WBC11: Breakout Session on Online Technologies & Wine

The first breakout session I attended at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference 2011 was about online technologies and wine.  On the panel was John Meyer, who started  started 9 Clouds in order to educate people about what online technology has to offer; Paul Mabray, who is the Chief Strategy Officer for the wine industry’s digital think tank, Vintank; and Philip James, who is Chairman and Co-founder of Snooth, which is a “web-based social shopping experience that is simplifying how people select, interact with, and purchase their favorite wines,” as well as President and Founder of Lot 18, a membership-by-invitation website that sells premium wine and epicurean products at discounted prices.

This was the breakout session I was most excited about, although the session didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  The session was entirely question and answer, so the people in the room that asked questions drove the topics of conversation.  Clearly, the aspects of technology that other bloggers find interesting are not the things that I was hoping to learn more about during the session.

Online Technologies and Wine panel

Online Technologies and Wine panel

That said, there were some intense exchanges between the panelists, such as one between Paul Mabray and Philip James over the evolution of flash sale websites and the ability of a flash sale website to offer luxury goods at discounted prices without “cheapening” the item or the brand.   As you will see from my notes below, Mr. Mabray is skeptical about the value of flash sales, while Mr. James thinks there is innovation happening that will differentiate the types of flash sale sites that Mabray references from the flash sites like Lot 18, which James thinks increases market exposure and helps the wineries and the industry.

I did walk away with a few nuggets of information for my own blog.  I was particularly impressed with the recognition of Alder Yarrow’s relationship with his blog readers.  Alder, who writes a wonderful blog called Vinography, not only publicly replies to every comment on his blog, but also sends a personal email to each commenter to thank him or her from commenting.

5 Highlights & My Thoughts:

  • Attendee Question—What’s the one thing that a wine site/blogger isn’t doing, but that they’re missing out on?
    • Paul Mabray: Differentiation.  Make it stand for you; make it special; find your “thing.”
    • Phillip James: I think it’s collaboration.  If you look at any blog that has scale, they’re not one-man armies.
    • John Meyer: Care about the audience and monitor it from a passion standpoint and from the analytics standpoint.
    • My thoughts: I take to heart both the importance of sticking to “my thing” and making sure that “my thing” is resonating with A Glass After Work readers.  It’s sometimes difficult to determine what my readers are most passionate about, although that is where the analytics help.  I’m dorky enough to find the analytics side of blogging fascinating, although I admit to not always knowing how to take that knowledge and use it to create more blog content that is focused on the wines or topics that seem to be the most interesting to my readers.  I wish the conference would have talked a little more about this, as I think it’s key to taking my blog to the next level.
  • Attendee Question—What do you think of wine being sold on flash sale websites like Lot18 and Cinderella Wine?
    • Paul Mabray: It’s smart for new brands and great during a recession, but it’s not healthy for well-established wineries because it usually doesn’t result in repeat sales. Maybray then surveyed the room.  He asked people to raise their hands if they had ever purchased wine from a flash site, and more than half the room raised their hands.  He then asked how many people ever purchased another bottle from a winery that they discovered through a flash sale purchase, and almost ever hand went down.
    • Phillip James: Small wineries will always have difficulty creating good distribution and finding people to carry the wine nationwide, so flash sales are not necessarily good for a brand, but a “private sale” for the smaller wineries can be good because it gives them broader distribution and puts the wine in the hands of new buyers.
    • My thoughts: Mabray and James clearly disagreed about the innovation of flash sites, the difference between “flash sales” and “private sales,” and the role that luxury flash sites can play in putting great wine into the hands of more consumers.  I was intrigued by James’ distinction in the types of flash sale sites, particularly as it’s a line that I’ve drawn myself.  I semi-regularly buy wine from Lot18, but almost never buy from the other flash wine sales sites.That all said, I’m not sure what the takeaway from the conversation is, but I thought it was an interesting.  From my perspective, I hope that wineries don’t shy away from using sites like Lot18 because I plan to continue buying wine through them.  I always purchase wine with the hope of falling in-love, and while that hasn’t happened yet with any of my Lot18 purchases, I have definitely had some very good wines.  Maybe the fact that I only am loyal to a handful of wineries makes me a bad test subject for questions of whether flash sites can help create winery loyalty.
  • Attendee Question—What can be done to build a blogging community and increase the number of readers that comment?
    • John Meyer: It’s hard unless people are upset or are trolls, but it’s important to create context within your community.
    • Paul Mabray: It’s your job to create relationships and grab your audience.  If you want to see why the older, more mainstream writers are having trouble, it’s because they’re not accustomed to having to go out and make friends.
    • Phillip James: Alder Yarrow, who writes Vinography, not only replies back to every comment in the comment section to start a conversation on his blog, but also emails each commenter individually with a personal email to thank them for commenting.
    • My thoughts: When James mentioned how things work over on Vinography, the comment in my notes was ”DAMN!!  That’s a lot of work, but that’s definitely being responsive!”  I always try to reply publicly to each comment, but have never sent my commenters an email.  It’s an interesting idea, though, and I’m thinking of copying it.  So, if you get an email from me when you comment, don’t be surprised!
  • Attendee Question—What do you see as the advantages of Google+?  How do you see Google+ working across generations?  My mom, who is almost 70 years old, is on FB.  Google+ may be difficult to transition to.
    • Paul Mabray: Google+ combines the best of microblogging and the passive, “I want to follow, but don’t necessarily want to share with” attitudes.  Plus, it has the foundation of the Google suite, so we’re foundationally already stuck to them, which is why they’ll be successful.  On Google+, I get to isolate the community…I can be open and broadcast or I can have a private talk.  It has all of the different pieces.  And, the math plays in favor of Google+.  This will be different from their previous attempts because it’s good.
    • John Meyer: TBD.  They don’t have social in their DNA.  Facebook has the social…they also have your data.  Google hasn’t had a homerun yet, so I want to wait and see.
    • Phillip James: It depends on who your audience is.  If you’re audience is younger, tech-savvy, or early adopters, then yes, Google+ is the way to go.  If your audience is older, FB and search focused, then Facebook is the way to go.
    • My thoughts: I was surprised that there was so much conversation around Google+ because I would think that it is difficult for bloggers to use at the moment.  I’m on Google+ through my personal email address, but since they have yet to roll out a business-type page, I haven’t made the switch for A Glass After Work.  There are definitely some interesting aspects to Google+, such as the ability to do group videos, as that could add a whole new level to virtual tastings.  However, I’m with Meyer in waiting to see how this unfolds.
  • Attendee Question—How can you monetize the blog?
    • Phillip James: “Sellout” means different things to different people.  Advertising?  Samples?  Paid posts?  Paid trips?  Ultimately, making money through ads without significant impressions is difficult.  Specialized advertising that is relevant, such as local stops that are not per-impression based, are probably the way to start.
    • John Meyer: Events and offline activity.  Take it offline and bring it to a conference.
    • Paul Mabray: Four conferences ago, this was a heated topic.  I don’t care how you make money, I want you to make money…just DISCLOSE how you make your money.  That is how you keep your reputation.  You’re dedicating a lot of time to this, so make money, disclose what you do, and if you don’t, don’t tear apart others who do.
    • My thoughts: Well, as you can see, there is no advertising on A Glass After Work; so obviously, I’m not making money through advertising.  I do have a Snooth affiliate that generates enough money to pay for the web hosting, but beyond that, I’m not making any money off the blog, and, at this point, I don’t have plans to change that.  I do accept samples and try to be very clear in both my policy and in my disclosure when I review a sample.  Ultimately, I write the blog for fun because I enjoy wine and want to share my experiences with others who enjoy wine.  However, I have no problems with any of my fellow bloggers for making money.  I wish them the best of luck in doing it! 

Question of the Day: Have you ever purchased wine off of a flash sale site (Lot18, Wine.Woot!, Cinderella Wine, The Wine Spies, Wines ‘Til Sold Out, Wine Shopper, etc)?  If so, which sites have you used?  Do you have a favorite?

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