For some reason I’ve been tagged as a social media basher. Every time I turn around, somebody, somewhere, is blogging or tweeting or something that Heimoff hates social media, Heimoff can’t stand social media, Heimoff doesn’t “get” social media, Heimoff’s afraid of social media. But the most common characterization is that I’m a basher.
“Bash.” Pretty strong word. A verb, apparently derived from the Old Norse, meaning “to strike with a violent blow; to smash.” (Those old Norsemen were a pretty violent bunch, I’ve read, Vikings whom TIME magazine once called “Ravagers, despoilers, pagans, heathens” who would “sweep in from the sea to kill, plunder and destroy” their hapless victims, who had no effective means of resisting.
Does that sound like me? Little old me, as peaceable as a songbird, as unaggressive as a daisy? Of course not. Why would anyone call me a “basher”?
To answer that, let’s take a step back and see what I’ve actually said. All that I’ve ever written about social media is to point out that it has limitations. In one form or another, I’ve said that
- social media isn’t the be all and end all of selling wine
- wineries should have social media as part of their marketing mix but not bet the farm on it
- social media has yet to prove itself across the board when it comes to ROI
- some people with a vested financial interest in promoting social media tend to talk it up
- consumers should examine statements made in social media carefully to make sure they’re truthful
- the ease of publishing in social media means that some people with few credentials can make sweeping judgments
Now, could anyone object to any of that? I don’t see how they could. Each statement is patently true.
It is fair to say that I haven’t jumped on the “social media is the greatest thing for wineries since the invention of barrels” train. If you believe that it is, fine. Tweet away. I don’t think most winery owners believe it, though. If they can afford to, they’ll hire someone to run their social media programs, and if they can’t, they won’t. I don’t think there’s any proof that not having a social media campaign equates to economic failure for a winery. As a matter of fact, I’ve told dozens of winery proprietors (including Bill Harlan) who don’t have a social media footprint, or who have only a small one, to get on with it already. I think every winery ought to have a blog (well maintained), a Facebook page and a Twitter account, at the very least.
Is that bashing? I don’t think so. I myself spend a lot of time on social media, either managing my own sites or visiting others (although I’ll confess to not being as interactively chatty as some people). If I was really bashing social media, I’d write stuff like “Twitter is a stupid waste of time. So is Facebook. Don’t get me started on Google+. Blogging is digital masturbation. Get away from your @#%*& computer, tablet or smart phone, haul your butt into the gym and lose some weight!”
But I’m not saying that. So I really think it’s time to stop the “Steve is a social media basher” thing.
The deeper question is, Why have some people taken such offense? They seem to get genuinely upset by my writing, centrist and tempered as it is. Are they so deeply committed to social media, ideologically, intellectually, physically, emotionally and financially, that they can’t bear to have its limitations pointed out? Can they not bear a little constructive criticism? It’s like the Taliban. Tell them they should be nicer to their women, and all of a sudden they’re planting IEDs under your car.
So look, my critics: Find another word for “basher.” Or better yet, understand that complex issues can’t be reduced to a single word. Instead of calling me a “basher,” deal with my specific statements. I think you’ll find we’re more in agreement than you think.
We all know that Yelp isn’t entirely trustworthy (what, you thought it was?). Any business, product or service that wants great reviews can simply ask all their friends and relatives to weigh in with a good word. Seems you can even outsource glowing reviews from other businesses, in exchange for a little mutual backslapping.
“As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,” according to a professor cited in the above article. But even though you and I, an educated public, instinctively or objectively know that Yelp reviews may be biased, we listen to them anyway, in a conscious act of self-persuasion, because the concept of “peer reviewing” is so powerful. We figure that, scattered amidst the bias, are golden nuggets of truth.
Peer reviewing, also known as word-of-mouth, always has been a powerful recommender. It’s seemingly the opposite of authority recommending, wherein a specialist or expert (that would be people like me, in the world of wine) tells other people what’s good, what sucks, and everything inbetween. These days, of course, the authority of experts is on the decline, maybe justifiably. The power of peers has seen its ultimate expression on the Internet, and specifically in what’s been dubbed “social media,” wherein you, me, and that gal behind the tree all have equal opportunity to opine, and then publish our opinions to–ta da!–the entire world. The Internet becomes the Great Leveler, diminishing the power of so-called experts, heightening that of novices and ordinary people.
That’s good. Every advancement in publishing technology brings the human race a step upward on the ladder of progress and enlightenment. The invention of movable type helped usher in the Renaissance from the dismal depths of the Dark Ages, when religious superstition dominated Europe and the church controlled publishing, censoring everything that did not conform to doctrine. But just as movable type led to problems (the rise of mass media, for example, which can be owned by corporations with biases), one has to point out the limitations of the Internet.
The problem with this ease of instant universal publishing is precisely what we can now call the Yelp Conundrum: just as you can’t believe everything you read on Yelp, you can’t believe everything you read in social media. More than that: Even if you know that you can’t believe everything you read in social media, you don’t know exactly what’s accurate and what isn’t. It’s sort of like Doublethink, in Orwell’s 1984. Any word can mean whatever the speaker or writer intends it to mean. Dictionaries are constantly in a state of revision to keep up with the shifting meaning of words. The written word, in 1984, no longer has value as a means of the transmission of truth. Instead, it becomes either a form of entertainment, or a mechanism to sell something, whether it be a product or government-sanctioned idea. The only way to really know what the written word means, in 1984, is to understand the context. Unfortunately, in that totalitarian dictatorship, it’s impossible to know the context of anything.
Context is similarly lacking in today’s social media reviews and analyses of wine. Another word for context is transparency. If a claim is transparent, then it cannot be “phony or biased in some way,” as 4 in 10 Yelp reviews are. Or, more correctly: it may be biased, but it is transparently biased, so that the reader is armed with sufficient information to ignore it.
Each form of social media has different ways to game the system. Yelp’s are perhaps the most obvious; but everything can be rigged. Blogs may be corrupted by the “mommy blog” phenomenon whereby the blogger is paid (secretly) to hawk certain products or services. Twitter is entirely capable of being hijacked by special interests, to judge by my feed, which routinely includes tweets by wineries touting their own stuff.
Until it’s possible to know who’s getting what, who’s in whose pocket, who’s simply ignorant, and who’s transmitting whatever message their controllers want them to, social media should be viewed with skepticism by wine consumers seeking truthful information. What is needed is an absolute way for the consumer to know the context of the information he or she receives. What is needed is transparency. But transparency is exactly what seems impossible to confirm on the Internet. The obviously phony emails from Nigerian widows should warn us all to beware the Internet’s pitfalls. But self-persuasion, or self-hypnosis, keeps us believing we can avoid them, ourselves.
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 steveheimoff.com, 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.
My favorite under-30 mover and shaker in the American wine world, Alan Kropf (who’s 29, so he’d better get busy preparing to be one of the most important 30-40 year olds) is the publisher of Mutineer Magazine. He also has this traveling roadshow he calls the Millennial Wine Marketing Circus, a sort of pop-up that features speakers on various aspects of all things marketing.
Alan’s a smart, ambitious guy who’s achieving a solid foothold in wine media. I don’t know exactly where he’ll end up, and probably neither does he, because the future of the field he’s chosen to play in–which lies at the nexus of publishing, social media, event management, public speaking and consulting–is so obscure. There’s a lot of jockeying on the part of a lot of people to succeed in this nexus, and the way I see it, Alan has as much of a chance as anyone, and maybe better.
Anyhow, according to the article, at the Circus, “speakers will discuss notions such as authenticity, affordability, rejecting elitism and ‘inspiring’ consumers.” Alan didn’t invite me to be a speaker, but if I were, here’s what I’d say on each of these topics.
authenticity What is “authenticity”? It’s awfully hard to define, but I think most people recognize it when they see it. I think authenticity is based on the person’s personality. A strong personality that registers as authentic is perceived as honest, knowledgeable, incorruptible and opinionated. It also is free of contradictions. As we see all around us, people whose positions change with the weather are widely viewed as inauthentic. For an expert in wine, authenticity is very important, because it is the basis of credibility.
affordability Of course the world is searching for affordable quality wines. It’s impossible to argue with such an assertion. But stressing “affordability” can lead down a slippery slope, as I’ll explain in the next part.
rejecting elitism Let’s jump right into this. While I am first to admit there’s plenty of snobbery in the wine world at the top, I firmly reject the notion of “elitism.” What do people really mean when they criticise “elitism”? Usually, they’re people who are younger, less exposed to the great wines of the world, who can’t afford expensive wine, and often have an ambition to succeed in their field. In order to accomplish the latter, they have to knock off those ahead of them who already have succeeded–and an increasingly common way of doing that is to accuse them of being “elitists.” Needless to say, if these people eventually succeed, they themselves will someday be accused of being elitist.
Now, if what Alan means by “rejecting elitism” is simply that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find good wine, I’m onboard with him! That’s obviously true. I recommend Best Buys all the time. But the “slippery slope” I referred to is that this anti-elitist attitude can lead to a dumbing down of wine understanding and knowledge. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
‘inspiring‘ consumers Let’s break this down. On the surface it sounds a little silly. Religious and political leaders inspire us. Sometimes a work of art can inspire us. Can wine inspire us? Not really. So what does Alan mean? If I can crawl inside his head, I’d say he’s talking about average Joes and Janes who have an interest in wine, but are intimidated by what they perceive as its complexity. From their point of view, there’s so much rigamarole around wine that they shy away from it, even though they really want to get into it.
Enter Alan. He’s very good at public speaking. He’s a good-looking guy who pays attention to what he wears. He’s hip-cool. He’s like the old-fashioned circuit preacher who travels from prairie town to prairie town, exhorting the masses to Come to Jesus. In this he has his finger on a certain pulse of the masses. I think he means to inspire people to not be afraid of wine–to start by taking baby steps, which is where we all start all of our journeys. He tells them, “If I could do this, you can too,” which is the message all charismatic preachers deliver. So, if this is what Alan means by inspiring consumers, then he’s the perfect person to do it.
That’s what I’d say, anyway.
I was sent a bottle to review. It was the Keller Estate 2009 Precioso Pinot Noir, with a Sonoma Coast appellation. As you can see from the picture, the neck is enclosed in black wax, with a bulbous top that hides the rim. As soon as I saw it,
my spirits drooped. Uh oh, one of those. I hate these wax tops, but still, it’s my duty to open them. Sometimes, it’s not hard at all. The screw goes right through the wax into the cork, and even though there’s no place to properly rest the claw when you extract, it’s usually doable, although I do use extra caution because I don’t want the claw to slip and gouge my palm.
However, sometimes that wax seal is so hard that I just give up. That’s what happened with the Keller. I tried cutting the wax with the blade on my somm’s opener; it was like trying to cut concrete. I thought about using the blunt end of my chef’s knife, to crack the wax until I could break it and chip the whole thing off; but then I thought about the hundreds of tiny little pieces of plastic-like wax that would litter my countertop and the floor. Been there, done that. A flash of resentment arose; the Keller people are just trying to justify the price by putting the wine into an extra-heavy bottle and then enbalming it in that ridiculous tomb of wax. So I gave up.
Went to Facebook, put the picture up, and wrote: “I tried to get the hard plastic capsule off this wine and couldn’t do it without risking driving the corkscrew into my palm! So sorry, I won’t be reviewing this wine.” Didn’t mention the brand; didn’t want anyone to think I was picking on Keller (although, yes, it’s obvious from the picture).
You never know when you put something on Facebook if you’ll get any replies or how many. In this case, as of this writing, 63 comments. Well, about 10 were replies from me, so let’s call it more than 50. That’s a lot of comments for a Facebook post.
One of the comments was from Keller’s proprietor, Ana Keller. A nice lady. She wrote her reply exactly 30 minutes after I posted. In other words, it took a mere half hour for my post to find Ana! It reminded me of Rick’s line, in Casablanca: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. That is the power of social media! I don’t know how Ana found out, who told her, etc. But it blows my mind that information passes so quickly around the world.
It seems to me, reading the comments, that other people are bothered by this trend to put wine into impressive packaging as a statement. I’m not picking on Keller; lots of wineries do it. I try to put myself into their shoes. Their thinking must be, “We worked really hard on making the best wine we could, and it deserves to be perceived as special.”
I can understand that. But there’s also a form of hubris behind it. What matters is what’s in the bottle, not what it looks like. In fact, if anything, when I see a big, heavy bottle and a fat, heavy blob of wax on it, my suspicions are aroused. Liptick on a pig? In most cases, I will admit, the wine inside a heavy bottle and a waxed seal is usually pretty good, but that’s not the point. The point is, We’re trying to make wine more accessible for people. Less intimidating, not more; friendlier, not less. By “friendly,” I don’t mean a simple, modest little wine, without presumption. I mean the physical act of opening it. Lots of people are actually intimidated by a corkscrew (which is why the screwtop has been so welcome). I sometimes wonder if the people who dream up these impossible seals have actually tried to open the bottle. If they’d put themselves in the customer’s shoes for a moment, instead of trying to make a statement, they’d realize that their creative bottling concepts can be self-defeating.
Maybe I’ll try again to open the Keller Pinot. I’ll use some of the suggestions in the comments: heating the seal. Heating a knife. That seems pretty silly to me–should a consumer really have to go through all that hassle?–but I have given the Precioso Pinot really high scores in the past (96 for the ‘05, 95 for the ‘07), so I might be missing out on something special. But I’m telling you, if I slice my hand open, Ana Keller is gonna hear from my attorney! (Just kidding.)
A few years ago, following the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest that the inimitable Hardy Wallace won, the Big News throughout wine country was wineries hiring Social Media Directors.
The idea, near as I could tell, was to bring someone onboard who was young, social media savvy, creative and hard-working, who would give the winery a strong presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as the winery’s own website. From there, the theory went, sales would soar as engagement with consumers took off.
Well, as far as theories go, it was all right–a good and necessary first step–but in retrospect I think we can all agree that the reach exceeded the grasp. Perhaps that’s why we began hearing less and less about Social Media Directors, as that function was transitioned either upward, as a rather small part of the Technology Officer’s or Human Relations manager’s duties, or downward, to a mere intern’s (or maybe a son’s or daughter’s) responsibilities.
The turnabout was to be expected. Social media arose so quickly in the U.S. that, not only did few see it coming, but even when it got here few knew how to use it. As usual, the adults thought it was just something for the kids. And the kids, well, they just liked it and didn’t over-analyze it or try to figure out how they could make money off it. (Okay, Mark Zuckerberg did, but you know what I mean.) It was like the Internet itself: when it came of age, in the 1990s, nobody knew what to make of it. Everybody said it was revolutionary and would change the world–but exactly how that was supposed to happen, no one knew. If you go back to the early and mid-1990s, you’ll remember the search for “the killer app.” It turned out to be search engine (well, actually, it was porn, but we’re not supposed to talk about that). And then after search it was social media. One-eighth of the population of the world has a Facebook account!
I suppose there could be even more “killer apps” in the future as the technology improves (keep in mind Moore’s Law), but it’s hard to wrap my mind around that, since we haven’t fully absorbed the lessons of the social media we already have. The focus so far has been on what used to be called B2C: the business-to-consumer use of social media. Given the temporary (let us hope) hiatus that so many wineries are experiencing in this area, some companies are starting to think of social media in terms of B2B (business-to-business). For example, Brian Margolies, the CIO of Allied Beverage Group, New Jersey’s largest distributor of wine and spirits, wrote last week that his company has spent the past year researching how to use social media to facilitate relationships with its clients (“liquor stores, bars, and restaurants”). As hard as they’ve worked it, Margolies writes, “[W]e’ve seen little discernible effect on sales, demand, brand awareness, usable business intelligence, or even facilitation of community.” He’s savvy enough to realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean social media is useless for B2B purposes. Maybe it was something Allied did wrong, or didn’t do right. “Have we missed something in our approach or not given the program sufficient time to evolve? Have we overlooked something obvious, or is our target community already too defined?” Good questions, and a good posture of self-examination.
That’s where the wine industry is at: the bloom is off the social media rose, but it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that it really, truly could be something incredible, if only…what? We still don’t know, which is why Margolies’s questions are so vital.