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An example of how social marketing works for a winery–maybe


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!

  1. I mostly agree with what you say. I have no evidence, in my experience, that suggests social media sells wine. I’ve tried numerous approaches. And I’ll try more. But it’s a big ocean of chatter out there and to break through can be expensive. I think any form of communication benefits. But a single taste says more than a million tweets.

  2. I agree that there is something fishy with the concept. I’ve seen home wine tasting parties advertised on craigslist and Facebook for a while, and event vendors pouring free wine in costco or a retail wine store, but that doesn’t necessarily bring them to buy. However, when I would be looking for a good priced wine at say Nob Hill in Napa, I have occasionally helped or recommended wine to some unsure buyers. Although I’m not weird and if you are bringing a wine as a gift or dinner party sometimes if you aren’t in the biz (I am) you just need a little advice. And I’m neutral, not even pushing my wine that isn’t on the shelf. So I think if you are not weird looking or trolling then its not a bad idea. If the store even paid the person doing 1 on 1 in the wine section it would probably be to buy value wines, but if you could push your own brand or pay someone to do it, that had skills and didn’t annoy or come across weird, not a bad ploy. Not sure of legality or if the store would accept or like it… Worth more attention though

  3. Steve, sorry, but we are worlds apart on this: “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.”
    Some of my “best” wine conversations take place with gregarious and extraverted wine-shoppers in supermarkets; seldom in NH are people so up-tight that they won’t give you the “time of day”, and quite often their opinions and preferences seem to give them great pleasure.
    When I was in California I did notice a plethora of panhandlers, but never in my 59 years in NH have I seen this in a supermarket.
    Also I don’t identify with you when you said: “You actually feel resentment to the company for being lazy and uncaring and unprofessional.” Not the best marketing, but resentment? Resentment leads to bitterness, bitterness leads to anger, and anger leads to. . .
    As I often tell my friends:
    Be good,

  4. I agree with Dennis, nobody has ever said leave me alone when giving advice in a retail super market or wine store. Perhaps at a liquor store in Oakland that might be the response.

  5. Dennis, this lady didn’t just strike up a conversation with a fellow shopper. We all do that. No, she was working the wine aisle, pretending to be a friendly shopper, when in actually she was working for the winery! Totally different situation. As for the “resentment,” maybe I’m more sensitive to un-updated websites than you are. I depend on them for accurate and timely information, and I suspect that lots of other people do, too. When a company doesn’t update its website for months or years, it tells me something about them–something that isn’t good.

  6. Mark, read my reply to Dennis. I’d like to know more about the Black Box lady in the wine aisle. How long was she there for? All day? How many people did she stop? Was anyone bothered? Did store management know? I am pretty certain that these supermarkets don’t allow just anybody to hang out in the aisles, working for specific vendors. I wish the Times reporter had gone into more detail.

  7. Steve, that sort of thing happens all the time in Colorado. In the big liquor stores, distributor reps work the aisles and they often do not identify themselves as ITB unless you ask.

    I also agree about wineries’ mistakes with not updating their online presence. No online presence is ok, but a poor online presences is even worse.

  8. Steve,

    I think that more detail on the specifics of what they were doing in the store and knowledge of management are key here. For all we know it could be a stunt to get the stores name in the paper as well. Free PR is always good. I understand the challenges of wineries and wine stores online that don’t update their sites as often as they should. I worked in a large retail store that had an Ecommerce website in Napa that just didn’t have the time, manpower and inventory system to be able to accomplish this very effectively. It was family owned and running on a very shoestring budget, i.e. too much to do and preferred that I be on the floor hand-selling than spending hours manipulating code and graphics so everything is perfect on the website.

  9. This is completely mystifying to me. “The company reports having about 850,000 agents at its disposal, allowing it to assemble groups based on factors including interests, income level, age, gender and location.” And what do the soldiers of this large army get for taking what appears to be a great deal of time pitching products? A few freebies “and the chance to have your opinions make a real difference. Yup, it’s good to be a BzzAgent.” Of course face to face peer recommendations are highly effective, but who knew it could be done so cheaply…?

  10. Tom, it does sound a little strange.

  11. NYT could only get this story from two sources. Constellation wouldn’t promote this, so the source is Bzzagent. This is just bzzagent doing PR to promote itself.

  12. Not the best NYT story ever.

  13. Is there any evidence to suggest that ads in wine magazines sell wine? I personally always liked the quote; “If you talked to people the way traditional advertising did, they’d punch you in the face”

    It’s the craziest thing to me, and I still haven’t been able to figure it out. Why is it that when people talk about social media marketing, they immediately ask for the ROI?
    What ROI does traditional marketing have?
    “Well 120,000 people buy our wine magazine/drive past this billboard every week…etc etc etc….”, is normally the response.

    I’ve seen countless examples of how a good social media strategy can help businesses market their product. Maybe you’re just not talking to the right people. Seriously.
    Steve, I admire you greatly; but if you don’t change your way of thinking in a hurry, you’re going to get left behind in the dust.

  14. Dear Kris Chislett, thanks. I’m not afraid of being left behind in the dust.

  15. \ˈspēk-ˌē-zē\ says:

    I once had a side job during the holidays to go to Costco and do nothing but stand in the wine aisles and push the living hell out of Constellation products. I can tell you it’s easier than it sounds, 90% of the folks who were buying had no clue and were buying on price alone, getting someone to change from one brand to another in the same price category isn’t much of a challenge – so to say that this is a form of social marketing and that it works would be a clear positive example.

  16. I used to work for this company….it is strange, and it definitely is underhanded. But clueless brand managers like to feel that they’re doing something different and cutting edge, without understanding quite what it is or knowing exactly what they’re measuring.

  17. Steve, Thanks for your post on the recent New York Times story on BzzAgent’s Black Box program. It has sparked a great discussion and raised some good questions. We wanted to share some information about BzzAgent, our goal, how the programs are managed and in particular, answer some questions about the Black Box case study.

    BzzAgent is all about increasing product discussions through our “Agents”. Agents are unpaid consumers who voluntarily sample products and are encouraged to spread honest opinions transparently. In the case of Black Box, the quoted consumer in the article is an Agent who participated in the BzzAgent social marketing program for Black Box. After hosting her own Black Box wine tasting with friends not predisposed to the brand, the agent provided BzzAgent with a detailed testimonial about her party and the positive impact the wine had on her guests. Because of the great detail she shared with our team about her product trial, we approached her about speaking to the reporter and she agreed.

    The Agent’s interaction with a customer in a retail store is not the typical way BzzAgent program participants share product opinions. Participants are not enlisted to stand in retail stores to discuss what they are sampling. BzzAgent encourages interactions to occur naturally with family and friends in-person and with followers across social media and product review sites online.

    We hope this answers some of the questions about BzzAgent and how our Agents share product feedback.

    Malcolm Faulds
    SVP of Marketing

  18. Like I said, mate; even though I find myself disagreeing with just about every other thing you say, I still have a huge amount of respect for you.

  19. It is reasonably easy to work out whether social media is driving traffic – just look at your Google Analytics. If you’re doing any it should be tagged in the traffic reports. And their should be a lot of traffic if you’re doing this in an informative way (not spam, not the meat either).

    It became easier last August to work out if social media is helping with eCommerce sales through a new report in Google Analytics called MultiFunnel. This shows waht sources a customer had visited through twitter or facebook before purchasing rather than just the last visit. The numbers on this are still low.

    The big problem is one of multi attribution – whether to attribute the sale to the last visit (direct) or previous visits from one of Steve’s great posts, 1WineDude’s tweets, Gary V’s old videos, or what your Mum said. The last one you may never be able to measure using Google Analytics unless they put a microchip in your Mum (I suggest this is a bad idea).

    Multi attribution has always been a problem that traditional advertising faced – which is why it uses reach and frequency in TV purchases, it can’t measure so it makes a best guess. We’re getting closer to making our marketing accountable but unless Mum gets a microchip we’ll never be perfect.

    But don’t give up on social media yet.

  20. Bob Henry says:

    Email marketing and its challenges . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (July 18, 2015, Page A6):

    “Clinton Faces a Steep Digital Hill;
    A supporter email list from 2008 was mostly obsolete,
    forcing her new team to hustle to rebuild one.”


    By Michael A. Memoli
    Staff Reporter

    Hillary Rodham Clinton wound down her political operation in 2008 with 2.5 million email addresses in her campaign database. Seven years later, when campaign officials turned on the lights in April, they were stunned to find fewer than 100,000 still worked.

    Campaign aides learned the bad news in much the same way a reunion organizer trying to reconnect with old friends might, albeit on a much larger scale: an inbox clogged with bounce-back messages on the day Clinton announced her campaign and sent messages to supporters.

    The huge attrition of valuable data is not unique to Clinton — A TYPICAL EMAIL LIST WILL LOSE 1 IN 5 SUBSCRIBERS EACH YEAR, said Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer for Fluent, which specializes in email list acquisition. . . .

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