Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Social Media Covers Social Media

By Rob Bralow, Wine Post Editor

I love social media, especially in the wine world. Bloggers love to collaborate, share ideas, kvetch to each other about how "The Man" (AKA established media) is bringing down the industry, jump on each other for minor misunderstandings (hey Randy, to directly quote 1WineDude: who loves ya baby?), and all other manor of cheeky fun.

I have written about wine bloggers (strange how the list of blogs that I read has not really changed), how I see the interaction between wine bloggers and marketing (which is changing on an almost daily basis as bloggers are figuring out how to communicate to PR/Marketing professionals and in turn these marketers are figuring out how bloggers work), and more recently about the proliferation of the newest form of SPAM.

About three weeks ago I started researching for a blog post about today's world of social media and its impact on the sales of wine. After about two weeks of researching, I found that every single social media wine writer has not only covered this topic, but covered it, poured cement over it, built a skyscraper on top of it, and then for good measure asked King Kong to climb to the top and stand on it.

One of the first articles (yes I am now calling blog posts articles) I read on the subject came from 1WineDude's January 25, 2010 article, "Wine Satan or Wine Savior? An Interview With Wine Trials Author Robin Goldstein." In the interview, Goldstein said:
I think the emergence of wine blogs are one of the best thing that’s happened to the wine world in the past decade. They are a much-needed force against the abuse of power by the mainstream wine media elite. When I revealed my Wine Spectator exposé, I got an incredible outpouring of support from wine bloggers that, like me, were tired of the way this sort of abuse proliferated and happy to see that somebody had exposed it... Blogs are meant to encourage debate and disagreement. That’s not to say that every wine blog is good, but the good ones are more interesting to read, I think, than almost any of the mainstream magazines.
I think this shows the base bias from where blogs stand. On one side we have the established print media, all of which can now be found online in one form or another (Wine Enthusiast, "Evaluating Wine" 12/09). On the other side we have the new media, namely citizen journalists or bloggers. I am not sure what print media ever did to piss off new media. Perhaps it is just the nature of new media that supports and encourages rumor mongering and sniping comments, just on a global scale instead of in a dark bar with a couple of buddies. Then again, this is America, and there are fewer things we like more in America than seeing the big guy toppled by the little guy. And with such clearly defined big guys, it is natural that the main targets of bloggers be the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. It is easy to jump on them while holding up small hypocrisies (Wine Camp, "Petrus Gets Bad Review from Wine Spectator" 2/2/10). The conversation also includes Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, but only in the same way that it includes every print journalist writer at major newspapers and other magazines.

The main issue is making money. How do you make money while supporting a wine drinking (accompanied by compulsive note taking) habit? Many writers have managed it, and continue to support themselves even after they have been released from newspapers that found wine writing to be expendable. Zester Daily is one such outlet that was inspired by a collective of food, wine, and travel journalists that needed on outlet for their stories. While many papers were no longer paying for their services, they came together to form a new food and wine news outlet. Direct from the website regarding food and wine: "Advertiser-supported, independently owned and distributed without fee, Zester Daily gives this rich topic the close, uncompromised attention it deserves."

While the issue of writers making money may be the source of tension between bloggers and the established press, it is the resources of the wineries in the industry that creates the increased tension. Somehow it is easy to forget that it is the revenue of wineries that makes the whole system flow. Wine Spectator would not be able to make a single dollar if it were not for wineries making wine. I am not in the position to know which wineries are making money and which aren't, but there are others that are (Steve Heimoff, "Who's Making Money? Who Isn't?", 1/10) who have been reporting.

What effect have wine bloggers, who have been in the mainstream for almost two years, had on sales? Yes, the biggest gorillas have been in the room for over six years, but I would say that the most noise has been made in the last two years. That is when PR firms and the big box wineries and importers started identifying blogs as a media outlet that should be focused on and brought to the forefront of yearly strategy meetings. Budgets are now being allocated to Social Media. I do not mean specifically bloggers, but "Social Media" as an idea. This has created interesting, creative, and exciting programs, initiatives, and strategies for attracting the attention of the most active users of social media: bloggers.

Murphy-Goode Winery was the first and biggest splash into the social media pool. They held a contest to find the best, most exciting, social media promoter to join their team. It made national headlines after gaining a huge head of steam. The name was on everyone's lips and I swear I was considering punching the next person to make a "Goode" pun.

From that we were introduced to Hardy Wallace, the charismatic viking horn wearing wine guzzler, and a variety of other candidates, including Rick Bakas. After the Murphy-Goode contest was over Rick was hired by St. Supery Winery to be their social media guru. At St. Supery Rick has started an almost never-ending series of online tastings using twitter as a medium.

I asked the PR department at St. Supery to comment on their use of Social Media. From St. Supery's PR department:
"Wineries and many businesses are using this form of communication to directly reach consumers. St. Supery realizes that consumers are getting information from their peers. Information is multi-dimensional; it's viral and everyone's opinion is valuable to someone and that is why we are investing in social media -- to bring attention to our brand and our commitment to sustainability, preservation and making the best wine we can."
St. Supery is involved in Twitter and Facebook as mediums to communicate directly to consumers, however they would not comment as to how much of their marketing budget is being spent on online promotions. Murphy-Goode Winery did not respond to requests for comment for this article, although they certainly have both Facebook and Twitter pages as well.

The question is have either of these wineries made any money from their promotions and uses of social media? Today's economy makes tracking these increases or decreases especially difficult. Neither of these wineries have folded, which leads me to believe that while the social media program may or may not be leading their sales, the mix of activities and promotions that both of these wineries engage in has kept their businesses going.

Many other wineries and wine regions have social media programs, many of which are quite successful at reaching out to the social world. Twisted Oak Winery runs an extremely successful "Take Your Rubber Chicken to Work Week" promotion, which brings hundreds of submissions to the Twisted Oak Blog El Bloggo Torcido, run by El Jefe. Hahn Family Wines has run blogger weekends, made personal connections through their PR program, and most recently had a stream of PR success with their "Banned in 'Bama" campaign for Cycles Gladiator. ViniPortugal invited bloggers for a wine tasting in New York and sponsored the Wine Bloggers' Conference. Wines of Chile has been hosting online blogger tastings.

All of these programs have many things in common. They are well-thought ideas, with engaging personalities behind them. They are executed in a timely fashion with expansive outreach. However none of them have reported that their program gave them a huge uplift in wine sales. There is still nothing being held up and pointed to with people saying: This is how you do it.

I recently read a few articles by Evelyn Resnick on her blog Wine Brands (also the name of her book). "Does a winery still need a website?" enters into the discussion the idea that with all of the information that is passed through other social media forms (twitter, facebook, etc.) that a winery does not really need to have a website as well. After some discussion on the article, Evelyn refocuses the point in a second article "A winery needs a website!" Personally, I think a winery needs a dedicated communication manager to deal with all of these forms, but this shows that there are basics that every winery needs to activate online.

In there is the point. Social media is not something to be taken as the be-all end-all of a marketing program. I am not even convinced that social media is the most effective use of a marketing budget. However, the proper mix of promotions, online and off-line, along with tried and true distribution is by far the best way to engage the audience wineries are looking for. Tom Wark made interesting points in his article "The Influence of Wine Blogs." Wark breaks down basic strategy for wineries in reaching their audience. What he does not say is that these should be the only targets. While it is true that People Magazine will reach a wider audience of people looking to buy $7 wines, a good review in Wine Spectator does not hurt either. One is certainly more helpful than the other (and I will leave it to someone else to debate which is more influential), however there is no reason not to take all the help you can get.
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