Wine Tastings Through Social Media

In this industry, we all look for unique ways to create events that bring customers in the door. As a former Executive Chef, I’ve hosted a number of Winemaker Dinners over the years, hosted a sanctioned ten-block ice-carving competition on top of “On Golden Pond” in deep-freeze February and other creative ventures in efforts to increase visibility, reputation and volume.

Recently I stumbled across a gentleman down in San Antonio Texas, a Front of the House Manager with years of experience, who recently launched a virtual wine-tasting program. Billed as “Skype Wine Tastings”, I had to call…

Mark Fusco launched 1337 Wine in August this last year. We spoke at length on the phone and through email regarding his program. As we spoke, I wondered if a restaurant could organize informal wine tastings based on Mark’s programs; perhaps serving the wine while playing the video interview with the winemaker over a laptop (and maybe LCD projector?).

M Fusco

Here’s the interview:

Q: When and how did 1337 Wine see the ROI and value of using social media as a platform for “virtual” wine tastings?

MF: The idea originated some time in August as a way to be able to interview and taste wine with a winemaker from anywhere in the world with the least amount of investment for both parties. Especially for those outside of the United States. For the first one I didn’t need to make too much of an investment other than get a piece of software for about $35 that allows me to record the Skype video feed and have it as a side-by-side video.

Skype itself is free and if you are doing a Skype to Skype call, then that call is also free. I did buy a $50 USB headset after the first one to improve the audio since the bluetooth headset I used caused the audio to drop out occasionally on the recorded video. Most computers made in the past couple years should be able to handle a Skype video call good enough for this type of thing so you don’t need to really spend a lot of money on a computer. However, just like with anything involving video, the better your computer the better the result.

For the winemaker, the typical largest cost is sending a free bottle. Just like any review, they incur that cost if they have shipped something for review. But the idea of having something on video where you can see each party’s reaction is something different than just reading it. Also, for me it’s important that it is not edited so that there is no appearance of an off camera conversation in the middle of the review/interview.

As far as any ROI for me, there hasn’t been anything yet. I’ve only done the first one, but have at least 3 more planned. It’s really up to the winemakers at this point to let me know when they are ready. I have the wine from one already so that should be set up very soon. The future of it would allow a lower cost to me, especially for more expensive wines. However, my site is mainly for budget or value wines. And having more of these gets more “eyeballs” to the site of which some will check out the ads.

Q: How long and how complicated of an assessment process was it for 1337 Wine to arrive at a decision to use social media?

MF: This was a no-brainer for me. The day I thought of the name I bought the URL and set up the Twitter name that day within minutes of each other. I knew from the beginning that I would use Twitter as the main promotional vehicle for the site. As I got closer to launching the site, I also made sure to secure the name on as many other sites that were social media or other related sites. For example, the main site to host the videos is viddler.com. However, I do have an account on Facebook, YouTube, Veoh, Yahoo, Blip.tv, iTunes, etc. I’ve been involved with Twitter and other sites for a long time so I already had the knowledge of what was out there.

Q: Is social media paying off for 1337 Wine as a strategy? If so, any success examples?

MF: Twitter is by far the most successful medium for me to promote the site. I currently have over 3300 followers. Of that at least 75% are actual people that decided to follow me for some reason. The rest are either spam I haven’t eliminated or are accounts that I’m not sure if they truly follow me, or are just trying to get me to follow them – more on that later.

Most of my initial followers are people from my personal Twitter account that I’ve had since July of 2007, however I seek out those that are talking about wine by following them in the hopes of them following back. On average 19-20% of those I follow will follow back. For this I use a service called tweetspinner.com, which is the source of that 19-20% number. This service allows me to efficiently find people talking about wine via keywords and follow them. It also allows me to schedule tweets so that I don’t have to worry about tweeting when I’m busy with other things, including sleeping! Since I do have a small international audience, it’s important to send out tweets concerning new episodes when people on the other side of the planet are awake. These are probably the two most successful tools I’ve used.

Q: Did 1337 Wine try any strategy that ultimately proved not to work and was discarded?

MF: Yes. The two that come to mind for me are su.pr and one of the functions of tweetspinner.com. su.pr is what is known as a “URL shortener” that allows you to take very long internet addresses and shorten them to something like http://www.su.pr/jgjsk44 where that last part is a special name for that long address. You then post that URL on Twitter, Facebook, or any other place on the ‘Net to drive traffic to your site. The advantage of any shortener is being able to post these web addresses on something like Twitter where you are restricted to 140 characters.

su.pr is a service of stumbleupon.com. The service itself is very cool. You hit a “Stumble” button that will randomly send you to a website. You give it some criteria to hone in on websites in a particular category. Their URL shortener is supposed to help your website be part of their stumbles. While I had a couple successes driving people to the website, they were very few. I also felt that I wasn’t gaining anything as far as Google’s page ranking since they weren’t the actual web addresses. Part of what Google does is look for incoming links to your site to determine how popular it is. It is speculated that Google considers any tweet with a URL a link to a site. The jury is still out for me on that. What I do now is instead of posting a link to a specific review, I use the main web address in a tweet which takes you to the reviews page.

For Tweetspinner, they have an autofollow service where you follow other people’s followers or people they follow. In theory this is a good way to find people who would be interested in you. However, it really increases your spam followers. Even though you can instruct Tweetspinner to not follow Twitter users with certain keywords in their profile or tweets, you really have to manage it. And if you use accounts that have hundreds of thousands of followers, you will encounter a lot of spam. I try to cull my followers every few days to eliminate those that obviously are spam or have no interest in my tweets and are just autofollowing anyone that follows them. So instead of doing the following of others followers, I use their twitter account names as a keyword. So if they mention @garyvee, for example, in a tweet, it is a good assumption they are a real person that is not only follows him and likes wine, but would also follow someone like me.

Q: What are the networks being used and why?

MF: Here is the list of the main services/networks I use:

Twitter – I think I’ve already covered this 😉

Facebook – another way to reach out to people. Typically a different group that “don’t get” what Twitter is or don’t like it. It also allows you to really give someone you add as a friend a way to see if they want to approve your request. For Facebook, I “add as friend” anyone Facebook suggests unless they have no profile picture, a business, or a fan page. The exceptions to the last two are wineries, wine professionals, etc.

Viddler – the site on which I host my videos. Right now I have a free account. They have the most generous settings for free. Once I get to a point where my views get to be very large, then they will ask me to pay for it. They are a bit expensive, but I feel they have some of the best features and community. They also have a way to distribute your video as a podcast on iTunes, but you have to be at least a Partner which means you need a lot of views per month. They have a very customizable video player that you can embed on your website. They allow you to include a logo in the bottom right-hand corner.

YouTube – The 800lb gorilla in the room for video. If you don’t have an account there, you are being silly to put it nicely. They have loosened their file size restrictions, however, they still have a 10 minute limit (technically its 10:59). So I can’t use them to host every episode or SommelierSchool lesson as some episodes are over 11 minutes (I try to keep them around 7 since I only do one wine). Every “lesson” of SommelierSchool is at least 20 minutes long and typically 30-40 minutes so I don’t even bother with them on YouTube. Also, those lessons are intended to be only viewed on the website.

Tubemogul – I just recently found this via one of my long-time Viddler/Twitter friends. I could also include this in the success section for providing efficiency. It allows you to upload a video to them, then you can distribute it to over 20 video services. You need accounts on each of those services first, but now I don’t have to separately upload to each of them killing my bandwidth. Their Basic service is free and allows 100 distributions per month. After that you have to pay. I have the Basic service right now.

Blip.tv – Another must for video. Similar to Tubemogul in that it also aggregates your content, but it doesn’t require you to have an account on all of them. I use this to host my iTunes podcasts since it is free. I also use this one to send my videos to YouTube mainly because I went over my distribution limit with Tubemogul last month. I disabled my YouTube distribution via Tubemogul to ensure I stay under 100. All I have to do is go to Blip.tv (which got the file from Tubemogul) and click a button to send the file to YouTube. Since I go to blip.tv for every episode to look at stats, it’s no big deal to use them to send the video to YouTube.

iTunes – A great way to also get video (and audio) content in the form of a podcast out to people.

Tweetspinner – a great way to stay efficient with Twitter.

Ads – I use Google Adsense, Commission Junction, Linkshare, and Amazon for revenue. This has been the biggest disappointment so far and could also be put in the failures section. The idea is sound but everything except Google requires the person to click the ad (or item in the Amazon marketplace pages) and then buy the item. Unfortunately my visitors are not really doing this. Some are clicking the Google ads as they don’t have to buy anything, but I get credit albeit very little. What I need to pursue are actual ads from vendors that will pay me to put an ad on their site. I just need to pursue this with more effort. Another where you get what you put in type of thing. Right now ad revenue is not a main focus. Building viewers is the current focus since this is not my source of income.

Squarespace – This is the host for the webpage. While most people have heard of WordPress, not many have heard of Squarespace. What I like about Squarespace is that they have a fairly easy webpage design interface. It will let you customize their templates in just about any way you want. You can also upload your own webpage code if you are so inclined. It’s a bit more expensive, but the convenience outweighs the cost for me. 1337Wine.com costs me $12.60 per month in hosting fees. That is after a 10% lifetime discount I got from a coupon code from a technology podcast I listen to. They have more expensive plans that give to more and more flexibility, customization, bandwidth, etc., but I don’t need those.

Q: What recommendations would you give an independent or small unit operator in using social media to increase business?

MF: The two most important tools to help with this are Twitter and Facebook. In that order in my opinion. Also notice I haven’t mentioned MySpace yet. For what I do, I don’t feel MySpace is a good promotional vehicle. I think it’s an ugly site and poorly designed for my purposes, and in general. For Twitter, you need to do more than just create an account and post your specials. You need to engage with your followers. Reply to them, get involved with conversations with them, ask questions, etc. You only get out what you put in with Twitter.

Facebook is very similar. However, the advantage with Facebook is you can make it kind of like a webpage for you. You can fill it with a lot of information about your business. However, you still really need to engage with your “friends/fans” to be successful. Both of these can drive business to you for almost no cost. However, they aren’t a “set it and forget it” type of thing. You can utilize Tweetspinner to auto-tweet some things and have Facebook automatically post all of your tweets. But you can’t just put everything on autopilot.

Outside of those two if you want to do video, don’t host it on your website. Use something like Viddler or YouTube to actually upload the video file to, while using their video player on your website. You could end up with a hefty bandwidth bill at the end of the month if that video gets popular. Also, host Twitter events. Advertise twitter-only specials. Something like “mention this tweet to get 10% off.” A variation to this is using a text messaging service to do the same thing. I subscribe to a couple local places that send out specials via text. I don’t really know how that is done, but I imagine that if it’s not free, it’s at least inexpensive.

If you are interested in following 1337 Wine, you can find him here:

Twitter: http://twitter.com/1337Wine

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/1337WineTV

Web: http://www.1337wine.com/

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