Wineries and social media: time to take a deep breath
It’s hardly surprising that wineries are increasingly turning to social media, especially Facebook, Twitter and blogs, to grow their business, according to this report from Reuters about a study conducted by the Wine Industry Financial Symposium Group and the University of California-Davis Graduate School of Management.
You can read yourself that use of all three forums by wineries is exploding, and for obvious reasons: social media is cheap and easy to use, it can’t hurt, and it quite possibly can help a winery.
As we near the end of 2010, it’s amazing to think that, when I started blogging 2 years and 5 months ago, the Big Question wasn’t whether wineries should embrace social media. Instead, it was how rapidly their use of social media would enable them to make money. The blogosphere was much quicker than the mainstream media to address this issue. Most of the bloggers were confident that the rewards for a winery using social media would come in quickly. I wasn’t. I expressed skepticism from the beginning that social media was the magic bullet some of the other wine bloggers thought it was.
Now here we are, racing into 2011, and I think we can take a breather and ask, What’s up with wineries and social media now? In my opinion, the first phase is over, and the results are mixed. Many, if not most, wineries are doing something or other online, but I think those that are have been disappointed by the initial lack of stellar results. There was a brief Golden Age of going online that extended, roughly, from the time of Rockaway (summer, 2008) to the Murphy-Goode Really Goode Job thing (summer, 2009). Everybody rushed online, people hired Social Media Directors, and the wine world braced itself for the Second Coming, in which P.R., marketing and sales all would morph into one big digital pudding, and everybody’s troubles would be over.
I remained skeptical throughout that period, too. It just seemed too good to be true. In the long, often sordid history of Selling Things, human entrepreneurs have discovered that success involves blood, sweat and tears, not the instant gratification of typing a few words on a keypad and then pushing a “send” button.
So back to the Reuters article. The key sentence in it is “…it’s not surprising that the growing use of social media has coincided with the continuing hangover of the recession in the wine business.” Indeed, it isn’t. The recession has forced wineries to cut back in all sorts of ways, with one result that social media’s appetizing affordability makes it all the more desirable for a cash-strapped proprietor. I’m sure that wineries would be using social media even if we still had a healthy economy (and wouldn’t it have been lovely if this damned recession never happened), but I don’t think they would be using it as aggressively as they are now. What that tells me is that there’s still some magical thinking on their part concerning social media’s usefulness. When you’re depressed, you think about things that will make you feel better, even if they’re straight out of fantasyland. That’s just human nature. I still think there’s something fantastical about social media, but hey, if people feel better believing in the tooth fairy (or whatever), bless their little hearts.
And now for the most controversial sentence in the article: “Consumers are also less interested in wine ratings, in what some experts think is a positive trend because they believe the industry has relied too heavily on scores at the expense of educating consumers so they can make their own judgments about wine.”
I’d like to see the evidence supporting this. The study was based on a poll of “109 grape growers, distributors, retailers and other wine experts” in California. No consumers, apparently, were included, so how does the study come to any conclusions about what’s going on in their heads? Maybe the grape growers, distributors, retailers and other wine experts think consumers are less interested in wine ratings, but I don’t believe they are. Are they less interested in wine reviews? I don’t think so, and ratings are simply one form of review. The use of ratings is growing, not shrinking, on shelf talkers, in print advertisements, and in winery P.R. materials. It may be true that the industry has relied too heavily on the use of the scores from a small, limited number of critics; and to the extent the blogosphere is creating more critics, that’s good. But ratings (be they 100 points, 20 points, 5 points or whatever) aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. If you can offer factual evidence consumers are turning away from ratings, I’d love to see it.
The following thought experiment was prompted when I drove past the Hall Winery, on Highway 29 in Napa Valley.
Let us supposed Kathryn Hall builds a manor house. It would be called Hall Hall. Let us now suppose that there is a hallway in the manor house. It would be the Hall Hall Hall. Let us further suppose that there are several hallways in the manor house, and they decide to name the grandest one after the Ambassador herself. It would be the Hall Hall Hall Hall.
Can you add a fifth “Hall” to the construction so that its meaning makes literal sense? Send your suggestions to me here. The winner will get a one year free subscription to my blog, and will get his or her name in print. Bragging rights!