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Social Media: Putting it to work for your business

Posted on  | January 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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As the Digital Age cranks up, wine & spirit industry players aim to keep pace. The operative question has become not whether to use social media, but how.

Like so many adages that survive from generation to generation, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is built on truth. The sun still rises in the east. Wine is still fermented grape juice and people like to drink it. Yet, when it comes to media, even if some stay-the-same things are not truly changing, they sure seem to be evolving faster than a bottling line. In short, media will always be based on the sharing of information, but fundamental shifts in how people give and get information about wine and spirits are too profound to ignore. After spending several weeks discussing the sprawling if nascent beast that is social media with members of both the wine/spirits trade and various media, here are some thumbnails that may help get a handle on how SM might be put to work for your business.

Social media as a concept means more than one thing. If forced to capture it in one sentence, I would say it is the tools and channels by which people publish, share and discuss content online. The tools include blogs, wikis, podcasts and sites to share photos, text and links to websites. Twitter and Facebook are considered the SM frontrunners in terms of scope and activity; however, SM reaches further still. Blogs are key; while they represent individual viewpoints, blog posts are quickly and easily cross-pollinated. YouTube counts as SM, as it is a platform by which videos are posted and shared. Ditto Eventbrite—the ticketing service which also enables sharing. Social communities devoted specifically to wine—namely Cork’d, Snooth and CellarTracker—are also very much part of the social landscape, with an emphasis on peer-to-peer communication.

Unique to SM, as compared with previous technology-fueled leaps, is that the delivery of a company’s message is no longer a one-way street. Advertising, PR, POS materials—all are tried and true, but all are “push” methods. Marketing social media is richer and more complicated, as messages are delivered in channels that allow and encourage feedback. At the U.S. Drinks Conference 2010 in October, Wine Library’s Gary Vaynerchuk (now better known as a social media guru than as a wine merchant) told a rapt audience: “Businesses are now allowed into the conversation. This is the biggest shift ever.” Future success, he said, will come to those who focus on customer relationships. “Consumers care about their online world,” said Vaynerchuk. “When you get involved in that world with your brand, you are ahead.”

One of the pitfalls of approaching social media too generally is to lose sight of how certain types of businesses need to use SM differently. While SM is global in its scope, a vast majority of wine shops and restaurants are keyed to local clientele. Blue Streak Wines, a small shop in Long Island City, New York, that opened in 2007, has managed to grow its business 50% annually during the Recession in part by gearing its online efforts to a frequently updated website and timely, judicious email blasts to its locally focused list. “We try to remind people that there is always something new going on in the store,” says Rob Bralow, events & promotions manager. By contrast, specialty shops and large stores that ship a good deal of wine should look to SM channels such as Twitter and Facebook to reach out for new customers.

Suppliers (importers, wineries, national markeing agencies) will naturally take a broad-market approach, aiming to reinforce and create relationships wherever their products are sold. Even distributors can and should embrace social media. The Charmer Sunbelt Group in the NYC metro area has taken a progressive two-pronged tack, according to Efren Puente, vice president, marketing. CSG’s Empire Merchants division has hosted two intensive symposia for retail accounts. CSG has also developed market-specific Facebook pages that provide a forum for the sharing of product information and local market promotions with consumers.

Social media’s combination of low cost and flexible reach has proven to be a real boon for the wine and spirits industry’s smaller players. This development bears relevance for individual suppliers and brands, to be sure, but perhaps even more so for wine regions where coordinated efforts can have an even greater effect because both the supplier base and consumer interest are broader.

Consider, for instance, Croatia. “Facebook and Twitter are fabulous tools for start-ups and underdogs to create a presence,” says Cliff Rames, who founded Wines of Croatia as a nonprofit in October 2009. “The best part is that these sites are free and just require you to be smart, creative and persistent.” Rames compares Facebook to “a nicely developed business brochure,” meaning it allows richer content, whereas Twitter is “a roadside billboard.” Tapping both, he has been able to draw more attention to the core of the business, the Wines of Croatia blog. The blog attracted nearly 15,000 views in its first six months; it also helped Rames develop enough industry support to merit the creation of a trade tasting in New York one year after launch, and has set the stage for a wine-tourism side business in 2011. Wines of Chile USA (3,652 Facebook fans, 8,663 Twitter followers as of October 2010) has used SM “to bring the full Chilean experience to life, not just wines,” says executive director Lori Tieszen. SM efforts embraced the Chilean miners’ rescue (Americans literally tweeted toasts with Chilean wine) and the February 2010 earthquake ($130,000 was raised for charity partner Levantando Chile). The group also conducted a series of themed tastings linking 50 bloggers and winemakers, moderated by Fred Dexheimer, MS, resulting in 32 blog posts and 275,000+ impressions.

Blogger outreach has also been a focus for the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, which has teamed up with Connecticut-based Brand Action Team for its social media agenda. “For Austrian wine, our ultimate focus is on Millennials. We work with a variety of social media platforms that are all integrated—our aim is to bring the content to where the consumers are, rather than asking consumers to come to us, i.e., our website,” says Constance Chamberlain, public relations manager at Brand Action. She notes that over the course of 2010 the number of articles per month at least tripled over 2009. Team Austria expects heightened exposure to continue in 2011, thanks in part to AWMB having hosted the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Vienna in October.

Applying both digital-based and traditional marketing efforts in a coordinated effort also has demonstrated huge potential for individual brands. Aperol, the best-selling spirit brand in Italy, is primed for major growth in the U.S. this year via a multi-channel plan coordinated by Palm Bay International Spirits with help from London-based creative agency Archibald, Ingall, Stretton. According to Palm Bay senior director of marketing, Stephanie Kubacki, through March 1st, Aperol’s “Start a Better Party” campaign is going to combine the power of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube with strong online advertising and both on and off-premise elements. “We are asking people to submit videos of their best party moment, which can be funny, inspiring or amazing,” says Kubacki. Consumers can enter at facebook.com/aperolusa or startabetterparty.com. The grand prize is a long-weekend, all-expenses paid party in Milan for eight people during Design Week. There will be a voting mechanism and ranking scoreboard for entries, so these will be passed on as entrants look to their friends and contacts to vote for them.

Of course, not every major import portfolio is investing extensively in every single brand. But many are taking deliberate steps. For example, Pasternak Imports has set up a Facebook page that covers its range of brands, and is testing Twitter support for the Argentine label Trumpeter, enlisting the aid of an outside agency to do the actual tweeting.

New frontier?
Going mobile.

Just when you think you have a handle on the SM thing, technology has a way of opening new channels of engagement. The next major shift, according to many experts, will be driven by smart phones. Pia Mara Finkell, associate vice president at CRT/Tanaka specializing in social media and communications for the Vibrant Rioja campaign, notes: “With 82.8 million people expected to be using in 2011, mobile digital marketing is very much on our radar and we are currently developing a mobile app for use in various parts of the Vibrant Rioja campaign. We’ve also participated in fun social media wine events, such as the City Winery and Wired magazine Spit ’n’ Twit event, and are integrating Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare elements into our annual Rioja Restaurant Week (May 13th-27th).”

Smart phones did not exist 10 years ago, so perhaps it can be argued that some aspects of social media are truly novel. Some other opportunities that are essentially uncharted territory:

Communal Days

A calendar day devoted to a specific wine is nothing new to those who peddle Beaujolais Nouveau, but social media has made cyber-celebrations a fertile new arena for group wine love. Among the wines getting special 24-hour treatment in 2010: Grenache, Champagne, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel. Spearheaded by consultant Rick Bakas during his stint as in-house SM guru at St. Supéry in Napa, the most successful to date has been Cabernet Day, which featured 700 registered participants, 75 meetups in six countries, nearly 9,000 tweets and 4,000+ Facebook posts. Designed to be generic, such days nonetheless offer opportunities for members of the wine trade at all levels to draw attention to their offerings within the designated wine focus. Looking ahead, the Thursday before Memorial Day is slated as the next Chardonnay Day, and the Thursday before Labor Day will be the next Cabernet Day.


More focused than communal days, tweetups are basically tastings where participants are encouraged to post their impressions of brand- or region-specific wines live on Twitter. The idea is to create digital ripples that start with but extend beyond the actual tasters. Last year, [Yellow Tail] teamed up with WineTwits.com to stage a multi-city tweetup based on a blind tasting of its Reserve Shiraz alongside other pricier Aussie bottlings.

Locater Apps

It almost sounds crazy to think that a click of a button or snapshot from a phone could help consumers zero in on any wine in their immediate area, but that is where technology is heading. From the supplier side, Grappos.com is apparently the leader. From a retailer standpoint, Hub.Snooth.com enables individual stores to upload dynamic inventory data that in turn lets consumers using Snooth to find real wines in real time in their vicinity.


This Digital Age wrinkle is based on the old-fashioned notion that everyone loves a deal. Groupons.com, with 15 million subscribers in the U.S., specializes in 24-hour deep discount offers (one per day, 50-90% off) at specific businesses in markets across the nation. Think of it as “loss leader” offers via the Web; it’s not designed to make the merchant profit so much as it is to drive fresh traffic. Discounts involving alcohol can be problematic based on state laws, but the potential is clear. Last October, for example, a “$40 worth of wine, beer, spirits and gourmet items for $20” offer by Schaefer’s in Skokie, IL, was snapped up by 2,997 Groupon groupies in 24 hours.

Personally, I don’t get Foursquare, the app that lets people “check in” using the GPS function of their smartphones. The app builds in gaming challenges that connect users to businesses—especially restaurants and bars—that essentially create rewards for patronizing businesses and sharing their experiences.

With social media being about as nebulous a practice as one can find in the business world, it is no surprise that it confuses many people. Paige Granback, manager of e-commerce and marketing at JJ Buckley, based in Oakland, CA, would tell anyone who is SM-shy that this seemingly scary stuff is really all about relationships. “I’ve used Twitter and Facebook for both brick-and-mortar wine retail and now in the online world at JJ Buckley, both with different target audiences and different results,” she says. “But the one constant between them has been the way social media creates and solidifies relationships within the industry. I could name endless examples from all aspects of the business—from production to distribution, retail to journalism, marketing to bloggers. Social Media doesn’t replace ‘real’ relationships, it creates them.”

Digital Dos & Don’ts

Big or small, wine and spirits businesses need to think of social media as a means of transmitting their particular identity and strengths. In other words, try to expose who you are and what you do well to new customers. Some important caveats in the process:

Don’t over-sell.
“Companies just can’t show up and start pushing propaganda and/or widgets,” advises Melissa Sutherland, brand strategist at The Spoonful consulting firm.

Be authentic.
In short, consumers who look to the Internet for information are keen BS detectors.

SM is no place for sporadic use. Look to monitor and utilize your SM channels of choice consistently, frequently and responsively.

Show your stripes.
If you’re in the game, tell people. Facebook, Twitter and other web coordinates should be treated as being as important as your phone number and address. Display them clearly in printed collateral and online
communication, including business cards, ads, in-store signage, emails and especially your website home page.

Be patient.
SM is built on relationships. Just like relationships in real life, don’t expect to measure success or failure quickly.


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