Influence, it ain’t all bad.

Since our migration from the plains of Africa, humans have influenced one another. The unprecedented growth of the internet has drastically amplified the reach of this influence, so much so that monetising one’s influence is now a sought-after occupation. But the associated title (Influencer) is loaded, overflowing with negative connotations. In the wine industry, individuals are haphazard labelled influencers, and their work, in turn, stripped of credibility. This is a HUGE mistake. Non-established new-age influence (when done properly) can, and does, work in harmony with established professional content to fill strategic voids. I think it is time that we drew some battle lines and recognised the roles we all have to play in this ever-changing industry.

These bloggers, I don’t agree with a lot of them, but it’s a lot of free thought, and if it gets you thinking about something, and for the first time I am seeing people disagreeing with somebody‘ – Fred Dame

In this article I would like to make the case that established industry professionals should consider two distinct trains of thought. The first being that we should more clearly, and carefully, distinguish who, and what, is an influencer. Considering potentially more appropriate terms for those of us more clearly seperated from this loaded term. The second, that new-age communicators are in fact able to play a fundamental role in telling the story of wine to new, existing and diverse consumers, particularly millennials, thus potentially bringing sizable value to the wine industry.

In order to avoid confusion, I use the term new-age and unorthodox throughout not to imply an outdated approach elsewhere but instead to refer to the more informal, primarily youthful (thought not exclusively) social media, sometimes fairly unaccredited, and blog-based communicative style currently trending outside of the established wine marketing narrative.

What exactly is an influencer? In response to a recent UK Wine Hour thread, which asked whether using ‘influence’ on social media platforms is a good way to go for wineries, a respondent declared it terrible. They referred to influencers as ‘fickle’ and a ‘bizarre cult’ whilst simultaneously hoping for more space for ‘genuine experts’

Weeks before I publish this post, a friend of mine was attacked on social media by a prominent figure in wine reporting. Her chosen method of marketing and choice of clothing the target of the comments. I myself have had my choice of marketing strategy and content slandered by a popular figure in wine, this unsubstantiated notion then propagated by a popular wine discussion forum both publicly and privately. This kind of behavior has become so common, that a movement coined #youcansipwithus, aimed at cutting out the ‘nastiness’ aimed so frequently towards new-age communicators, has emerged on Instagram.

One only need observe the vast hoards of ex-reality TV stars selling pseudo-scientific diet tea, and narcissistic YouTubers hunting for free food to know that online influencing is far from squeaky clean, but not all with influence are influencers. That is, if we are to adopt the somewhat negative definition that influencers are those who have converted influence to a profession opposed to being a byproduct of passion for product or industry.

The aforementioned plea for ‘more space for experts’ got me thinking. Who decides who is an influencer and who is an expert? When does an expert become an influencer? When is someone not an influencer, and instead, a communicator, blogger or translator? What is the role of an expert and do they, by nature of being a subject matter expert, leave unaddressed communicative voids that can be filled by non-experts?

It seems to be time that we collectively addressed obvious voids in wine marketing strategy, simultaneously becoming more astute in how we define individuals, opposed to simply brandishing them as influencers,. So often we do this without properly considering the impact of doing so, knowing full well the negative connotations of the term. It is my belief that by doing so we may better equip the industry to make use of untapped potential. New-age, unorthodox communicators who are able to work harmoniously with accredited, established individuals to more effectively broaden the communication of passion and information to new and existing wine consumers.

Tackling waning Millennial interest in wine is a puzzle that industry experts just can’t seem to crack. Amber LeBeau, of SpitBucket, recently pointed out that Millennials are indeed spending money, they just aren’t spending it on wine, primarily because they aren’t convinced of its value she posits. Meg, of Meg and Merlot, a marketing expert by day, recently developed upon this point, outlining messaging and marketing assets important to Millennials which the wine industry can, and should, capitalise on in order to tackle this waning interest. She noted information, visuals, accessibility, channel, and connection as being the most important marketing assets.

Another friend of mine, Charlotte Kristensen notes there to be very little communication to regular consumers, let alone millennials. A sentiment with which I firmly agree. Outside of the work of Olly Smith and Fiona Beckett, both of whose work I thoroughly enjoy, there really is very little far-reaching success to be found in the realm of enticing, engaging and educating regular consumers. This, is where ‘influencers’, or as I prefer to call people like myself, communicators (it is about time we made a clear distinction here) can play a pivotal role.

By day I am an engineer in the automotive industry. My wine journey began a little over 3 years ago, in January I begun to share this interest formally. Since then I have launched a website, and grown an Instagram which reaches 25,000 unique accounts per week, achieves 100,000 impressions and has a highly-engaged audience. Additionally I have recently begun producing video content, content specifically designed to be approachable and informative, spread across numerous platforms with a strategy differing for each.

I have been told that the content is easy to digest, is in tune with what each specific audience would like to know, is adding value, is not pretentious, and has encouraged people to want to know more. This is exactly how I feel about the content produced by many of those who inhabit a similar space to myself. And yet, I, and others like me, are labelled influencers, this by default making us members of the ‘bizarre cult’ defined by the respondent noted above, this label hinders our ability to contribute cohesively. By any set of standards, this seems to be both unfair and make little sense. After all, whilst being a Master of Wine is a title to behold, my colleagues in the motor industry care little about titles when deciding which Chardonnay to buy in Majestic, if I and others like me, are able to assist them, this can be only be a force for good. We all have a particular role to play in the value chain.

Remember all of those things that Meg told us Millennials respond to? Or that void that Charlotte spoke of? Furthermore, consider that VinePair notes there to be a vast disconnect between industry professionals and consumers. How myself, and others like me, are producing content appears to be ticking boxes with an array of varying individuals, many of them millennials. Many of us receive no financial incentive, and have have no desire to influence anybody. We simply want to communicate and encourage others to explore wine just as we have. If I have been able to achieve this moderate level of success in such a short space of time, consider the collective capability that I and others like me possess. Consider the problem-solving potential of this wealth of untapped new-age passion and desire to communicate, if only the wider industry were to evaluate the problems stretching the entire value chain and tackle them TOGETHER.

It is my opinion that in order to facilitate this shift toward a collaborative approach to wine marketing strategy, there are some fundamental changes which must take place. The approach of the new-age communicators must change, and so should the approach of the more established, accredited industry professionals.

What should the new-age communicators do?

Clearly define strategy & content – Define who you are, what your intent is, your USP, and how you plan to deliver this to your assumed audience. Once you have defined your strategy, ensure the content you produce is organised and easily accessible. For example, if your speciality is winery visits, ensure your website is easily navigable for travellers. If it is marketing in the wine industry, ensure every piece of content fits this narrative: consistency is credible. A clear, professional message is desirable.

Put value first – Avoid simply promoting anything that is thrown in your direction, in fact avoid publishing anything which is not congruent in someway with your predefined strategy. Even when promoting wineries, products or services, think about how you do this, think about how this fits with your overall message. The quickest way to erode ones credibility is to be seen as pay to play. Value and passion first, influence a byproduct. Create an experience for your audience, build layers.

Enhanced self-awareness – Some of the critique we receive is well-deserved. We must recognise when we stray from value-add, education and engagement to the realms of less professional and easy-to-criticise content. The truth is, this is unlikely to add value to anybody, new or existing, there’s little to learned about wine from selfies, right? Regularly assess yourself, have you strayed from your strategy? Would your content educate you if you were a potential consumer? Think about these things, close the gap, show credibility.

What can classical, established experts do?

Assess individually, take more care – As respected, knowledgeable and established industry professionals it is important, as I have argued, to make clear, well thought out, distinctions. To make vocal and public separations between oneself and others, without proper assessment, instead basing this seperation on predefined notions, is undoubtedly unfair. Broadly labelling those who adopt alternative strategies as influencers, knowing the negative connotations associated with the term, is detrimental and problematic. It likely discourages involvement, minimising the opportunity of the value which new-age communicators are able to add. Additionally, it does little to strengthen diverse relationships within the wine community, relationships which could be essential in further engaging new and existing consumers in as inclusive a manner as possible.

Beyond classical, diversify the allure – Accreditation is great, as is a classical approach. I spent many years working toward an MSc, I display my accreditation proudly, but it does not resonate with everyone. To those outside of my profession it means nothing. When I communicate with those people I must do so in a different manner, sometimes I struggle. Online communicators have the ability, when done properly, to effectively communicate information in a different manner to a varied, sometimes less formal, audience. Does this discredit established, classical professionals? Absolutely not. Instead, what it does do, is recognise that value can be added by a wide range of individuals and that marketing strategies should be all-encompassing and diverse, not confined simply to a more classic approach.

To conclude, I am not blind to the fact there exists a vast number of frankly terrible Instagram accounts masquerading narcissism as wine blogging with bottle porn and selfies. These are the wine equivalent of the diet tea selling influencers. However, it is simply not beneficial, nor fair, to discredit those adopting an unorthodox, new-age communication style in order to add value to consumers by brandishing them casually as influencers, falling by default in to a category tarnished with so much negative connotation.

Forever the optimist, I believe that by working together in a more cohesive fashion we can more effectively understand and subsequently entice, engage and educate new and existing consumers. Considering the changing demands of millennials, we can more easily translate the complex and beautiful world of wine, constructing a story and developing a wider strategy that places value at the forefront of everything that we do. In addition, we can better understand the gaps in the marketing strategy of much of the wine world, and with greater accuracy recognise how these gaps can be most effectively filled.

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