A great post by Meg Maker made me reevaluate the industry’s perspective on wine bloggers. I think it is worth a quick history lesson. Though blogs hit the mainstream in 2004 for the rest of the world it wasn’t until about 2006 that the wine industry discovered this new category of digital wine writers. In the beginning, it was mostly passionate aficionados and hobbyists. We struggled as an industry to understand if we should send samples to them, how they helped generate awareness, and many other issues. One of the leaders in engaging with bloggers was (and still is) Rodney Strong Vineyards, who blazed a path and realized the value of finding new outlets of brand awareness in an ever shrinking professional wine writer universe. Joel Vincent started the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2008 and we saw a surge in wine blogging. At one point we measured almost 500 ACTIVE wine bloggers that included not only passionate oenophiles, but also professional writers, wineries, “posers” and more. Wineries were also inundated with requests for samples since many “poser” bloggers realized you could get free wine. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it. Then, as a result of the abuse of many “mommy” bloggers, an FTC ruling in 2009 forced bloggers to disclose the source of all freebies, in an effort to curb the flood of paid-for reviews of dubious credibility. The decline of active wine blogging continues today, at the same time coupled with the ascension of some key wine bloggers into relevant wine writing positions (most notably Joe Roberts and Alder Yarrow) and the inclusion of key wine writers in the blogosphere (too many greats to name). Bloggers are no longer amateurs, and in an ever decreasing market for content, they serve an amazingly vital role for wineries. But we are looking at them in all the wrong ways.
We often try to put them in the box of comparison to the “Power Critics” (of which there are, at most, 25). Mainstream critics are declining in number, due to the elimination of many established wine columns in print publications (we’ve seen a major decline in the last few years); the competition from free content; and the unbelievable amount of wines we have in the US market competing for their attention. In addition, the decades of stories that have already been written about wineries, regions, and varieties make it a struggle to generate new and interesting content.
Let’s set the record straight, a blogger is not like a mainstream critic, EVEN if they are a mainstream “Power Critic”. None of them have the current traffic that equals the circulation of any of these power critics and it is unfair to try to use that comparison. Additionally, no blogger yet (with maybe the exception of Gary Vaynerchuck and/or Alder Yarrow) has been able to significantly “move the needle” like a write up in the NYT or SF Chronicle. But that doesn’t mean they don’t help sales, even if it is one bottle at a time. There are dozens of anecdotes, but here is a great one below:
PROOF a blogger can catalyze sales.
So what is the value of a blogger?
- In a world with fewer outlets to get press attention, bloggers provide a much needed medium to share stories about your wines, your winery, your region, or your varieties. Even if they have an audience of 10, they present your story to an audience that trusts them.
- You are able join the conversation. The beauty of blogs is that you are able to participate in the conversation and possibly convert some of their readers into customers.
- YOU (meaning wineries and wine retailers) are responsible for using their stories to help your brand. Who do you think made Robert Parker? It was YOU, the wineries, who distributed his scores to help create context for your wines to help retailers sell them. We as an industry fail if we don’t leverage blogger content to elevate our brands. Moreover, this content comes digitally and can be leveraged through various digital merchandising opportunities. WE FAIL if we don’t use their tasting notes, scores, badges, or whatever, not only on our sites, through social media, and in email and other communications with our customers, but also distributed to our retail partners on our sell sheets. A winery that really leverages blogger press is Cornerstone Cellars from Napa: http://www.cornerstonecellars.com/NapaValley.A great example of digital tools from bloggers that help lift sales are Joe Roberts’ ratings: http://www.1winedude.com/index.php/first-time-start-here/ and his Badges: http://www.1winedude.com/index.php/2010/08/25/the-otter-badgers-of-wine-reviews/. We have done experiments with scores and digital merchandising tools like these (an analogy would be a Gold Medal sticker on a bottle in a store) and we’ve seen a lift in sales from 10% to 30% vs. the same products without. We are still in the process of publishing our findings.
- Bloggers not only influence their small readership, but since they are so discoverable via search engines, they also help consumers who use Google to validate their sales choices. Imagine a consumer in a store looking for the 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc using Google. . . click here to see how many blog posts validate their choice. They have done such a good job working with bloggers that the reviews (and they are good ones) dominate the results below the winery itself. Moreover, if a blogger links back to your wine, it also helps your SEO rankings.
- A blogger’s influence extends well beyond the readership of his/her blog. Many of them are also active in other social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. This multiplies their sphere of influence dramatically. This extended influence is not something that many wineries consider.
- Bloggers DO influence sales, even if indirectly. The Twitter example above is one of thousands of examples. Another one can be found in the comments of one of our previous blog posts (http://www.vintank.com/2012/03/stop-measuring-vanity-metrics-measure-what-matters-instead/) where Craig Haserot from Sojourn Cellars bemoans that no sales come from social media and is trumped by four wine bloggers who demonstrate how they heard of him via social media, helped others buy the wine, and had even written about the wine: http://www.wellesleywinepress.com/2012/02/passionate-for-western-pinot-noir-this.html
- Wine bloggers are consumers too! Yes, they do rate wines (some that they have received free) but they also buy wine. Moreover, the number one catalyst for wine sales remains personal recommendations, and in their social circles (outside of the blogosphere) many of them are considered the “wine person.” They are often asked which wines they recommend. You can be sure that there is a correlation between the wines they write about and the wines they recommend and buy.
- Wine bloggers are a community we need to nurture. They represent tremendous value for our industry (we are scheduled to release approximately 150K wines in the US in 2012 and only 40K will be rated by professionals). But if we don’t work with them correctly, nurture their existence, and value their work, they will slowly vanish and this great resource will have been lost. The only ones to blame will be us, the wine industry.