Winery PR in a Pay-to-Play World

Where have all the Wine Writers gone?

I recently bumped into Karen MacNeil at the 8th annual Wine Bloggers Conference. She was scheduled as the keynote speaker. We had just arrived from Chicago into Elmira, a small regional airport that services visitors to Corning and the Finger Lakes wine region. While waiting for our bags we got to talking.

I learned that Karen will soon release the 2nd edition of her “Wine Bible.” It has taken four years to update and is very comprehensive. I asked her “How many ‘A List’ writers are still working today in the U.S.?” Her response was “Around ten,” which gave me great pause.

I took Karen’s response to heart and decided to do some research during the conference. With so few “A-List” print outlets sporting a wine columnist these days; to whom does a winery publicist turn to promote their clients? At lunch I asked Tom Wark, an industry commentator and publicist, and Bill Ward of the Minneapolis Star Tribune how many serious wine writers they thought were still around. Their consensus was about 30-40. The last time I checked, I was tracking 100+ “A List” writers in my database. But… come to think of it, Bill St. John of the Chicago Tribune retired; Jon Bonne’ is no longer at the San Francisco Chronicle (although still writing); and Katherine Cole is writing infrequently for The Oregonian. Whatever the number of pro writers may be, getting quality endorsements and media coverage has become more challenging.

So what’s a winery to do?

With wine writers dwindling and journalism moving from print to the digital realm, your earned media options (coverage, accolades, and endorsements) have changed. There are costs associated with gaining recognition for your winery, but think of it as an investment in brand building. Do it wisely and you will be rewarded. I’ve always been an advocate of taking a balanced approach – in other words not putting all your wines in one basket. Here are some Pay-to-Play channels to consider from most obvious to least:

o Advertorial – I’m not a big fan, but the lines have been blurred and we’re living in a pay-to-play world. Touring & Tasting Magazine is a beautifully produced publication that is unabashedly pay-to-play. You pay, and they will write an article with photos to be published in its glossy magazine. Many consumers realize this is advertorial, some don’t. There are many other print publications whose editorial and placement may be influenced by those wineries that advertise. Again, I’m not an advocate but this has become a reality.

o Competitions – I have to wonder about the popularity of wine competitions with consumers. Do medals hanging on bottles collecting dust really impress? Do they influence purchase decisions? It seems like some competitions are moving to pay-to-play and everyone-is-a-winner approach. Winning categories may include Platinum, Double Gold, Gold, Silver, Double Bronze, Bronze… maybe I exaggerate but you get the point. But really, would you hang a Double Bronze medal on a bottle in your tasting room? I can just hear the urban wine sophisticates now: “Is that all you got?”

To be fair, I think that competitions are a reasonable starting point for developing wine regions, or small fledgling brands. Judging at state fairs and local competitions will help weed out poorly made wines from the rest of the lot. As always there is a cost – to enter and to advertise your winning medals, typically by paying for label image placement on the competition website. In my opinion, this is not worth doing unless there is residual marketing value provided by the competition sponsors, and there are only a handful of decent competitions that do a good job of promoting award winners and have reach. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. They are good content for retailers to feature in signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall marketing plan.

o Wine Scores – Everyone wants to be highly rated by the “Big 6” publications, and the reach and impact can be significant. However, because of growth in the number of wineries submitting (Wine Advocate estimates 1,000 wines per month), it has become so competitive that some publications are screening wines prior to acceptance (current Spectator and Advocate policies). Additionally, getting an 88 or 89 point score from one of the “Big 6” wine publications used to mean something. Today, with score inflation to consider many wineries don’t bother to promote scores below 90. Scores of 92 or above are now considered achievements, but to stand out you probably should consider paying for label placement (if offered as an option).

o Online Reviews – Pitching your story and identifying and sending samples to national, regional and local wine writers is important, especially in those strategic markets where your wines are available. There are many print journalists now writing or doing podcasts for their own sites, and many more serious online writers to consider, including the “Wine Bloggers” community. These influencers are the largest and most approachable source for 3rd party endorsements. After all, quality writing hasn’t changed, but the medium has, and in this case the lines are blurred but in a good way.

Traditional print journalists and online writers are equally and simply wine writers. Do they have a palate preference for your wines? Do they have a story interest in your brand? Do they write often? What is their reach? If they have a significant following and can influence brand awareness and sales, are they worth considering? By my estimation there are 200+ such online writers worth getting to know who write about U.S. wines.

A note about the Wine Bloggers Conference – About 225 wine writers and industry folks attended this year’s conference. Over the years, the seminar topics and conversations have centered on questions such as “Are we bloggers or writers?”, “Should there be wine writing certifications for bloggers?”, and “How to monetize your blog?” Today we have several success stories of the more prominent writers getting assignments for print publications, being hired as writing consultants, or by wineries in marketing, etc. This is a serious wine community that has continued to gain respect, and will achieve future prominence as editorial continues to move online.

Proof of their commitment to wine is that most write despite not being paid. Find those that write well, write often, and have significant visitors to their website and social platforms. There is the cost of shipping your wine to consider, but this seems a reasonable Pay-to-Play scenario. Online writers must disclose that they have received samples, and will not write unless they are compelled by the wines or something in the media kit triggers a story idea.

o Onsite Visits – invite local and visiting wine media to tour, taste and interview a winery spokesperson onsite. Giving a writer or group of writers (organized Media Event) exclusive and private access is the best experience you can produce, and with the correct follow-up should result in some form of winery publicity.

o Market Trips – Tastings with local writers in your hotel room, their office or over lunch. Yes, there’s a cost, but why not maximize time in market when not doing ride-alongs with your distributor?

Although these channels for earned media have crossed the line (in some cases) to pay-to-play, taking a diversified and cost effective approach can make sense. Aggregate total impressions from a variety of different sources – did the media hits drive website unique visits, page views, sharing and comments? Track and determine where you are having success. Keep a running tab of media hits, reviews and accolades and the concurrent bumps in newsletter signups, social follows and sales. Eliminate what is not working and update your PR plan often. Compare your Earned Media results to Paid Media (advertising) and Owned Media (content you produce on your website, blog, newsletters and social media) to determine the correct marketing mix. As one of my clients is fond of saying “We’re in this for the long haul, and every little bit helps.”

In my opinion, the end-game for earned media is to substantially increase your winery’s visibility and sales by placing the winery in front of the media, which in turn will increase awareness of the brand to consumers, which will organically translate to increased sales.

CARL GIAVANTI has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery marketing and media relations consultant. Carl started by focusing on DTC Marketing for wineries 7 years ago, and formed a Winery PR Consultancy over 3 years ago (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media). Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.

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6 thoughts on “Winery PR in a Pay-to-Play World

  1. Really enjoyed this article. Being fairly new over the last few years as a wine blogger myself I found this industry very intriguing. I’m always looking for ways to network with folks and I truly enjoy writing my blog and for other publications as a way to educate and tell the stories of Italian winemakers that have a story to tell.

  2. From writer’s perspective, I would also add that relationship is key. Your suggestions are great because they provide an opportunity to develop connections. There are a few wineries that I have developed relationships with through events, online communication, visits, etc. and I would say that is a driving force to continue writing and promotions. Having good people on your team that enjoy connecting can be invaluable. The relationships are why I do what I do. And the wine is the bonus.

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