As most of you know, I went to the Wine Bloggers Conference in June, up in Walla Walla Washington. The sponsors, a great group of guys who work out of a Colorado outfit called Zephyr Adventures, have been doing followup polling. Yesterday they sent an email blast summarizing their polling of the wineries who sponsored the conference. They got 16 replies.
The wineries seemed very happy with the conference and their sponsorship of it. Fourteen of the 16 said they were glad they signed up. When asked why they sponsored the conference, 14 said they wanted “to connect with bloggers who will remember my product or company name for possible future posts.”
The Zephyr guys concluded their email this way: “Our tip to bloggers? Remember the sponsors at each conference you attended. Write about their wines if you come across them at a later time. Contact the wineries and other companies, tell them who you are, and ask questions! The sponsors will love you for it.”
What I find so interesting about this concerns the concept of advertising, and particularly of wine magazines, such as Wine Enthusiast, that accept advertising in its pages. I’ve read much criticism of magazines accepting advertising, both in the comments made to this blog over the years and in other blogs. The implication from some blogging quarters has been that any magazine that accepts advertising cannot be pure — that it has to be suffering a conflict of interest, because how can it rate wines objectively from wineries whose ads support it?
I have repeatedly defended wine magazines for accepting advertising, and tried to explain that doing so does not cross any red lines — at least, I can vouch for that at Wine Enthusiast. But I still have the feeling that that suspicion exists out there in some parts of the blogosphere. So now, I find it funny that even the Wine Bloggers Conference is conceding that it depends to some degree on winery sponsors (and a sponsorship is really just another form of paid advertising, when you think about it). It’s interesting, also, that the Zephyr guys are suggesting to bloggers that they write about the sponsors’ wines.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing this practice. In the world of business, where nobody can afford to launch a product or service that doesn’t make money, you have to make certain concessions to your advertisers. You don’t have to promise to review their wines favorably, or to give them extra attention if they haven’t done anything to merit it. But I see nothing wrong with giving your advertisers a little love from time to time. If you’re writing a regional roundup and have the choice of including winery “A” or “B”, if “A” is an advertiser, “B” is not, and all other things are equal, why not include “A” in the article? Again, that doesn’t mean that if winery “C” is doing the best job there is, you don’t include them just because they’re not an advertiser. You do. The key phrase is “all things being equal.”
Does this mean that newsletters that don’t accept advertising, such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, have the moral edge over magazines that do? Nope. At some level, readers have to buy in to the discernment, good taste and honesty of any wine critic, regardless of how he publishes his content. They also have to buy into his or her expertise.
The wineries who sponsored the conference did so for exactly the right reasons: They wanted to be remembered by bloggers, and they hoped to be written about, in what I assume would be a positive light. What’s wrong with that? Any winery these days that doesn’t get out of the cellar and try to connect with as many people as possible is in trouble. I salute the wineries that sponsored the WBC; it’s the ones that didn’t I wonder about. I think that WBC 2011 should be flooded with winery sponsors. And since it’s on the East Coast this time (Charlottesville VA), this would give non-California wineries an opportunity to show bloggers what they can do.
Bottom line: advertising, or paid sponsorship, is not a dirty word. It’s a fact of life. And people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Little noticed outside of New York media circles last week was this nugget in Women’s Wear Daily online that Condé Nast has hired a new publisher to oversee, not just Bon Appetit, but also Gourmet magazine, which you’ll remember was suddenly and shockingly shut down by Condé Nast last October.
So is Gourmet coming back? The WWD interview with the new publisher, Carol Smith, paraphrased her as saying “she hopes to breathe life back into Gourmet,” although the precise manner of doing so remains very much open. The reason Gourmet closed in the first place was because advertising fell off the cliff during the Recession. So how to resuscitate the magazine unless advertising returns?
Smith, who in the interview sounded like she was thinking out loud, tossed around a few possibilities, all of which sound theoretically plausible, and all of which are plagued with huge problems. This topic is of interest, of course, not only to Condé Nast and Gourmet, but to the entire world of paper-based publications. That shrieking sound that ricocheted through the publishing world last October — and especially the food and wine sectors — was the nightmare fear of publishers: “If it could happen to Gourmet, it could happen to me.”
One possibility raised by Smith was that Gourmet might become “a custom magazine.” The article described that as “whereby an advertiser such as Kraft or Target would produce a newsstand Gourmet magazine and own every ad.” So it wouldn’t really be a “pure” Gourmet magazine any longer, it would be “Gourmet by Kraft.” Could we expect to see recipes based on Oscar Mayer bologna, Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese? I’m obviously being facetious, but you get the point. One of the distinctions, or I should say prima facie conditions for the credibility of a print publication is a firewall between editorial and advertising. Would such a firewall exist in “Gourmet by Kraft”?
Other scenarios floated by Smith included “working with retailers on Gourmet-branded items, as well as television projects and events for both titles” [i.e. including Bon Appetit]. The WWD interview tossed those ideas out without explaining what any of them meant, but we can do some inferring. Smith goes to Condé Nast from Elle magazine, where she worked successfully to steer Elle into a relationship with the hugely popular “Project Runway.”
Anyone familiar with that show (and I happily admit it’s one of my favorites) knows that Project Runway has pioneered entire new swathes of territory in which the line between advertising and content is hopelessly, deliriously blurred. Think of it as product placement on steroids. So what would a Gourmet magazine that modeled itself after Project Runway look like? God only knows, but gay cuisine might be the Next Big Thing. Anyhow, people seem to enjoy this merging of reporting, entertainment, sex, information and gossip. You don’t think so? Media Daily News just reported the biggest winners and losers for magazine advertising, and the biggest winners included People Style Watch, Entertainment Weekly, Rachel Ray, People, and Lucky.
Rachel Ray? America may be doomed, but by gosh we’ll be noshing on the way down. (Memo from Charlie Townsend, Condé Nast CEO, to Smith: Develop a recipe for a Ray-style Tex-Mex Burger using Miracle Whip. Can you get your friend Heidi Klum to pitch? How much does she cost? But forget about it if she’s pregnant.)
Finally, “Smith indicated…there is the potential of the Web.” Well, yes, the Web has had “potential” forever, but that gets us back to the (increasingly tiresome) problem of monetizing an online publishing site, whether it’s a blog, The New York Times or Gourmet Magazine. Would you subscribe to an online Gourmet? Will advertisers plonk down big bucks to support it? I think the answers are No, and no.
Maybe I’m wrong. Smith is said, on the New York blogs that pay attention to the fashion and style world, to be savvy and creative (although the b-word also has been applied to her). She certainly has a good track record. I think this step by Condé Nast is another example of publishers, freaked out and puzzled by the revolutionary changes occurring all around them, hiring brilliant young things (or, at least, people who are supposed to be brilliant young things), who know (or claim to know) where media is going, since publishers themselves clearly don’t. We see the same thing when a winery hires a social media director when nothing else seems to be working. It’s a little like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but you can’t blame Condé Nast for hoping that Gourmet isn’t really at the bottom of the sea, but merely wandered off course.
A blogger wrote the other day:
Even traditional curmudgeons such as Steve Heimoff benefit from the growing wine blog trend, even as he disparages it. Several well known wine writers have at least explored, if not fully embraced, moving their wine writing to blogs. It’s our belief that, once the ad dollars show up in sufficient numbers (i.e. the tipping point), wine writing will move online with such speed that people will no longer bemoan the passing of print wine columns.
Sorry, but this guy is living in lalaland, and I don’t mean Los Angeles. He should have come to yesterday’s panels here at the Wine Writers Symposium, Alder Yarrow’s on monetizing new media writing (which I was on) and mine on wine writers, ethics and income streams. It was made abundantly clear on both that anyone who believes the ad revenue “tipping point” is moving with “speed” is completely out of touch with reality. When you surround yourself with ideology instead of perceiving with clear vision, you have lost the ability to say anything useful.
The people who participated in the 2 panels were a diverse lot. They consisted of famous bloggers, authors, editors, publishers, web wizards, technology experts, social media entrepreneurs, winemakers, chefs, academics and others interested in social media and who are ardent believers in its future (including me). But I don’t think a single person who was there — no matter what they thought or hoped when they walked into that room — walked out with any thoughts but these:
Ad dollars are not migrating online.
Ad dollars are not going to migrate online anytime soon.
There is no tipping point.
Just ain’t gonna happen anytime.
This was the take-home message, the bottom line, the irrefutable truth. It’s true not because I say it, not because I’m a curmedgeon, not because I hate social media, but for the same reason pigs don’t fly.
The reason ad revenue isn’t going to pour into wine blogs is because ad revenue isn’t going to pour into anyone’sblog in any field, much less a niche one like wine blogs. All the wine blogs put together have a readership that’s maybe equivalent to that of a top wine magazine. Ninety nine percent of individual wine blogs don’t have the hits or visits to generate $50 a month from ads if they’re lucky. No one can change the fact that wine blogs do not have the traffic to sustain ad dollars and are not likely to in the foreseeable future. Yes, the very top 3 or 4 make a little money from ads. But I believe they’re nearing their maximum, and nobody else is going to achieve their numbers for years.
I have reached these conclusions the old-fashioned way: through journalistic digging, mainly interviews. I know most of the top wine bloggers. I’ve picked their brains. They’re the ones who are pessimistic about making a living through ads. I also know a lot of top executives at the biggest wine companies. They tell me they’re not prepared to invest ad revenues online. If a big wine company won’t pay to advertise on a wine blog, do you think a little family winery will? And if wineries won’t advertise on a wine blog, who will? Microsoft? Nike? The NFL? Disney?
I mean, get real!
Hopes and dreams are good. They keep us going, waiting for a better day. But hope needs to be tempered by reality; otherwise, it descends into madness. Anyone who holds his breath waiting for the ad revenue tipping point to tip is going to suffocate.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And in times like this, when consumers are loathe to spend money, it becomes more necessary than ever for wineries to figure out ways to encourage them to do so.
As a critic I’ve seen almost every way there is for wineries to attract attention to themselves. They’ll resort to oversized bottles so heavy you have to use two hands to pour from them. They’ll put more and more outrageous things on the label. Critters and various colorful modes of transit (trucks, wagons, bicycles) seem mercifully to be on the way out, but on the way in are larger point size for type, greater contrast of colors on the label, and more psychedelic use of gold. It’s the label as roadside billboard. Of course, bottles wrapped in tissue paper suggest that the wine inside must be very special indeed, as is the case with bottles that come in wooden boxes.
There is a cottage industry of packaging redesigners, to whom despairing marketing and sales people turn in roughly the same way a worried man might go to a psychic for consultation following a broken love affair or economic crisis. “[T]hey are hoping that some magic combination of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page can coax diners into spending a little more money” is how the New York Times yesterday described how restaurateurs are trying to lure in cautious diners. The same can be said of wineries. Production people come up with their own “magic combinations.” If you can’t sell your Cabernet Sauvignon, what about a Malbec instead (grabbing onto Argentina’s coattails)? How about a cleverly-named proprietary bottling incorporating the owner’s children’s names, or something French-sounding?. There’s as much psychology involved in buying decisions as anything else. One restaurant cited in the Times article “not only excites the taste buds but goes to work on the mind.” This is crucial because flavor occurs, not in the taste buds, but in the brain, which is the seat of our sexual fantasies.
We humans, it turns out, are as irrational as invertebrates when it comes to choosing our delicacies. “[T]he psychology of the menu”, a complex interplay of graphic design, word and image association and subtle tricks played on the mind (e.g. cost sans dollar sign is said to be less threatening, so that 9 is friendlier than $9) represents the summitry of the restaurateur’s — and the P.R. agent’s — art. “The hidden persuaders,” in Vance Packard’s term (the title of his 1957 book), provided pre-”Mad Men” evidence of hidden tactics advertisers used to sell products. The ultimate in subliminal was said to be barely perceptible (to the naked eye) images of writhing nude human torsos in airbrushed ice cubes floating in cold, refreshing glasses of cognac and other spirits — images that the eye missed but that the reptilian id did not. There are wineries right here in Northern California that are not above mixing eye candy in with their message. The handsome young man from Livermore and the hot young woman from Napa Valley, both of whom are used in their company’s pictorial ads (and you know who they are), come to mind. What’s surprising is that the wine industry does not use sex appeal more than it does. Perhaps it’s a form of prudishness, or maybe the industry just feels it’s “above” pandering to that denominator. But if the suggestion of salaciousness can sell everything from Volvos
it can certainly sell wine. I’m not suggesting that we start having young winemakers in bikini briefs and thongs appear in wine advertisements (although that could be pretty cool) and I certainly wouldn’t want to see old winemakers scantily clad. But the wine industry is stuffy and tight-cheeked when it comes to portraying its own image and it could have more fun and try new things. And by the way, a sincerely meant message from this blog: