While I was in Portugal in May judging at the 2013 Wines of Portugal Challenge, I met a well-spoken and well-studied former Luftwaffe pilot named Axel Probst, who now provides one-on-one Port consultations (seriously, there’s a business for this in Europe, apparently).
Axel looks every inch like an air force pilot: well-mannered, calm, fit, nice hair, strong chin – the works (see pic in the list of judges from the competition). Like me, at forty-ish he’s semi-retired into the wine biz. I took to referring to him Axel as Herr Port (get it…? Mr. Port… Airport… former pilot… okay, you know what, go screw yourself!).
The reason I’m mentioning Herr Port today: in getting to know Axel and talking about his odd landing (ha!… sorry…) into the wine biz during my recent week in Portugal, is due to a realization on my part. Axel’s story is similar to many of those who have made up the list of finalists in the Best Single Subject Subject Wine Blog category of the wine blog awards through the last few years (though none of them are former Luftwaffe pilots, as far as I’m aware). It was the radiation that what all those just-mentioned souls have in common is actually the key thing when it comes to building authority on the topic of wine from the ground up. And it amazes me that so few people who say that they are interested in turning their self-published forays into wine coverage into something more serious are doing it.
These things are, for sure, more marathon (insert awesome `80s prog rock soundtrack here) than sprint, but if I were starting up in the wine world online tomorrow, and wanted to build an authoritative brand in as short amount of time as possible, here’s exactly how I’d go about it…
Ok, there are a few more steps than that, but if at this point you’re thinking “hmmm… perhaps specialization is the key to this…” then congratulations, you’re paying attention! Here’s a bit more detail behind that thinking:
1) Generalist? Good luck with that.
Building an authoritative voice now is different than it was even five years ago. I’m lucky – I can be a generalist, and indulge nearly any wine topic that I want, because I started early enough. Wine blogging was still a bit of a twinkle in the Internet’s eye when 1WineDude was founded in 2007 (-ish). If you want to be a generalist now, that’s great but know that you are in competition with me, Vinography, DrVino.com… there just isn’t a lot of land grab available in that market. You need a different market if you want to get a piece of prime real estate (and get noticed).
2) Location, location, location.
Back in 2011, I sat on a panel with search guru Doug Cook and wine blogger / Internet design and SEO maven Alder Yarrow at Pro Wine Writers Symposium discussing the importance of search and how to maximize the chances of having your wine writing noticed on-line. If you haven’t watched the video of that session and gone through Doug’s slide deck, you should do it now and then come back to this post. But since we both know that you won’t do that, I’ll try to sum up the importance of that session’s message in one of Doug’s slides:
Google “wine” and the odds that your new website comes up early in search results is basically nil. Search for something very specific, though… and that’s where magic can start to happen, people. That’s the Long Tail of Doug’s (incredibly insightful) slide deck.
If you want authority, you need to think in terms of prime location online. That includes good search engine results, and (insanely) content useful to the people who find you via search. Want some prime location? You will need to get very, very specific. Extending the metaphor way too far, you have to find the little gems that were overlooked in the earlier land-grabs.
Yes, that means getting your subject area to a point that’s even more specific than the relatively niche topic of “Wine.”
3) Do your homework. Also, there’s a sh*t-ton of homework.
If I were to start building an authoritative wine brand via the Internet tomorrow, I’d focus exclusively on something like The Wines of Hungary, and target a specific market (like U.S. consumers mainly on the big cities in the coastal areas) where I know there might be geeky interest. And before ever putting finger to keyboard I’d be tasting the wines of the region (hopefully I’d already have done that, of course, in picking a topic about which I was wildly passionate), getting certifications, taking classes on the region, reading, studying, and talking to established wine peeps in the field both off- and on-line.
Then, finally, I’d write a bunch of content, asking people that I respect to both review it and offer feedback first, refining it, and slowly publishing it while also networking via social media contacts and groups who were into Hungarian wines. Finally, the site would be launched, content and networked influencer connections at the ready (if it even was an independent site or blog – there’s no reason it couldn’t exist as a page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or LInkedIn, or… you get the picture).
Sound like a big pain in the ass? That’s because it is. Congrats, you’re still paying attention!
What I’ve just laid out is a huge pain in the ass.
But we’re not talking about blogging what you drank last night, which comes from the passion of wanting to share with a (usually small) community. We are talking about building authority. And there is an enormous difference between the two.
Can you still build authority the way that I did, which resembled the generalist view and passionate sharing much more than a highly-specified, well-planned, targeted endeavor with a clear goal and hopefully measures of success and checkpoints along the way? I suppose so, but it would be such a Sisyphusian climb that I’m not sure that I’d wish it on my worst enemies.
If you’re really hungry about the online wine space and want to make your mark as an authoritative brand, then I’ve got five words of summary for you:
Go specific, or go home.
23 thoughts on “The Fast Track To Wine Authority That Nobody’s Taking”
Tsk, tsk. :)
Though you provide some good advice, you failed to address the potential disadvantages of specialization. And anyone contemplating this course of action needs to see both the good and the bad. First, a specialized blog tends to have a smaller audience because far less people will be interested in your particular specialization. How many people want to read about the wines of Hungary every week? Second, specialization limits what you can write about, which can get boring and potentially lead to burnout. I have seen many specialized blogs wrestle with that issue. It doesn't always lead to a long writing career, unless you see some kind of expansion.
Richard – totally hear you, and agree.
But we're talking about building authority here, not audience (which can also, along with article frequency, give you some authority – but that is much, MUCH more difficult to do now then it was even two or three years ago).
I should add that this article is a response to a few questions I received lately that boiled down to "why don't you talk more about blogging?" which I'm guessing people had on their minds with the WBC happening this past week. So I tired to pick a topic that I'd been noodling for a while, but wasn't *just* about blogging.
Thanks for the tips. I agree that the generalized wine blog has a lot of competition, but what do you suggest to someone who needs to be general. My wife and I are building our wine store brand using social media as one type of marketing strategy. We use our blog to promote wines we carry and wine education. Our main goal is not to be the next wine dude but to provide content we think our customer needs/wants. We carry Hungarian wine but I don't think we could build a business on such a focused area. Can you be a specialist in more than one niche?
Nate – that’s a different goal entirely. In that case, you’re building trust, not authority, I think. So I’d say being honest and focusing on what makes you unique is the key there.
great post dude. i'm a generalist too (been in the game much longer!) but i focused on the female segment of the market and become the "go to" women and wine specialist. so i agree, focusing on something specific and becoming an authority in that can be a very smart move. drink on my friend.
Thanks, Leslie – and very much looking forward to seeing you again soon in (“stay classy…”) San Diego. We need to party properly for one night on that jaunt, I think…!
I think it was in response to one of Steve Heimoff's posts where he posited that there was no more room for bloggers where I suggested there were a wide range of areas new writers could specialize in, and I agree with Joe, we don't need more generalists. By specializing, it does limit your audience reach but allows the writer to devote their entire focus to a distinct area of discipline, That can also extend to subscription-based writers who have narrowed their professional experience to a very targeted expertise. Alice Feiring is doing just that for natural wines and Greg Walter for Pinot Noir, as a couple examples. Because of that devotion, they are practically synonymous with their chosen subjects. Two of the best pieces of advice I followed in my development as a wine critic were "Go with what you know". and "If you're everywhere, you're nowhere". That greatly influenced the choice to write on the well-defined regions that I do.
What is best, a Generalist or Specialist? It depends solely on the individual reader, they will go where they find the most interesting, trusted and useful viewpoint. For some it is a full-time commitment regardless.
Doug – once again someone comes along and uses several hundred fewer words to express more clearly the point I was trying to make! Well-said.
You can be a specialist in something other than a region or specific variety. There are price blogs for wines under $10, store blogs for Trader Joe's Wines, and just about any category of wine that you can actually get where you live (by purchase or shipping).
But you have to start with a passion for the specific wines you are writing about. Otherwise you will tire of it quickly whether you gain many followers or not.
With all due respect and props, Dude, wasn't there a degree of specialisation when you started this blog? While not a specialisation not necessarily based upon a particular place or grape variety, you did have a specialised audience: the intermediate wine drinker. Your area of expertise was as a developing wine expert. In a way, your wine authority at first came from not being an authority yet, but mostly as a dude who likes wine first and foremost. As you learned and experienced more, you gained authority from your knowledge, too. You just happen to know a lot about wine as well as like drinking it now.
Now, I agree with the premise of this article that it's difficult to start a generalist wine and drinks blog today because there is a lot of competition, but I do think that the perception of the audience members is the source of authority. There are still many specific audiences that haven't been completely captured, both geographic and demographic. Within a certain area or for a particular demographic, you can be an expert, and as long as you use your powers for good, you can be all right.
Building up authority on wide topics is much more difficult than on one or two areas within a topic, but arguably, it can be much more rewarding to learn a broad array, even if the chances of success are minimal. Temperamentally, I'm slightly more inclined to try to learn 100 things reasonably well rather than one thing extremely well. If I stick permanently with just one thing, complex as it may be, I feel that I'm losing out on opportunities to try new things. While being an authority on something one day might be nice, it's much more important philosophically for me to try to gain more knowledge in general and to share what knowledge I do have already. …And there's my essay for today.
MG – good essay :-) It’s not an approach for everyone. I’m just calling it as I see it, and as I see it this is what I’d do if I were starting tomorrow with the aim of making a dent authoritatively in the wine world. I might have started with a bit of a specialization, but it’s one that’s probably to general (and crowded) now. Cheers.
I'm with you all the way ;)
Thanks, Chile :-)
Joe, why do you keep giving away trade secrets?? You're going to end up like Hoffa. We need to keep the assembly line of crappy bloggers coming so we can make fun of them and curse their names (or keep cursing me)… Seriously, specialization is important, but so is having a foundation based in general wine knowledge. Not that many people read what I have to say, but I if I only knew and wrote about exclusively about Colorado I doubt anyone would care what I have to say. Focus might be a better term than specialization, but maybe not. Credibility might be as important as the narrow, authoritative brand you describe. Credibility can come through many different means.
Kyle – I'm like that. Explains why I make bumpkis now!
I don't disagree with you; I just think the wine world, online especially, is ripe for someone to combine both specialization and a knowledgeable foundation.
Joe, that's what Galloni (and more recently Jeb Dunnuck) did, both while keeping day jobs. Their specialization was so successful that they've ended up as full-time wine-writing generalists!
Bruce – I suppose in a way you are right. What gets lost in the bluster of the messages on this stuff from people like Gary V. is that this stuff does actually work if executed well.
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