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Has social media ever sold anything, besides itself?


Was at the Napa Valley ranch of a friend’s parents, for their annual celebration of all things Portuguese (the sopa was sooo good), and ran into K-J’s (Jackson Family’s) top PR and marketing people. Despite my friend’s injunction that this was not a day to talk shop, that’s exactly what we did, and of course shop topic #1 with them was Murphy-Goode. I wondered “Where do you go from here” or, put another way, is there another rabbit to pull out of that hat?

From what I can tell, “A Really Goode Job” was a case of lightning striking (millions in free publicity), and as we’ve been told, lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Now, that’s not true. But it does seem to me less likely to strike in the same place than to strike someplace else. What Jess Jackson and his team are calculating is that, now that M-G has at least got on the map, they can keep the conversation going by having entertaining, stimulating, smart dialogue with untold numbers of people through social media, thereby making all those Twitter followers and Facebook friends “brand ambassadors.” It’s not that they think people like me — print critics — or paper-based magazines like Wine Enthusiast are going away anytime soon, or losing our clout in any significant way. No. Instead, they feel that the circle of influential voices has widened, and that word-of-mouth, spread digitally and virally through the Internet, will continue to grow both in volume and in impact, so that Liar’s Dice Zinfandel, for example, will see a boost in popularity, carried forward on a wave of social media-generated buzz.

This is, of course, the Holy Grail of the theory of social media as marketing, PR and sales tool. It’s the democratized “let a thousand flowers bloom” equivalent of Chairman Mao’s 1957 invitation to China’s chattering classes to weigh in on the artistic, scientific and cultural issues then dominant in China (although, of course, just ten years later, Mao, realizing that the “liberal bourgeois elements” he himself had unleashed now had to be controlled, rounded them up and crushed them). There is perhaps a lesson to be learned: be careful what you wish for, lest ye get it.

Anyway, the crux of the social-media-as-marketing-tool theory eludes me. Yes, I completely understand its mechanics — the way it’s supposed to work. I “get” the fact that Millennials would rather text message or tweet than watch TV or read a magazine. I understand the power of Twitter, and also the sense of empowerment that young people (and some not so young; Gov. Schwarzenegger supposedly lives on Twitter) feel when they see and hear everywhere that they are driving the future forward through their preferences and behavior. That is heady stuff. Baby Boomers experienced roughly the same sense of specialness in the 1960s, when we felt that the entire burden and joy of the future was being borne upon our eager shoulders.

What I don’t get is the belief that all the Twitterers and Facebookers are going to be “brand ambassadors” for some winery smart enough to organize them. For one thing, it flies in the face of their vaunted independence and dislike of being manipulated — values we saw riotously illustrated just a year ago during the Rodney Strong “Rockaway” brouhaha. I think that social media can drive the popularity of a rock band, or a political candidate (Gavin Newsom comes to mind, although he’s not doing too well in the polls), or a social-revolutionary movement (the disputed Iranian election and Neda’s martyrdom). CNN can invite viewers to weigh in via Twitter and they will, while A YouTube like “Dancing Wedding” can spread across the planet, and a fun conversation like #whostillwears can be the #1 trending topic on Twitter, covering everything from oversized thug clothing to the unpopularity of New Balance. But is there any evidence, anywhere, that social media ever have driven the sales of a wine, beyond perhaps a temporary spike, the way, say, a Parker 100 does (or for that matter a #1 on a Wine Enthusiast annual list)?

Call me a revanchist if you want. It’s a common charge against someone who dares to question whether social media is all its most ardent supporters claim it to be. The question is not, I think, What is the ROI for a social media sales campaign so much as this: Can social media sell anything but itself?

  1. Doubting conventional thinking is good for everyone. It ensures that arguments are well thought out and presented. That said, I am not sure your criteria for social media success is reasonable. There are few marketing activities taken by themselves that would provide a continual spike in sales – conventional marketing or social media. Incremental sales are driven by a well thought out and executed marketing plan – well formulated strategy and well executed tactics.

    Certainly a Parker 100 or a #1 Wine Enthusiast can provide a perpetual spike in sales, but how many wineries can even get the attention of Mr. Parker or the Wine Enthusiast? Those are the exceptions not something that the vast majority of wineries can ever achieve.

    Social media / networking as part of an overall well formulated and well executed marketing plan can increase winery sales – one spike at a time.

    And for many small to medium sized wineries, it is a much more practical activity than hoping for a 100 score from Parker. My humble opinion.

  2. The question probably isn’t “what can it sell?”

    The question probably is “do you want brand awareness or not?”

    If the answer is “no” then any company can safely ignore social media on-line. If the answer is “yes” then they need to be involved in social media, right now. The thing that’s changed for brand marketers is that they have a relatively easy & inexpensive way to significantly raise brand awareness – there’s no way to link that to sales directly, but they don’t need to do that.

    You’d be foolish not to get involved, really!

  3. I believe so. Consider this anecdote for wine: after reading Alder Yarrow’s blog for over the course of a year, I’ve finally begun to try some of the wines he recommends. It took a year, of building my trust in his voice and opinion, but now a non-professional writer has inspired my purchase from certain wineries. The lesson? Social media is a great way to start forming credibility if you don’t have it in the traditional sense. Thats powerful stuff.

    As another example, I absolutely love going to the movies, but I hate spending money on bad movies. With many wine purchases costing more than $10, ironically I still weight my thoughts just as much before acquiring a ticket for any given film. Rotten tomatoes is one of my key sources. I value not only its aggregation of all the top movie critics, but its community feature. Sometimes I will look at a film and note that it received an 11% (out of 100) from critics, but a 73% from the community. Ah-ha, I think. Maybe I’ll enjoy this film after all. And usually, it’s true. In this way social media personally saved the sales of a few films for this consumer.

    In another sense, I think it’s unfair to reduce any media tactic to a silver bullet. That would make it a question of love at first sight for consumers. You can’t rely on that notion as a marketer, no matter how great your offering. Rather, you have to go at love the old-fashioned way. You come at it from multiple-angles, you woo your audience over an extended period of time, until finally they submit to say, “Okay, I’m interested enough to purchase you” (or try a free sample, or call here, whatever the objective of the campaign was). For the most part many purchases are driven by the amalgam of “this professional review,” “that commercial,” “this friend,” and “that blog.” Personally, I hate the concept of a “social media campaign,” rather I prefer the idea of social media as a tactic, like many other tactics which should form the larger part of strategy.

  4. I believe social media can sell. My question is: can social media inform?

    All forms of marketing and PR continually evolve, social media will too–it will have to, as people realize that they are constantly a mark for marketing and then become moving targets.

    One way to build loyalty so that people don’t try to escape is to teach–you know, that stuff about the Internet as a major force for information. Right.

    The difference between printed magazines and the online versions are twofold: one is paid for and the other is difficult to attract subscriptions; and one is generally backed by knowledgeable, investigative writers and the other is all over the map, from the inane fool to the studied professional.

    How do you trust (or gain from) that kind of media?

  5. Thomas, you asked all the right questions.

  6. I’ve spent over $1,000 on wine at a retail store called The Wine Library in New Jersey…

    I don’t think KJ is structured correctly to benefit as much from social media as small family wineries that have a charismatic persona at the helm. KJ, like many other big wine companies, has a wine brand portfolio. Think General Motors brand portfolio.

    Social media is better at helping small family wineries with charismatic people at the helm connect to people who want to connect with family wineries and charismatic people. Think pinotblogger and El Jefe.

    It’s like portfolio brands are going through transparency shock. The authentic product positions that portfolio brands thought they had when the tide was rising is looking more like meaningless faux authenticity now that the tide is waning.

  7. Dylan–

    Alder Yarrow is no more a part of social media than I am. He is a journalist. He writes regularly. He has a following. He makes money and has openly stated that he hopes to make more money.

    The professional end of the blogosphere is nothing more than journalism on the Internet. The question is not whether blogs will sell but which ones. There is a much less clear long-term answer to the same question when it comes to Twittering and Booking.

    And none of those is going to replace traditional journalsim any time soon. Not if you want comprehensive, independent, infromed advice.

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    I had to buy a new power supply for a PC the other day. I went to Newegg , looked at what they had to offer, read reviews by indivduals who had purchased, installed, and experienced them, and made my decision based on what a half dozen thoughtful and helpful individuals had to say. A few days later the product came and it was exactly what I expected.

    While I don’t go to CellarTracker or Snooth for help in buying wines, I can imagine someone who lacks trusted personal contacts for recommendations to go to a social networking site specific to their interest, do some research, and make a decision.

  9. Great post. I’ve questioned the ROI as well. Winery owners and winemakers work 100 hours a week already. Is their “extra” time best spent tweeting and blogging or will they get a greater return by working the market? I think it’s the latter.

    Richard, Social media is the accepted/conventional thinking? Really? Is it the accepted thinking by people who don’t make a living consulting for social media use?

    The question is one of accurate measurement. I suspect social media might be able inform or promote, but when it comes down to it, when this hypothetical millenial is at the store in front of a promotional stack of somebody else’s brand, on sale for $7.99, which wine do they buy???

  10. What is the direct ROI from magazines, newspapers, billboards, etc.? Can you quantify it? I read about a wine in a blog post/twitter post/facebook/etc. from a source I find credible. I then read about a wine in a magazine/newspaper source that I find credible. What is the difference?

    The goal has always been to have the highest percentage of people that have a potential interest in wine read/watch/listen about your wine brand. How does the medium matter, except for the fact that you have achieved the goal in some way of getting your brand name in front of a potential buyer?

    Can you give me a quantifiable number of how much wine sells because of a mention in the Wine Enthusiast?

  11. Can social media sell anything but itself?

    … what a great question…

  12. Rob, I can’t give you specific numbers for a magazine mention because that’s not my side of the shop. But I can assure you that a good review or a top 100 listing or something like that is considered a major driver of sales for wines. I know that, because winemakers have told me so for many years.

  13. Jim Caudill says:

    Social media works best for smaller wineries steeped in authenticity in part because they have a real opportunity to connect and sell directly to consumers. Medium to larger wineries face this simple fact: the distributors have to be enthusiastically on board, selling to a retailer who cares enough to notice. In some cases, presentations might be made only once or twice a year. Those buyers, at least today, are not heavily influenced by social media, even though they might turn around and use their own efforts to reach consumers once they bring a wine onboard. To that end, social media, as is becoming more commonly understood, I think, to be one more channel of influence that must be tended and developed, but there is no one single magic bullet. There’s a reason Diageo is running an ad campaign right now that is as old school as you can get: “here’s our list of 90-point wines.” I’d argue that’s not directed at consumers as much as it is the trade.

  14. It can be difficult to measure the success of marketing activities, whether they are on or off line doesn’t really matter.
    Yes, there is definitely a correlation between high scores and sales velocity.
    But when a winemaker does an extensive tour to help sell and promote her wines, this is more brand building and does not always cause a noticeable increase in sales.

    But I believe the answer is yes, social media can sell wine. How much wine it sells is another issue and depends on the specific social media campaign.
    Again, just like an old school marketing program. The outcomes can vary widely.
    The primary purpose of SM at the moment is brand building not direct sales.

  15. Amy: “The primary purpose of SM at the moment is brand building not direct sales.” Exactly. I’m coming to understand that. Also, to understand the link between brand building and sales.

  16. Steve,

    The biggest mistake most small businesses make is to confuse branding, marketing, and promotion with sales.

  17. Dude, yeah I saw that video 2 weeks ago. It’s gotten viral.

  18. Great post and good discussion.

    There is a lot of evidence that making social media a strategic part of a winery’s overall marketing mix makes good business sense. I’ve been working to create a concrete ROI for social media’s use in wineries and in my research thus far I’ve have found a lot of evidence that a dollar spent on social media can be much more effective than a dollar spent on traditional media.

    According to Nielson online we trust the recommendations of friends (90%) and online reviews (70%) a lot more than traditional media (62% and lower). A good wine review from a friend is going to influence me more than a good review by a known wine critic.

    Forrester’s recent Social Technology report found that the prime wine buying demographic of 35+ year olds grew their online participation by 60% last year prompting them to conclude:

    “… marketers can now safely create social media marketing for people ages 35 and older.”

    In a recent survey by on Twitter use in wineries, in answer to the question “How has your presence on Twitter helped your business? 96.4% responded that “It has helped us engage more with our customers”

    Furthermore the conversation about a winery’s brand is happening even if a winery chooses to ignore it and that carries a real risk of negative effects. According to Nielsen BuzzMetrics 25% of search results for the worlds largest brands are links to user generated content. This extends to niche brands as well and a bad review without the appropriate response can have long lasting effects.

  19. We’re a marketing consulting company that specializes in social media marketing for the wine and spirits industry. We have several examples of measurable impact of our SMM programs. True, we can’t directly correlate the programs directly with sales…no more so than you can with traditional mass media advertising. But we can “read” a variety of indicator or proxy metrics that get us closer to the ultimate goal of ROI. One area we’ve been actively engaged in where we WILL be able to measure the impact of programs is in e-commerce…while this is a proprietary service and I can’t share details publicly, I can say that we are working with our client suppliers and individual ecomm retailers to track and measure the impact of SMM on ecomm sales.

  20. In 2009 and the foreseeable future, social media is a necessary part of an overall balanced strategy of brand building that also includes magazine reviews, competitions, and tasting events – and working the markets. Social media is also a part of a balanced strategy of customer service that also includes the telephone, email, our ecommerce web site, and even snail mail.

    That said, I have never experienced anything like a real spike in sales because of social media, nor because of a Best of Show, nor a 90+ score in a magazine, nor because I poured at a big tasting event. It’s pretty much been slow and steady, but always improving.

    I can say that the combination of all of the above have contributed to an amazing positive awareness of our brand in the short time we have existed – and I think that without social media some of the other more traditional media would not have formed an interest in us so soon.

    It’s also wrong to think of social media as a uniform blob of social media-ness. Different media work for different audiences and purposes. For example, Facebook enables us to continue a relationship with a community of fans on almost a daily basis. You can try this with email and even telephone campaigns, but you will quickly alienate. On Facebook the fan has the control of the pipe, and woe be to the winery that forgets that and tries to “organize” or push in the wrong ways.

    I could probably go on for days, but suffice to say that everything stated here in the comments has been pretty much spot-on. Great discussion!

  21. Unless you believe in just the old highway billboard, then, yes, Social Media definitely matters. But, it’s only a tool. A marketing tool at that. Meaning it probably won’t relate directly to pipeline.

    Social media is about awareness and branding.

    I never heard of Murphy Goode until their contest. I still haven’t bought anything from them. Yet I’m more inclined to suggest them as a tour stop to friends and family then hundreds of others not yet on my radar.

    Any company, large or small, would be crazy not to be involved in Facebook, Twitter, and other social media campaigns. The costs are extremely low. The returns, as you suggest, are harder to measure. But then so is a lot in marketing. It’s part of an overall strategy. The 4ps and all the basics apply.

  22. Social media is a sales channel, and a winery’s success in leveraging the channel will depend greatly on message content and strategy. Think “garbage in, garbage out”. Just showing up isn’t going to cut it. If you don’t take the channel seriously enough to develop a messaging strategy that supports your sales goals, it’s not going to be effective. Too many wineries are focusing only on the social side of this channel and not enough marketing brain behind it. The wineries that will be most successful with social media will be those that strike the right balance of “social” and “marketing”.

  23. “I never heard of Murphy Goode until their contest. I still haven’t bought anything from them.”

    This is the nut of Steve’s question, and the seeming answer.

    Many in this so-called social media world are bedazzled but we still don’t know how many are converted, or will be.

    The conversation about social media (which I maintain is a misnamed phenomenon) often seems like a bunch of converts trying to justify why they’ve converted, but the evidence of success remains illusive.

    Anyone old enough to remember the promises made by the television gurus ‘back when’ are sure to realize that this may be a case of “been there, done that.” But of course, the present revolutionaries haven’t “been there and haven’t done that,”–yet.

  24. Susan: easier said than done.

  25. Steve – Yes. As with so many things, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

    Tom – but he HAS recommended them to friends. Just because it is second order doesn’t mean it doesn’t have worth. Sometimes second order can be even more valuable – plenty of valuable customers have been recommended to my winery by people who haven’t actually been here or tried the wines.

    Three commandments of social media:

    – Be your good self.

    – Engage with your customers and potentials openly and transparently.

    – Keep your BS detector on MAX.

  26. I have asked Steve’s question a thousand times. I share Thomas’s worldview and skepticism to a degree. And despite that, I second El Jefe’s observations. I have found that online activity has engaged me with an entirely new demographic of people interested in wine – and not just wine, but our wine, and what we’re doing here in the vineyard and the winery. If I get busy and stop posting for a cople of days I get DMs, emails, and calls. These folks ARE buying wine. And when they come to Sonoma to visit, they bring their friends. When we meet it’s like we are already in the middle of a conversation. They feel inner-circle-ified. That reaction alone is justification enough for me to stay engaged.

  27. The positive effects of marketing depend on a number of factors, but one that seems to be pushing itself to the front is the creation of community or the club I want to be part of. We can’t form that many loose friendships in the real world, even with Rotary and the local athletic club, but we can add to them in the virtual world thanks to social media. And as was said in this thread and many times elsewhere friends’ recommendations are at the top of the list when it comes to purchasing prompts.

    The problem occurs, however, that there are just far too many wines needing friendly recommendations and too few social networks devoted to wine and networkers commenting on wine. Compare this to lodging in a given area. Trip Advisor is successful because its members only have to discuss and then rank a relatively few hostelries. Ditto with restaurants on Yelp or electronic gismos on Engadget or current release movies on Rotten Tomatoes, each with their comment sections. The wine universe is just too large. So the limited exchanges online that involve evaluating wine will pale next to awards programs, and here I include the main wine publications like Decanter (so one ever mentions them). 90+ wines designated in mainstream channels, because of the connection to qualilty, will have far more impact on buying decisions.

    The Internet’s central function is to share fast breaking news and opinion (“memes”) plus eCommerce for savings and selection. It will interesting to learn whether Mr. Raye’s assessment of targeted social media arrives at positive (useful) conclusions. I would be skeptical, though, whether a provider should be entrusted with doing the analysis (“no goods more precious than the one’s I sell.”).

  28. El Jefe,

    The whole of Clinton’s quote is: “I never heard of Murphy Goode until their contest. I still haven’t bought anything from them. Yet I’m more inclined to suggest them as a tour stop to friends and family then hundreds of others not yet on my radar.”

    Surely, a recommendation is good for the winery, but where’s the information in this recommendation? What radar is Clinton talking about? Will his friends find what they are looking for based on his recommendation of a winery he has neither visited nor tasted? Supposing they hate the place? What value will they give to his future recommendations or to those other wineries with nice online gimmicks to raise attention?

    To me, these are the slippery-slope issues that arise when information is third hand and untested. Enough years of that kind of stuff, and the reputation of the quality of information suffers, and that can hurt the messages of so-called social media.

    Granted, there’s a lot of social in the concept; but I question the value of its media.

  29. Thomas – Perhaps it goes something like “If you are headed that way you should check out WineryX. I’ve heard some good things about them. Let me know what you think.”

    I will take those kinds of recommendations any day, because it is up to me to make it a good experience for the visitor. If I fail at this, the word will get back and I will lose that word-of-mouth. That’s the only slippery slope I care about.

    Plenty of my neighbors have no interest in wine, yet when their friends and family come to visit they send them to me because I have gotten on their (probably not X-band) radar. And I got on their radar via social media, or more traditional ways like donating liberally to local charity events. You have to work all avenues.

  30. The Wine Mule says:

    As a retailer, I’m still waiting for someone–anyone–to walk into the shop and say they want a wine because they heard about it on Twitter or Facebook.

  31. Wine Mule: promise me you’ll let me know when it happens.

  32. Wine Mule,

    If that were to have happened when I owned a shop, I’m almost certain my answer would have been: I don’t carry that wine 😉

  33. Social media has a role in customer service, which itself is a means of increasing brand awareness and sales.

    It’s like the cheese samples at the grocery store. “Hey, those folks were nice. They gave me free cheese.”


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