them with an automated marketing solution. Whilst their product is an innovative technological service, the target audience are conservative late adopters; the challenge ShipServ faced was solved by creating relationships with their target audience through multiple social networks backed by a high-quality content marketing strategy.

About ShipServ

ShipServ is the leading e-marketplace in the maritime industry by providing “an innovative portfolio of software, services and hosted applications designed by shipping people, for shipping people” (ShipServ.com, 2010a). The company was founded in 1999 by Paul Østergaard with the vision to drive out inefficiencies and increasing competitiveness in the global maritime shipping industry by using the Internet to create an e-marketplace where global maritime suppliers meets to do business (ShipServ.com, 2010a). ShipServ also have the chairman of the non-profit organisation Maritime eCommerce Association which governs the industry standard Marine Trading Mark-up Language (MTML), which utilises XML to standardise the electronic exchange of purchasing information in the maritime industry (MeCA.org.uk, 2010a, xml.coverpages.org, 2010, MeCA.org.uk, 2010b).

The core product of ShipServ is TradeNet, an e-commerce platform connecting buyers and suppliers. Currently ShipServ have approximately 150 shipping companies managing 5,000 ships, which are connected to their approximately 30,000 suppliers. The suppliers are also listed in ShipServ’s online directory of ship suppliers, ShipServ Pages (ShipServ.com, 2010b).

TradeNet increases trading efficiency by leveraging the power of information technology in order to reduce the overhead made by the “communication chaos” buyers are facing; multiple ships, with multiple agents, suppliers and logistic companies through multiple communication channels with many transactions. TradeNet reduces the order cycles, the procurement costs as well as the possibility for human errors which can happen when entering information into their system since TradeNet connects directly with the existing purchasing, fleet management and asset management systems using MTML (ShipServ.com, 2010c, ShipServ.com, 2010d).

Social media as an integral part of the marketing strategy

ShipServ had grown a lot in a short period of time, and with a strong focus on closing sales, they rapidly faced becoming an impersonal enterprise. Faced with a limited marketing budget and few employees they needed to improve their marketing efforts in order to keep up with the overall growth of the company. A major challenge faced was that their innovative e-marketplace solution for the maritime industry was a big change in how their customers conducted business, thus in order to close sales they had to spend resources to educate their risk averse and conservative audience, in an attempt to secure the sale by lowering the barriers for customers to purchase and use TradeNet. Trust was vital to foster an advisor relationship towards the industry which was dispersed geographically worldwide. ShipServ also had to improve their productivity and efficiency on sales calls (B2BM.biz, 2010a, DestinationCRM.com, 2010a). The solution was an automated marketing system which automatically nurtured and ranked the quality of the leads based on users’ behaviour on the website. The solution lessened the burden of following up on leads, as well as increasing productivity for sales calls because the leads being passed over to their sales teams were of a higher quality. The automated marketing solution became a cornerstone of their new strategy, and as a result of that it became even more important to increase the traffic to the website shipserv.com (DestinationCRM.com, 2010b).

ShipServ recognised that their target audience were quite eager to network, even though faced with the significant challenge of the maritime industry traditionally being a conservative “paper and phone”-based community, usually late to adopt new Internet technologies which also was reflected in ShipServ’s e-commerce survey, see Figure 1 (B2BM.biz, 2010a, B2BVoices.com, 2010, VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009a).

Figure 1: ShipServ’s survey to map the role of social media in the shipping business
Source: ShipServ e-commerce survey, April 2010 (Watton, 2010)


Because of the automated marketing system ranking visitors in terms of leads, it was an important objective to drive people to the site. On a three month timescale they aimed at a 50 % increase in traffic to shipserv.com. The marketing team also sat the objectives of raising the awareness of the ShipServ brand throughout the global shipping industry and increase the demand for their services the e-commerce platform TradeNet and the online directory ShipServ Pages – traditional marketing goals in other words. In addition to the traditional objectives ShipServ looked to connect with their users by engaging in conversations and building an online community of maritime purchasing professionals (B2BVoices.com, 2010, VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009a).

By using social media ShipServ wanted to move from a broadcast type of market communication towards discussion and engaging its audience for constructive, open and ongoing dialogue. The marketing division changed their focus from being an impersonal enterprise to giving their brand a personality; from the traditional shouting, promoting, persuading, instructing and selling to their prospects, they wanted to use social media and change the focus to listening, entertaining, participating, inspiring and nurturing. Customers should no longer “use ShipServ”, the idea was to make customers “members of ShipServ” (Watton, 2010).

ShipServ’s Objectives

  • Raise brand awareness throughout the shipping industry
  • Increase traffic to shipserv.com by 50 % in three months
  • Engage with the audience in an open, ongoing dialogue, and start to build a community whilst extending and deepening the conversation
  • Nurture prospects through drip-feed of relevant content

Sources: VelocityPartners.co.uk (2009a), B2BVoices.com (2010)

The role of social media strategy: Positioning ShipServ as a thought leader

In order to achieve the goals set out the marketers used social media and a strong content marketing strategy as important components to reach those goals. By emphasising on delivering high-quality content relevant for their users, ShipServ wanted to position the company as a thought leader in the industry. The strategy for delivering content was to establish key themes on a quarterly basis and develop editorial content around the themes. In addition the automated marketing solution drip-feed the high-quality content to their leads as a part of the nurturing process (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009a, DestinationCRM.com, 2010a).

“Content marketing is turning your insight and advice into campaigns that change people’s minds and incite action.”
John Watton, CMO, ShipServ
Source: Watton (2010)

Implementation of the social media strategy

The implementation of ShipServ’s social media strategy manifested itself throughout many dimensions;

  • Finding out where their audience currently are
  • Revamp of their website with focus on quality content, and doing search engine optimisation including keyword planning and optimising the landing pages
  • Promoting content on ShipServ.com through existing social media platforms
  • Establishing a community hub by creating a LinkedIn Group and encouraging membership
Finding the audience

One important starting point was to find out where their online audience currently were engaging in social media, as it was important for ShipServ to engage in the ongoing conversations. Google Adwords was used to identify keywords used for solutions in their market, and the web aggregator Netvibes was used to find conversation about ShipServ and the industry. Niche maritime blogs were uncovered, but there were far between mentions of ShipServ (DestinationCRM.com, 2010a).

«Our objective as a small business is getting our name known. No one talks about ShipServ… [We’re] almost surprised by the mention of [our] company. We recognized that we can have a point of view, have a human face, and get involved in conversations.»
John Watton, CMO, ShipServ
Source: DestinationCRM.com (2009b)

Revamp of ShipServ.com

ShipServ revamped their website from the impersonal enterprise look and language to a more customer-centric website (see Figure 2). ShipServ.com essentially became the main hub of ShipServ’s marketing efforts, with focus on high-quality content to position ShipServ as a thought leader in the industry. As social media platforms were used as beacons to drive traffic back to the main site, they also did thorough work on search engine optimisation, undertook keyword planning and developed customized landing pages, catered to different market segments with optimised call-to-actions as a part of tracking visitor behaviour for the lead nurturing and scoring (B2BVoices.com, 2010, DestinationCRM.com, 2009b, B2BM.biz, 2010a).

Through their site and communication in social media they also added personality to their brand; the new website moved away from the arch typical corporate language and started using light-hearted, easy-going language to prove that “we’re people just like you”. In addition they also started “bigging up” their customers and clients by giving them mentions and praise in various articles, which in turn (Watton, 2010). A blog was also introduced on the website containing opinions and enabling feedback and discussions in the comment area (B2BVoices.com, 2010, Watton, 2010).

Figure 2: Redesign of ShipServ.com, from a business-centric to a customer-centric user interface
Source: Watton (2010)

Using social media as beacons to drive traffic to the main site

As the website ShipServ.com became the main hub the different social media platforms were used as beacons to attract users back to the main site. A stream of content and micro-content was developed around six themes which helped attract visitors to the site; white papers, blog posts, Twitter tweets, e-newsletter, viral videos to lighten the discussions, podcasts, a Facebook page, social releases through PitchEngine.com and discussions in a ShipServ LinkedIn group (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009b). Whenever a new piece of content was posted online, it was automatically published to their social media beacons (see Figure 3). The automated marketing solution could then work to analyse the visitor’s behaviour and uncover valuable leads (Watton, 2010).

The use of viral videos on services like YouTube and Vimeo also drove traffic back to the main site; the use humorous use of viral videos used to lighten the conversation, the conversations themselves, and the general tone and language of the website gave ShipServ a new dimension in terms of giving the brand a personality. One example is the unveiling of a winner in a contest to name the new e-newsletter, which provided 200 responses, was put on YouTube and CMO John Watton read up all entries before announcing the winner (B2BVoices.com, 2010).

The company newsletter was also revamped to be more point-of-view oriented, and included an introduction to different pieces of content with a “read more” link. Different pieces of content were re-pimped and pushed out to the beacons. For example, ShipServ created a white paper and promoted it via an e-mail campaign. This led to approximately 400 downloads. Seven months later they pushed out the same white paper for a second campaign to a larger pool of e-mail addresses, including those who did not respond to the first campaign but excluding those who did by arranging their e-mail pools with the automated marketing solutions. The second campaign yielded another 600 downloads (B2BVoices.com, 2010, DestinationCRM.com, 2009b).

«If you’re small, you don’t want to spend time on data quality, you just want to sell.»
John Watton, CMO, Shipserv
Source: DestinationCRM.com (2009b)

Figure 3: ShipServ publishing the same content to several social media platforms
Source: Watton (2010)

Figure 4: Videos used to enlighten the content and bring personality to the ShipServ brand
Source: Watton (2010)

Building an online community

ShipServ chose to leverage the social network LinkedIn rather than developing a new community platform. They created a group called “ShipServ Maritime Trading Network”, and encouraged purchasing people in shipping companies and suppliers to join the community hub. The group currently counts 863 members (per 16.06.2010). During the listening process ShipServ identified five other maritime groups which were joined in order to connect and engage with their audience, and expanded the reach of their community. They utilised content relevant to the community from the new sections of the website; simply participating was not enough, but they rather focused on providing value through interesting and useful research, surveys, information, opinions, knowledge and more that mattered to their community, which they ultimately tried to influence (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009b).


The social media initiative is an ongoing process, and is still running and growing. The brand awareness and presence throughout the shipping industry has been increased. More visitors are visiting their website, they spend more time on the site and they look at more pages when they are visiting. Their community grew steadily, and their social media beacons are generating traffic to their main site shipserv.com.

ShipServ is maximizing the power of digital marketing and tools to qualify leads and drag prospects through the marketing funnel by automatic nurturing, before handing over scored sales-ready leads to the sales department. Over the final quarter of 2008, the number of sales-ready leads increased by 400 %. Social media was an important driver to drive the visitors who then scored as high-qualified leads on the automated marketing solution (DestinationCRM.com, 2009b, B2BM.biz, 2010a).

A full return on investment was achieved in three months, and the actual costs were less than £20,000. CMO John Watton estimated that the same results would have cost £100,000 through traditional media efforts (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009a). ShipServ’s marketing agency Velocity Partners did however point out that one should be caution about predicting hard-core ROI from social media, as the nature of social media is about listening to the community, rather than telling it what do to and think. Being recognised as a relevant participant in the conversations is hard to measured by direct responses or click-through rates (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009b).

Website statistics (1st quarter of 2009)
  • Visitors increased by 59 %
  • Pageviews increased by 70 %
  • Average time on site increased by 25 %
  • Generated over 1,000 downloads of a white paper
Community statistics*
  • 378 members in the ShipServ Maritime Network group on LinkedIn**
  • 300 visitors to the blog
  • Over 50 relevant followers on Twitter
  • Over 600 views of the viral videos, 62% of which came via email distribution and 18% via shipserv.com/LinkedIn distribution
  • LinkedIn and Twitter have gone from zero to the top 20 traffic sources

* Article dated May 14th 2009 (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009a)
** Discrepancy with the number mentioned earlier due to keeping the numbers in context with the other numbers displayed on the result page.

Business statistics
  • Increased contact-to-lead (landing page contact) conversion by 150 %
  • Increased lead-to-opportunity conversion by 50 %
  • Decreased campaign management costs by 80 %
  • Increased the number of sales-ready leads by 400 %

Sources: B2BM.biz (2010a), VelocityPartners.co.uk (2009a), DestinationCRM.com (2009b). Website and community statistics are gathered from Velocity Partners (ShipServ’s marketing agency) and B2B Marketing Magazine (industry press). Business statistics are from Destination CRM (industry press), in addition to the two other mentioned sources.


Through this campaign ShipServ, piloted by CMO John Watton, won the CRM Elite Award by CRM magazine. The CRM Wlite Award is given to CRM implementations that push new boundaries, and the campaign was recognised by the jury for “its holistic use of Marketo, Salesforce.com, and social media” (DestinationCRM.com, 2009c). In the New New Media Age Effectiveness Awards 2009 “ShipServ social media” was shortlisted for the best business-to-business campaign, even though another company won it in the end (New Media Age, 2009). CMO John Watton was also given the B2B Marketer of the Year 2009 prize in the B2B Marketing Magazine Awards ‘09, and their marketing agency Velocity Partners received a “Highly Commended” mention for the “Content and Social Media Marketing Campaign for ShipServ” in the same awards (VelocityPartners.co.uk, 2009c).


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DESTINATIONCRM.COM. 2009b. The 2009 Elite – ShipServ Sets Sale [Online]. Available: http://www.destinationcrm.com/Articles/Editorial/Magazine-Features/The-2009-Elite—ShipServ-Sets-Sale-56383.aspx [Accessed 2010-05-31].

DESTINATIONCRM.COM. 2009c. CRM Magazine Announces Winners of 2009 CRM Market Awards [Online]. DestinationCRM.com. Available: http://www.destinationcrm.com/Articles/CRM-News/Daily-News/CRM-Magazine-Announces-Winners-of-2009-CRM-Market-Awards-55725.aspx [Accessed 2010-06-16].

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DESTINATIONCRM.COM. 2010b. The 2009 Elite – ShipServ Sets Sale [Online]. Available: http://www.destinationcrm.com/Articles/Editorial/Magazine-Features/The-2009-Elite—ShipServ-Sets-Sale-56383.aspx [Accessed 2010-05-31].

MECA.ORG.UK. 2010a. Maritime eCommerce Association: MeCA Structure [Online]. Available: http://www.meca.org.uk/structure.php [Accessed 2010-06-14].

MECA.ORG.UK. 2010b. Maritime eCommerce Association: The MTML Standard [Online]. Available: http://www.meca.org.uk/standards.php [Accessed 2010-06-14].

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SHIPSERV.COM. 2010c. TradeNet for Buyers Video | ShipServ [Online]. Available: http://www.shipserv.com/info/about-tradenet/how-shipserv-tradenet-helps-buyers/ [Accessed 2010-06-14].

SHIPSERV.COM. 2010d. How TradeNet Works | ShipServ [Online]. Available: http://www.shipserv.com/info/about-tradenet/how-tn-works-diagram/ [Accessed 2010-06-14].

VELOCITYPARTNERS.CO.UK. 2009a. Velocity/ShipServ shortlisted for Best B2B Campaign at New Media Age Awards [Online]. Available: http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/2009/05/14/velocityshipserv-shortlisted-for-best-b2b-campaign-at-new-media-age-awards/ [Accessed 2010-05-31].

VELOCITYPARTNERS.CO.UK. 2009b. ROI and social media marketing for B2B [Online]. Available: http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/2009/03/19/roi-and-social-media-marketing-for-b2b/ [Accessed 2010-05-31].

VELOCITYPARTNERS.CO.UK. 2009c. Woo hoo! John Watton, B2B Marketer of the Year [Online]. Available: http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/2009/11/26/woo-hoo-john-watton-b2b-marketer-of-the-year/ [Accessed 2010-06-01].

WATTON, J. Year. Blogging as a part of your content marketing strategy. In: EVENTS, B. B. M., ed. Twitter & blogs: How to integrate within the digital marketing strategy seminar 2010-04-28 2010 London. Slides avaliable: http://www.slideshare.net/jwatton/blogging-as-part-of-your-content-marketing-strategy

XML.COVERPAGES.ORG. 2010. Marine Trading Markup Language Released [Online]. Available: http://xml.coverpages.org/mtml-announce.html [Accessed 2010-06-14]

Haakon Har jobbet 25 år med digitale produkter i grensesnittet mellom teknologi, strategi, markedsføring og brukeropplevelse. Var med på å starte Spleis, og jobber nå med VM på ski.

9 Replies to “Case study: ShipServ”

  1. Great case study analysis. I have read a few based on Shipserv and they have all been great. A bit of feedback for you is that blogging is the most effective when it is impersonal. It seems as though you have written an essay with a particular reference style. Try speaking to your audience as people rather than student to lecturer. It’s definitely ok to reference, but you should relax your style. Other than that, very informative and interesting! thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comment Saxby. The case study is a part of my master thesis, hence the heavy referencing 🙂 And I think you meant that blogging is the most effective when the style is personal rather than impersonal, to which I agree.

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