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Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


What’s the different between “developing a strategy” for social media, versus just having fun?

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Every social media advice book or article tells wineries to “develop a strategy” but nobody ever explains what a strategy is, or why you need one. So thousands of responsible winery personnel are left scratching their heads wondering if their “strategy” really is a strategy, or just a tactic.

Tactics, as we know from war, can be successful, but are relatively mundane efforts which may not affect the war’s outcome. Strategies, on the other hand, are game-changers. In World War Two, the U.S. had many tactical victories in the Asian-Pacific theatre, but the strategical importance of the atomic bomb meant winning the war against Japan, not losing it.

I was never big on the concept of developing a strategy for social media because it seemed to me an exercise in silliness. What does it mean, anyway? How would you develop goals? And if you do, how do you measure them? How can you show the relationship between a desired outcome and any particular social media tactic? So I’m not sure that the use of these war metaphors, including strategies and tactics, is even appropriate. It makes social media seem so grim, which in reality social media should be fun and light-hearted.

This article, which reports that winemakers interviewed for a study “were not really sure what their strategy was,” comes, then, as no surprise. Winemakers are not trained to look at things that way; besides, they’re too busy to be developing strategies not directly tied to their main job, winemaking. The entire notion of a “strategy” implies grand, sweeping things, but few of us actually live our lives consciously planning grand, sweeping strategies. Mostly we hope for things, cross our fingers and do our best to make them come about.

The other thing the study, out of Australia, suggests is that consumers don’t want to feel like they’re the objects of some winery’s strategy, anyway. It makes them feel like laboratory rats or guinea pigs, just some subservient factor in a grand strategist’s game. That’s not how people want to feel. They want to feel cherished—as the article states, when they go to a winery’s social media, they want “something more personal and human, not a mass marketing message about buying the wine.”

Ever since the whole social media phenomenon gained traction in the wine world as a possible way of driving sales and customer loyalty, I’ve been in the same position as Queen Elizabeth, whose role in Britain’s political life is restricted to only three areas: “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her ministers.” I’ve tried to warn wineries not to be heavy-handed online, not to rush the consumer and clobber her over the head with a blatant sales pitch, not to view social media as the digital equivalent of a cash register—a tool only for venal ends. My attitude has been, your first duty in using social media is to have fun and enjoy yourself. If that somehow leads to more loyal customers and increased sales, it’s frosting on the cake. But even if it doesn’t, it’s still cake.

I’ve also said that posts don’t even have to be about wine. “[Consumers] are actually quite comfortable with seeing posts that might not necessarily be related to their wine or wine in general,” the study’s author concluded. What social media has enabled is a general de-mobilization of humankind. This is a grandiose statement but what I mean is that it is smashing down the barriers (nationality, age, physical location, etc.) that historically always divided us and is instead emphasizing our shared human-ness. It is almost a betrayal of trust to use social media in an insincere way. It’s also a losing proposition, because insincerity comes across really clearly on social media.

But so does a good attitude. It may be odd that we’ve reached a point where people are more willing to buy things from people they like and trust but whom they know only online. In fact, it is odd, if you think about it. But it’s also what it is: so my two cents remains what it always has been: Don’t overthink social media. Don’t be persuaded by “experts” that you need a “strategy” or otherwise it’s all a big waste of time. The worst way to waste your time is to spend it on doing social media things you personally don’t care for. Is that why you got into the wine business?


A nation that twitters together fritters together

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This scares me: “Calvin Lee, a graphic designer, is a massive tweeter. ‘I really can’t stop,’ he joked. In Twitterland, Lee has become a rock star. ‘I’ve gone through life wondering what my ‘thing’ would be. I believe I’ve found it.’ Lee describes himself as a ‘social media ho. I tweet at least 200 times a day.’ He has been quite successful, amassing nearly 80,000 followers. ‘I was not very popular in high school,’ Lee says, ‘but now I’m like the big jock on campus.’ Lee’s growing influence has won him celebrity-status perks. In addition to a free Virgin Airlines flight to Toronto, brands have reached out to him and provided

  • a brand new Audi A8 to test drive for a week
  • hundreds of dollars in gift cards
  • a pass to a House of Blues VIP event
  • a free Samsung Focus smartphone
  • flight, hotel and meals to attend an exclusive conference
  • eight passes to the VH1 Do Something Awards

“Anybody has a chance to experience life on the other side of the velvet rope. Anyone who is willing to work for it…can have true celebrity status and all the associated perks.”

The writer of all this is Mark W. Schaefer, whom I met while we were both on a recent panel. This quotes are from his new book, “Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing.”

[I edited the above remarks for brevity.]

I suppose if I were looking for the poster child of what I consider the dark side of social media, it would be this. Not Calvin Lee so much: he seems like a nice, ordinary dude who’s enjoying his cool new freebies. No, it would be Mr. Schaefer, who celebrates Mr. Lee’s “accomplishments” as though they were right up there with achieving something real and lasting and contributory to society, not to mention providing Mr. Lee with an actual living.

I don’t gainsay Mr. Lee having his fun. I understand the world of swag. I don’t think I ever did anything egregious, but heaven knows I’ve had some freebies in my day. However, two points: (a) I never exulted over them, nor considered them my ‘thing,’ and (b) I always understood they were irrelevant from the point of view of making a living. Test-driving an Audi and going to the House of Blues are fun, I suppose, but at the end of the day, I still need a paycheck to pay the bills. So what exactly does “being a tremendous success at social media and having a high Klout score” really mean to a person’s life? Maybe Mr. Lee has found his ‘thing,’ and that’s fine, if by ‘thing’ he means a hobby, like following the San Jose Sharks or collecting Pez containers. Everybody should have a nice, interesting hobby.

But to treat this kind of addiction to social media—especially if it’s fueled by the hope of getting free stuff—as an admirable goal for a young person, is troubling. This is not something I think young people should view as an attractive potential way of making a living or spending one’s time; nor do I think it’s healthy for the larger society. In fact, it can be downright detrimental to making a living. If you work in an office, can you really tweet 200 times a day (not to mention all the other online activities you’re probably engaged in) without your co-workers feeling some resentment that they’re carrying your work load? Wouldn’t your boss object? How would you concentrate on your work, anyway? I don’t know Mr. Lee, but he seems like one of the people I see on the sidewalks of Oakland or San Francisco coming towards me with their heads down, eyes fixed on their smartphones: I’m the one who has to get out of the way to avoid a bodily collision.

I don’t mean to entirely disparage Mr. Schaefer’s thesis that an “epidemic of influence” by a new group of “Citizen Influencers” has the capability of reshaping our society in certain admirable ways. I love it that the street demonstrations in Tahrir Square, tweeted around the world, helped topple an ossified government in Egypt, or that instant “citizen reporting” from disaster zones informs people what’s happening before the mainstream media even knows it. When Occupy Oakland was at its peak, I was in the middle of it, tweeting like mad, and people were thanking me for giving them the news before they got it anyplace else. I love staying in touch with my family and friends online, anytime, anywhere. I’m glad social media is in my life.

But we’re talking about apples and oranges. There is a positive, plus side to Twitter and a side that should concern us all, when it turns into the mindless addiction to constant tweeting with the expectation of “celebrity perks” that, in the end, are worthless from a moral, family and human perspective. Is crashing the “velvet rope” to some kind of faux-“celebrity status” really what Millennials aspire to? If Mr. Lee reads this, I hope you find a “thing” that’s more productive and lastingly satisfying than tweeting 200 times a day. It may mean less swag, but it could lead to a fuller life and a better job, and you might even discover that your neighbors are real people worth knowing.


O.K. , you have your social media data. Now, what good is it?

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I asked it six years ago, five years ago, four, three and two years ago, and I’m asking it now. And it’s not just me: That bastion of U.S. capitalism itself, the Wall Street Journal, is asking the same question. Under a five-column headline in last Monday’s Marketplace section, they wondered “What is all that data worth?” (The online version of the article has a slightly different headline.)

The “data” they’re referring to comes from “companies [that] traffic in information and use big-data analytic tools to find ways to generate revenue.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the underlying theme of every conversation about the revenue-generating possibilities of using social media.

We know beyond a doubt that the metrics of social media use are huge. Everybody is Facebooking, tweeting, Instagramming, pinning and so on. They’re liking and following and retweeting each other like crazy. For this reason, wine companies feel, with “the fierce urgency of now,” that they have to get onboard, before the train leaves the station. And indeed, as I’ve argued for many years, wineries should board that train. As I’ve suggested to anyone who’s ever asked (and quite a few who haven’t), winery personnel should engage in social media to the extent they feel capable of doing it.

But what I’ve wondered since Day One is what all these metrics, which are easy enough to obtain, mean. Reach, followers, friends, engagement, acquisitions, referrals, hits, unique visitors, bounce rates, click-through rates, conversions and all other ways to track activity—companies, including wineries, are pursuing them with a vengeance. Yet “The problem is that no one really knows what all that information is worth,” says the Wall Street Journal article.

Such data is called an “intangible asset” because, unlike real estate, durable equipment and money in the bank, it has no objective value. This is not to suggest that data is valueless. As the article explains, data has value because “it allows [companies] to tailor their products and marketing to consumer preferences.” For wineries, though, what does this mean? It’s not at all clear that counting your Twitter followers, or measuring your online engagement rate, suggests anything at all in terms of strategy. “The squishy world of intangibles,” writes the Wall Street Journal, means that “Data is worthless if you don’t know how to use it to make money.”

That statement is patently true on its face. But there’s a more fundamental question: What if social media data, in and of itself, is incapable of being used to make money? Even if real-time data gives you some true insight into your (potential) customer’s online behavior, “Information on individual users loses value over time as they move or their tastes change,” making data “a perishable commodity.” Data looks real and solid enough: after all, what can seem more representative of reality than numbers on a page or screen?

But as we all know, statistics can be slippery or, to use the Journal’s word, “squishy.” I used to get in trouble with some of social media’s adherents by asking them how they “knew” that engaging in social media made money. The answer always was a form of “We can’t prove it, but we somehow believe it.” Occasionally, someone would cite a winery that was doing social media bigtime and whose sales were rising. But even if the connection between doing social media and selling cases could be established directly (which it couldn’t), I always wondered if the winery’s success had legs—if it could be replicated over time, because, after all, any winery can have a good quarter, but wind up on the butcher’s block.

Lest any of this be interpreted to suggest that I don’t think social media has value, or that every winery shouldn’t be exploring it, let me go on the record: If you’re a wine company, you should be doing social media. Period. End of story. What I am saying—or, really, asking—is the same question I’ve posed since 2008: What is all that data worth? If you don’t like the question don’t blame me, blame the Wall Street Journal’s headline writers for coming up with it in the business paper of record.


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Would I lie?

 

 

 


DTC, snobs and market segmentation: A personal view

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“Wines delivered to your door” has been the business theme of direct-to-consumer entrepreneurs since as long as I can remember.

I used to be a member of one of these subscription services, back in the early 1980s. I can’t remember the name (I’m sure someone out there will remind me), but they sold German wines that “arrived at your door” on a monthly basis. I didn’t continue, because I eventually reached the point where I preferred shopping for wine myself, in a store, especially if I could taste it or see a recommendation—and that is the point of this post.

There’s now another “delivered to your door” service, Club W, and while I wish them well, I don’t see how they overcome the challenges that led to failure of almost every one of these ventures.

They all promise the ease and convenience of having pre-selected wines that arrive at your door once a month. They all say the wines are “curated” by experts or, in this case, actually produced for Club W “by noteworthy winemakers who develop their ‘juice’ for Club W exclusively.” And they all make claims that they offer lower prices [even with shipping?] than traditional outlets.

That may well be true in Club W’s case. The claim that their “exclusive” winemakers “have great talent but may lack access to capital enough to get their wines made and into the market” certainly rings true. That is a common challenge for winemakers, especially younger ones, who may have access to interesting grapes, and are making interesting wines, but have no realistic way of getting them to far-flung customers.

What are those wines? I went to Club W’s website and tried it out. They ask you to answer a couple of (kind of silly) questions, and then, after you give them an email, Facebook or Twitter account, they “recommend” appropriate wines. For me, they suggested three brands I’ve never heard of: a Wonderful Wine Co. red blend from Paso Robles, a Black Market Cabernet-Petit Verdot blend from Livermore, and Casa de Lila Airén, a white wine from Spain. Beyond these three wines, there are others on the website I could buy. They all have attractive labels, and I wish I could go to a tasting and try them out, because at $13 a bottle, that’s pretty affordable. There’s also a “Curator’s Choice” menu for wines costing $14 and up.

Now, any and all of these might be wonderful wines. Or they might not. The problem is, even thought they’re just $13 a bottle, I don’t want to buy a pig in a poke: A wine I’m not familiar with. Under their “Tastemakers” dropdown menu they have the names and pictures of folks I guess are some of their winemakers: a fine-looking bunch of men and women, young and appealing. There’s also a cool recipes link. That’s all good.

So I have mixed feelings. A lot of thought obviously has gone into Club W. The website is really nice. But I just don’t see how they get around the fact that you can’t taste the wines before you buy, or even see what the critics have said, since they’re club exclusives and have never been professionally reviewed. (I do make an exception for winery wine clubs: people join them because they know and trust those wines, so even if they haven’t had the latest vintage, they possess plenty of prior evidence that they’re much more likely to enjoy the wine than not.)

Finally, although this isn’t Club W’s fault, I hate the way the Wall Street Journal portrayed Club W; their headline reads “Club W Raises $9.5 Million To Appeal to Wine Lovers, Not Snobs.” Can we please get over this “snobs vs. everybody else” nonsense? I mean, does Lettie Teague write for the “Snobs” in the WSJ? I have news for you: All wine writers write for the people who read them; all wineries produce wine for the people who buy them. There are indeed snobs in the world of wine, as there are in other arenas, but they are the exception to the rule, and to toss the word “snob” around so much is really misleading to young people, who may end up thinking that wine isn’t for them because they’re not snobs and don’t like being around snobs.

Instead, why can’t we talk about beginners, amateur wine lovers and experts? The experts aren’t “snobs,” they just have a lot of experience, nor are the beginners “idiots” because they have little experience. Some “beginners” will be “experts” someday; will that make them “snobs”? So really, anyone (writer, blogger, winery, ad agency) who throws around the snob word so insouciantly is just indulging in lazy language that moreover insults a significant number of wine lovers.

And then there are new wine companies targeting everybody: I got this blast email from one of them just this morming: I omit the winery’s name: “We here at ___ have created a wine that will capture thegrowing new generation of social media savvy, adventurous, health consciouswine drinkers as well as the seasoned, more experienced ones.” Talk about something for everyone! Beginners, Millennials, twitterers, greenies and granola munchers, Baby Boomers, old folks, and snobs. Sic semper, market segmentation!


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