Monday, February 6, 2012

Social Media: Give Me A Break

Bacchus, surviving just fine without social media
In many respects, the wine business is like any other business. Somebody makes something, somebody buys it.

In several ways, however, the wine trade stands apart. From start to finish, no business may rely more on personal relationships. The vineyard handshake that seals a deal between farmer and vintner more often than not ends with two or more people clinking glasses of the wine that emerged from that trusting pact. And then they talk about it.

In between, winemakers preside over winemaker dinners, court distributors and restaurateurs, manage wine clubs, pour at community tastings, and tend to customers in their tasting rooms.

For their part, wine enthusiasts plan entire holidays around tours of wineries. They might visit half a dozen in a day, find something they like that they’ve never tried before, and learned about the making of wine and the people behind it, sometimes from the person who actually made the wine. In contrast, no one returns home from a weekend in Silicon Valley raving about this or that laptop they tested in a tour of computer shops. (Or if they have, please send me your notes; I’m in the market.)

Given all this interaction, an observer might conclude that the wine business is perfectly poised to take advantage of “social media.”

But it isn't doing much of that at all, according to an essay posted the other day by wine blogger Alder Yarrow. He is positively indignant about the failure of the wine trade to capitalize on social media. His lament was windup to a pitch for Vintank Social Connect, an online tool to help wineries “monitor their brand presence in the sphere of social media, and to engage with their customers in this space,” Alder says. “Any winery in the world that does not have a free account on this service, and does not spend at least an hour or two every week using it, is dumber than a bag of hammers,” Alder claims. (Despite his blunt advice, Alder says he has no vested interest in Vintank.)

I don't know Vintank Social Connect. It's a club that won't have me as a member because I'm not affiliated with a commercial winery, which in wine journalism is a no-no. Thus, I have to take Alder's word that Vintank Social Connect may be "the single greatest gift that anyone has given the wine industry since the invention of the steel fermentation tank." If it's that significant, winemakers will find it and use it, if they see a need to.

They just might not see a need to. With wine sales perking along quite robustly despite a deep and prolonged recession, why should they? Winemakers are savvy to the reach of the Internet, even if they don't much keep their websites up to date. An online presence is virtually essential to maintain a vibrant wine club, to say nothing of sales. Aside from that, if winemakers are failing to exploit social media the fault may not be so much with the wine business as with social media. Sure, it has potential, and, yes, it's had sporadic spectacular impact, but in this instance it may be failing to acknowledge and respect just how different the wine trade is.

Let's back up for the moment to consider what is meant by "social media." I rather like Alder's definition: "Social media are those channels of interaction on the internet where the public has a voice. Any outlet at which an ordinary person, free of charge, can say something, create a piece of content, react to something that someone else has created, or establish relationships with people and companies falls under the banner of social media." Think Facebook, think Twitter, think blogs. They all can be fun, enlightening and effective. Excuse me, however, for my skepticism of whether social media will have much influence in building brand awareness and loyalty in the wine trade. More traditional and more personal means of doing that have been practiced for years, and winemakers and wine enthusiasts seem happy enough with them.

Consider for a moment a graphic that a Facebook friend of a friend posted on the same day that Alder posted his essay. It lists the "16 types of people on Facebook," starting with the "lurker" ("never posts anything or comments on your post, but reads everything") and ending with the "rooster" ("feels that it is their job to tell Facebook 'good morning' every day"). The thread that ties the 16 together is cynical, but it also rings true: A lot of people participating in social media aren't that crazy about being social; they're the party guests who try to monopolize a conversation, drift off without contributing anything, or otherwise aren't much interested in a meaningful exchange of thoughts.

Maybe a substantial segment of the wine trade recognizes or senses this from dealing so often with people, and thus is hesitant to jump on the social-media bandwagon. Just how much personal interaction does a person need before realizing that too often it's a one-sided pontification rather than a discussion?

Ever notice how a seemingly disproportionate number of California winemakers pursue fly fishing, rebuild vintage cars, bake bread and keep second homes on the isolated coast of the Sea of Cortez? Why is that? What these pursuits share and may represent is a longing for occasional escape and solitude. A fish, a car, a loaf of bread and a cactus doesn't talk back. A respite from chatter could be in order. In a career that involves so much socialization, who can fault winemakers for being chary of social media?


  1. Some vintners have embraced social media as a (nearly) free way to interact with their fans and, with luck, to expand that universe. They may be the same ones who believe that consumers, not middlemen/gatekeepers, are their real customers.

    Much as we love wine, vintners (who don't fish, bake bread, restore cars) also appreciate the occasional thoughtful conversation about anything but wine.

  2. Take all the breaks that you like.

    While the wine business might be, as you say, "perfectly poised to take advantage of social media", a quick glance at how most wineries conduct themselves in the micro-blogosphere reveals that their poise has flaws. Ginormous flaws.

    I'm using VinTank Social Connect to help a few wineries improve their alignment to/sensitivity about visitor interests/concerns, to fine-tune program content, to make valuable contributions to communities where wine enthusiasts talk about wine, and to engage with prospective visitors. There are many yet-to-be-well-known steps that wineries might take to improve their relationships with existing aficionados, as well as to connect with future customers who would not just otherwise drop into their laps. Social media offers solid benefits to enthusiasts and wineries to quest into the unknown, and discover untold rewards together.

    If wineries practice, as you say "pontification" rather than engage in the enthusiasts interests and concerns, then there will be no rewards. As you may have already surmised, the unfortunate style and tone of most wineries efforts on the social media platforms, is far from social: They tend to hang out the old shingle, announce events, promote tours, pitch cruises on the Mediterranean, and shout-out discounts. There is very little genuine listening, value adding, or engagement evident. It's far from attractive, which many will frame in less generous terms.

    You point out that winemakers, like all other winelovers, pursue other interests. Curiously, they do not look at this larger picture when they attempt to speak with their real and prospective customers. I don't "fault the winemakers for being chary of social media", but I do fear for how digital Darwinism will do them in. One day we'll look back on which wineries have long since been acquired largely due to their unwillingness to explore these roads less taken.

  3. Facebook accounts for 1 in every 5 pageviews according to research done by Hitwise, so why would a winery ignore this? It's easier to get on a train as it is leaving the station than jump on when it is going 80 mph. But I saw this coming in healthcare and they are playing catch up with automation and the effects of online review sites. Here's the thing, if you have a business and you don't use social media to fill the first page of search when people search for your company, then your competitor will, or Yelp will with a negative review. It cracks me up that wineries don't want to completely secure their brand on the Internet. Does Facebooks IPO mean nothing? Here are the Hitwise stats:

  4. Mike, two quick points.

    We'd love to give you a demo of the software so you can see for yourself. There is no conflict by seeing the conversations about a winery while being a journalist.

    Secondly, though I hear you about the winemaker and their busy social activities and possibly needing a break. However two things constantly bother me about this - the illusion that most wineries consist of a poor overworked winemaker who does every activity seems like a rarity and not the norm yet it is portrayed as so. There are 1000's + of wineries that operate as more than a sole proprietor and have supporting staff with focused people for marketing, PR, customer service, et al that could support interacting with that winery's customers.

    Secondly, even if it is the sole winemaker it is their responsibility to interact with their customers. Would they ignore a phone call from a customer? Would they ignore an email from their customer? Social media is just another place where their customers are talking about and to them and expect a response. Moreover since they generate their best profit from selling direct to consumers to ensure their survival, it is paramount that they view these interactions as helping them retain these precious resources. Retaining and maintaining a customer is far less expensive than acquiring them.

    Just like the telegraph, the phone, the fax, and then email, social media is now a pervasive communication medium that can no longer be ignored and must be adopted (just like those communication improvements of the past) to service customers as they transform how they interact with businesses.

  5. Mike, I'm not going to jump into the discussion here but just wanted to say that I've been a fan of your writing for many years and am thrilled to have discovered your blog through Alfonso's (social media at work!).

    Looking forward to following along...