Comment - Wine - Social Media: Does Twitter Chatter Equal Sales Patter?

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This month, Chris Losh looks at the role of social media in the conversation between producers and consumers, and concludes that talk on Twitter does not necessarily equate to buying more bottles.

There might, at first, seem to be precious little to link the head of BWS at giant US retailer Costco and a niched fortified wine tasting in London. But both have been rolling round the Twittersphere at the start of May – and taken together they reveal something quite instructive.

Annette Alvarez-Peters (of Costco) attracted (mostly) opprobrium for her assertion that wine is simply a commodity. "Is it more special than clothing?" she said on the business channel CNBC. "I don’t think so."

"Well surely," suggested the interviewer, "it’s different from toilet paper because it’s personal?"

"You could look at it that way," shrugged Alvarez-Peters. "But at the end of the day it’s just a beverage."

Cue predictable howls of outrage from furious wine lovers (and the wine trade) all over the planet, bemoaning (variously) Alvarez-Peters’ lack of knowledge, experience and passion for the subject. Though it was interesting that few had anything bad to say about the actual Costco range of wines…

At the other end of the scale, the Big Fortified Tasting in London attracted predictably delighted swooning noises from all in the trade who attended, with the various olorosos, madeiras and tawnies on show attracting the kind of eulogies normally reserved for dead royals. 

Just a beverage? Do me a favour. 

And yet, if you asked the average man in the street what they think about these two issues, I suspect that their opinions would be  180 degrees removed from most in the trade.

Wine? Sure, it’s good and aspirational and conveys a certain air of sophistication. But, for, I would estimate, over 90% of drinkers, it’s something that is chucked in the shopping trolley along with bread, spaghetti and, yes, toilet paper. 

Like it or not, for most people it’s just a small part of the grocery shop. Ask them whether it’s more special than clothing and they’ll probably agree with Annette Alvarez-Peters. In fact, a kiwi winemaker has recently announced that he thinks he’ll sell more wine to young people by dropping the ‘w’ word and calling it a ‘beverage’. Go figure.

As for fortified wine, however good the trade knows it is, the public (literally) aren’t buying it. Fortified wine remains the toughest of sells in both the on- and off-trade, pretty much all over the world. And, listening to the wine trade tweeting to itself about how many marvellous Sherries it had just tasted was curiously depressing.

The unifying factor in these two episodes is a sense of disconnection between the industry and the majority of its customers. We seem to have two groups watching the same play, but drawing very different conclusions. 

So, is there anything that can be done to bring the two sides closer together? For some commentators, the answer is simple: direct interaction with the public via social media. 

There are very few self-respecting wineries or brands now who don’t at least have a website, and probably some sort of Facebook or Twitter presence as well. Pinterest will surely not be far behind.

Yet, not everyone is impressed.

"The wine industry is doing terribly in terms of social media conversation," observed Rob McIntosh, a blogger and advocate of social media for over six years, on DBTV. "Most wine businesses are not used to talking to the consumer. They have always used intermediaries, whether journalists, importers, retailers etc. It’s getting better, but I really don’t feel that the commitment is there."

For sure, McIntosh has a point. As one wine marketer put it, "Social media is like owning a dog. You have to exercise it and look after it." There are, metaphorically, a lot of malnourished, flea-ridden canines in the online wine world.

Yet, even wineries that do commit to social media, such as Craggy Range, see limitations as well as benefits. "People were always talking about our wine before, the difference is that now we can hear them," says European manager, Warren Adamson. "But, you don’t do it for a commercial spin."

In other words, is what McIntosh sees as the industry’s luke-warm attitude to social media the reason for slow sales? Or, are negligible sales benefits the reason that the industry isn’t more enthusiastic in the first place?

Most in the trade think it’s the latter. "You can’t found your commercials on a Twitter and Facebook strategy," says Dan Jago, head of BWS at supermarket giant Tesco. "I get nervous when I hear that wineries are basing their strategy on social media."

If you want proof that big numbers of ‘fans’ doesn’t equate to big sales, you need look no further than the example of Stormhoek, which was billed in 2004 as the first wine to be created and marketed entirely on the internet. But despite hundreds of thousands of page hits each month, the business ran out of cash a few years later.

Jason Korman of Gaping Void, who helped generate the online noise around Stormhoek, suggests that timidity, not radicalism, was the killer, and that, when it comes to e-marketing, the rule-book needs to be thrown out of the window.

"You can do whatever you want with social Media," he insists, "but more of the same isn’t going to cut it."

The question is, how many wineries have the stomach for such radicalism, given what it might it do to their existing image"

Social media, of course, is incredibly young. Facebook is barely eight years old; Twitter just six. And, even the most committed wine companies have tended only to come to them over the last few years.

Maybe, after another ten years of listening, engaging and swapping information, the trade and non-trade will be closer to understanding how the other thinks. 

But is it, as some have suggested, a silver bullet for the sales woes of the wine industry? I seriously doubt it.

Sectors: Wine

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