The buzz in media circles for many years has been how traditional print publications, such as newspapers and magazines, can stay alive in this age of the Internet, where content (for the most part) is free.
The challenge of remaining relevant (and profitable) isn’t limited just to print pubs, however. It encompasses old broadcast media, too, including television and radio. Briefly, how can these models stay in business in a mobile era in which nobody wants to pay for anything, and advertisers are having second and third thoughts about investing large quantities of money into vehicles that look increasingly anachronistic?
There are no simple answers. This blog has grappled with the question for years, as have other blogs and social media platforms. Some extreme social media adherents have argued that print and broadcast media are inexorably doomed. Others, including myself, have said, No, that’s not the case, we’re in an evolution whose outcome is uncertain. Nobody really knows. On the many occasions I’ve been asked to make predictions, I’ve resorted to a standard quip: If Rupert Murdoch doesn’t know what’s happening (and he doesn’t), then how am I supposed to?
If you think about it, the times are indeed changing, what with the entire world going social and mobile, but beyond that, we don’t really understand what this means for traditional for-profit media. We know that the instrumentation of accessing media is changing—from paper and plugged-in electronic things to portable, wireless things. What’s so difficult to figure out, though, is how information is going to be researched and reported, if the money that used to pay for it is draining out of a system increasingly reliant on “free.” There used to be standards of journalism that reporters were expected to respect, if they wished to get paid. There used to be obligations to the society at large, to be useful and helpful. Now that everyone in the world can be his own reporter, what happens to those standards? To put it another way, can Twitter substitute—in value, relevance and historicity–for the New York Times or, for that matter, for the hometown newspaper or public radio station?
Smarter minds than mine are grappling with this question, and it’s not surprising that many of them live in my neck of the woods, the Bay Area, where not only Silicon Valley is located but also that bastion of traditional media, San Francisco (whose big newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, almost went belly up a few years ago). San Francisco also is home to one of the most successful, wealthiest public radio and television stations, KQED, which just announced that it’s partnering with two other nonprofits to create “a $2.5 million accelerator fund for selected media startups — of the for-profit variety — to tap.” (An accelerator fund invests capital in externally-developed companies in return for capital, whereas an incubator fund brings in an external team to manage an idea developed internally.)
The investors, who call themselves Matter Ventures, are looking for “media startups with multi-disciplinary teams who have early-stage prototypes, such as participatory platforms, mobile applications, B2B media services, and content production engines.” Ring a bell? Think of a website that produces content (say, a blog), that encourages two-way communication between provider and users (such as a blog), and that can go mobile. They seek “entrepreneurs who show high potential to create media ventures that make a meaningful, positive impact on society while pursuing a sustainable, scalable, profitable business model.”
That “profitable business model” thing is the catch. How would that work for, say, something on social media that’s wine related? Wine blogs have proven notoriously incapable of producing anything beyond modest profits, if any. In this, of course, they echo the Internet in general, where many are called but few are chosen. There are very few web platforms that make money. Porn does. Google does. Online stores do. But those aren’t what Matter Ventures is looking for. The CEO, Corey Ford [who was involved with ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s venture capital fund), is aware that a “profitable business model” on a social media platform is really hard to achieve, but he believes that the brilliant minds can come up with something. “Is there a way that we can leverage that type of [Silicon Valley innovation] model to support innovations in the areas we care about, in the future of media that matters?” he asks. He thinks there is, but he can’t say what it is, anymore than anyone else can, beyond proposing that “a culture of experimentation”, properly loved and cared for by Matter Ventures, can succeed. The new business will have “to impact society in a way that makes its citizens more informed, engaged or empowered.”
Who knows if this will succeed? It’s risky for the investors and particularly for KQED, whose donors may well ask why their money is going towards such experimental things instead of paying the bills. But if anyone can figure out how to make social media make money, in a way that helps society, it’s the combined brain power of Silicon Valley and San Francisco media.
For the fourteenth year in a row, my old friend Rusty Eddy is conducting his PR for Small Wineries seminar at the University of California, Davis. And, as he has for many years, he’s asked me to participate.
When I first started, the things I told the students about were mainly how I, as a writer/critic, feel about PR people, what I wish they’d do differently, how they can help a writer in his job, how to pitch a story, what makes for a good or a bad press release, and stuff like that.
But about 4 years ago, things started to change. Social media was in the air, on everyone’s lips. The focus of the seminar changed abruptly, reflecting the greater shift that was occurring in the world. Students no longer wanted to know the ins and outs of preparing a good press kit. Instead, they wanted to know how a winery should use Twitter. This shift eventually persuaded Rusty to change the name of the seminar. It is now called “PR and Social Media for Small Wineries.” [You can still sign up for the Nov. 3o class.]
Despite, or perhaps because of, this shift in tone and content, Rusty still invites me because, as he says, “we want to know what propelled Steve from an unknown blogger a few years ago to one of the most-read online blogs.” On his panel, I’m something of an anomaly. The others are Jo and Jose Diaz, the husband-and-wife team that run Diaz Communications, a top winery [and other product] marketing and public relations and web development firm, and Paul Mabray, chief strategy officer at VinTank. If you ask me what Vintank is or does, I’ll answer in Rusty’s words: “We want to know what the heck VinTank is and why we should all be using it.” Paul has been a frequent commenter on my blog; when social media requires a good defense, there’s nobody better than Paul, for he’s super-passionate on the subject.
So the reason I’m an anomaly is because Jo and Jose, on the one hand, and Paul, on the other, both have a dog in the social media race. I don’t. In a sense, the students will benefit more from Jo, Jose and Paul than from me, because I can’t really give them any advice to help guide their future careers, which presumably will be connected with winery PR. All I can do is talk to them from the perspective of a guy they’ll probably be working with.
From Rusty’s assignment email: “We’ll discuss how PR has changed in the wine business over the last 10 years, but I’ll also insist that the basics of good PR practice still remain the same. Delivery methods and strategies have certainly changed, but one still needs to know how to write a good headline (subject line) and paragraph, and more importantly, how to find a brand identity and tell the story behind a brand in a compelling manner.”
Can’t argue with that. The key, of course, is Rusty’s final point: “how to find a brand identity and tell the story.” That’s harder than ever. In California alone, we have more wineries than ever before, hence more stories, and the truth of the matter is that most of these stories are pretty much alike. “Jim and Joan made their money in [high tech, medical devices, banking, real estate development, Hollywood], then were inspired by a vision to start their winery.” Or “Tom and Tina did it the hard way: with very little money, they bought their spread, cleared the land, planted vines and…”. I don’t mean to sound cynical, it’s just a fact.
What I’ll be telling the students is the best way to get a writer to hear you out is to be able to help that writer in fundamental ways. Writers are workers. We have needs, and we can use all the help we can get: setting up tastings, keeping us informed of developments in wine areas, coming up with story ideas, even doing fundamental research, which is time-consuming. If a PR person calls me and says, “I have a winery client who offers a $25 three-course menu in the tasting room, plus a spa treatment for an additional $50,” I’ll say, “Find me four other wineries that do something similar and I can say it’s a trend.” Writers love trends. One thing doesn’t constitute a trend; five do.
Which brings us back to social media. Trend–or here to stay? Obviously social media isn’t going anywhere, and yet in some respects the vast majority of wineries still don’t quite know what to do with it–especially the little family wineries where everybody’s already wearing six hats. If you’re Kendall-Jackson, you have a large and sophisticated staff (in-house and external) to do your social media for you, as well as a budget that can afford to think outside the box and develop new applications. If your winery consists of mom, dad, and a kid or two, running everything from sales and marketing to vineyard management to winemaking, you’re lucky to get six hours of sleep a night, much less master the arcane arts of Twitter, Facebook and a frequently-updated blog.
I think this is why some people say I “hate” social media, or am at best a social media denier: because I point out the challenges. But I also think that’s why Rusty continues to invite me. Truth, or should I say reality, is complicated, and when you’re a college student, you need to know the truth in all of its multi-facted aspects.
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It’s one of the most venerable of marketing and advertising schemes. Give the consumer an interesting character he can relate to in an advertisement, and half of the sales job is done.
That’s why David Ogilvy invented Commander Whitehead to sell Schweppes Tonic Water in the 1950s
and why, 60 years later, Dos Equis invented The Most Interesting Man in the World to sell their beer.
Put a face on a product, make the face fascinating, give the reader/viewer a little back story, and voila, you’ve brought that consumer a step closer toward purchasing your product.
Storytelling is well known in the wine world, especially among public relations and media experts. They’re always looking for a way to make their clients compelling. People like me, who are gatekeepers to the media, are the particular targets of PR types. They know that all winemakers and winery owners are fundamentally the same, so they have to figure out a way to make their client different. It’s not unusual for a pitch to be crafted this way:
“Steve, I know you know a lot of husband-and-wife teams who made their money in another industry, then moved to Napa Valley to live the dream of owning a winery. But Bill and Tammy [made-up names] really are different! He’s not just another rich guy, he loves puppies! And Tammy is an artist in her own right, having exhibited her crocheted images of moths in the St. Helena Library!”
What the PR folks, bless their souls, are trying to do is tell a story, or, more accurately, sell a story, in the hopes someone will buy it.
Now, we’re being told, in the pages of Direct Marketing Magazine, that 2012 is “the year of brand storytelling.” Go ahead, read the article. It’s short and actually very acute in its perception, and the writer–Scott Donaton–is balanced. He’s not one of these people arguing that social media is the alpha and omega of everything. He gets to the heart of the issue with two really interesting statements:
1. “content can’t be relegated to a side role. It must be integrated into everything [businesses] do,” including traditional advertising but also tweets, YouTubes and other “consumer experiences.”
2. However, “The more broadly content is defined the more danger there is that the word will be washed of all its meaning. If everything is content, how can you have a content strategy?”
In these two statements lies most of the back-and-forth that’s occurred on this blog over the years concerning the value and role of social media for wineries. Many of my colleague bloggers have tended to the position in #1: Wineries have to become more socially engaged by telling their stories and engaging consumers, or else they risk being irrelevant. My position has veered more towards #2. If everybody is Facebooking, tweeting, instagramming, etc., all the time, then it all tends to cancel everything out. Donaton, the writer, calls this conundrum “questions that need to be addressed,” which is fair enough. It means we have to continue to have the conversation, even if it sometimes leads nowhere. In the meantime, Donaton writes, “brand storytelling is an effective weapon [that can] establish rituals, showcase product benefits and generate excitement.”
Problem is, if everyone has a story (and everyone does), then distinguishing your particular story becomes less and less possible, to the vanishing point. You really have to start splitting hairs. If Bill loves puppies, then his competitor, Don, has to love crippled puppies rescued from disasters. If Tammy’s crochets are in the St. Helena Library, then Bill’s wife, Tina, has to have an installation piece in the Louvre. (Actually, that would be a pretty good story!)
There have been some good recent examples of storytelling. The Envolve guys leapfrogged on Ben Flajnik’s star turn on “The Bachelor” to tell their story. They got tons of publicity, all of it free, but it remains to be seen if that has legs. As Donaton suggests in his column, the consumer’s attention span gets shorter all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has turned into 15 seconds on a tweet.
Storytelling has its place, but whenever you hear someone talking it up, look for their agenda. Little wineries such as Failla or Saxum have great stories, but journalists didn’t get around to writing about them until they [the wineries] proved themselves by establishing quality. People tend to forget that quality must precede the story. You can tell a story about a mediocre winery and the winery will still be mediocre. Conversely, every story about a great winery is a great story.
After all the sturm und drang about the “print is dead” predictions of 2008-2010, we learn now that “magazines made from paper-and-ink are sticking around.”
I was sent this link to Crain’s New York Business by someone who has an interest in print magazines sticking around, Wine Enthusiast’s publisher, Adam Strum.
Turns out, more print magazines are being launched this year than last, and fewer are going out of business. In fact, in a way, the health of print magazines parallels that of the housing market. Foreclosures are down in much of the country, as the market bounces back to pre-Recession levels.
When I began blogging, in the Spring of 2008, predictions of The Death of Print were widespread. And certainly, these prognosticators of gloom found plenty of evidence to support their claim. Newspapers were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. There were rumors the New York Times would close, the San Francisco Chronicle would go out of business, the Boston Globe was doomed.
Magazines experienced the same rebound effect. Between January, 2008–just as the Recession was taking hold, although most Americans weren’t yet aware of it–and January, 2009, when it hit with a vengeance, ad pages in U.S. magazines plunged 28%.
While it’s true that advertising has yet to reach its pre-Recession levels, media outlets report that total U.S. ad spending in magazines increased anywhere from 2.1%-2.6% in the first quarter of 2012, hinting at a steady albeit slow recovery.
I said in 2008 and 2009 that it was the Recession that was hurting magazines, not some inherent historical switch away from print. I’ll say it again today. If there’d been no Recession, print magazines would have done just fine. But there was a Recession. Advertising (which accounts for the vast majority of a magazine’s revenues) fell off the cliff, and so the magazines struggled. Certain people, mainly bloggers, saw this struggle and confused it for The Death of Print. Problem was, it just wasn’t so.
Now we see that magazines–the better ones, anyway–are springing back. That doesn’t mean, and I’m not saying, that print will survive the next ten years. There are a lot of problems with using paper to publish magazines, not the least of which is (from the publisher’s point of view) the costs of paper and shipping. It may well be that U.S. magazines someday will migrate away from paper to some sort of tablet or other device we can’t even imagine.
Savvy publishers already are anticipating that day and are planning accordingly. But whenever it happens, it’s still far enough away that we can predict with some confidence that print magazines that are successful today will remain successful into the 2020s, as long as they stay smart and current. “We’re going to have print until people work out the monetization of digital,” said an analyst quoted in the Crain’s article. Well, we’re no closer to the monetization of digital than we were in 2012, and in some ways we’re even further away. I don’t see that logjam breaking anytime soon, and the longer it takes, the longer print will stick around.
Here’s an interesting report, from our very own University of California at Berkeley, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times: “[G]ood online reviews on Yelp do indeed bring in more customers.” Specifically, “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”
The researchers did not have an explanation for this phenomenon (which actually has some important limits, which I’ll get to in a minute), but I do. Now, I’m one of those people who likes and depends on restaurant reviews. We have a ton of restaurants here in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area, of all types, at all price levels, from just about every ethnicity in the world. So it can be confusing and intimidating to decide on a new place to eat. Under the circumstances, I’ll often turn to two sources for recommendations: Yelp, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer. A bunch of great Yelp reviews is enough to persuade me to try someplace out, while a single Bauer “must eat there” does the same thing.
I think that’s the reason why Yelp reviews work: people, like me, believe in peer recommendations (such as Yelp’s) and also in expert reccos (such as Michael Bauer’s). Of course, just 1 or 2 glowing peer reccos for a particular place won’t work for me (or anyone else, I should think), because they could always be from the owner’s cousin and mother. And 1 or 2 glowing reviews won’t do it at all, if they’re negated by 6 or 7 “worst experience of my life,” “would never go back there,” “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”
But one great Michael Bauer review will send me to the joint. I guess, to my way of thinking, there is an emerging parity between expert reviews, on the one hand, and peer reviews, on the other, but that parity only works if the peer reviews (such as Yelp’s) are overwhelmingly positive. So Michael Bauer isn’t going to have to look for a new job anytime soon. When it comes to food, people still depend on restaurant critics. (At least, in a foodie town like Ess Eff.)
I mentioned above that the U.C. Berkeley study had important limits:
(1) “For restaurants with Michelin stars, for example, the Yelp reviews were irrelevant.”
(2) “Restaurants that were rated in popular guidebooks or newspaper rankings got less of a Yelp bump. They ‘did not see a statistically significant effect from the Yelp rankings,’ the economists said.”
Let’s take (2) first. This just confirms my own reasoning: I’ll take Michael Bauer over Yelp 95% of the time. Even if there were positive Yelp reviews, one critical Bauer review canceled them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe experience counts over simple enthusiasm (such as the type you see on Yelp and, for that matter, on “Check, Please!).
As for (1), my hunch is that the kind of people who review restaurants on Yelp probably don’t frequent Michelin restaurants. Why not? They’re too expensive; the people who eat at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not likely to post their experiences on Yelp, and the people who are considering eating at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not turning to Yelp for advice.
You just knew I was going to make a connection to wine reviewing, didn’t you? Well, I am, and here it is: Inexpensive wines are more likely to see spikes in sales from online social media sources, such as blogs and Twitter. Expensive wines are not, because the kind of people who can afford them don’t blog or tweet, and if someone has enough money to buy, say, Shafer Hillside Select ($230 for the just released 2008), they couldn’t care less what some blogger has to say.
However, that well-heeled person considering buying the Shafer does care what the Michael Bauer-equivalent of the wine critic has to say about it. I’m not saying who that equivalent is (wouldn’t be prudent, not opening that can of worms), but I’m reviewing the ‘08 Hillside Select tomorrow, and if I give it a good score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has an impact on demand.
As social media migrates towards images and away from words, what are the implications for wineries?
We’ve all seen how the rise of photo sharing sites such as Instagram and Pinterest are the breakouts for 2012. I first noticed it earlier this year, when some of my young hip friends here in Oaktown, who really hadn’t been into social media very much (in fact, they took a disdainful attitude toward it, because everyone was doing it), fell hard and fast for photo sharing.
You always could put pictures up on Facebook and then of course YouTube’s been around for a while. But the visual aspect of Facebook seemed secondary to the written content, at least at first. People seemed to use it more for comments. But Facebook seems like it’s trending more toward images. Maybe it’s because, as time passes and Facebook users get more and more “friends,” it’s harder to keep up with a constantly shifting feed, so that we’re more likely, when scrolling through, to stop at an interesting photo than to actually read everybody’s posts (not to mention everyone else’s comments on the posts!).
And now we have Instagram and Pinterest. They seem to represent social media’s next frontier, which means, of course, that businesses (and the consultants who advise them) are eager to exploit the phenomenon. What does this shift toward the visual mean for companies, including wineries?
Well, if your company is selling something with visual appeal (designer fashions, handbags, wallpaper, hotels), it means you can advertise on a potentially huge scale for virtually no cost. That’s the point this article, from Fast Company, makes. “[A] picture really is worth a thousand words,” it says, pointing out that, “as humans became more pressed for time and content became more infinite…we are even skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication.”
I suppose that’s true, but we have to define the difference between humans casually interfacing through social media (including photo sharing sites), and the much more complex relationship between buyers and sellers. In the former, two people (who may or may not actually know each other) “share” an experience momentarily. For example, I may put up a cute photo of Gus. That’s usually bound to generate a bunch of “likes” and even a couple “Awww” comments. Nobody is going to take more than 5 seconds on a picture of Gus, though; they’re onto the next thing, and they don’t expect me to reply to their “like” or their comment. That’s the casual side of photo sharing.
But the buyer-seller relationship is vastly different. The seller isn’t simply putting something online casually, on the spur of the moment, because he thinks it’s interesting or cute or noteworthy. The seller is advertising, and his motive is to interest the buyer to reply, either by making a purchase at that time, or by remembering the brand, in the hope that the buyer will make a purchase at a later date.
In this, images can be powerful. If I’m looking for shoes, a hotel to stay at for my vacation, locally made bluejeans–anything at all that has a visual aspect to it–a picture really is worth 1,000 words. In fact I wouldn’t dream of making a hotel reservation without first checking pictures of the rooms, the restaurant, the beach. If they don’t have good pictures, they’re not getting my business.
Wineries, on the other hand, are not selling things with a visual component. Yes, the appearance of the bottle and label are important, and wineries are well advised to pay attention to them (most, in fact, do). But I don’t believe consumers are going to buy a bottle of wine based on the bottle’s appearance. So if we’re now “skipping words altogether,” then how can a winery possibly communicate its message? Consumers want information that can’t be provided in a photo: the cost, some knowledge of the wine’s back-story, its ownership, where the grapes are from, what kinds of foods does it go with, what does it taste like? In this, wine is data-driven, not image-driven. Consumers need information beyond what a photo, no matter how beautiful, can provide.
What they need, in order to close the deal, is assurance.
- that particular wine will improve their lives
- that particular wine will please and delight them and the people with whom they share it
- that particular wine has been approved by trustworthy people who have already had it and loved it
Without these forms of assurance, consumers are far less likely to buy things, especially something discretionary like a bottle of wine.
The end result is that, while it can’t hurt for wineries to jump on the photo sharing train, I don’t think this new shift to the visual is any more of a game changer for wineries than blogs, Twitter or Facebook have been. If the objective is sharing that leads to viral marketing, we have to face the fact that social media so far has been a disappointment for the wine industry. While there have been exceptions (Rodney Strong’s Rockaway project, A Really Goode Job), they’ve been transient in their effects. The wine industry has yet to find the killer app for social media. Let the search continue. And, please don’t call me a social media hater just because I point out the obvious!