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Social media: necessary, but not sufficient for success


Courtney Cochran, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog, here and here, runs an outfit, Hip Tastes Communications, whose website says can help wine businesses “refresh, reposition and reinvigorate” themselves (not to mention learn the gentle art of alliterative writing).

Last week, she wrote an Op-Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that makes the case for wineries to “turn to social media and other viral digital tools to remain relevant,” but I think the overstates her case, mainly by relying almost exclusively on the anecdotal experience of a single winery, St. Supery.

St. Supery, as we all know, hired a social media director, Rick Bakas, a year ago; Bakas had been a contestant in the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest that Hardy Wallace won. In her article, Courtney says St. Supery reports that its wine club attrition rate has dropped, and she attributes that fact (assuming its true) to St. Supery’s “dramatically increased…participation on social sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Ustream and Foursquare.”

I have my doubts. First of all, a declining attrition rate doesn’t sound like a great measure of success, although I suppose it’s preferable to a rising attrition rate. Nor does Courtney offer any further tangible evidence that St. Supery is experiencing more robust sales than, say, any other winery along Highway 29 in Napa Valley. St. Supery may or may not be healthy, but it’s not good journalism to take a minor factoid issued by the winery, tie it to increased participation in social media, and then make the gigantic leap to claiming that “The wineries that understand this [i.e., social media] will be the winners in this recessionary moment.”

There’s simply no evidence for that. I could go along with Courtney if she had said, “Social media is one element for a winery to survive in this recessionary moment, but it’s not the only element. Other elements include old-fashioned marketing, sales and promotion, good reviews by reputable critics, tasting room strategies, sound distributor relationships,” etc. etc. In other words, social media is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. To put the entire burden of success on the back of social media is asking too much of a strategy that, so far, has failed to achieve much of anything for any winery.

That’s the problem when you ask someone who’s running a social media advisory company about social media. Of course they’re going to tout it! Crest toothpaste is not going to say, “Brushing your teeth is not an important part of dental hygiene.” I respect Courtney, and if I had a winery, I might well ask her to come on over and advise me about online marketing. But I would also keep things in perspective, and I wouldn’t bet the farm that Twitter, Facebook et al. would be my salvation.

  1. Steve,

    Two things.

    First, I also run a social media business, but not in the wine the housing industry…for property management companies, interior designers,architects, remodelers, home retailers, brokers and agents, and the like. I have 1200 good clients and now I am happy to share the other side from someone that is making rewarding money at Social Media…I don’t believe FB and Twitter engagement can make a brand or business, save a few at the end of the bell shaped curve that understand it or hire someone full time that does, and pour tremendous time and focus into it. We use social media for our clients with the idea of a content marketing strategy. of course employing FB and Twitter too, but as a content distribution channel along with the WordPress blog that we custom publish….to enlarge their footprint on the web so people who *don’t* know that business yet has a higher probability of discovering them when searching things that likely prospects for that business often search for. I can only assume from the sidelines that this is one of the large ways traffic flows to your blog too?

    The second thing, probably a little controversial, is a post I did referencing Courtney’s piece for WineZag: . I don’t honestly think, from a consumer’s point of view, that brand loyalty is something to aspire to with a product that can not deliver a predictable experience from year to year. Fine wine falls into that category. What is a brand about anyway…wine is not burger king, pepsi, or scott towel. Great tool for marketers, but consumers beware. There is too much good wine in the world for a consumer to get wrapped up loving a brand, even the smallest production, hardest to get, most highly allocated ones. I know, this is wine marketing heresy, but why buy a wine every year even in the ones when a particular winery or vintage was not at its best? Becoming aligned with style, of course, is a totally separate issue I subscribe to as a discriminating wine drinker.

  2. Adam, you make an interesting point: “I don’t honestly think, from a consumer’s point of view, that brand loyalty is something to aspire to with a product that can not deliver a predictable experience from year to year.” I never thought of it that way. You may be right. I usually buy Orowheat bread because I like it, feel good about the company, and know that every loaf is going to taste just like I want it to. That’s not really true of wine.

  3. I’m with Steve on this one. If I wanted my beverages to taste the same year in and year out I’d drink like milk or something….

  4. I completely agree with Adam when it comes to all but the mass-market brands. Those later wines are made from huge blends to be as invariable as McDonald’s.

  5. I like to think of it in musical terms.

    If your band sucks, social media isn’t going to matter. If your band rocks, and you are good at promoting your band with social media, then your band is more likely to make it.

    I think it’s important for social media marketers to think about how good their bands/wineries are, so that they end up working with the later scenario, not the former.

  6. Jim Caudill says:

    Casting no aspersions on social media, among the biggest surprise here was the Chron running a near advertorial; I kept looking for tiny type saying ADVERTISEMENT Really quite surprising, even in the context of where it was placed.

  7. Steve,

    As I have mentioned before, I think that social media can impact a small winery. We have used Foursquare very successfully and have a mechanism to track the use. If you check in at our local Chaat house (Vik’s), you will see us with a special listed. If you walk down the block and taste wine, and show your check in, we offer a special. On days we are open to the public, we have found about 10% of our foot traffic and 17% of our sales are new customers that found us on Foursquare.

    As for Facebook – I haven’t found anyone that can directly prove a relationship between, for example, fans and sales.

    Twitter is an interesting one for us – we end up using it as much with trade as we do with consumers.

    I totally agree betting the winery on social media wouldn’t be a good move. Ignoring it wouldn’t be a good move either.

  8. I like the way the piece says “a few key players who have turned to social media and other viral digital tools to remain relevant and stoke interest in their brands are reaping the rewards” and then mentions exactly one — not a few, but one — St. Supery, backed up, as you note, Steve, by a single vague statistic that may or may not have anything to do with the winery’s social media efforts. (I’m hearing that attrition rates in general are down in recent months, which may or may not be true but the wider industry trend is certainly relevant in assessing the St. Supery experience.)

    All of which is not to say that social media should be ignored. I can see ways that wine brands can benefit from using “viral digital tools.” But, sorry to say, this piece of puffery hardly makes the case.

  9. Steve,

    I think you are exactly right, social media is a TOOL!!! Its not the all to end all and yes ones in the social media industry will tout it as you say. One thing I know, it sure can take alot of your time if you let it…PHEW!!! and oh yes waste a lot of your time.

    Now go shake some hands (actually do it) and build relationships, it actually helps in selling wine. : )

  10. Gee I think I am going to see if some friends can hook me up to write an op-ed piece in the Comical on how consumers who want to remain hip and relevant – not to mention healthy, wise and beautiful – should be drinking a certain Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir.

    Nah – maybe I’ll just stick with supporting the “buy local” meme.

  11. Carlos Toledo says:

    Agree 100%. As an importer i reckon quality and price to have equal weights. Service, sales support comes after these.

    Some of the wineries i know of clog my email box and facebook with tons of messages that really won’t interest me at all. They are everywhere in the virtual world….but the results come down what we really want in the end of the day.

    Romanee-Conti doesn’t need twitter, does it?

  12. greg brumley says:


    Just weeks ago, the following scenario proved your point…..

    There is small winery which started decades ago. It produces very nice wines of relatively narrow varietals in the $30-$50 range. Distributor sales had plummeted and the winery needed to build direct-to-consumer sales in order to survive and then prosper.

    The winegrower had 100 acres of beautiful terraced mountain vineyards. He was persuaded to host tours of the vineyard, in order to attract customers and wine club memberships. The winegrower limited visits to 4 “by appointment” sessions on 2 weekend days. Against all advice, he hired someone else to do the tours rather than conducting most of them himself.

    A campaign was executed which encouraged top hospitality and wine tour companies to send their customers. They were receptive because an in-the-vineyard tour with striking vistas is a rarity among the ho-hum circuit of tasting room and winery tours.

    It takes 90-180 days to develop a consistent flow of visitors. In the initial 3 weekends, the program showed great promise (one group, alone, brought in $1,400 in wine, wine club membership and fees).

    The winegrower had left the country on vacation as the vineyard tours began. Upon returning, he interviewed a pretty young lady who convinced him that he should depend on Facebook and twitter and his website to sell wine and garner new customers. Believing that social media would immediately solve his problems, he shut down the vineyard visit program (after 6 sessions) and devoted all his resources to online efforts.

    There are 3 morals to this story:
    (1) As you said, neither social media nor the internet can, alone, turn winery profits. Furthermore, for small wineries, social media can never replace face-to-face marketing.
    (2) Small wineries which choose to grow direct-to-consumer sales must be prepared for a lot of hard work. With a little patience, sweat equity will yield stable high-margin incomes.
    (3) NO ONE — including and especially the social media wizard du jour – can walk in and solve your sales problems for you. The small winery (with its small marketing budget) must be willing to invest sweat equity in lieu of 6-figure marketing budgets.

    As to the winery in question? It won’t survive the winter.


    Greg Brumley

  13. I took a tour that St. Supery organized for bloggers and twitterers. I asked early in the morning, “Do you think Twitter helps sell wine?” Immediately a woman on the tour piped in and answered loudly that her tweets sell a lot of wine. I was rude enough to say, “I’m not asking you.” But unfortunately, the early part of that exchange prevented St. Supery’s PR person from being able to give me an objective answer.

    Obviously I haven’t forgotten this. Twitterers *think* they have a huge impact. And maybe they do. But who really knows?

    One other thing I have to say about that event — I have never gone on a press-like tour where people were more excited about receiving freebies. Full disclosure: I take freebies, I take press tours, and I tweet. So it’s a matter of degree. But I’ll never take another twit-oriented press tour.

  14. Blake, I look at it this way. Lots of these twitterers are younger than you and I : >
    They are excited to be involved in all this and perhaps a little naive. When I first started out and the freebies and invites came pouring in, my head got really swelled. It didn’t take long for me to get beyond that. So I’m willing to cut them some slack.

  15. Greg, I bet there are lots of wineries in the same boat. In all my years, I’ve never received the quantity of re-submits I’m getting now — wines that were originally sent to me 8, 10, 12 months ago, and now resent. Same wine, same vintage, and more often than not, 20%-25% lower retail price! This is mainly in the over $25 range. It tells me that these wines are not moving and wineries are trying to clear their pipelines as newer vintages come in.

  16. Thanks for casting me as a grumpy old man, Steve! The women who shrieked with delight upon receiving a free jar of honey were in their 30s. Not that I’m not a grumpy old man …

  17. Bill Smart says:

    Steve, your point about the number of re-submits you are recieving is an interesting one. You’ve mentioned this before in your blog. All the talking heads and economic indicators say that we are on our way out of the recession and heading back to more a more sustainable growth pattern.

    BUT, when you look at what is happening in the wine sales world, it sure doesn’t appear that way. It’s almost the opposite. Everyone is clamoring for the sale – hence, the re-submit. Maybe wineries think you’ve somehow forgotten you gave their wine a 82 and now it’s going to get a 90. I don’t see how but it sure shows you the level of desperation that is out there.

  18. I think that social media is great for people who are already fans of a winery and want to stay connected with current events, new releases, and promotions. SM probably doesn’t do much to create new customers, but it does keep the loyal customer base engaged, which should have a positive effect on sales.
    The internet is also a double-edged sword, and the on-line community can wreak havoc on a brand if a product or service doesn’t meet customer expectations. Consider the devastation that can be caused by a slew of bad reviews on Trip Advisor, Amazon or E-Bay.
    I suspect the secret of the success behind St. Supery’s wine club is a little more old school: the wines are good. I know the winery pretty well, and I think they are still putting the wines in the driver’s seat.

  19. Good conversations on a timely subject. My name is Rick, I do social media at St. Supery.

    We’re coming up on one year (already) in our social media initiative. The past twelve months have gone by fast, and it’s been eye opening to be sure.
    We do have some positive results as a winery, and we’re happy to be moving in the right direction during a crappy economy.
    A number of things happened last summer that have all contributed to our successes this year. In June and July of 2009, St. Supéry brought on a new CEO, new winemaker, new VP of Sales, new sales team, new Social Media person and brought our PR in house. We all started fresh with one another and have kicked ass right out of the gate. You might not know that reading recent stories, but all those elements have contributed to us realizing the potential of the winery. No one thing can be attributed to attrition rates or improved sales besides the wine in bottle was good.

    Personally, I don’t look at what we’re doing as just wine and social media. I look at all industries who are doing what we’re doing, which is trying to figure out how to adopt social media in a useful, predictive way to daily business. From cable television to automobiles to coffee drinks to B2B networking solutions, Fortune 500 companies and small companies are trying to make sense of all this stuff, us included.

    What’s consistent across various industries is the companies who are committing to social media 100% are seeing positive results, even if they can’t fully quantify how the results happened. We didn’t set out to do anything at St. Supéry other than listen to what wine drinkers wanted to say to us, and to share our stories with them using all the social tools. When someone opts in to us via a follow or “liking” us on Facebook, we look at that as the start of another personal relationship where we can build trust with that person.
    The past 12 months were more work than I expected, but all the long hours have paid off. One thing that has helped is we’ve done 27 “tweetups” around the country bringing a few thousand people together to talk, taste and tweet about our wine. Putting the ‘social’ in Social Media is just one piece of the engine.

    I respect Courtney because she’s a Certified Sommelier and knows her wine. We appreciate the fact she likes our winery and our wines. At the heart of it, we’ll continue to focus on the more important thing, which is putting sustainably-farmed, estate-grown wines in bottle and putting out the best representation of our vineyards we can. We’re happy with the wines we have available now.

  20. Steve,

    I’ll start off by saying it’s always a pleasure to land in your blog. This being the first time it’s a bit controversial is new, and I’m still sorting through whether this is a good thing or bad. 😉

    But on to a few things I want to point out. The first is that St. Supery is not my client. The second is that I believe you took things too far in saying I inferred that social media in and of itself will save any winery, or even dramatically boost its bottom line. Social media is only a complement to the many other fundamental good business practices and traditional marketing efforts any smart winery puts to use. As an MBA grad (concentration marketing and entrepreneurship) this is a salient point that is far from over my head, and was certainly not intentionally ignored in the piece; I just felt that explicitly pointing this out was not necessary.

    Thirdly, once my pitch had been accepted by the paper, they asked that I outline one strong example of a winery using social media, as opposed to several. Were I able to outline more than one, I would have had no problem referencing a number of others that have had much success with the medium. Wineries like Clos LaChance with whom I’ve collaborated on panels, such as the discussion the Wine Institute held last fall (New Gen tasting), where you were in attendance. Or Jeff Stai’s Twisted Oak, which I reco’d to appear at this year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, for which I was on the planning committee (and put together the social media panel, come to think of it).

    At the end of the day, it was an opinion piece, and my opinion is that social media is a smart move. Not only does it draw eyeballs and engagement at the online level, it’s a terrific platform from which to engage customers and potential customers offline, a point that I outlined in parts of my original submission to the Chronicle that were cut due to space constraints. I have posted below my signature the section that was cut from my article, because I think it’s important to show that St. Supery’s social media efforts were backed, as Rick points out as well, by on/offline events (Tweetups) and established event appearances (SouthXSouthwest).

    As for my perspective and experience in this industry, social media has been extremely powerful in helping me establish my brands. Five years ago I launched my blog,, which led before long to a book deal with Viking (Penguin Group, USA). I am not under the illusion that this was entirely due to my social media/online savvy: along with the blog, I threw some dozen mostly sold-out wine tasting events in San Francisco (HIP TASTES Events). The following I developed through these events, positive press and general good buzz about what I was doing – together with my blog – led to the book deal. So I get it. But social media definitely helped, and continues to help me in my business as well as those of my clients.

    Oh, and I do love, love (love, let’s get a third in), alliteration. I like assonance, too, come to think of it, and I plan to keep right on pushing the envelope there.

    Cheers, CC

    Cut by the Chronicle:
    “To build upon these efforts, in the fall the winery embarked on a nationwide Tweetup Tour (for the uninitiated: live tastings while Tweeting), during which they hosted 27 events in cities including Boston, New York, Atlanta and Orlando, concluding with an appearance at the South by Southwest music festival in Texas this spring. The idea, says Rick Bakas, the winery’s social media guru, is to initiate a dialogue with consumers and to extend the experience visitors have at the winery.

    For existing fans (some 11,000 on Twitter, 4,000 on Facebook), St. Supéry keeps everyone up-to-date with daily postings on life at the winery and on the road and participates in the wine-finding platform (like Zappos for grapes, get it?), which prompts users to enter a zip code and the St. Supéry wine they’d like to find, then provides maps to nearby locations where they can buy it.”

  21. Thanks, Courtney, for an interesting comment!

  22. No question the author of the Chronicle piece was well short of facts that are provable or relevent for research with no comment intended one way or the other regarding St Suprey’s success. Her conclusions would never hold up statistically since a data point of one, does not a trend make. Its the case of a person with a preconceived OP looking for facts to support the argument. Might be wrong and might not. But the piece was weak on real support.

    The questions about Social Media and its use is a very long one. Its an evolving technology with many platforms being created before our eyes. There is a saying, “The pioneers get shot and the settlers make the money.” Thats my advice for those that are considering (or are using) Social Media. Let the pioneers move ahead of the pack, and follow once the landscape is a little more clear. Experimentation is important at this stage but committing a serious amount of time or resources, or depending on a single SM platform for your marketing success will more than likely prove costly for now, and yet at a point in time, important. So get out there and experiment with the platforms and educate yourself to the opportunity.

  23. Steve – thank you for bringing up a very valid argument. While I am not against social media per se, I do think that the amount of craziness surrounding it is causing A LOT of wineries to lose focus, waste time, money and energy, and thus lose momentum and customers. While I do completely beleive that it’s possible to build a brand on social media alone, I don’t think most wineries are effectively building their brand withtheir current efforts.

    Social media needs to be seen as another tool in the shed that you MAY NEED to help market yourself. And, not every brand needs to market themselves the same way. 99% of wineries that I meet with have social media on their mind. They feel they have to be a part of it and must particiapte, but they also do so without a plan in place. This is just my opinion, but if you arent’ going to have a social media marketing plan to follow, you are wasting time that could be spent marketing your brand in more effective ways. But, before you even decide to go down that road you really need to decide if it’s even somethign that is going to be effective for you as opposed to concnetrating efforts on something else.

  24. Bottom line, consumers have more control over what brands they decide to develop relationships with. A smart company, not matter what industry they are in, will listen to what consumers are telling them. They will understand who is their customer, what are their customers are looking for and where do their customers go to learn about the brand and purchase the product.

    Specific to the wine industry, a savvy wine marketing plan will address all of the above and use multiple channels of communication to reach out to customers. Social media is one of those channels. When used effectively, it allows wineries an opportunity to interact with their customers and customers the opportunity to extend their experience with the brand.

    I watched over the last year as St. Supery undertook this journey. They listened to their customers, realized the void not being addressed and filled it. St. Supery’s strategy paid off. Kudos to them. There are many brands, both large and small, that are successfully utilizing social media. Clos La Chance and Twisted Oak are two other examples of wineries successfully using social media to reach out to customers. Like it or not, you cannot ignore the growing statistics of this medium. I agree social media is not the “end all and be all”. However, for many smaller or virtual wineries, without any access to distribution or any major ratings, social media is a lifeline for their brands.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I am in the business of marketing wine brands, I am completely enthralled with the collective behavior of social media and I did recently interview Rick Bakas on the subject of social media.

  25. Hi folks,

    Can we get a clarification from the people who should know, though, about a point raised in the article: has the wine club attrition rate gone down because of any concrete connections to social media? In job #2, my club attrition spiked about a year ago and has subsequently returned to where it was once consumers’ perceptions of the economy changed. How do I know that? Everyone who asks to leave the club or to be put on indefinite hold is asked why. The resounding answer (98+%) over the last eighteen months? The economy and “cutting back extra expenses.” I’m wondering what others have seen or can create definite correlations to rather than speculative impressions?

  26. Josh: good question. Hope people will write in.

  27. Greg Brumley says:


    I thought Scot and Rob (no surprise) hit the nail on the head — and more succinctly than my long story. Tom’s point is also well taken.

    Social media is a secondary tool. While it can be a very useful secondary tool — if a winery develops a clear plan and devotes long hours to execute it — social media is not a primary sales tool.

    Small wineries (i.e. most of wine country’s operators) do not have budgets approaching St. Supery’s. This certainly includes my clients. To flesh our Scot’s comment: In these difficult times, small wineries often look to social media for the “magic answer” it cannot offer.

    Bluntly put, people like Courtney and Rick (despite their protestations here) exaggerate social medias’ utility because they’re deriving income from it. To a carpenter, everything looks like a nail.

    Greg Brumley

  28. Josh,

    Good question. Maybe THE question.

    Our wine club attrition rate was in line with the rest of the CA industry last summer. We were right around 7-10% a month.

    Right around August our attrition rate dropped to 1-3% where it’s remained for the past 12 months. We can’t attribute keeping more wine club members to any one thing. It’s probably a combination of wines were offering, special offers, flexible member terms and social media as a way to stay connected 24/7.

    We don’t use SM to replace any part of the winery’s business. It’s meant to compliment all the things that are already working. Does this help?

  29. In reply to Josh: Our wine club attrition is down but I don’t attribute it to our use of social media. First, in response to the economy we started releasing more wines we could price lower, so the overall cost of club membership went down. But the biggest single factor in retaining members has been the introduction of more flexibility – members can skip or postpone shipments. I’m don’t believe social media influences our club membership, but I do know that a number of present and former club members – and regular customers who perhaps will join the club in the future – stay in touch with us on FB, read my blog and follow my tweets. For these folks social media are part of the experience we offer.

  30. Social Media is a Self Expression. For one who lives and creates wine in a forest on a ridgetop above the Anderson Valley an hour drive from any physical community, SM provides the opportunity to communicate beyond the art of wine. All forms of self expression deserves an outlet, regardless of an expectation for financial success.

  31. Bob Henry says:

    From today’s Wall Street Journal:

    “Social Media Fail to Live Up to Early Marketing Hype”



    “Social media are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be,” concludes Gallup Inc., which on Monday is releasing a report that examines the subject.

    Gallup says 62% of the more than 18,000 U.S. consumers it polled said social media had no influence on their buying decisions. Another 30% said it had some influence. U.S. companies spent $5.1 billion on social-media advertising in 2013, but Gallup says “consumers are highly adept at tuning out brand-related Facebook and Twitter content.” (Gallup’s survey was conducted via the Web and mail from December 2012 to January 2013. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.)

    In a study last year, Nielsen Holdings NV found that global consumers trusted ads on television, print, radio, billboards and movie trailers more than social-media ads.

  32. Bob Henry says:

    A bibliography on the subject of social media and Return On Investment:

    MIT Sloan Review: “Can You Measure the ROI of Your Social Media Marketing?”


    Harvard Business Review case study: “Increasing the ROI of Social Media Marketing”


    Harvard Business Review: “Social Media — What Most Companies Don’t Know”


    Here is the link to the full text of the social media study from Harvard Business Review:

    From the summary titled “Why Social Media ROI Can’t Be Measured”

    [Link: . . .

    . . . is this excerpt of The Atlantic article titled “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong”


    “There are still things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t even know we’re missing in terms of social media measurement.

    “For proof, look no further than The Atlantic, which shook the social media realm recently with its expose of ‘dark social’ – the idea that the channels we fret over measuring like Facebook and Twitter represent only a small fraction of the social activity that’s really going on.

    “The article shares evidence that reveals that the vast majority of sharing is still done through channels like email and IM that are nearly impossible to measure (and thus, dark).”

    An excerpt from The Atlantic article itself:


    “On the first day I saw it, this is how big of an impact dark social was having on The Atlantic.

    “Just look at that [pie chart] graph [see online — Bob]. On the one hand, you have all the social networks that you know. They’re about 43.5 percent of our social traffic.

    “On the other, you have this previously unmeasured darknet that’s delivering 56.5 percent of people to individual stories.

    “This is not a niche phenomenon! It’s more than 2.5X Facebook’s impact on the site.

    “Day after day, this continues to be true . . . dark social is nearly always our top referral source. ”

    Bob’s summary: The majority of the interpersonal communication and “sharing” is via e-mail and Instant Messaging . . . outside of the sphere of influence of Facebook or MySpace or Twitter or LinkedIn.


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