I’m unable to participate in Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis this year, because I have to be–no, make that want to be in Santa Barbara on Dec. 2, but I promised Rusty I’d give the class some promo, so here it is: It’s this Friday, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You can sign up online here, for a cost of $190. Worth it!
Participants in the class, at which I’ve guest lectured for years, are winery P.R. people, or those who want to be. They’re looking, I suppose, for any additional insight in how to be better at their jobs. Four or five years ago, there was barely a mention of social media in the class. Instead, attendees wanted to know about stuff like how to prepare a press kit, write a press release, and how to pitch an article to a wine writer. They also wanted to know about the 100 point system and the more arcane aspects of wine criticism.
All of a sudden, around 2008, it began to shift. Suddenly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook were all the rage. It was as profound a paradigm shift as you could ask for.
I wonder what the students will want to know about this year. My own feeling–and that’s all it is, a feeling, because I have no empirical evidence to support it–is that the social media thing may have peaked when it comes to winery P.R. I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.
Looking back now, during this winter of economic and social discontent, it’s hard to believe how naive everyone was. Did people really believe that social media could sell out a warehouse of SKUs, with a single keystroke? They did. But that’s what happens when you have stardust in your eyes: you don’t see things clearly.
Yes, there always were voices of reason arguing that social media was but a single arrow in the quiver, and possibly not even the one that went the furthest or sank the deepest. But those voices were all but drowned out by competing views that social media had changed everything, was destroying traditional P.R., and would reward those who hopped on its bandwagon while punishing everyone who stayed off.
Be honest now. Does anyone still make that claim?
I think a couple things combined to make social media less of a star than it purported to be. One was inherent in the concept itself: social media is merely a way for people to mass-communicate. That’s good, but what does it have to do with selling wine? Not much. People said social media would replace other sorts of sales techniques with peer-to-peer recommendations. Actually, that happened all too well. The peer-to-peer space is shared by an expanding universe of sources. A million peer-to-peer networks result in a million different wines being recommended, each for about 15 nanoseconds of fame.
Another reason the social media revolution failed was because of the Recession. Funny how an event that seemed historic at the time can be vaporized by another event that has truly Historic with-a-capital-H ramifications: namely, the collapse of the global economy. Maybe, just maybe social media could have been more helpful for wineries, if there hadn’t been a meltdown and people actually had the disposable income to buy wine. But that’s a hypothetical situation we can dispense with.
Everything feels like it’s in stasis these days. Black Friday and Cyber Monday aside, nobody’s buying, nobody’s spending, nobody’s hiring, nobody’s lending. If I were a young grad student wanting to move into winery P.R. and attending Rusty’s class, I think my first question to his guests (Sara Schneider from Sunset and Paul Mabray from VinTank) would be: Now that we’ve seen the limitations of social media for winery P.R., what traditional approaches do you believe will work? If I had to answer that question, I’d say that in addition to (not in place of) social media, a winery should have someone representing it who is ultra-skilled at captivating the media. That person might come from internal P.R. or external P.R., or it might be someone like Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni or Jayson Woodbridge, none of whom needed P.R. agents at all because they were such dynamic geniuses on their own. Of course, not everyone has that level of flash, which is why God invented public relations. As to the exact form of P.R. that works, impossible to say. It depends on the winery situation. If there were a formula, everyone would know it by now. Obviously, there isn’t.
Anyhow, like I wrote, I’ll be in beautiful Santa Barbara this week, reporting for Wine Enthusiast, doing a big blind tasting of local wines and, hopefully, coming up with interesting posts for my blog!
I’ve been something of a debunker about social marketing advice companies that claim they can help wineries increase sales through the use of social media. Whenever I see such claims, I usually think that the only sales that are going to be increasing are those of the social marketing advice company!
Their claims are often hyperinflated, based on taking advantage of the ignorance and insecurity many winery personnel feel when it comes to social media. They may take a single instance of success, and use it to imply that you, too, can achieve similar results–if only you hire the company. There’s something of the late-night T.V. infomercial about it: get-rich-quick real estate schemes, lose weight instantly, tone and harden those buttocks! Call now, operators are standing by!
I’ve asked, many times on this blog, for concrete evidence that a professional approach to social media (whatever that means) can increase sales. And to tell the truth, nobody’s risen to the challenge. Oh, here and there someone will talk about some anecdote, or they’ll argue, on purely theoretical grounds, that it works. But theory and reality don’t always agree. If they did–well, I better not get into politics!
But then I was reading the N.Y. Times on Tuesday and saw this article describing how a social marketing advice company called BzzAgent is apparently succeeding in boosting sales of Black Box, the Constellation-owned 3 liter wine to which I’ve given plenty of Best Buy reccos (and even the occasional and highly valued Editor’s Choice) over the years in Wine Enthusiast. (I’ve also panned their wines. At the equivalent of $6.25 for a regular bottle, it’s not likely they’re all going to be good.)
Black Box/Constellation hired BzzAgent (clever name, with hints of “buzz” and busy bees) to jack up sales, after the company concluded that it did not want to do traditional advertising, for a number of reasons. So I guess this is a form of guerrilla marketing: the article tells how a BzzAgent representative, who seems to have been hanging out at a supermarket, accosted a stranger who was about to buy another brand of boxed wine and warned her, “Don’t do it!” Instead, the agent told the woman to buy Black Box. The Times story implies that she did.
Never mind that there are all sorts of bizarre inconsistencies to this version of events. Did the BzzAgent person (who is described as “an unemployed lawyer”) just happen to be in the supermarket wine aisle when this event transpired, or was she trolling there? If the latter, did the supermarket management know that a weirdo lady was lurking in the wine aisle, approaching innocent strangers and interfering with their shopping? If I had been the shopper, I would have told the lady to stop bothering me. When strangers stop you in public and start talking at you, the general instinct is to assume they’re crazy or panhandling, and move on.
Still, I’ll take the Times story at its word. It tells also how the BzzAgent lady hosts “blind tasting parties” for her friends at her home and serves them Black Box. When those friends see how good the wine is, they buy it, or so the article suggests.
Supermarket encounters and blind tasting parties are not, of course, social media, but they are birds of the same color: they all bypass the traditional marketing and P.R. approaches in favor of what might be called consumer-to-consumer communication. The supermarket approach is one on one; the blind tasting party approach might be one on twenty; and a Tweet might be one on a hundred thousand: but the principle is the same.
I checked out BzzAgent’s website. By this morning they already had a lead link to the N.Y. Times article, a good sign that their people have a fast reaction time. There are also a lot of interesting articles, including one on how not to waste time online (which is something I think a lot of people and companies do). Number 4 is “Mix it up. Dull content is like Spam.”
That is so true. The biggest mistake most wineries make online is to establish a website, put some stuff up, and then let it molder for months if not years. I routinely get tasting samples in the mail for which the accompanying information is inadequate. So I’ll go to the website for info, only to find that the vintage hasn’t been updated for two years! That would be a scandal in the Heimoff household. When I missed a post last month due to my hangover, I heard from some angry readers. I almost expected mobs with pitchforks to hunt me down here in Oakland. So, yes, “dull content is like Spam.” In fact, it’s worse than Spam. With Spam (I don’t mean the meat, I mean junk email), you expect nothing, which is why most of us set up spam filters to weed it out. But when you deliberately go to a website expecting something new and useful, only to find a bunch of old, boring stuff, it’s an insult. You actually feel resentment to the company for being lazy and uncaring and unprofessional. Not good.
So in the case of Black Box, I’d have to say they’re being pretty smart about it. I’m not clever enough to say whether or not traditional advertising would or wouldn’t work for them. But if they can get buzz going at house parties, in the supermarket and online, more power to them. Just keep those unemployed lawyers away from me!
There were some interesting articles in yesterday’s Wine Industry Insight News Fetch (Lewis Perdue’s online pub) having to do with social media. For starters was this literate and entertaining piece from Jeff Lefevere, at Good Grape, purporting to frame new developments in the digital sphere in their basics. I can’t say I completely agree with all his conclusions, because he studies this stuff a lot more than I do, so when he talks about (for example) Tumblr, I really don’t know, since I haven’t explored it in any depth. His comment that QR codes are “faddish” is the first I’ve read to criticize them that way: but I like it when somebody says that something that everybody’s doing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That curmudgeonly quality appeals to me. Ditto his knock of hashtags (“Snooze. Wake me when it’s over.”) My readers know that I’ve long felt that Twitter is overrated as a marketing or sales tool for wineries. If that’s what Jeff is saying, then he’s right on, IMHO.
Also in News Fetch was this opinion piece on “the whole journalists vs. bloggers debate,” zeroing in on the line between objective and subjective writing. The author, Aaron Holesgrove, is concerned that the advent of blogging has blurred the distinction, and he worries furthermore that this is a serious degradation in information dissemination. His solution? To treat true, objective journalism “as a utility,” i.e., the same way we regulate water, gas and electricity. They’re so important to the normal functioning of society that, in return for our allowing them to be monopolies, they agree to let society to oversee them. Aaron’s suggestion: “So, why not make journalists certified by a not-for-profit journalism body?”
This notion has been tossed around before. I think Tom Wark has weighed in. While I sympathize with Aaron’s concerns, I do think it’s unrealistic to expect such a “journalism body” to ever exist. It might make a little more sense in the world of high tech that Aaron inhabits than in our world of wine, where so much is subjective. But when it comes to ethics, and questions of crossing the line, catering to advertisers, etc., we’re never going to have complete agreement in wine writing, nor should we. These are lively topics for debate, and besides, wine writing and blogging are largely self-regulating. Whenever somebody crosses the line, it’s soon known, and that person usually comes under scathing attack. (Remember the Parker travel expense brouhaha?) So, no, we don’t need regulation in wine writing.
Finally, News Fetch included this article whose headline alone warmed the cockles of my heart. (What exactly is a “cockle,” and does the heart actually have any? Inquiring minds want to know.) That headline was “Two Studies Affirm Power of Reviews.”
Now, it’s true that the analysis mainly concerns online peer reviews (customer reviews a la Yelp, Facebook, etc.). But the study does not explicitly exclude expert reviews, so I think it’s fair to conclude that “reviews are now a critical and highly influential part of the online shopping process” whether they’re from “regular” folks or experts. The most telling part of the article, written by Greg Sterling, is “traditional advertising and brand messaging is going to be almost completely ineffective if the products or services in question are not intrinsically worthy.” This is because Greg assumes (and I agree) that the critical consensus around any consumer product, whether it’s wine, baby diapers or cell phones, is going to be determined by the product’s intrinsic quality. And when it comes to intrinsic quality, who better to pronounce on it than someone with expertise in that area?
I’ve said for years that Gary Vaynerchuk wouldn’t do wine videos forever–only as long as it took to launch him to something else that presumably pays more money. I always suspected he wanted to be Ryan Seacrest and make $30 million a year as an impresario. Now he’s taking a leap that could get him there.
So what does a post-Gary Vee world mean for wine? To begin with, Gary’s lost a lot of juice lately. It was a good time for him to get out. Like the old saying goes, Leave while you’re still having fun. Such was Gary’s dominance of the wine-social media nexus that it sometimes seemed no other blogger could really get any traction because Gary sucked up all the oxygen.
Yet he’s been deflating over the past year, as his act wore thin. I don’t doubt that hundreds of thousands of his loyal fans will miss him, but there was always something of a one-trick pony aspect to Gary. He reminded me of those rock bands that gets a hit or two, and then you never hear from them again.
I give Gary credit for proving that the Internet can be a viable home for a wine writer/blogger/videographer. I personally never thought much of his oversized personality. I thought he brought a bloated ego to wine media. I mean, it was always more about Gary than the wine, or whoever his guest was. Maybe that’s what it takes to succeed. Years ago, I ran into Adam Sandler, the actor-comedian, in the green room of a San Francisco comedy club. This was way before he was famous. I didn’t much like him. He was very conceited and full of himself, yet he also projected a confidence that made me think he was destined for stardom (and likewise made me realize I wasn’t!). As indeed he was. Adam is said to make $27 million a year, which is probably more than Gary makes–so far.
I analogize Gary’s retirement to Parker’s leaving California. Same kind of forces involved. Parker too was so dominant, he distorted the space around him, like a massive gravitational object that bends light to warp speed. I think Robert Parker was a nice man, but his impact on the world of wine was unhealthy. It’s not good for one person to have such power over one piece of reality, unless it’s Steve Jobs (who also retired yesterday as CEO of Apple). Parker’s influence on wine style is well known and need not be reiterated here. It has been sad for me, in my job, to travel up and down California and witness the veneration bordering on fear with which so many winemakers saw him. People said I was jealous, but that wasn’t it. It’s just pathetic to see winemakers so in thrall of a single critic that they practically wet their pants just thinking about him, male and female alike–a neurosis particularly noticeable in Napa Valley. So with Parker’s departure, I am hopeful that, after a period of adjustment, California winemaking circles can get back to normal and begin to make wine the way their winemakers actually want to, instead of the way they’re ordered to by one isolated critic with a palate to protect.
So goodbye to Gary and goodbye to Parker. Both these individuals have writ their signatures large on the history of wine. They will be long remembered, and honored in the pantheon. With their hegemony now gone, this is a good moment for pause for a moment, and then to move forward, without them, into brighter uplands.
I saw Biz Stone on C-SPAN talking up Twitter, which of course he co-founded. He told the tale of a New York night club that was struggling to get attention. When a local celebrity tweeted that he was going there, badda bing, next thing you know hundreds of people were trying to get in.
That’s a great example of the Twitter influence. Another, on a much more massive scale, is the way that kids in the Middle East are pulling off the Arab Spring, using Twitter to alert each other. This kind of stuff is exciting, and clearly establishes Twitter as one of the most revolutionary advances in the history of human communication.
So what does this mean for wineries?
I’ve been saying for years that it means nothing. Put me down as a Twitter skeptic. There are vast differences between popularizing a night club, mobilizing crowds against a regime, and boosting the fortunes of a winery. And anyone who confuses or conflates these instances is bound to be disappointed.
We can dispense with the Arab Spring use of Twitter immediately. Political movements have always depended on the ability of a core group to communicate widely with a constituency, whether it was by putting tracts up on church walls, broadcasting shortwave radio messages or, nowadays, Twitter. That’s all Twitter is for modern politics: the most up to date way for constituencies to talk to each other. But does anyone think that the choice of a wine brand is a revolutionary act, comparable to overthrowing a government?
Now, let’s think about that New York club. In that example, a lot of people already were ready to go out on a particular night. They were looking for someplace cool, when lo and behold someone cooler than them told them to check out this club. So of course they did, and in so doing they created, and became part of, buzz. They had nothing to lose by going to that club. If they didn’t like it, they could always go someplace else, probably in the same neighborhood. Manhattan has plenty of clubs.
The hope among winery proprietors is that they can use Twitter (and social media in general) to create this same kind of buzz–an energy that will send people flocking to buy their wine (hopefully direct from the winery, so they don’t have to deal with distributors). But I haven’t seen any evidence yet that this can be done. It was different with the night club. Clubs are driven by buzz, same way that restaurants are. Whatever club is the buzziest at any given time will get the crowd. And when it comes to creating buzz, there’s nothing like a celebrity endorsement. People have always flocked to clubs that had celebrities in them, from CBGB and Studio 54 back in the day to San Francisco joints like Infusion and DNA Lounge.
But how can a winery get buzz going? Can you think of a single instance? I can’t, and I’ve been watching this scene for a long time. I suppose in theory one could imagine a celebrity talking up a winery or a wine brand, and it could have a certain impact. Lil’ Kim sang about Moscato (“still Over In Brazil sippin Moscato,” from Lighters Up/Welcome To Brooklyn), and that, among other things, is said to be responsible for Moscato’s popularity, especially in the hip hop community. But let’s say Lil’ Kim’s lyric was, “still Over In Brazil sippin Fetzer Moscato.” Do you think hundreds of thousands of people would be out looking for Fetzer Moscato? I don’t. Besides, celebrities usually don’t mention specific brands unless they’re paid to endorse them.
Take it a step further. Let’s say someone famous with a high likeability factor, like Bono, tweeted that he liked Fetzer Moscato, and then, somehow, that tweet got retweeted so much that it became a trending topic. I suppose that would give Fetzer Moscato a certain boost. But it wouldn’t last for long. It couldn’t, because before long all the other Moscato producers would figure out what was happening. They’d hire their own celebrity endorsers, and the whole thing would become absurd. Either that, or the shelf life of such an endorsement simply would expire beyond a certain point, probably within a matter of weeks.
I understand the theory behind the night club tweet story. It’s an urban legend, simple to understand, and compelling. All success takes is a tweet; little wonder that winery proprietors are so enthralled with the possibilities that social media dangles before their eyes. All I’m saying is that so far those possibilities have not materialized into reality, and the logic of the situation suggests they’re not likely to in the future.
Last Thursday’s Times had two articles, one about how Heineken is aiming ads at young digital consumers, the other about ordinary people who are figuring out ways to make money from their blogs.
Considered together, the articles suggest that social media has entered an important phase that, just a year ago, would not have been possible.
Heineken’s story is interesting. It’s an old, mature brand. When I was an undergrad, Heineken was very hot and sexy. It was imported, upscale, one of the first aspirational beers. If you wanted to impress a date, you bought a Heinie–not Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
But Heineken “has lost some of its cachet,” admits a senior Heineken executive. It’s particularly lost traction in the all-important 18-34 year old demographic, which prefers American microbrews. How do you get across to 18-34 year olds, mainly men? You make a series of YouTubes that are commercials disguised as wacky videos: one that’s “about a young man on a wild date” and another “about a young man’s show-stopping arrival at a wild party,” as the Times puts it.
Young men! Wild parties! Dates! Heineken knows what’s driving this consumer market.
Here’s the link to the ad called “The Date.” It’s good, but even better is the video called “The Entrance,” which is so good, it gave me shivers. Who wouldn’t want to be that guy? He’s the coolest dude that ever lived. And with 3,652,601 views so far and counting, Heineken is obviously attracting a lot of eyeballs.
I have no idea if ads like these will help Heineken with Millennials and Xers. But advertising on YouTube is way less expensive than running comparable commercials on T.V., which young people are abandoning anyway, in favor of online.
Meanwhile, the other article, the one about bloggers actually making money (who woulda thunk?), will surely catch the eye of many who read steveheimoff.com. The recipe for success goes something like this, according to the bloggers the Times interviewed. First, pick a topic you’re passionate about and thus won’t get tired of. Then, be prepared to spend years building your blog. As you reach a certain level, start taking ads on a pay-per-click basis. Besides the usual banner ads, you can also have “contextual ads,” which are highlighted words in posts that link to a vendor. “A commission is paid on resulting sales,” says the Times. (Excuse me for a moment, I’m gonna go get me a refreshing can of Coca Cola and make a quick phone call to my broker on my iPhone.)
Other money-making strategies include charging for content, developing book deals and being hired to speak before groups because you’ve become so darned famous from your blog. And there is, of course, YouTube, which spices up any blog. So quickly is the quality of vlogging improving that YouTube itself is teaching vloggers “how to create a viral video, build an audience and bolster a brand,” says this article in yesterday’s Times. Last year, said a YouTube manager, the top channels on the company’s Partners Program (which teams up with vloggers) “generated 100 billion views and attracted millions of dollars in advertising revenue,” with hundreds of partners earning more than $100,000 a year.