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?