More Proof That Social Influence Is Eroding The Power Of Traditional Wine Reviews

Vinted on May 22, 2014 binned in best of, commentary, wine news

As if we needed any more evidence that consumer perception of wine isn’t all that materially different than how they interact with every other produce available in the market today, the results of a study titled In Vino Veritas? Social Influence on ‘Private’ Wine Evaluations at a Wine Social Networking Site published by Wine-Economics.org provides more proof that wine is not immune from the same type of crowd-sourced review influences that have become the norm of on-line product searching.

The study was conducted by staff from Seton Hall, Oxford and the University of Exeter, from their departments of Diplomacy and International Relation, Experimental Psychology, and Psychology departments, respectively (if you want to go up against their level of smarties, be my guest; I know when I see a battle not worth fighting). Their subject was an analysis of Cellertracker.com reviews, which makes sense since it’s currently the largest such repository on planet Earth.

To the tape (emphasis mine):

“We conducted analyses based on 6,157 notes about 106 wines posted by wine drinkers at a wine social networking site. Our findings suggest that social influence on private wine evaluations occurred by communicating a descriptive norm via written information. We provide empirical evidence that there is social influence on private wine evaluations that is greater than the effect of experts’ ratings and prices combined. This influence comes mainly from the first few group members, and increases as a function of source uniformity. “

Hmmmm. Science and data deal uninformed, incumbent opinions a blow yet again

The findings of the cross-the-pond study suggest that how we view wine as a product – and what influences our buying decisions – is really not all that materially different than how customer reviews impact conversion rates on Amazon.com, if we take the review itself to be a form of conversion and accept that information influences what other people will buy (and, importantly, how much they’re willing to pay).

The study pulls no punches in its conclusions, stating that social is not only a more powerful influencer than expert reviews when it comes to wine, but that the crowd-sourced/social reviews behave differently, as well (again, emphasis is mine):

“…our findings suggest, social influence is more important than experts’ views, and social influence is not informational but normative… it would be wise for communicators to utilize appropriate channels for their persuasive appeal to wine drinkers.”

My personal reaction to this study borders on the “well… no f*cking duh!!!” side of things, but it’s nice to have some real data that back up the notion that wine is not somehow special and a world apart from social influences. There are some important take-aways here, not the least of which is that social channels are highly influential, and good first impressions there can have a normative effect on how newcomers to the products perceive those wines (based on how early influencers perceive them).

I fully realize that we’re a long way of from big buyers and distributors and the like not having their purchasing decisions influenced by traditional wine scores. But do we expect that position to hold forevermore? Personally, I see the fact that studies like this one are even conducted as evidence to the contrary,

I know that many in the wine business continue to preach that wine is somehow unique as a product, and therefore that we’ll always require ivory tower expert reviews to make sense of it, and that crowd-sourced reviews have little place in that scenario. But when a popular mantra doesn’t stand up to common sense, isn’t supported by empirical data, and flies in the face of trends impacting a majority of similar circumstances, then we have a word to describe that mantra.

That word is “wrong.”

Which I suppose is another way of saying that wine behaves in social media the same way that pretty much all other products behave.

Gee… what a surprise…

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Having been on the receiving end of unrestrained and non-vetted "crowd" reviewing, I'm convinced it's a truly flawed concept. But as you say, it's a real concept, even though it may fix a sad face on conformity.

    Question: how do you make it through reading those WineEconomic reports? They read like scientists and the English language have yet to be introduced.

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas, I used to work for lawyers, and learned how to read legalese, so that might help in interpreting sciencease :-) . I understand your point regarding the pitfalls of crowd reviews (and I think similar pitfalls exist in traditional expert reviews, by the way), but as you say they're clearly here to stay, warts and all.

      • Thomas Pellechia


        No doubt that so-called expert reviews present pitfalls, but at least there's someone with whom you can engage in dialog and reveal that person's level of expertise or maybe the potential agenda behind the review. The moving target of a crowd accepts no particular responsibility for its conformist proclamations.

        The way I see it, anonymity (not to mention conformity) weakens rather than strengthens crowd judgment. To understand what I mean, follow a street mob for a few days.

        • 1WineDude


          Thomas, that strikes me as an issue of volume and self-policing, which is argue the better forums do to some extent.

  • passionatefoodie


    Having read the study, I would disagree that it made any conclusions about the buying decisions of wine consumers. The conclusions of the study seems much more narrowly focused, noting that when consumers write wine reviews on a site like Cellar Tracker, their ratings tend to conform to the prior written reviews & ratings. So those who write the initial reviews, and those seen as having more authority, influence what other consumers will later write about that wine. However, the study never indicated that people purchase wines based on the Cellar Tracker reviews.

    I certainly believe social media has an influence on buying decisions, but I don't believe this study is proof of such.

    • 1WineDude


      Richard, I agree, and I see the reviews as a form of conversion. I certainly suspect that they influence purchasing decisions, but that's not addressed in the study.

    • Thomas Pellechia


      "So those who write the initial reviews, and those seen as having more authority, influence what other consumers will later write about that wine."

      That's about what the report shows, and there's nothing new about the revelation. It essentially is the definition of conformity.

      It escapes me why we should be surprised when a new technology identifies and exploits what is already established human behavior. It is also a marvel how much time and money goes toward "exposing" the obvious.

      • 1WineDude


        Thomas – indeed. And why many think wine is somehow removed from that behavior is beyond me.

  • Steve Heimoff


    There's a contradiction between (A) your statement "I see the reviews as a form of conversion. I certainly suspect that they influence purchasing decisions, but that's not addressed in the study" and (B) your headline "Social Influence Is Eroding The Power Of Traditional Wine Reviews." If (A) is true and social media has not been proved to influence purchasing decisions, then (B) cannot be true, since the power of traditional wine reviews has always been that they influence purchasing decisions!

    • 1WineDude


      Steve, I’m not sure that’s a contradiction. The study itself claims that the peer reviews impact how other consumers perceive the wines. That’s got to impact their purchasing decisions, but the extent of that wasn’t explored in the study.

  • doug wilder


    I wasn't able to find the table mentioned in this study, seeing it may help me understand better the supposed ' weighting' of the price in the professional reviews as to have any impact on opinion. However, I read the main finding is the influence of early crowd-sourced opinion on that of the overall cohort that follows. Somewhere else I read a study about the general phenomenon of reaching consensus is viewed as preferable for a lot of people. There are a lot more consumers than there are professional opinions, and the latter still are the main vector for the early adopters to learn about wines.

    • Thomas Pellechia


      Right Doug, who needs professionals in the first place?

      Maybe the country could adopt crowd opinion classroom consensus and do away with trained teachers.

  • Tom Wark


    "I know that many in the wine business continue to preach that wine is somehow unique as a product, and therefore that we’ll always require ivory tower expert reviews to make sense of it, and that crowd-sourced reviews have little place in that scenario."

    You may be building a strawman here, Joe. First, I think it goes without saying that wine is a unique product. consider that the vast majority of wine purchases is under $10 a bottle. Then consider that the vast majority of wines on the market (1000 upon 1000s of them) cost far more than $10 per bottle AND that this latter category of wines is purchased by a very small percentage of the wine buying public. Can you think of another consumer product that possesses this dynamic? I can't.

    No one is saying that the purchasers of this latter category of wines "require" an expert to make sense of them. However, experience tells us that the higher the price of the wine, but more likely a purchaser is going to seek out the guidance of an expert.

    Finally, I don't know any one in the wine business today that would argue that crowd sourced reviews have no place in guiding high end wine buyers. But what's clear is that crowd sourced reviews simply don't have the influence with high end purchasers that expert reviewers do.

    There is a very easy way to tell when this last circumstance has changed and high end buyers are paying close attention to the opinion of the crowd. That's when the people marketing wine and selling wine rely on the conclusions of the crowd to sell and market their wines in greater degree than they rely on experts.

    I think we are still at the stage where most high end wine buyers would agree that "It's one thing to take advice from the crowd when it comes to buying a $9.99 eBook, it's another thing to take the advice of the crowd when buying a $100 Bordeaux."

    • 1WineDude


      Tom, I don't disagree with your distinctions. But I also don't think that those price distinctions are being drawn enough when critics discount aggregate consumer reviews. Every luxury product could be said to possess the dynamic you describe (watches, cars, pens…).

    • @spiritandwine


      I think you sum up the huge difference in the "Wine buying Audiences" very well. Having worked for lower-Mid tier and top tier wineries in the last 9 years, this is a very accurate statement. From the marketing side, I see social as being a conversation, usually about the experience they had at the winery. Recommendations seem to come mostly from this and draw others to the place or brand. Since working at HALL in St. Helena for 9 months, I notice that most of our buyers are driven by reviews of wines, of which we have plenty. But our winery experience is compelling and can make a more frugal buyer taste and buy a bottle, even if they don't join our club, which is the main goal. I believe we will start to see more influence in the social from Apps like Delectable and Vivino but the shortness of attention span and complexity to convert that social contact to purchase is still not there yet.
      The experience of enjoying a wine that is bought at a store and then shared on social can be helpful to drive that person to buy said bottle, but it's rare that social will get the credit in person (from my 1.5 years in retail wine store sales). For me, it's all about the experience and less about the wine. Of course it has to be palatable, but enjoying a mediocre $10 bottle of Rose with friends and family can make the social news, but context is never very clear or after several bottles, reliable.
      There is however, a newer generation, that has affluence that relies less on reviews and more on Yelp and TripAdvisor. Many of these still had reviews or wine inheritance handed down from well to do Parents or peers and from that adhere to brands, regardless of actual knowledge of specific wines. Full fruition of these new buyers will come in the next several years. The times they are a changin and wineries are making the move, but it will never be at market pace.

      • 1WineDude


        @spiritandwine – that’s a very cogent take on it, I think. Is wine behind the times on this stuff? Yes. Is it immune from those changes? The data suggest otherwise.

  • Mike Dunne


    What is a crowd, anyway? Not long ago, I did my own study. I went to about 14 wine shops, asking owners and clerks a simple open-ended question: When someone comes in looking for a particular wine, what prompted their search? No one volunteered social media. A few said wine columns in newspapers or magazines. Most agreed that the motivation was rather old-fashioned: They'd had a wine at dinner party in home or restaurant, liked it, and were out looking for the same wine to buy. I think having a wine at home or restaurant with friends and family could qualify as being influenced by the crowd, as well as the wine. The sampling is small, but maybe I could get a paper out of it worthy of publication by the wine economists.

    • 1WineDude


      Mike, probably not with a sample size that small…

      • Thomas Pellechia


        Mike's on good footing. The sample size should be relative to the seriousness of the subject. ;)

        • 1WineDude


          Thomas – ha! Nice one…

    • winingarchaeologist


      But the physical wine store isn't the place to gauge social influence on wine purchasing – it is the online retailer.

  • Bob Henry


    Guys (and it appears it is indeed all guys chiming in; where are the women pundits?):

    Let me take a different approach to the Cellartracker reviews study.

    A preface: I haven't read the study (either in abstract form or in its entirety). So if my observations are addressed in it, forgive me.

    My limited perusing of Cellartracker reviews reveals a high percentage of older wines.

    Wines that years ago left the shelves of wine merchants, and cannot be procured easily (or at all) by wine enthusiasts today reading Cellartracker.

    In essence, what I call "time capsule wines."

    Such older wine reviews can only be written by collectors who pull them out of their cellars. Not a drinking experience that can be replicated by the "common man" reading Cellartracker.

    So the first review is the "authoritative" opinion based on first-hand experience. The subsequent reviews are composed by individuals who lack that first-hand experience . . . who lack "authoritativeness."

    Since these older wines are difficult or impossible to buy, how do these Cellartracker reviews "move the needle" on wine sales?

    Only reviews of newly-released wines on wine store shelves today are subject to the influence of positive reviews.

    Okay guys, disabuse me of my ignorance . . . What am I missing?

    ~~ Bob

  • Bob Henry


    Okay, I have now read the abstract and the study in its entirety.

    And I have spent some "quality time" on Cellartracker (a site I don't follow).

    So let me retract the second sentence in this statement:

    "So the first review is the "authoritative" opinion based on first-hand experience. The subsequent reviews are composed by individuals who lack that first-hand experience . . . who lack "authoritativeness."

    As I have learned, "subsequent reviews" are indeed composed by individuals who have first-hand experience with the wine . . . as distinct from wine blogs, where comments and replies may be composed by individuals who have no first-hand experience with the subject under discussion.

    But my follow-up statement still stands: if you can't procure an older wine under review, that review has no positive affect on your purchase behavior.

    I would posit that a larger influence on purchase behavior is not the "expert" wine critic, not the social media pundit, but the wine merchant who sold the consumer the bottle.

    Over the past week, I re-read the seminal consumer shopping tome titled “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” by esteemed researcher Paco Underhill (© 1999, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 255 pages softcover, $15.00).

    Esteemed retail shopping experience researcher Paco Underhill in his seminal consumer shopping tome titled “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” (© 1999, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 255 pages softcover, $15.00) states that "more and more purchasing decisions are being made on the premises of the store itself. . . . fully 60 to 70 percent of purchases . . . were unplanned, grocery industry studies have shown us."

    That tells me the a wine store staffer "intercepting" and interacting with the consumer exerts far more influence over the purchase decision that wine magazines critics or social media pundits.

  • Bob Henry


    Apologia: it's 2 in the morning, I'm bone tired, and still composing wine blog comments. Once again, with clarity . . .

    Okay, I have now read the abstract and the study in its entirety.

    And I have spent some "quality time" on Cellartracker (a site I don't follow).

    So let me retract the second sentence in this statement:

    "So the first review is the "authoritative" opinion based on first-hand experience. The subsequent reviews are composed by individuals who lack that first-hand experience . . . who lack "authoritativeness."

    As I have learned, "subsequent reviews" are indeed composed by individuals who have first-hand experience with the wine . . . as distinct from wine blogs, where comments and replies may be composed by individuals who have no first-hand experience with the subject under discussion.

    But my follow-up statement still stands: if you can't procure an older wine under review, that review has no positive affect on your purchase behavior.

    Over the past week, I re-read the seminal consumer shopping tome titled “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” by esteemed researcher Paco Underhill (© 1999, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 255 pages softcover, $15.00).

    Underhill states that "more and more purchasing decisions are being made on the premises of the store itself. . . . fully 60 to 70 percent of purchases . . . were unplanned, grocery industry studies have shown us."

    I would argue that a largest influence on purchase behavior is not the "expert" wine critic, not the social media pundit, but the wine merchant who sold the consumer the bottle.

    Wine retailers "move the needle" in ways that can be measured.

    • 1WineDude


      Bob, I agree with you. The store clerk is probably the most influential source at the point of sale. In terms of crowd reviews, my suspicion is that those do two things over time: 1) incidence subsequent peer perceptions, as concise by the study, 2) influence brand perception for others who see those reviews but don’t try a particular wine/vintage. And a ton of people see those CT reviews via search.

  • Bob Henry


    Tom,

    Regarding this comment . . .

    "You may be building a strawman here, Joe. First, I think it goes without saying that wine is a unique product. consider that the vast majority of wine purchases is under $10 a bottle. Then consider that the vast majority of wines on the market (1000 upon 1000s of them) cost far more than $10 per bottle AND that this latter category of wines is purchased by a very small percentage of the wine buying public. Can you think of another consumer product that possesses this dynamic? I can't."

    . . . around 80% of all wine is purchased by around 12% of all domestic wine drinkers.

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – is that across all categories? Or only premium?

      • Bob Henry


        In the aggregate, across all categories.

        (What we associate as "high-end" pricier wine is difficult to track, because so much of it is sold by independent retailers and restaurants — outside of the mainstream distribution channels comprising grocery stores, convenience stores, and big-box retailers like Costco and Target. Independent stores and restaurants are not "wired" to report back cash register scanner data to third-party "big data" researchers.)

        There is a surprisingly high percentage of Americans who never drink wine.

        And that roughly 12% of the wine drinkers responsible for around 80% of its consumption hasn't changed — in good economic times (pre-2007 Great Recession) or bad (post-2007).

        Wineries which base their sales strategy on the belief that "All we have to do is 'convert' a few more non-drinkers into drinkers" are working off of false hope and wasted efforts.

  • Bob Henry


    Those tea-totalers are never going to adopt wine as a beverage.

    The better strategy is to "steal" customers from your competitors.

    And that makes it a zero-sum game.

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – and we are seeing that strategy in coffee and beer going after wine consumers.

  • Bob Henry


    In former MIT business school professor Michael Treacy’s book titled “Double-Digit Growth: How Great Companies Achieve It No Matter What,” he identifies four areas of focus:

    “Share gain,” grabbing a percentage point or two at the expense of a competitor.

    "Base retention,” stemming the loss of existing customers to the point where your churn rates fall below the average.

    "Market positioning,” also known as showing up where the growth is going to happen.

    And “adjacent markets,” whereby a marketer moves into a related business.

    Treacy’s research has shown proper attention to any one of these will contribute a few percentage points of growth. Put them together and what do you have double digit growth.

    Starbucks selling alcoholic beverages is an example of them targeting an "adjacent market."

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – absolutely; another example recently was having a large bar pouring beer from beer sponsors at Taste WA in Seattle. I was thinking that the beer sponsors might have seen the sponsorship fees as a bargain vs. the opportunity to steal so many potential wine consumers. And I think it is stealing them over, for the most part, since consumers have only a finite amount of disposable income, and it's unlikely they'd be increasing spending to buy the same amount of wine and add beer to that mix…

  • Bob Henry


    The consumer's discretionary income "pie" devoted to alcoholic beverage spending won't grow overall . . . but the slice of the proverbial pie realized by some beverage categories (at the expense of others) can.

    We see it in beer producers seeking to induce consumers to shift a little more spending their way at the expense of wine.

    We see it in grain alcohol producers (promoting mixed drinks) likewise seeking to garner "share" gains at the expense of wine.

  • Bob Henry


    From The Wall Street Journal "Off Duty" Section
    (May 31 – June 1, 2014, Page C4):

    "Bottled-Up Demand"

    Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/statshot-wine-dri

    By David Goldenberg
    "Statshot" Infographics Column

    Exhibit caption: "Americans now drink more wine than the residents of any other country. (Per capita, though, we’re still way behind the French.) After a lull in the 1990s, we’re averaging more than 13 bottles per person per year."

    Note: Total wine consumption per U.S. resident peaked at 2.39 gallons in 1987. Dropped for a decade, and returned to 1987 levels (2.46 gallons) in 1997. Today it stands at 2.73 gallons.

    More Americans today are drinking wine, because our national adult age population has grown. But essentially not drinking more wine per American.

    That's attested to by the "80:12 Rule" of domestic wine consumption: roughly 12% of domestic wine drinkers consume roughly 80% of all wine.

  • @ChampagneInHand


    Popular doesn't always correlate with the better product. I will say that as a Cellar Tracker user

    • 1WineDude


      CiH – of course not. If that were the case then In N Out Burger would be haute cuisine. That’s not what the study is saying.

    Shout it out loud! By leaving a comment on 1WineDude, you accept the fact that you totally rock, and possess excessive amounts of intelligence and good looks. You also agree not to be a douchebag (we love debate here, but we don't tolerate attacks), and to use your superpowers for good.

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