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Here I go again! Debunking inflated social media claims


The thing to understand about citing Paul Mabray and Ryan Opaz as experts in social media is that they are people who make their living by touting the benefits of social media. It’s like the owner of Whole Foods telling people that they should be buying organic, fair trade food, instead of the opposite. If the Whole Foods guy told you that, you’d naturally think, “Well, sure–he sells organic, fair trade food. So maybe I should consider that when evaluating his advice.”

Which isn’t to say that organic, fair trade food isn’t preferable to Safeway. I shop at Whole Paycheck, err, Foods. I love the place. But I also understand that when they get all excited and preachy in their booklets, it’s not only because they have my health in mind.

Well, those are the thoughts that went through what passes for my mind these days as I read this article from The Drinks Business with the provocative headline, “Wineries who shun social media will experience ‘digital Darwinism.’”

As a writer and editor who prides himself on the ability to come up with attention-grabbing headlines, I take my hat off to whomever wrote that one. Digital Darwinism! Now there’s a phrase to remember. That’s “Darwinism” as in, I presume, the survival of the fittest: adapt and evolve, or go extinct. Since nobody relishes the prospect of extinction, every winery employee who sees that article is going to read it eagerly, hoping to learn how not to die.

What the article actually says–the advice given by Paul, Ryan and the others–is nothing particularly new. Nothing that social media advocates haven’t been saying for years. Social media is powerful: check. Social media is relevant: check. “More relevant than anything seen in human history”? [Mabray] Well…more than the invention of the wheel? Fire? Mathematics? Air conditioning? The automobile? Space flight? Penicillin? I’m not so sure.

Then there are the threats. “Those who choose to keep waiting will see their customers migrating…”. “You can’t survive without it…”. “If you don’t embrace it, you’re back in the Stone Age.” The Stone Age! There’s a nice meme to pair with references to Darwinism. If you don’t embrace social media fully [whatever that means], you’ll not only devolve into a monkey, you’ll be thrown back into the Stone Age, where Neanderthals will hunt you down and eat your miserable flesh, bones and all.

If I was a little winery guy, wife and two kids, struggling to keep my 3,000 cases-a-year winery afloat in a dismal economy, competing with thousands of other little winery guys, I’d probably be putting Paul Mabray on my speed dial, begging him to please come to my rescue and advise me how to increase my sales through the Facebook thing. Or the Twitter thing. Heck, I might even consider taking some of my hard-earned cash and paying Paul’s company, Vintank, $35 a month to “Gain the ability to see and manage all your social customers including making notes, categorizing, and reporting for your customers. You will also have the ability to manage your Facebook wall and Twitter conversations right from within the platform,” as their website says. I might have to cancel my HBO, but it would be worth it, for the security of sleeping at night knowing that my Twitter conversations were being managed. Ryan’s company, by the way, is Vrazon, which helps wineries “reach new audiences with our consulting services, workshops or presentations on social media and wine.”

By the way, I should mention that Paul and Ryan are great guys. Paul regularly weighs in on, always with an interesting perspective; I like and admire his relentless promotion of social media, and I hope he’ll continue to add his voice to my Comments section. It’s just that whenever these hyperbolic, Armageddonesque claims about social media arise, something in me–call it the defender of truth–just feels the need to counter-balance them with a little common sense.

  1. Huzzah to you, sir! I can’t agree more!
    I am a wine writer, wine judge and long-time winery professional (currently VP of Direct Sales at Martin Ray Winery). In my day jobs, I have been regularly hounded by such companies through the years. It is irritating, to say the least.

    Luckily, I am fairly proficient at social media and have been able to successfully grow sales without handing over the reins to an outside company.

    Yes, social media is important in today’s challenging, competitive wine market, but any kind of relationship building (and good press) are, in my humble opinion, equally important.

    Thanks for doing what you do!

    Sue Straight
    The Wine Wench

  2. Steve,
    Thanks for the kind words. My quote was not meant to be hyperbolic but factual. This has proven true in business history over and over again. Remember when phones became a pervasive communication channel in the world for people and businesses that did not have one lost business accordingly. Or the fax? Or email? Or a website? Or e-commerce? With every major technological advancement those businesses that ignored the new channels of communication and sales suffered accordingly and lost business to those who did.

    We can not deny that we live in a digital society powered by search, e-commerce, mobile and social. We also can not deny that we live in the era where “customers are in control.” Finally we also can’t deny that we live in the most competitive environment ever seen in wine history. Finding the most efficient and effective ways to create and maintain customer relationships is paramount to the success of all brands. Social is one of the four pillars of our ability to establish that ever necessary bond with a modern customer and will become MORE so as customers continue to leverage these pervasive tools.

    The “most relevant” phrase was not as open as it was quoted in the article. I have stated constantly that social media is more relevant as a “communication channel” than anything in human history after the Gutenberg press and the telephone.

    Why do we tout social media so much? It is not because we have a software platform that supports managing social media. It is the opposite. We have a software platform because we understand that this is the most important change to the world since the internet. We see the power of social and the future of how it will change business forever and that is why we are such proponents and focus all our business efforts to this key communication channel.

    I just returned from Dijon where I gave a keynote speech at the first innovation summit. Though it lacks my speaking context the information that supports our position lives in these slides:

  3. Can I get a hallelujah from the common sense congregation?!

    And let’s not forget the latest world-altering gimmick from the social media bandwagon… Pinterest!

  4. Paul’s words could not have been said any better:

    “Why do we tout social media so much? It is not because we have a software platform that supports managing social media. It is the opposite. We have a software platform because we understand that this is the most important change to the world since the internet.”

    Every technological advancement that has influenced the way we do business – from the printing press, to email, to twitter – has, at its core, served the very same purpose; enhance the way we build and manage relationships. The businesses that don’t adapt and innovate will, in some cases slowly and in others quickly, die off.

  5. I actually agree with both sides on this. I do believe social media is and incredibly powerful tool for communicating with consumers and fans of a brand, and its fun and convenient in many cases.  But, I thinks it’s true significance is still a long way off ( long way in the digital world, maybe 24 months). That being said, I also look at is as I  do catching a flight, that is, There’s not really any prize for being first. As long as you’re on time you’re good to go.  Kind of the same way I looked at screw caps.

  6. Saying that we shouldn’t listen to someone about social media because they make a living in social media is a silly argument. Maybe we shouldn’t trust people who write about the wine industry when they write about the wine industry, either.

    For the most part, people find careers in areas they are passionate about — not the other way around, as Paul pointed out. I left my corporate job to pursue a social-media-specific career because I was thrilled and excited about how social media would change communications, business, and marketing as we’d known it. I don’t have to convince people social is useful, they already know…they just want to know how to do it better. Kind of like how wine bloggers don’t spend their time trying to convince people to drink wine…just how to do it better.

    Here’s what I really take issue with, when anyone downplays the importance of social media as it relates to consumer-based businesses (in this case wine, duh, but it doesn’t have to be): you can’t ISOLATE social media from advertising and marketing plans. So the real question is, you do HAVE a marketing plan, right?

    I mean, that 3,000 cases-a-year winery struggling to stay afloat had BETTER have some sort of marketing plan if it’s ever going to compete. And I hope it’s allocated more than $35/month for it. So what IS that budget? How WILL those marketing dollars be spent? And, really? For its ROI, at least SOME should be spent on social.

    For all these link-baity posts, Paul has never ONCE suggested that social media replaces all other marketing channels; he’s merely touted — rightly — that ignoring social as one of those key channels is a poor business decision.

  7. Interesting debate on both sides of the issue of social media. However, although I agree that it is an important tool for creating and maintaining awareness for any wine brand, it does not yet compute to actual ROI in terms of bottle or case sales. Every time I have asked a social media expert about this, the answer is the same: you have to conduct social media programs to be relevant in the millennial market and emerging wine customer category but they can’t quote actual dollar returns with any real frequency. And I am not just referring to my own brand which is very small production (500 cases) but also of much larger brands who have put a tremendous amount of investment into social media and still have not seen the kinds of 2:1 or greater returns they expected for it. I recently was on a trip to Hong Kong and China and had the chance to speak with over 15 large brand managers and all of them said they conduct social media programs, but they are NOT the sales channel for actual bottom line results. In fact, many said they are scaling back on social media investments and just doing a minimum amount to stay visible — like any good advertiser would do. They feel social media is more accurately defined as the equivalent of old-fashioned advertising and PR that is often difficult to directly correlate to sales. For the money, every hour I spend on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn or Pinterest goes directly to the bottom line — a cost that many wineries don’t calculate against bottles or cases sold. We do…

  8. All interesting comments. The fact remains, the profits for DTC and social media can be huge. As Chris noted, no one wants to be the first to take the risk, but when they do, and they realocate some of those Trade & Distributor dollars they will see a big return. It is certainly not the cost of monthly HBO to run a successful social activation strategy and cannot be a one off program run by one person, it takes a village. You need to have a strategy, content creation, community management, influnecer outreach ( which is not just twitter and facebook but engages the right audience, promotional activities, contests and events) advertising, strategies and execution. Wow, that seems pretty intense – sounds like any type of marketing campaign – just a new channel that we need to embrace and continue to educate people on – it is not a matter of “it” happens, it is “how” soon is going to happen.

  9. Robert Gutierrez says:

    It’s a tool, use it properly it works for you. Nothing more or less. All else is the same. My mother told me, “a monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey” bad wine won’t see….for long. Great wine will find its spot. Social media should be in your marketing arsenal.

    The rest, well, exuberance, we all promote our product offerings, me included.


  10. I certainly see both sides of the issue. I think Steve makes a point, but its ludicrous to think that everyone in social Media or wine doesn’t have an agenda to sell a product. Even you Steve do well by making controversial claims to incite people to comment which drives traffic to your blog. I would guess that many hear about these commentaries on Facebook and Twitter and not just come for the weekly entertainment directly. We all sell a product, whether its wine, consulting or software tool. If social media helps us sell more wine or get our message out there better then its well worth it. You only get what you give. For me, it is a tool to easily share thoughts and posts without much effort. We are a lazy society that wants it fast and easy, so I think that the ROI for Social Media on wine is…. you will sell more wine and create more fans if you use it wisely and consistently. Common Sense

  11. Everyone has it pretty well covered. Like Chris, I see both sides. I see the SM side from several different angles, wine retail, online marketing company and consumer. I do agree, most winery websites I come across (and I’m on them daily for Cellar Angels) are terrible. However, it’s hard to fault the winery when they make <5,000 cases (95% of Napa wineries fall into this category) and have three employees non of whom understand tech, let alone an effective SM plan to build awareness, engagement and sales, and they're struggling to complete the BS paperwork associated with wine shipping. The SM awareness portion is one tenth the battle for the winery, they then have to navigate archaic state shipping requirements, miles of regulatory paperwork, etc. They could have a flawless SM strategy and still not sell wine.

    Messrs Mabray and Heimoff know this as there both very sharp. We're at about minute one of the life of SM, so there's still lots of future ahead. Hopefully the SM legions never tire from the "flight to quality" as that will ultimately help the winery more.

  12. Does anyone remember the Yellow Pages and the phone book? What do you think is replacing that?

    I was in a coffee shop in Northern Santa Rosa Saturday when a group of young people somewhere between 21 – 30 came into the shop to get their mid-day coffee bump. There were about 15 of them and they were caravaning/wine tasting.

    Each one had a minimum of 2 electronic devices, one guy had 3 — his iPhone, his iPad and a Kindle. They all became “electronic” the minute they were inside the cafe with its free wifi talking about what winery they wanted to go to next, where to eat lunch, and glanced at photos they were uploading to Facebook.

    I asked the 2 closest to me how they were planning their day, they both held up their iphones. I asked if they had been buying wine and they all answered yes. one guy was filing a case to take back home to Oregon, another was from New York.

    I saw the mobile effect from the two dream bloggers who wrote for me in their 20s — they did everything by their phones and their friends in social media. It was an eye opening experience into the 23-29 year-old life. You bet they are using social media BIG TIME.

    But if their spending doesn’t float your boat then by all means ignore them. But I know 15 travelers who weren’t spending money at your winery on Saturday if they couldn’t easily find you on their iphone…

    BTW… strongly taking a stand against a marketing trend is considered a smart social media marketing move — one pushed by Chris Brogan.

    They found the coffee shop on their phone GPS — it was the nearest one to them.

  13. There is middle ground. Here. First I’ll disclose that Paul Mabray and I have known each other for about 20 years and have tipped many glasses together in the past decade. That said, our friendship allows for debate and that’s probably why I appreciate him so much. He and I are both willing to have our minds changed by good debate.

    Paul and I don’t agree fully but here’s where I shake out on the debate in concise terms: Social Media isn’t done being created. Anyone who says they know where its going isn’t being honest. And in the same way, anyone who suggests SM can’t help sell wine ever is equally deceived, simply because you don’t know where it’s going to end up.

    This much I know for certain. SM and all its tentacles is a game changer. Steve on this Blog will I’m certain agree traditional media has been changed forever by electronic media. If that’s true, then all the things that we used to use traditional media for from a Marketing, Advertising and PR perspective have to be filled using some other media, mechanism, or platform. I can’t say SM will complete all those objectives let alone be the single driver of selling anything, but I can say without question SM is replacing Traditional Media in many aspects. And in the same way radio advertising didn’t go away when TV came out, there will be a place for traditional media placements even in a SM and electronic world. But like a guy who still only listens to radio, think about how limiting that would be today to not evolve and have bought into TV by the middle 60’s when the technology was proven.

    SM will become something and my encouragement is to experiment (as Steve does with this Blog and I’m now doing). It doesn’t cost much. I try and Tweet twice a day whether I need to or not and have vowed to never say ‘isn’t it a nice day’ or something like ‘Happy #FF.’ If you have nothing professionally relevant to say, then its not worth adding haze to the data stream. I don’t spend a lot of time on any of my several SM platforms, but I am getting first hand information about the changes as they come, and a first hand education about what SM can do.

    That time I’m spending is worth the tuition cost in time in my opinion.

  14. I agree with Robert Gutierrez — and would add that if all one has is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

    Using all the tools in one’s toolbox — and following a well-drawn-up marketing plan — is what works. It’s also hard work. There are no shortcuts or magic potions in the marketing business. And nothing is free — not even “free media.”

    Invest your time and money wisely.

  15. Nice discussion. Hi Friends. Steve I appreciate the main point which is a little less extreme language on how revolutionary it is and a litte more focus on real case studies for ROI (return on investment) is due. At the Napa Smith Brewery, we have invested significant resources into building our SM platform.. actually our website is fully integrated with SM. We respond to every tweet about our brand and engage. We believe it is a very good use of resources. That said, we spend most of our resources on engaging with the trade, selling into chains and distributors and driving business directly. They help each other.

    The discussion is good so here i go.. with full disclosure… make sure you all come to the Wine Industry Technology Symposium (which I co-Chair with Lesley Berglund) July 10-11 and we can have some of this debate live and learn from each other!

  16. As Judy noted above, engaging in social media places you in the Content Creation business. As everyone here knows, making wine is hard and selling it is even harder. Making Content that engages people? There are maybe half a dozen wineries who are doing that with any kind of consistency. (Sorry, talking about brix, medals or the winery cat does not qualify.)

  17. One thing I wouldn’t do is pay for any advertising on Facebook. This was touted by the social media gurus not too long ago, but it is becoming apparent that advertising on Facebook has minimal impact. This becomes even more serious as more and more social media is conducted on small screen mobile devices. There is a reason the third largest marketer/advertiser stopped using Facebook, and why Facebook’s revenues have dipped.

    There are serious privacy concerns with social media and with what Facebook has done and is doing. I don’t know if they are still doing it, but not long ago they were tracking our web browsing with their cookies, even after we were logged out of Facebook. A$$holes! Also Facebook hijacked users’ email accounts and replaced them with a randomly generated e-mail address. Doesn’t that cause a bit of concern? Earlier this week Facebook quietly unvelied a new app which allowed people to see which Facebook users are nearby at any given time. Then in the face of cries of alarm about this “stalker app”, they withdrew it a day or so later. What are they thinking?

    The internet and ebusiness is important to a winery. I would invest in a great website with a great store and I would definitely have a forum on my site where I interacted directly with my customers. I would not invest much effort into Facebook other than do everything I could on my Fan page to direct and entice the customer to my website and my store and my forum.

    I don’t use social media, but I have an active social life over the internet. It’s called email and Skype. I happen to be a private person. I don’t share my life story with strangers. I don’t count the number of friends that I have. I am probably as narcissistic as the next person, but I try to keep it in check and not be obvious. Not so with most Facebookers. I have all my Facebook notifications currently going to junk mail.

    I believe that there has been a Facebook bubble and the total number of users does not reflect the actual use of Facebook or the direction it is headed. I think for many reasons it will be replaced by the latest new thing and we will look back on this and remark how silly we were. Some of us will be very embarrassed at what we revealed about ourselves.

  18. Ironically I am reading this through a Social Media link…

  19. P.S. I forgot to mention, one of the problems regarding Facebook ads versus let’s say Google ads is that when a person uses Google to search for something a Google ad can be important and helpful to the whole process of finding that thing. And helpful to you in selling your product. You often will click on the advertiser because they offer what you were seeking. When a person logs onto Facebook they are not necessarily looking for anything, even less likely a product. Most likely they are looking to interact with friends. An ad is moslty an annoyance or something they just ignore.

  20. As a tiny start-up producer, aspiring to become a “little wine guy with 3,000 cases a year” sometime in the future, I have to say that social media is the ONLY way I can promote my wines; basically because it’s free (I can’t afford $35/month!) and I’ve found it to be effective. My activity basically consists of using Twitter, FB, posting posts on my own blog and commenting on sites like this one! And I know I don’t do it ‘properly’ or as efficiently as I could, because I don’t have the time to learn about ‘SEO’ and ‘engagement’ and all the other stuff. Even so, it’s worked very well for me.

  21. Great comments and I admire you all for the discourse on the complex media changes on adult beverages. Social Media is a tool, not the main one but one of the many in the tool box of selling wine. I spoke in front of a sales team for medium size winery yesterday and I can tell you that none of them give a shit about digital media. The distributor sales folks need a review a score (above 90) and appreciate everything else from blogging to newspaper mentions to TV placements. But they are living in the dark age and will take a great deal of time before social media is embraced as the gold standard.

  22. I see social media as a tool just like any other tool you would use for your business. Some people have developed a system that truly works in terms of social media. however, although it is a very powerful tool, I agree with it not being the do or die way of doing business. Especially when it comes to the wine industry.

  23. And please pardon the poor grammar…this is what happens when you have your kids in the room and you’re trying to work.

  24. Okay, I love my California wineries, but I think a great many of you are missing the point here.

    When laptops came into existence I was hired by North American Mortgage Company to teach top producing loan officers how to use loan software and laptops to take loan applications.

    I heard all the same kinds of comments from the loan officers who were resistant to the change, especially the more successful ones… I mean if it ain’t broke..

    But their younger borrowers at the time wanted to receive their applications electronically. They didn’t want to have to meet with the loan officer in person and they wanted to fill forms out online. They wanted CONVENIENCE.

    I went on to perform the same function for the Royal Bank of Canada in the U.S. but by then loan officers were biting at the bit to get on board because they could see how much more business their Internet connected peers were getting. Not to mention they could work from anywhere, something that was impossible in the past. They could even work from home and be there when their kids got home from school.

    I started by first blog in 2003 and have always been an early adapter because I like checking technology out to see what can be done with it. This is why I asked those young people how they were wine tasting. Their answers were once again all about convenience.

    This issue I have with winery blogs and websites is that they don’t get how a website is a living, breathing entity — not a brochure — like it used to be. The Internet has changed. People want to know what is happening today at your winery.

    The best advice I would give wineries (and I offered to do this for Kendall Jackson) is treat at least your blog like a magazine for your winery. Your website is a MAGAZINE. Start looking at it that way. Social media can supplement your website by making it appear more current with today’s latest information.

    Get your blogging person (should be a team) to look at the magazines that are popular with your demographic. Interview local chefs, take photos of your wines being harvested, interview your staff — in fact, make your tasting room people famous on your blog if they are willing. Make is so that people want to come to the winery to meet who they see online. Does anyone remember the Italian Swiss Colony? Why did so many people go there?

    Stop taking photos of your bottles! I don’t mind going to a page on your website and seeing them along with the information about that wine, but a photo of a bottle of wine is not marketing.

    Tell me a story. Tell me a great story about that bottle. Maybe it’s your last one … but tell me more good stories. Talk to me — don’t write to me like it’s your winery brochure.

    Make your blogs stories… don’t be afraid to use humor and joy. Make your website and experience like reading a good magazine can be and then reflect that same experience in your tasting rooms.

    Use video for goodness sake. I have so many ideas on this I could go on and on.

    But quit looking for the quick fixes and the ROI and the have to spend hours thoughts and look at how lucky you are to have your own magazine under your control. Publishing has just landed at your feet.

    Use it.

  25. Hi Steve,

    You probably won’t publish this comment, as you haven’t yet moderated one that I sent, but I’d be interested to know what your take is on the latest NYT article about Pacific Rim and their social media campaign success. It seems they build a tremendous amount of exposure and increased sales.

  26. Dear Mike, I publish every submitted comment unless it’s libelous, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  27. Renoir in the vineyard says:

    To messieurs Agent and Provocateur, how kind you are to open this can of worms. As pointed out the reasons my 400 cases winery has a sub-par social media rating are time, bother… oh and ROI. I receive more “hits” from SM salesmen who kindly score me, find me lacking and propose solutions whereby they will keep my content fresh for the small fee of $$$ than my 40 friends on Facebook – who like my wines anyway.

    Quite frankly I would rather sink my entire year’s marketing budget (all $100) on one Chinese wine buyer than coming up with new ways to engage with my so-called digital followers. Here’s the rub: the people who buy my wines are the ones who spent time with me in the tasting room, loved the experience, told their friends and keep ordering more wine. More “likes” don’t sell more wine. I get a warm fuzzy feeling when a complete stranger joins on FB – how did they get here and do they enjoy the latest set of bottling-day photos? Would you like to buy some wine? Nada, zip. Presumably they find my fresh content entertaining.

    Obviously I’m doing it wrong, but then I could never keep a diary worth a damn, so don’t listen to me. Keep up the good work.


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