Thinking out loud about social media
I told last week how I’m going to be at Rusty Eddy’s U.C. Davis class on winery public relations this Friday, Dec. 10 (call (530) 757-8608 for info, or email Julie Brinley at firstname.lastname@example.org). Rusty has taught this class for years, but what will be notable about the 2010 version is that, for the first time, he’s decided to devote it exclusively to social media. No more “how to build a press kit,” “how to pitch a story to a reporter” and so on.
As part of that, Rusty asked me and the other lecturers, Jo and Jose Diaz, of Diaz Communications, to think about what’s new in social media, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Of course, there’s so much new that nobody can stay on top of it, much less an aging Baby Boomer. But I did sketch out some thoughts that I want to lay out here, in the hopes of stimulating readers to make comments and perhaps expand my thinking.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, everybody — regular people and businesses — started migrating to the Internet, to see what it could do for them. About five years ago, the wine community began hearing about wine blogs. The discussion then went on to the credibility of these blogs. At about the same time we started hearing about “social media,” interactive websites like Twitter and Facebook. The discussion turned toward the usefulness of these media for wineries. A sort of consensus set in, in the last year or so: social media can be useful in brand building, but have so far proven resistant to selling product. Traditional marketing and P.R. remain necessary for that. And another thing, as well: although it may sound self-serving, a good review from a respected critic is still the most important thing that can happen to a winery.
The situation is being made ever more complex by the amazing proliferation of social media sites. Every today in the San Francisco Chronicle there are reports of new ones. Consider Blippy and Groupon. Blippy describes itself as “a website where people obsessively write reviews about everything they buy…Blippy lets you communicate about and share purchases with friends by syncing already existing e-commerce accounts to Blippy such as iTunes, Netflix, Woot, eBay and more.” The theory is that traditional top down expert advice will be replaced by peer to peer reccos passed on through networks linked to online vendors for easy click through shopping.
Swipely similarly describes itself as “a secure platform for consumers to recommend purchase experiences, discover new places and products through trusted friends, save money, and have more fun shopping.” Or shwowp, which says it “is a tool to help you take control of your shopping history: organize it, share it and track how you influence others.” This reminds me of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when ebay arose and in its wake were numerous lookalike sites, including one called onsale in which I invested and lost a bundle when the dotcoms crashed. We are probably going to see a similar shakeout with these social media sites.
The case for Groupon is more interesting and it’s not hard to figure out why Google offered 6 billion dollars for it (and was rejected). Groupon is a “deal of the day” website that offers true local bargains — I found one for $18 for an oil change, tire rotation, and maintenance inspection at a local car repair chain. It’s not clear exactly how an individual winery would utilize this: maybe they could do a clearance at a deep discount, but the timing would have to be just right, and once there’s a proliferation of similar sites, everybody’s going to be discounting everywhere, making it less likely that large numbers of consumers will flock to any one particular vendor.
These peer to peer sites are really the heart and soul, the sine qua non of social media — user to user, person to person, unfiltered, uninfluenced by “influencers.” My critique, however, is that this very model is its weakness: human nature wants and needs influencers, especially in a marketplace flooded with products that are nearly identical. People overwhelmed with choice need some way to cut through the clutter and make real buying decisions. Consider this: somebody buys a pair of Nike Shox R4s and raves about them through Blippy — but so what? Someone else buys a pair of Reebok Run Tone Actions [same price] and also raves about them. In the end, the two raves cancel each other out. Then Usain Bolt, who won the 100- and 200-meter races at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, comes out and endorses Adidas ZX 8000s on MTV and in Men’s Health. Does it really matter what some schmuck said on Blippy?
Which brings us back to the Big 3: Blogging, Facebook and Twitter.
Blogging: I know what it takes to launch and sustain a successful blog, but I also know how difficult it is to monetize it, and how near impossible it is to put any sort of ROI on it.
Facebook: Entertaining, fun, addictive, and harmless. But does anyone make any money? When everybody is Facebooking all the time, each individual comment is lost in an avalanche of babble.
Twitter: I gave it up. At Rusty’s class, I will happily defer to Jose and Jo to explain how they see its advantages.
Finally, a brief word on The Story. The bedrock of PR is “telling the story.” “The story” is, in the conventional academic wisdom, the mythical unicorn, the Golden Fleece, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the deal-clincher, the decisive fact that ultimately persuades the shopper to buy product “A” rather than product “B.”
As someone who’s been on the receiving side of PR for a long time, I’ve heard almost every story there is. After a while, a writer gets tired of these manufactured., or at least heavily doctored, anecdotes. And besides, everybody has a story, because everybody is human, and every human is a complex character with an amazing biography. So the story in and of itself is irrelevant.
I asked a very smart winery corporate communications officer yesterday what she thought the next big thing is in social media, and she said, “Video.” Well, of course, we’re seeing and hearing a lot about that lately. Mr. Suckling is trying to turn himself into an online movie star, but whatever success he may or may not enjoy isn’t directly transferable to wineries. I do think there’s value to a compelling video story told by a winery. Check out the videos at Greater Purpose, a winery that donates 55% of its profits to orphaned children. If Greater Purpose succeeds commercially, these videos will certainly help. But the wines will have to be good, too, won’t they? I haven’t tasted them yet. But the point is to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. There’s so much stuff and innovation online, it’s easy to fall for the fantasy that the Internet will be a game changer. But there are no game changers in retail. Never have been, never will be. It’s still about supply and demand, and creating demand is still the magical province of marketing wizards, who will use social media to the extent they can, but judiciously, and not exclusively.
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I want to give a shoutout to Bo Simons at the Sonoma County Wine Library. He’ll be hosting a book signing this Thursday, Dec. 9, starting at 9 p.m. Check out this link for info. Some good friends, including Charlie Olken, will be speaking about their new books.