One of the biggest voices in the wine technology space is that of Paul Mabray, CEO of VinTank and founder and former-CEO of Inertia Beverage Group.
Paul is truly visionary and far-from-shy about leading the way to develop, critique and implement ideas and strategies to improve the online wine world. Paul and VinTank are valuable partners of ours as well as close friends.
I had the opportunity to ask Paul a few questions recently and he stayed up way late answering them for us.
Paul, for wineries just getting started or ramping up their direct-to-consumer marketing plans, which key tactics should they prioritize?
I don’t want to start as a broken record but a plan is key. Strategic and tactical. However, the core of all DTC strategies should be customer centric. Google put the power into the consumers hands. Social networks put a megaphone and an interconnectivity never before seen in human history. Both positive and negative consumer reactions to your product can spread like flash fires. Being customer centric is part of the new world.
Relationship marketing: what are some simple, effective ways to provide personalized touches that can help deepen a winery's relationships with its customers? How does social media, location-based apps like Foursquare play a part in that? Anything in the pipeline that we should watch for?
There are many marketing components that Location Based Service (LBS) like BrightKite, Yelp, Foursquare, Gowalla, et al bring to a winery. But in the end these are just customer connection mediums (adding a new dimension of locality). This could include rewarding visitors when they notify you and the world they are at your location or give them recommendations when they go to other locations. They are just new methods to create deeper engagement with your customers. However, the first statement about whatever strategy or tactic you choose to leverage these platforms, your view still needs to be customer centric.
You recently tweeted that "Pro-direct doesn't mean anti-distribution" (something to that effect). Tell us more about that.
I’ll break this into two segments of direct: DTT and DTC
DTT provides a healthy route to market for small brands or products. It acts as an incubator for brand building. Remember, wholesalers provide a necessary service to wine brands that have good strong velocity and require high service. However, smaller brands (due to the total quantity worldwide of 55K) and due to the regulations of wholesaler being required to buy the products (no consignment). Excuse me while I geek out on wine industry dynamics and economics. Wine is a what we call a SUPER long tail industry (an amplification of the www.longtail.com theory) and only one of four consumer good package industries that has this level of different products (books, movies, music, and wine). We produce at least 250K different wine products per year and far more SKU’s than that (375 ml, 750 ml , etc). This SKU load compounds in the market vintage to vintage and remains alive three to ten years in the market (sometimes more). e.g. 3 years into the future times 250K products equals 750K products! Can you imagine a wine store with 750K products? Or go ten years into the future how about 3M? And unlike the other three super long tail products, who are increasingly being distributed digitally, wine is the only absolute physical product. You can’t deliver wine virtually. Ever. One other unusual aspect about the wine industry’s long tail is the price is not as normalized like other three super long tail products and almost has an inverse pricing structure to the demand curve. e.g. Kistler has far more carrying costs and inventory risk than Mondavi Woodbridge. In essence it is the prohibitive economics of wine buying in the middle tier that create dysfunction. Wholesalers can’t support the product load and would benefit from an alternative channel that allows wineries to build a trade customer base to a level that requires their support and doesn’t force them to take inventory positions until the winery has market penetration and awareness. DTT is key for the health of all tiers of the market. They provide that incubator and pressure relieve valve of product overload for wholesalers. They provide alternative route to market (even to the product level for wineries). And they give restaurants and retailers a more diverse selection to compete in the market to better distinguish themselves to the consumers.
DTC is over demonized by wholesalers. Remember that most consumers buy wine and consume it within 3 hours of purchase. DTC does not support that behavior. However, it does allow consumers to purchase wine they enjoy and if they are in need, they will buy within the local market. It builds awareness and customer loyalty as well. Wineries that have combined DTC and traditional distribution are stronger as brands and the wholesaler pull is better than those without DTC in the market. DTC acts as pull marketing due to the industry dynamics. Also DTC gives back strong margins to wineries to help them become and remain healthy companies. This health allows them to reinvest dollars into sales and marketing efforts THAT SUPPORT wholesalers trade efforts. Wholesalers, don’t you want financially healthy partners?
#NapaValleyTweetup: Tell us about it and how wineries can use tweetups in their marketing strategies.
Tweetups are an interesting marketing vehicle. They can work in many ways but here are two that are most easy to recognize. First, it is an easy way to not only speak with you customers, but to allow them to meet each other and talk amongst themselves. At its core it is community building with your brand as a key element. It is also very obviously a point of purchase catalyst for IN-MARKET as well as DTC purchasing. How else are the consumers in out-of-state markets going to get the wine to taste? The tweetup provides value at all tiers. The winery connects with its customers, creates sales catalysts, and brand equity. The wholesaler gets the benefit of in-market pull. The retailer gets the benefit of in-market pull as well as the opportunity to participate in the conversation with consumers (many theirs). And the consumer gets to interact directly with the winery & retailer, create relationships with other wine consumers, learn about wine and wine tasting, and enjoy an experience.
Which tactics do you recommend to increase a winery's online sales?
- Invest in the channel (human and financial resources).
- Create a customer centric strategy to SUPPORT your ecommerce and more.
- Choose your foundation of software partners wisely. The last one is key. Not only do they have to be aligned with your interests, they need to play nice in the sandbox with other best of breed vendors.
- Do not let accounting lead the reason for your software decisions. Let sales and marketing lead the decision.
- For larger wineries, make sure brand ALIGNS its interest with consumer direct. Most sites led by brand managers do NOT take into account web best practices (SEO, conversion, etc) that are healthy for both the brand in market as well as DTC sales.
How do you feel about wine product pages that feature consumer reviews? What do you say to wineries who are afraid to receive lukewarm or negative reviews?
I think consumer reviews are key for helping consumers overcome the friction associated with buying ANY item online. Per kiwitobes.com, and his class with former Chief Scientist at Amazon) Andreas Weigend, Amazon makes 20-30% of its sales from recommendations. Only 16% of people go to Amazon with explicit intent to buy something. If I were to learn something about e-commerce, I definitely would look to Amazon (I think they know a thing or two). The fear of a negative review is understandable and tactics and methods for addressing low reviews from consumers is as much art as science (no brand wants a product sheet filled with expletives). However, with proper processes, tools and company rules of engagement, even negative comments can be assets to create deeper customer engagement and trust.
Which areas of direct-to-consumer marketing do you see wineries struggling with the most? Why do you think that is? Your advice to them?
E-commerce, Social Media and CRM. It is not a winery’s fault, we just don’t have enough talent in those disciplines to date. Remember online ecommerce has only been really viable for barely 5 years (before that it was viable, but only accessible to 14 states). As a result it is also the least healthy DTC channel for wineries and thus, the least in importance for investment, resources, and understanding. Ironically it is ecommerce that gives the wineries a window to many, many more customers than a tasting room ever could. With the tasting you room you are limited by the amount of people that come to you. The internet gives you access to the world.
I believe the future of wine online starts with the wineries cleaning and solidifying the foundation of our houses. That to me means ensuring customer and product data are ready for tomorrow. If I were to ask a winery to do four things to ensure the health of their brand online it would be:
- Invest in the channel (I know I said this before but I can’t stress it enough). If you don’t feed it, it will never become healthy and flourish. For that matter, invest properly in DTC in general. It may yield less gross sales, but more than make up for it in net revenue.
- Create a customer centric strategy. Paraphrased from Zappos.com “One day, 30% of all retail transactions in the US will be online. People will buy from the company with the best service...” I know where I want my partners to be, on the winning side of that 30%.
- Put your COMPLETE information into yourwineyourway.com (for FREE) to manage your digital footprint. One place, 50+ outlets that you get to control the way your brand is being represented in the digital arena.
- Start planning your consumer CRM platform to support your consumer centric strategy. IMHO tomorrow’s future of our brands will be built on how well we understand our customer and create service that caters to their preferences while delivering great product. CRM is the foundation to build a customer centric strategy.
Paul, I appreciate your insights and candor here. As always, great info on where wineries should consider looking to increase their DTC sales. I really appreciate the time you took to share.