There is no question that Steve Heimoff is a professional, extremely successful wine writer and critic. While I respect his decades of industry experience, his continual statements about the value of social media are not only ignorant but seemingly motivated by his desire to generate more web traffic to his blog. His obsession with the medium is not surprising, considering that online continues to erode traditional print publication and is evolving more quickly than ever in history. In fact, it constitutes a tremendous percentage of his blog posts (#2 only to wine). But what is grossly obvious is either his complete inability to grasp the transformational change of social media or his desire to evoke the ire of the Blogosphere/Twitterati/Facebook natives. A classic case of “flaming.“ After all, attacking the social ecosphere makes for good headlines and significantly increases the visitor traffic to his blog. His most recent blog post about social media and PR was the article that really clinched it for me, requiring me to step into the ring and declare that the “emperor has no clothes.”
It is no wonder that Steve is confused by social media. It defies definition. It is a content distribution channel, a customer service tool, a business intelligence gold mine, a public relations sandbox, a marketing channel, a business development well, a mass communications channel, and yes, a sales vehicle. It is all of these and none. It is truly the internet realizing its true potential. The real Web 2.0. What also makes it challenging is no one platform defines social media. It is not Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, WordPress, or Foursquare. It is all of them and more.
However, Steve intentionally refuses to see the multifaceted complexity of social media. He instead continues to “jump the shark” by downplaying the value of social media and refuting its value in sales, PR, marketing and more. He over simplifies it as nothing more than a vehicle to “enable everyone to communicate.” For such an intelligent man and solid writer, he often succumbs to the laziness of generalizations and hyperbole. I imagine Steve as perpetually living in the “Trough of Disillusionment” in the Gartner Hype Cycle, living there comfortably before the “Technology Trigger.”
Steve’s most recent blog post is supported solely by arguments that are reminiscent of the 1990′s. I feel as if I have been transported in a time machine to the days of Wineshopper.com, when I was equally as glossy eyed and ignorant. Phrases like, “I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.” Where does he come up with phrases like this? Where are his facts? I can tell you differently with REAL numbers. In the last three years, the wine industry went from virtually zero wineries actively participating in social media to over 3,500 US brands using various forms of social media (that is approximately 1/2 of our industry). Almost every major enterprise wine group has started developing social media departments (reinforced by one of his own posts).
Back to the point. The gist of his post is about the intersection of PR and social media and how it has not proven to be the panacea for transforming PR. Actually, that is incorrect. The facts demonstrate quite the opposite. PR, especially winery PR, has been a dying department for decades, as information overload barrages our senses and the internet disrupts the notion of “served media.” The consumer is in control of finding the information they seek, without the interference of the gatekeepers of traditional press. PR has devolved from an incredibly important function of Public Relations to Publicity and Press Releases. Nowhere has this been more true than the wine industry. Chasing critics and wine writers like Steve has been the sole obsession of our industry. So many wines, so few media outlets. Even when the internet was revolutionizing content portals for all other industries, the wine industry lacked a Huffington Post, Mashable or Techcrunch to disrupt the traditional wine magazines. They were allowed to be complacent and in fact, are no where near other traditional publications that have reinvented themselves to meet the needs of this new medium (imagine a Wine Enthusiast iPad app that could deliver relevant content a la Wired . . . probably more of a pipe dream than anything that will ever materialize). Social media has transformed that. It is an access point where there are no gatekeepers and a connectivity that allows true thought leaders to flourish. It is also the first time in history that there is MASS two way communication between brands and their constituents. The most equipped to handle (both in training and in time due to their diminishing perceived value) this activity was public relations. So yes, this is absolutely transforming PR and yes, any PR representative that is not on the bandwagon will be relegated to the pasture to deal with their “relationships.” What I mean, is that PR professionals that have friendships with Steve Heimoff and other incumbents will always have a place in Public Relations. There is no substitute for a real relationship. But the reincarnation of Public Relations that is occurring is a direct result of social media. Moreover, the role of Public Relations is bigger, more comprehensive, and more relevant than ever in the history of the profession. Earned media . . . that is the goal and that is the forte of true public relations. I can’t wait to share my thoughts on this topic during the class on Friday.
So Steve goes on to dismiss social media as a sales channel. What is a true sales channel anymore? Advertising? The days of the Nike “Just Do It” era are long dead. We are barraged with so much advertising it has become little more than a cost center. Public Relations? This arena has always been a soft “spray and pray” channel hoping for that one good article that hits at exactly the right time to the right audience. Direct mailing? If we get .05% to 3% conversion we are incredibly happy. Email marketing? We are at an all time high of 2.9% at the best benchmark of conversion. Events? How many events convert to direct sales? Even the traditional wholesaler “ride alongs” are laborious efforts with often little to no return. Steve has NO experience selling wine and doesn’t understand that a successful brand utilizes all of these and reaps the meager returns to aggregate the sales efforts that help make it profitable.
Furthermore, it is critical to understand that although social media is a one to many relationship, the sales occur on a 1:1 nature. It is more like the telephone than an email blast. It is more like a person across the tasting room bar than a mass mailing. Every meaningful interaction is still personal and one on one, and is exactly how wine has been sold for generations.
When Steve talks about the lack of success in social media for sales (and marketing) he ignores some major elements. First, the US wine industry lags almost a decade behind ALL other industries in our focus on the internet as a whole. I challenge him to show me a plethora of successful digital campaigns by wineries as a whole. In fact, I challenge him to name more than 20 major online campaigns from our industry. It is no wonder social media campaigns have not been identified as successful, there are very few companies even trying them. However there HAVE been few concentrated efforts against social media that illustrate our intent to continue to leverage this important channel. However, there are some shining examples of success for both marketing and sales:
Steve particularly dislikes the notion that Twitter sells wine by making statements like, “Now, I got my butt kicked all over Twitter for saying that Twitter can’t really help wineries in the only way they want and need to be helped–selling more wine. Some people tweeted the usual BS that I’m a dinosaur who doesn’t get it (interesting that these people who say I don’t understand social media don’t get a fraction of the readership on their blogs as I do! Not to mention my Facebook traffic which also is big)” and “But how can a winery get buzz going? Can you think of a single instance? I can’t, and I’ve been watching this scene for a long time.” This brings me to my last statement about sales with a focus on Twitter. What Steve fails to mention is that tons and tons of sales are being generated on Twitter for wineries. No mass coupon redemption nor campaign that converts thousands of orders in an hour but single sales to new customers, to existing customers, to restaurants, to retailers, to importers and to wholesalers. The sales are not actually (or very rarely) occurring on Twitter but often after the fact via phone, email, or an in person meeting. Wineries finding new customers one by one, with orders of varying magnitude, exactly as if that winery had taken the time to pick up the phone and call these same customers.
Social media is still evolving (here is a great video to glean better insight into the future) and we are still in the early days. His position as a thought leader and pundit increases his responsibility to understand things before making statements. He does more damage to the industry and to wineries by trying to dissuade the wine industry of the value of social media and Twitter. To me this was a seminal moment to just tell Steve “ENOUGH.” Social media is doing great things for the wine industry, we just need to learn to use it (all facets of it). Wineries that learn to understand social media (and digital in general) will have an incredible competitive advantage vs. those who still continue to throw bad money after good using the playbook from the seventies.
I am disappointed that Steve will not be able to attend Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis (you can sign up here). The digital future is now and I am hoping that many of the students will walk away with a better understanding of this brave new world.