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Improving E-mail Ethics in the Wine Industry

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Fair warning: this article is going to be a bit of industry navel-gazing that likely holds little interest for consumers. Apologies in advance for anyone who showed up here looking for wine recommendations, which you can escape to right here.

There. Now that it’s just us industry folks, let’s talk about how the wine industry routinely breaks the law when it comes to e-mail, and how it’s time to clean up that act.

Having spent more than 20 years in the marketing and tech industry, I’ve done more than my share of e-mail campaign analysis, design, and implementation in the context of helping companies improve their overall customer experience.

From the basic principles of good customer experience, to the actual laws surrounding e-mail marketing, the wine industry as a whole gets a failing grade.

Like you, I’m also a consumer of e-mail, although in my case (across personal, Vinography, and design consulting inboxes) I get more e-mail than most. I haven’t kept strict count lately, but I’d say somewhere between 300 and 500 per day is probably a reasonable average.

More than a few of those are from the wine industry, and from the basic principles of good customer experience to the actual laws surrounding e-mail marketing, the wine industry as a whole gets a failing grade.

The Top 5 Email Marketing Mistakes

Here are the most common mistakes that I see wineries (and wine retailers) making every day.

1. Lacking Affirmative Consent

If I had a nickel for every time I had handed a Vinography business card to a wine industry person and then found myself on their marketing e-mail list the next week, I could retire tomorrow.

Simply finding out (or receiving) someone’s contact information does not mean that you can add them to your mailing list. According to law, the only times you can send promotional or marketing e-mails to someone (which includes offers of wine for sale) are as follows:

Most notably, and most problematic for the wine industry, is the fact that the above does NOT include someone having purchased wine from you, or in the case of us journalists, having been sent a wine sample by you.

Let me say that again just so it is 100% clear: the fact that a consumer has placed an order on your web site or has purchased wine in your tasting room does not legally provide you with what is known as “affirmative consent” to add them to your mailing list for promotional e-mails.

An online or in-person order only provides you with permission to e-mail that customer regarding that specific transaction, and by law, those e-mails must contain little or no promotional or marketing content.

The wine industry suffers in this domain from its lack of understanding and/or adoption of modern marketing and e-commerce technology platforms.

Here’s a textbook example. Five weeks ago, a small winery sent me an e-mail asking if they could send me samples. I said yes, and provided them with my mailing address. Two weeks ago, I began to get e-mails from their e-commerce system about “my order,” which made it clear that they had initiated a sample shipment to me through their e-commerce system.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. I wasn’t particularly interested in being notified when the samples had shipped or what the tracking number was, but hey, I can ignore those e-mails. The samples arrived, and all was good. But this morning, I received an e-mail thanking me for “coming by our winery the other day,” providing me with tasting notes on the wines I had “selected during my visit,” and providing me with controls to re-order any of the wines I really liked. I’d bet you $100 that I’ll get an e-mail from them when their new vintage is available for sale.

By entering me into their e-commerce system as a customer, I have been automatically subscribed to their mailing list. They may not even be aware that this has happened.

This poor little winery isn’t alone in having a technology system that has no way of differentiating between their best and most loyal customers and a random person to whom they have shipped a bottle, nor in lacking the operational processes required to prevent them from breaking federal e-mail marketing regulations.

2. Lack of Unsubscribe Controls

By law, if you are sending promotional or marketing e-mails to individuals (i.e. anything that isn’t solely related to a specific order or transaction – see affirmative consent above) you must provide them the ability to unsubscribe from further communications within the e-mail itself, usually in the form of a link where they can remove themselves from your database.

It’s shocking how many wine industry e-mails I get that do not comply with this very strict and unambiguous provision of the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act, 15 U.S.C. 7702(1).

The worst offenders? European wineries, and solely from my personal experience, those from Italy. This despite the (arguably) stricter provisions of the EUs GDPR regulations.

But American wineries, especially smaller operations, still regularly fail to provide unsubscribe functionality. This is an easy thing to fix.

3. Ignoring Negative Consent

Retailers are especially bad at this one, but wineries suffer from it as well.

I order wine online with regularity. I have never, ever, ever ticked the box during the checkout process labeled “send me updates and promotions” (and I always deselect it on those web sites that have it selected by default), yet more than 75% of the time, sometimes within hours, I find myself receiving promotional e-mails from those same retailers telling me about new wine offers.

The worst form of this, of course, is when the consumer requests to unsubscribe, and despite there being very clear controls to do so, they remain on the mailing list.

You must honor opt-outs and unsubscribe requests promptly and effectively. And you must test your websites and e-mail providers to ensure that they function the way they say they do, and that you think they should.

4. Ignoring Mobile Users

Even more shocking than the fact that people still don’t have their heads around how to let customers unsubscribe is the number of e-mails I get that look positively awful as I am reading them on my mobile phone (like 98% of the rest of the busy people in this world).

You must create your e-mails in a way that allows them to be read on a mobile phone. Full stop. Failure to do so is the marketing equivalent of making 3/4 of your bottles of wine impossible for your customers to open without having to go to Home Depot to buy a special tool that may or may not be in stock when they arrive.

5. Lacking An E-mail Strategy

The other day, in the service of an article I am writing for Jancis Robinson, I did something I rarely do: I solicited samples from a winery. I’m sure it will shock you to find out that after doing so, I have now started to receive wine offers from this winery. Sigh. I’m sure it will also come as a huge surprise that there is no link at the bottom of these emails to unsubscribe. Another sigh.

But the real point of this little anecdote is not to complain about being added to yet another dysfunctional marketing list. It’s that in the past 3 weeks I have now received, I kid you not, 14 separate e-mails from this winery, ranging from Thanksgiving greetings to new library releases, to holiday sales, to “almost sold out” holiday sale items, etc. etc.

I get it. Times are tough, and everyone has a lot of wine to sell, some of which needs to be sold to put food on the table, pay for salaries and healthcare, and keep the lights on.

These are, indeed, desperate times for many. But that doesn’t mean spamming the heck out of your customers is the way to go. In fact, looked at in isolation (as opposed to part of a broader multi-channel strategy) has become a decreasingly effective channel for driving e-commerce sales.

Customer expectations are different, of course, for retailers and wineries. Customers who deliberately sign up for retailer mailing lists may want and expect a much higher frequency of offers.

My own experience as a recipient of more winery e-mail marketing than I could ever desire (or asked for) shows that wineries tend to fall into two camps. Those who literally only send out two or three e-mails per year when they have a wine release to sell, and those who unfortunately resemble the producer I’m shaming without naming in the anecdote above.

Wineries, especially the small ones, are notoriously starved for time and resources when it comes to marketing efforts, but the investment in time (and outside help, if needed) to develop a true strategy of what kind of things you’re sending, to which customers, and when pays off in higher customer engagement, lower unsubscribe rates, and ultimately higher sales.

Not to mention a better brand impression.

As much as I like some of the wine samples that this winery sent me at my request (and my tasting notes and scores will reflect that) I feel like I stepped up to the punchbowl at a party to get a drink and after saying hi to the person standing next to it, they’ve not stopped talking to me for 20 minutes and show no signs of letting me mingle with the other guests.

Again, I understand everyone’s trying to move inventory, but in this case, I’m backing away slowly and hoping to catch the eye of someone I know across the room….

So How Big a Deal Is All This?

Violations of federal e-mail regulations along the lines of those outlined above can result in fines (up to $16,000 per email sent in violation of the law) plus jail time of 1-3 years if someone decided to bring a suit.

But, we might ask ourselves, how likely is it that someone is going to bring a suit against some little winery because they added them to a mailing list they didn’t want to be on, or because they don’t put unsubscribe links at the bottom of their e-mails?

A few years ago, I would have said, “never gonna happen.” But these days, I’m not so sure. I also would never have predicted that all of a sudden wineries would be getting sued because their websites are not ADA compliant. Yet here we are, with class-action lawsuits and some serious exposure in the industry.

Compared to web site accessibility, fixing problems with e-mail ethics is actually pretty straightforward and inexpensive. And one can argue that it can have a much bigger impact on sales and customer retention.

It’s time to make sure your marketing e-mails aren’t hurting your business. Times are challenging enough as they are.

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