This past week, I sat on a panel organized by Dina Mande of Juice Marketing that provided information on the possibilities of social networking for other members of the Paso Robles wine and hospitality community. The three of us on the panel were chosen because we were early adopters of blogs, Facebook, and/or Twitter. The hour-long discussion began with a flurry of statistics showing the seismic shift in marketing away from traditional media toward social networking sites and I took my role to be give whatever "best practices" tips I could provide. I got lots of questions about how to integrate blogs and Facebook, how often to post, what kind of information to share, and how to find your voice.
A question I didn't get, which sort of surprised me, was "does it work?". Or, more specifically applied to a winery, "does social media sell wine?". I would have been interested to hear the answers that the panelists would have given. The closest thing to an answer (given to a different question of "how do I know if people are listening to my tweets?") was from Shannon Coleman of Lone Madrone, who said that she knew of eight or ten sales that were directly attributable to something she had posted on Twitter.
Eight or ten sales? At Tablas Creek, we average something near four-hundred direct sales transactions (combining tasting room orders with those we receive online or by phone) per week. That's thousands of sales each month, and somewhere near 20,000 sales per year. Eight or ten sales attributable to social media is a drop in the bucket.
And our experience at Tablas Creek would support Shannon's experience. In April, we offered a $10 shipping special, where we would ship any order, of any size, to any of the 28 states that we could ship to, for just $10. A few days before we announced this to our wine club, I posted information about it on our Facebook page, which at the time had some 800 fans. We received one order in the next 24 hours (about the limit of time that a Facebook status update stays visible to most people) and I'm not even sure that this was attributable to Facebook. When we sent it out to our wine club (about 3500 people) via email a few days later, we received over 100 orders in the next week. When we sent it out to our non-wine club consumer mailing list (about another 3000 people) we got another flurry of orders, between 5 and 10 each day for a week. Similarly, when I've posted about tasting room specials on our Facebook page and asked our tasting room staff to take note of whether that update has brought customers into the tasting room, they've generally reported at most one or two responses. And we have one of the larger Facebook winery fan bases at over 1100.
If your customers won't buy from you, maybe social networking sites are really best used for driving attendance at your events. Nope. Facebook event RSVP's are notoriously unreliable. There was a funny article about a year ago in the New York Times Magazine where author Hal Niedzviecki invited his 700-plus Facebook friends (many of whom he barely knew) to a gathering. 15 people RSVP'ed as "confirmed" and 60 as "maybe attending". Only one showed up. In a similar vein, last year the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers used their Facebook group to promote the 2009 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. We invited the roughly 1000 members of the group to attend, and received 57 "confirmed" as well as 167 "maybe attending" RSVP's. Eliminating the winery members who attended as a part of their professional responsibilities, I only know of two groups who bought tickets to attend the event who also listed themselves as attendees on Facebook... and one of those groups joined the Facebook group after buying their tickets.
It should be becoming clear that the strength of social networking sites is not in getting people to do things.
What social media does is protect a business's mind-share. Think marketing, not sales. No matter how pervasive a winery's social media presence, it will still sell its wine in traditional ways: at the tasting room, based on recommendations of restaurateurs or wine shop owners, or by referrals either professional or personal. What social media does is more subtle. Each day, your customers and the people who make up your distribution network make dozens of decisions about what to promote and what to patronize. And this audience, like the rest of the population, is getting an increasing share of their ideas through online interactions on social networking sites. The average Facebook user spends nearly six hours per month on Facebook, about 15 minutes a day. And with over 300,000,000 users, a significant portion of everyone's network is on Facebook. (Twitter, with about 25,000,000 active users, is far behind, but there is some evidence that this audience is skewed toward the "taste-making" segment of the population, including bloggers and journalists.)
So, a winery's efforts in the social media sphere will be rewarded by its followers accepting it as a more regular part of their lives, with all the benefits that implies. And while these benefits can be difficult for a business to measure, they can cumulatively be very powerful. Tablas Creek's fan list includes our marketing agents, export customers, distributor managers, distributor salespeople, wine shop owners and employees, restaurant owners and employees, and other winery-affiliated personnel as well as wine club members and non-wine club consumers. How each interacts with Tablas Creek will be different depending on their role, but in each case, being a regular part of their social network puts a finger on the scales in our favor. And, in the same way that, as a Facebook user, I find it increasingly difficult to keep in touch with my non-Facebook friends, each member of our fan base is gradually losing some measure of connection with other wineries who are not using social networking.
So, what are the lessons for a winery? Don't count on your social networking presence to increase your sales directly. Don't focus on promoting sales or events. Don't spend too much time marketing to any single affiliation in your user base. Instead, focus on broader topics that will appeal to a wide audience. Show your personality. Make your fans feel good about their choice of being your fan by sharing good news. Be responsive and interactive -- doing so makes it easier for your network to feel like their connection to you is reciprocated.
And know that what you're doing is a long-term investment. The tools may change, but the movement toward social networking -- on both a business and personal level -- is here to stay.