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Has Vintank tanked? Not clear. My thoughts

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Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.

By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.

I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).

Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.

Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.

I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”

The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.

ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.

 


Can wine bloggers make money through reader financial donations? Maybe…

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Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.

Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.

This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.

I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.

Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.

In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.

Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.

Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.

Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.


A wine trip back east, to the D.C. metro area

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If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.

I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.

As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”

Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.

I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.

Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.


In the future, everyone will be a famous wine taster for 15 minutes

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Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?

We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.

But what is tasting ability, anyhow?

Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.

But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.

But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?

Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.

What else does it take?

I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to

  • Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
  • Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
  • Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
  • Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
  • Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.

By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.


Content, schmontent and impact

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The subject of the impact of social media on the actual sale of wine, as opposed to merely creating some short-lived buzz, has long been considered in my blog, as well as throughout the greater Internet community.

The question always has been: What do all those page views and visits mean? Do they translate into moving cases—or are they merely feel-good statistics that, from an economic point of view, are meaningless?

Attempts have been made to measure the “metrics” of such statistics, and sometimes these analyses look very good and thorough. But behind the spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts has been a continuing mystery wrapped in an enigma: What’s the point of it all? It’s rather like that old Zen koan, “What if they created a site that had big numbers, and nobody ever bought anything?”

This is the topic of an important article two days ago in BuzzFeed. It quoted the company’s founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti: What matters most, and what all these metrics should try and point to is impact.”

Impact! Now we’re talking.

He asks pertinent questions: “Does [social media] have an impact on people’s actual lives, are people using the content, is it something that matters to them?” Because if the answers are no, no and no, then content, schmontent, none of it matters.

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, illustrated the unimportance of fancy metrics by comparing them to “artworks hang[ing] on the wall.” They may be pretty to look at, they may make you feel good, but they don’t pay the bills.

Peretti and Smith don’t claim to have definitive answers for achieving impact as well as metrics. Too bad, because that’s the Holy Grail. But then, after all these years, we shouldn’t expect instant solutions. However, Peretti does offer some ideas, which he poses as questions:

Does the editorial asset work across platforms?

Does it help people connect with each other?

Does it help people improve their lives?

Does it inform the public and change institutions?

Does it make the world more open and diverse?

Now, if you’re thinking that these are pretty lofty ambitions for a winery, you’re right: Peretti is thinking in terms of his company, which is making a play to be a serious media outlet. BuzzFeed may worry about making the world more peaceful and diverse; a winery is more concerned about moving last year’s inventory before the new one comes piling in.

But what Peretti is onto, I think, is that successful social media campaigns—the ones with impact—somehow are more than just themselves. They are created with intelligence and passion, such that readers or viewers feel that connection to the winery. They are inclusionary: they make all people feel part of the story. They’re not just slammed out willy nilly, like auto parts on an assembly line, in order to fulfill today’s Twitter quota. Rather, they form a continuing narrative—sort of like a really good T.V. series—that people want to revisit, to see what happens.

You know, there’s been talk of the evolution of social media as a selling platform, and maybe, in some cases, that’s true. But, as a wise man once pointed out, “There isn’t a version two or three if there isn’t a great version one.” People involved in the creation of social media campaigns should keep this in mind, and that word “impact” at the forefront of their consciousness.


The fatal flaw at the heart of social media: Compromised information

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Investment banks, hedge funds and other for-profit speculators of the world’s money supply are “scooping up computer scientists, not economists and investment bankers with MBAs,” because “artificial intelligence” is now the Holy Grail of investment strategy, not old-fashioned gurus like Warren Buffett, who are increasingly viewed as “redundant” because their minds are not “super-fast.”

As reported by the Financial Times, the so-called “quantitative investment world” of Goldman Sachs and Bridgewater, et al. is “play[ing] down the prospect of machines supplanting human[s]”—at least for now. But since “the human mind has not become any better than it was 100 years ago,” while the complexity of investments has grown immeasurably more complicated and unpredictable due to phenomena like algorithmic trading and a worldwide marketplace that includes China, “Eventually the time will come that no human investment manager will be able to beat the computer.”

Enter artificial intelligence. “A machine-learning algorithm will autonomously evolve and search for new patterns,” in the same way a human mind does, but thousands, if not millions, of times faster, making the human mind irrelevant. Buffett-style “intuitive trading strategies” will look clumsy in comparison—like 1950s NBA players competing against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry.

Well, perhaps, But consider that the notion of pure, real-time, disinterested, objectively neutral analytic devices, crunching only numbers and disinterested in any external agenda, and powered by artificial intelligence, is a fiction. That’s what we thought about computers: That they would bring about a million fold increase in the speed of calculations, a thousand fold decrease in cost, all this while scientists were ‘just beginning to explore these possibilities,’” as an idealistic 1962 prediction of the computer’s future had it. But other, more worried voices, were slowly emerging: this vast accumulation of data, an IBM analyst warned in the 1960s, “could be pooled, drawn on and used in ways for which they were not intended.”

Which brings us to viruses, bots, malware and the entire netherworld of awful stuff that crawls through and infects the world’s networks at the speed of light, seeking any and every unprotected nook and cranny. Last Thursday, a paper, published by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the branch of the U.S. military that has worked on everything from satellite technology to the Internet to driverless cars), published “The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge.” Impressed and alarmed by rapidly spreading “influence bots— realistic, automated identities that illicitly shape discussion on sites like Twitter and Facebook”–the Challenge seeks to up the scientific community’s game at detecting and combating such bots. The relationship between “influence bots” and artificial intelligence was anticipated by British physicist Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game” movie), whose “Turing test” postulated a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”

But the Turing test apparently did not anticipate a regime of outright deception and fraud on the computer side—a computer pretending to be a human that was controlled by a human pretending to be a computer. As this article, from the BBC, makes clear, bots, including influence bots, are already engaged in “automated deceit” that “can even trick the web-savvy.” The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge was created because influence bots “pose a clear danger to freedom of expression”: If we don’t know whether the results our computers spit out are pure and objective and thus “real,” as opposed to malicious, agenda-driven and thus “unreal,” then we’re clearly capable of being led down a disastrous garden path.

(The DARPA paper cites examples of malicious influence bots by, for example, Russians engaging in a campaign of disinformation about its seizure of Ukraine, and ISIS spreading radicalism.)

The bankers and investment managers who are relying on artificial intelligence to replace “merely human” analysts mean well, but there is no guarantee that their findings may not be contaminated by bots and other forms of malware that purposefully distort conditions. Can they know that, for example, Chinese intelligence is not interfering in the analysis of oil prices over the next six months? Or that Russian mafia intelligence is not creating the impression that Chinese intelligence is the culprit? And on and on, through the looking glass. As the DARPA paper points out (and this is precisely the kind of stuff DARPA worries about), “Over the next few years, we can expect a proliferation of social media influence bots as advertisers, criminals, politicians, nation states, terrorists, and others try to influence populations.” The only protection against this menace, DARPA says, is “to significantly enhance the analytic tools that help analysts detect influence bots.” Unfortunately, the bad guys are in the race, too, busily developing software that thwarts bot-detection tools.

Which brings me to my headline. Re-read it. Influence bots mean that malicious coders may well influence the masses. Social media always has been over-hyped, but this news further undermines its early promise as the great leveler and democratizer of mankind. It turns out it may be anything but. How the world will deal with online information, including social media, that may be hopelessly compromised will keep “the good guys” busy for a long time, and could make an already anxious public more suspicious than ever of social media.


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