Falling sales. Widespread mildew. A decline in wine drinking. Could things get any worse for the wine industry? Why, yes, they could.
Social media, the main marketing channel for many small- to medium-sized wineries, isn’t as effective as it used to be. According to Search Engine Land, “social media as we’ve known it seems to be in its dying days” with engagement rates on Instagram declining for the third year in a row.
How should wine companies with limited resources navigate the changes—and should they even bother being on social media at all?
The new social media environment
Alisha Zaveri, Account Director of Integrated Digital Communication at Colangelo & Partners in the US says it’s not necessarily true that engagement is dropping. What’s happened, she says, is that the social media algorithms have changed significantly plus old content strategies no longer work. The things that attracted Millennials when they were young don’t work now they’re heading for middle age.
“Millennials are willing to spend a bit more money to have a better experience,” she says. “The way we’re communicating with them is a little bit more about the luxury aspect, whereas perhaps GenZ will be looking at sustainability.”
Stevie Kim, best known as CEO of Vinitaly, is the founder of Mamma Jumbo Shrimp marketing agency and a social media enthusiast. She says neither paid nor organic social media posts bring the returns they once did.
Posting the same types of pictures of vines and barrel halls as your competitor does not work.
Regardless, Kim says that social media is still a valuable positioning tool, as long as wineries post unique content. What she sees them doing, however, is posting the same types of pictures of vines and barrel halls as their competitors. Worse, they use one messaging strategy regardless of who they’re speaking.
“If you are talking to consumers, you have a different type of messaging,” she says. “If you’re talking to sommeliers, they want the storytelling they can tell their clients. So the big area we focus on is what do they want to communicate? Is it the wine or the person?”
Only then does she begin considering a social media plan, and only as part of a marketing plan. “Social media is a double-edged sword, because people think it’s free,” she says. “First of all, it’s not free, because you need somebody and the expertise to do it. It doesn’t do itself.”
Social media needs the right people
Kim says another mistake she sees wineries making is assigning the job to someone in the company who doesn’t want it. "That person who is an export manager does not want to do social media—he needs to do something else.”
Instead, companies need someone who is not just willing and able to take on the social media, but who can also understand analytics.
“The most important thing the company has to understand is the social media manager can’t work alone,” she says. “There has to be editorial planning, and it has to be decipherable by other members of the team.”
The social media should also reflect the company’s branding, from its website to its newsletters, so the whole company is speaking with one voice. “That’s why it’s important the social media person should be in house,” says Kim.
Which social media?
Instagram and Facebook: Video first
For many marketers, Instagram is now the first port of call. But German journalist and multimedia coach Bettina Blass says mastering Instagram isn’t easy. “You really have to do a lot on Instagram,” she says. “The problem is, you are always fighting the algorithm,” and to keep it happy, it has to be fed a constant stream of videos. “You have to use the right keywords and hashtags. The photos have to be really good.”
For low maintenance social media, Blass recommends Facebook, saying that—in Germany, at least—people between 35 and 70 use Facebook almost exclusively. “If you are doing Instagram regularly, you have to do video regularly. And that’s really, really difficult for a small winery.” Facebook, on the other hand, only requires photos and text.
“Facebook is very undervalued right now,” says Kim. “Because everyone is on Instagram now, [Meta, the owner of both platforms] is pushing Facebook. They’re giving you a lot more organic reach on Facebook.” She says that one of her posts achieved 8,000 views on Instagram—but 400,000 on Facebook, and it was all organic, meaning no payment was involved.
But, Kim adds, Facebook is also clearly trying to push users to post videos.
For those who can do video, she says, there are some advantages. When Instagram users post photographs, only their followers will see them. “So if you have 10,000 followers, it will go out to 10,000 people at a maximum.” If you’re lucky—it’s possible that only 20% of your followers will see it.
Reels, however, will be visible to people who don’t follow you.
YouTube: Getting Google on board
Kim recommends people consider YouTube, even though she acknowledges it’s difficult to get many views. “But she says that because YouTube is owned by Google, people who are searching for something often end up being directed to YouTube. “You have to be visible on YouTube even if you have few views, because when people search, that’s how they find you,” she says.
Google, Meta and Microsoft, which owns LinkedIn, are “not going to go away,” she says, which means wineries can be confident that they can build social media strategies around these products for the future.
TikTok: Alcohol not welcome
Everyone interviewed for this story, on the other hand, was wary about investing too much time in the social media sensation of TikTok. First, TikTok will censor any mention of alcohol. If there’s even so much as a wine bottle in the background somewhere, the video will disappear. Second, Chinese-owned TikTok is in the crosshairs of the US government and may be banned one day.
Kim says that if you do want to go ahead and use TikTok, “what’s important is that there is a face behind it. One face. This is why TikTok works so well for influencers, because it’s the same person every time.”
When to use influencers
Influencers, says Zaveri, have become so integral to marketing, that Colangelo’s wine clients are now allocating a significant percentage of their marketing budgets to them.
“Influencers have that audience that look to them for recommendations,” she says. “It is about the word of mouth where I trust you.”
Zaveri says Colangelo looks for influencers that have a 2% to 5% engagement rate across all posts. “We also want to work with influencers who don’t do a lot of sponsored content, because engagement is going to drop. The 2% to 5% is a really good benchmark to look at in terms of what types of content they’re putting out there and how much of it falls into their regular lifestyle.”
A wine-interested audience isn’t always the most important thing, because it might be hard to stand out to this group.
Zaveri says she researches influencers with Tagger, which offers data about the influencer and their audience, including engagement rate, location and demographics of their audience. “If we say a small winery is based in California and the distribution is predominantly in, let’s say, California, Washington and Nevada, we want to make sure the influencer is located in California, but the audiences need to be in those other states,” she says.
She adds that a wine-interested audience isn’t always the most important thing, because it might be hard to stand out to this group. Instead, connecting with a tech audience might bring better results—or partnering with a fashion brand, to connect with luxury audiences.
Making social media work
Zaveri says that where social media strategies go wrong is when they’re not targeted effectively. “Recently, a lot of brands are saying, ‘I put $2,000 towards my paid strategy, and it’s not working’. And then you go in and dissect it and you see that they spent $2,000 on one campaign with one wide target audience and one creative and one set of captions. That won’t work.”
Instead, the money should have been split across different campaigns targeting different audiences. “Each target audience needs three to four types of creative with a couple of calls to actions and copy captions.”
Kim says the call to action is critical—every post needs to prompt the viewer to do something, whether it’s to sign up for an event, or visit the website, which must be fully up to date. “You have to send them somewhere,” she says. “You won’t convert on Instagram. You rarely convert on Facebook. And Instagram doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to Meta. But you can make the conversion happen on your website.”
Polly Hammond, the founder and CEO of 5forests digital media marketing agency, says the only time wineries should invest in social media is if they’re new wineries seeking to build their brand, or large enterprise wineries with the budget for a comprehensive social media strategy.
“The goal of social media is to drive the growth of the social media platforms, it’s not to drive independent, individual brand growth,” she says. “The algorithms are constantly changing and so much of that is based on the kind of content the platform wants us to adopt, not what is most relevant to our business.”
Using social media effectively is a lot more expensive than people realise.
Hammond says using social media effectively is a lot more expensive than people realise, because “it’s not just posting. It’s following the trends, it’s understanding hash tags, it’s producing original and dynamic content,” and yet “we cannot attribute it, we cannot measure it, it’s very expensive to do correctly and, for the most part, it doesn’t result in sales”.
She adds that the complexity only increases once a wine enters international markets. “If you’re in 37 countries, who runs the social media? How do you handle different seasons in different hemispheres? Who is responsible for international compliance?”
Should wineries spend their budget and energy on building their email list?
Instead, Hammond suggests wineries spend their budget and energy on building their email list, as this will become a company asset that’s not dependent on the whims of social media companies.
Despite having qualms about small- and medium-sized enterprises investing in social media, Hammond says there’s one thing everybody should do: make sure you own all your own social media handles, whether you intend to use them or not. And make sure that the passwords are stored somewhere safe; losing access to social media because someone has left the company and taken the passwords with them is disastrous.
So there it is:
Keep social media branding unique but consistent
Engage the right influencers
Track the analytics
Customise the content for each audience
Keep wine bottles off TikTok.
Or do none of the above and let the social media account decay. Whatever path a winery chooses, one thing is certain: pictures of barrel halls won’t help.