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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!

  1. Hey Steve,

    Long time follower, first time response…

    When Instagram came out a little over year ago, what set it apart from simply posting an iPhone picture on Facebook, was that you could get creative with all of the Photoshop-esque effects… essentially making it more fun and interesting to post photos. Being one of the last people to not have a Facebook account (still don’t), I found myself liking the creative aspect of Instagram. Someone simply typing a sentence on their Facebook account that they are in Napa wine tasting, I could care less about. But someone posting a vintage-effected photo of a row of freshly pruned vines with gray skies abounding grabbed my attention and made me want to be there too. That being said, I’ve found myself getting more interested in wineries who post photos of their wines lives. Seeing the workers out in the chilly vineyards pruning, seeing the flowers on the vines blossoming, seeing berry set, veraison, seeing what 22 brix actually looks like to someone who might not have no clue, and then when they see it, say, “wow, I never knew a wine grape cluster looked like that, that’s cool… what winery was that again? I might have to go try and get a bottle.” While I agree with your point on society wanting things fast, so fast that we don’t want to read anymore… (which is a scary thought) I think the next generation still wants to be educated… and pictures just might be a way for wineries to get through to them in the “language” they know best.


    PS, when’s your next UC Press book dropping???

  2. “I don’t believe consumers are going to buy a bottle of wine based on the bottle’s appearance.” Really? It has been shown time and time again that labels are one of the most important factors in purchase decision amongst women and consumers with low confidence/involvement. It just so happens that those consumer segments buy the most wine. You are perhaps correct for the ultra-premium wine market (small segment), but not the bulk of the market.

    Why does WE charge wineries to publish their labels along with the review? Image is, or at least can be, more important for the wine industry than you think.

  3. As the switch to more visualization takes place across the social media landscape, I am experimenting with visual depictions for wine reviews. I believe wine can be image driven as well as data driven. What do you think?

  4. Pamela: I think Gary Vaynerchuck proved that a compelling visual personality can drive wine sales as well as online visits. That’s always been true of movies and TV. But not many people have Gary’s personality.

  5. Dear Keasling, no more UC Press books, unless they want to publish a collection of my best blog posts! Too much work for too little return.

  6. Been thinking about this myself lately. There are some blogs out there that are mostly posting pictures and while some of them are breathtaking it’s a little like someone bringing you an ashtray or key chain from their vacation. No real connection for the recipient, outside their connection to the souvenir giver…or picture taker, and for their to be a connection, in the social media arena there needs to be content. Kind of like when a sales rep brings me a big glossy packet of pictures of some Domaine in Burgundy or Champagne, sure it’s pretty but…well so what. When someone that has been there, or the winemaker/family come to see me with those same pictures, able to point out things and share, well it makes a huge difference.

  7. Balance in all things. Certainly words are not more important than understanding the place. This falls apart for many regions like Napa, when hundreds of similar producers, making the same wines, in the same style, occupy virtually the same space. But when the subject is say, Tablas Creek, understanding the sense of place is just as important us the words written about said place.

    In fact, Tablas Creek shows a strong understanding of this… strong visuals and strong words.

    Steve, some wineries do post pictures for the sheer enjoyment of sharing the things they love, not unlike you and Gus.

  8. doug wilder says:

    The widespread adoption of iPhone as a primary camera and image post processing/sharing device has changed how people communicate not only on Facebook, but also elsewhere. I have more apps on mine than I regularly use. In other words, there is a lot more capability than I have considered applications for at this time. The key to communicating effectively with pictures alone is finding a balance in how images are used. It isn’t the easist thing to define and is different for everyone. I will sometimes slip an image into otherwise white space, but not always. Like anything else, images and camersa are just a tool yet plenty of people are still using hammers when the job calls for a saw.

  9. I’m not worried about the future of words, nor the ability of wineries to put them to good use.

  10. Max Murrey says:

    The best part is that the 3 things you mentioned:

    – 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

    …can indeed be accomplished on a wineries’ instagram feed or pinterest boards. I strongly believe this. There are amazing , AMAZING things that can happen with these new tools IF you get the right person (with a vision) in control of the content that is being shared.

    Good shit though Steve, I respect your attention to the subject.

  11. Thanks Max Murray for being the first person ever to use the s-word on my blog!

  12. All over social media sites I see fewer words and more pictures and sadly believe it’s a bad development. The Northern Hemisphere has already dropped its level of literacy and now this new trend in social media can accelerate the spiral downwards, I’m all for “more words” and “less pictures” unless the pictures are illustrative in nature.

  13. i think if you’re robert mondavi or kendell jackson, than the photo phenomenon will probably not help you much. but if you’re a small winery doing interesting things, photos are one more way for your consumers to connect with you. its all part of building a brand, building an image, and giving your winery a personality

  14. I am not an expert on wines. I am a designer and completely visual. I depend highly on wines referred to me or I am one of the women spoken of above, who purchase wine from visuals and descriptive labels hanging off the shelf. But, there is something I am sensitive to, and that is the feel of the label and not just the image portrayed. A classic label usually attracts me by its typefaces as does the completely modern label from its color. Just like poetry, art can give the visual person a sense of something familiar or bring back a memory or even suggest a taste and then it becomes a powerfully useful ingredient in sales and promotion. So I might add, it’s not the grape on the label, it’s the rendering of the grape. Just like the header on your blog Steve, the grape eludes a mystery of art nouveau and new growth by the swirling colors. Even if a non-visual person might not be able to describe it, the effect still exists.


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