Social Media and the Wine Industry: A New Era

Ordinary wine consumers may want to skip this post.

On occasion I write purely for the wine industry, and today I’d like to address the role of social media in the wine industry. Whenever I write these kinds of things, I like to remind people that by day I run a company called HYDRANT that gets paid a lot of money to help big brands be extremely successful marketing, selling, and engaging with their customers online. In short, what follows below isn’t just random opinion.

Let’s be clear, first, what I mean by social media, a phrase that has become widely used but perhaps not fully understood by everyone who uses it. Social media are those channels of interaction on the internet where the public has a voice. Any outlet at which an ordinary person, free of charge, can say something, create a piece of content, react to something that someone else has created, or establish relationships with people and companies falls under the banner of social media. This, of course includes blogs and Twitter, and social networking sites like Facebook, but also bulletin boards and forums, location based services like Foursquare, image posting services like Instagram, and several other esoteric services.

Of late there have been a number of blog conversations about what wineries should be doing, if anything, about social media. Fellow blogger Joe Roberts, of 1 Wine Dude, wrote a piece entitled “Where Can Wineries Really Innovate? In Engaging the People Who Actually Drink the Stuff!” in which he accurately describes many wineries’ approach to social media as some combination of fear, scorn, exhaustion, or ‘can’t-be-bothered.’

Joe is correct to suggest that most wineries suffer from a deficit of consumer engagement in social media and are missing a huge opportunity as a result. This is nothing new, of course. The wine industry has been one of the slowest industries to adopt internet-based technologies, barely edging ahead of pawn shops, bowling alleys, and dry cleaners in having web sites, e-mail addresses, and actually using them both.

Even though those folks making wine are often farmers first, with little interest, and sometimes less ability than they might desire to engage with technology, that no longer justifies the lack of adoption that still plagues the wine industry. In an increasingly globalized world, where consumers are living, learning, connecting, and buying online, anyone who wants to sell a product in a competitive marketplace must be engaging their customers online.

As little as five years ago this wasn’t true. But the world changes very quickly these days. The problem is, reality doesn’t send you a memo before it changes. Just like it didn’t send the people who made Rolodexes a note about their impending obsolescence. But you better believe that one day, the folks whose entire livelihood depended upon people buying rolodexes saw the writing on the wall. Perhaps just before they smacked right into it. Wineries that fail to comprehend the way the world is moving will quickly find their customers hanging out with someone else’s bottle in hand.

And before you say (ahem, Steve Heimoff) that a great score from a critic can solve this problem, I urge you to look at the hundreds of deep discounting and flash sale outlets for wine, whose primary selling tools (for the bottles that wineries are shoving their way as fast as they can sell them) happen to be critics scores. If those scores were worth something, then wineries would be selling all their wines through traditional (read: non-closeout) channels, not funneling them to outlets where they’re lucky to recoup their costs. Sure, a 98 point score from the Wine Advocate will sell more wine than some outreach on Twitter, but this is the exception that proves the rule. If I had a dollar for every 94 point rated wine I’ve seen selling at 50% off its retail price in the last year, I could buy a case of Chateau Lafite.

For most wineries, points don’t sell wines, relationships do. Relationships with people, and relationships with brands. In that way, nothing has changed, and nothing ever will. This is the way that marketing works. But the relationships that customers have with both people and brands are overwhelmingly shifting to social media, and this goes for wine as well. It may just not feel that way to most wineries yet, in the same way that the folks selling Rolodexes thought everything was perfectly fine in the few days before the Palm Pilot (or whatever electronic PDA-thing truly rang the death knell of a six pound barrel of business cards) hit the shelves.

Which brings me to something called Vintank Social Connect. I spent a little time this afternoon getting a tour of this free web application that is now in its second or third incarnation, and I have this simple thing to say about it.

Are you listening wine industry?

Any winery in the world that does not have a free account on this service, and does not spend at least an hour or two every week using it, is dumber than a bag of hammers.

Vintank’s software offers wineries an incredibly sophisticated set of tools to monitor their brand presence in the sphere of social media, and to engage with their customers in this space.

The fact that this tool is available for free (and, says its provider, will always be free) is simply staggering. It may well be the single greatest gift that anyone has given the wine industry since the invention of the steel fermentation tank. I’m not kidding.

Outside the wine industry (i.e. many of my Fortune 1000 customers) pay thousands of dollars every month (gladly) for the kind of functionality that Vintank is offering every winery in the world for free. Forever.

So, what does it do?

Well, just imagine that there’s this huge nightclub, that can fit hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in it, and regularly does, night after night. And the only way anyone gets into this nightclub is if they can prove to the bouncer at the door that they enjoy and drink wine. Not so hard to do, right? OK. And then once they’re in, they can buy, drink, and talk with their friends about any wine in the world. Man, I want to go already, don’t you?. And then imagine every single one of those conversations they have, every comment they make, every joke they tell, every story they relate, is recorded and transcribed. And then magically, you get to read every single one of them that mentions you.

Wouldn’t you want to do that? Wouldn’t you want to know what people are saying about you and your brand(s)? Wouldn’t you be at all curious about whether people actually recommended your wines, or tweeted to their friends how much they sucked? Or want to know when a blogger reviewed your wine, or when someone complained on a wine bulletin board about an unusually high percentage of cork tainted bottles in their annual allocation?

If you answered no to those questions, then I can promise you that you will one day reap the bitter harvest of your own ignorance. If you answered yes, then you’re thirty seconds and a free online account away from having the answers to all of them.

Vintank’s Social Connect software mines millions upon millions of conversations about wine that take place in the social media sphere, and reports to you what people are saying about you and your products. It tells you who is saying it, where they said it, and helps you understand how influential those people might be. Simple as that.

It does a lot more, for those who want to dive into the world of Customer Relationship Marketing, but for many wineries, that may be leaping into the deep end of the pool too quickly. For most, it’s enough to be able to see what people are saying about you, and to respond. And that would be a huge leap forward for most wineries. A leap they desperately need to make.

I have no relationship to the company Vintank, nor anything to gain by making this recommendation, other than a desire to prod the wine industry to make use of technology trends that many other industries are embracing, and profiting from, much more rapidly.

Facebook will have its IPO in the coming months. As part of its filing, it had to disclose its financials for the first time, which included $1 billion of yearly profit, representing a net margin of around 30%. That is but a tiny slice of the value that social media is producing in today’s economy. Hundreds of businesses, some of them worth billions of dollars, have sprung up solely because of the functionality that Facebook has provided to the world.

It’s time for the wine industry to stop treating social media like a newfangled gizmo, and start doing business with it.

Sunrise image courtesy of BigStock.