[ Editor's note: the following screed is nearly 1500 words long. The Cliff Notes version, for those who are in a hurry: be very careful about where you take your advice regarding wine and social media, lest you miss out on worthwhile authoritative voices/resources (as a consumer) or miss opportunities to build brand awareness and acquire customers (as a producer). ]
There’s no delicate way to breach this topic, and so I’m going to risk pissing off a lot of people by jumping right in and starting it this way:
From whom should you take your social media advice? Choose one of the options below:
1) Someone who ran Internet web hosting for some of the most successful brands in the history of social media (including Skittles, Snickers and M&Ms), who makes $0.00 from social media consulting, and who bootstrapped his way from total unknown to authoritative in the wine space completely via online channels,
2) A traditional media outlet source that has little or no experience operating in social media channels, has a vested fiscal interest (advertising) in pushing wine brands away from inexpensive social media channels and into (more expensive) print advertising spending, and who publicly decries social media / blogs while at the same time advertises on those online channels and repeatedly asks those same blogs it decries to cover its events and press releases?
Hello… Paging Ralph Nader…!
The answer seems ludicrously straightforward, and yet I regularly watch wine brands go with #2, potentially to the detriment of their long term bottom lines. And yes, for the record, I’m the guy in the first example above, but that’s not central to the point – you could substitute anyone in the #1 slot with both social media and wine experience, like Paul Mabray of Vintank, for example. The point is that wine brands accord far, far, far too much weight to the social media prognostications and pontifications of OpEd pieces, newsletter introductions, and blog posts from staff members of traditional wine media. These media folks are often fantastic tasters, great writers, and immensely intelligent people who routinely, somehow, manage to make themselves sound like complete idiots by holding a bully pulpit sermon on topics about which they know almost nothing. It’s like eighty year old men talking about teenage girls’ high school fashions, or ten year old boys talking about prostate health or political voting strategies.
Seriously, people, this is getting embarrassing…
Here’s the thing: figures within traditional wine media seem to think that commenting on social media, because it touches on the topic of wine – their turf – is within their wheelhouse. But just as the act of breathing doesn’t make us oxygen experts, social media’s ubiquity ensures that it touches on *every* topic now; so that’s just not a good enough justification for someone to pontificate on it (for a long but cogent – and eloquently penned – deep dive into this, see Elaine Chukan Brown’s article The Question of Authority in the Context of Social Media, with a quick nod at democracy).
There are two things that traditional wine media, in my experience, typically gets totally wrong when it comes to social media, and it’s high time we wine geeks all agreed on more accurate renderings of both:
The first thing on which we need to agree is that there is effectively NO debate about whether or not a wine brand ought to be operating in social media channels. I know this because I was part of that debate for brands like Skittles; and we had that debate seven years ago. The evidence that authority, loyalty and exposure can be garnered through proper use of social media is incontrovertible. And if people can have a social media relationship with a f*cking bag of candy, don’t you think they can have one with a premium wine brand that might have been part of a special occasion in their lives? Do we even need to ask this question?!?? Apparently we do, and the answer is Yes; in fact, that relationship is strong enough to put wine in the top eight categories of anything discussed by people online.
The second thing we need to agree is that social media outreach for wine is not a question of “if” there’s a return on investment, but of “where?” and “how much?”
Where (twitter, facebook, pinterest…) are the fine wine customers hanging out?
How much time should be spent courting them in those channels vs. using traditional wine media outlets (because both are important)?
Those are the questions with which wine brands need to be wrestling, not, “gee, I’m not so sure about this twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn thing…?” If you’re a wine brand in that latter boat, you need to get out, because it’s already taking on water and you’re too late to plug the holes (see this Mashable article on just how deep in the minority opinion you are on that).
A wine brand’s mix of social media / traditional media time/spend should be a bit like re-balancing a stock / bond allocation mix when you’re investing. I.e., initially you dial in small amounts of social media time, but over the years, as those channels become the norm and print declines further, the need to spend a higher percentage of time and spend in those channels (and less in print) will increase. That is, unless wine print media somehow bucks the trend of declining print media that has impacted every other topic of interest. Anyway, the return on that time investment can, in fact, be measured in quantitative ways (exposure, customer acquisition/retention, sales, etc.), a fact that conveniently eludes the majority of traditional media despite the fact that it could be confirmed via a brief Google search or a call to a reputable PR agency. Not seeing ROI on your social media play? Riddle me this, wine-man: is it more likely that social media surely work, or could it be more likely that the story you’re telling on social media sucks and therefore it’s not selling? Here are some recently reported wine social media ROI examples, for those who find the Google route to be too much work.
The problem is that traditional wine media folks, for the most part, don’t understand this. They’re terrible at navigating social media – and at offering advice about its use – for the same reasons that they’re great at writing and tasting wines: it’s a function of where they spend their time. They don’t spend it on navigating the nuances of what does/doesn’t work on various social media platforms, they spend it on creating great wine content for their own traditional media platforms. They don’t need to understand the nuances required to engage an audience via social media because their audience is built-in, it’s part and parcel of their writing outlets and would be there reading (to some extent) whether or not their content appears in the magazine/paper/newsletter. Those trying to make a mark and build an audience via social media need to earn the readership one wine lover at a time.
Neither way is inherently good or bad, but the approaches are fundamentally different; different enough that a traditional wine media personality talking about utilizing social media for wine makes about as much sense as a social media wine personality taking about how wine brands should best use exposure in wine magazines. Which is to say, not much. I don’t blame them for acting like there are too many blogger kids playing wine reviewer on their lawns, because there are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t sound ridiculous when they’re offering misinformation about how social media and wine (don’t) work together.
I’m not arguing against cautious approaches, or against a slow adoption of social media outreach. And under no circumstances should anyone think that social media outreach is a panacea or a road to instant sales, riches, popularity, or executive-style hair (though despite many citing that wine brand have been fooled into thinking that’s the case, I’ve yet to see one single example offered up of someone making such claims; seriously, they must be coming from unicorns or something…).
But ignoring social media channels altogether? Yeah, I’m arguing against that, and I’m telling you that anyone who offers “advice” that even remotely looks like a treatise on why social media doesn’t “work” for wine, or provides no measurable ROI, or is somehow inappropriate for find wine because wine is “different” is selling Grade D snake oil, and probably has a vested interest in where wine marketing dollars get parked.
Going back to the financial comparison, staying on the sidelines of social media for a wine brand is like sticking all your money into a savings account because it’s “safe,” and then finding out that in ten years you lost half your buying power to inflation; it’s a losing bet. Why? Because more and more of the people who buy wine will be interacting with brands on social media over time; if you sell wine, then you need to be there now, ready to greet them.