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A winery blog? Who needs it?

As the Tablas Creek blog has gotten more established, I've started to receive questions from other wineries about how to get started.  I have written posts on Learning How to Blog and on the (somewhat related) Usability Lessons for Winery Web Sites.  Still, reading a surprisingly pessimistic assessment of the value of winery blogs recently on Inertia Beverage Group's always interesting REThink Wine blog made me realize that while I've talked about how to blog, I haven't talked about when and even if to blog.  If you're a winery and thinking of starting a blog, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Do you have the time?  It's important to remember that blogging takes time if you want to do it well. I don't think that a winery blog needs to be updated daily or even every other day (does your business change every day?) but if you aren't prepared to write a finished piece at least every week, you'll probably find that your audience doesn't feel the need to come back too often.
  • Do you want to be spending your time blogging?  Writing is work.  Most successful bloggers are probably closet writers anyway, and are used to spending a part of their time sorting out their thoughts in writing.  You should figure that you'll spend a few hours, at least, on each post, and a similar amount of time replying to your users' comments and including yourself in other relevant conversations on other blogs.  If this is time you'd be spending on similar topics anyway, you're in good shape.  If you (or your boss) will resent the time it's takes away time from work with more immediate returns, you might think again.
  • Do you have a personality that you want better exposed?  I think that most successful blogs are a reflection of a specific personality.  Take Jeff Stai's "el jefe" persona from El Bloggio Torcido, or Josh Hermsmeyer at Pinotblogger.  A blog, with its first-person voice and interactive nature, is a great way to create a cult of personality around a winery person.  This is probably why they're usually adopted by smaller wineries rather than larger, more corporate ones.  If you don't have one person whose personality you'd like to shape the blog, you might struggle to find a coherent message.
  • Do you have patience?  A new blog's audience takes time to build.  When you start your blog, it doesn't have much presence on Google and other search engines, people don't yet have it in their blog rolls, and you should expect to take several months, at least, before you start getting much readership.  The first six months after I started the Tablas Creek blog, we averaged just over 14 page views per day and didn't receive a single comment.  Over the first year, we received a grand total of two comments (one comment from a reader and a response from me).  It can be discouraging to continue to write when you are pretty sure that no one much is reading, but it's that effort that allows you to build the foundation for success later.
  • Do you have other publicity for which you can repurpose your blog work?  We have a newsletter that goes out to about 9000 people roughly three times a year, and an email newsletter that we send out another two or three times a year that goes to about 5500 people.  The process of writing our newsletters has become much easier because of all the content that I'm creating on the blog.  It has also allowed us to replace a harvest journal that we used to put up onto our Web site during harvest -- contrast the blog-based 2006 harvest journal with the Web-based 2005 harvest journal.  When you know that the writing work you're doing will have multiple purposes, it's easier to justify.
  • Are you willing to interact?  A blog really only works when you can have conversations with your readers.  You have to be willing to not just allow comments that may not be wholly complimentary, but respond to them in a thoughtful way.  I am not suggesting that you can't review comments for appropriateness (I erased a couple comments recently that seemed to be written by an automatic engine suggesting that people try a Gallo wine on an unrelated post, and there's a great article on Bigger than your Head about someone who is using blog comments as viral marketing to shill a recently released movie) but you have to be willing to accept that conversations may take on a life of their own if you want to establish your credibility as a blogger.

Reading back, I find these criteria a pretty daunting list.  Don't let it discourage you.  The benefits of blogging, if you stick with it, can be substantial, and there must be many hundreds of wineries who could fulfill most of the above criteria.  Still, maybe this explains why while there are somewhere around 4500 wineries in the United States, there are (according to the Winery Web Site Report's list) just 99 active English language winery blogs.  And from glancing through them, less than half are regularly updated.  Do I think that wineries have great advantages to gain from a good blog?  Absolutely.  But it's worth knowing that it isn't necessarily the right marketing tool for everyone.