Monday, July 15, 2019

The role of Wine Influencers — more of the same

The experts are no longer just “in the stands”. These days, everyone’s a public expert, because social media (eg. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube) allow us to trumpet our own opinions to the entire world. If you happen to have thousands of followers, then you are also an Influencer.

This means that when LeBron James drinks a wine it will sell a lot better. The idea seems to be: “You may not be able to play like LeBron, but you can drink like him.”

To some people, this seems like a new phenomenon — a product of modern social media (eg. The LeBron Factor: who drives wine trends today). However, it is simply an extension of things that have always happened. For example, there have always been fads in personal names based on who is in fashion at the moment — virtually no-one was called “Kylie” until Kylie Minogue came along (see the Baby Name Wizard). The so-called LeBron Factor is simply a quick-acting version of the same thing.

However, given that LeBron seems to prefer cult wines, I suspect that he actually knows squat about wine, but is instead what we call a “label drinker”. This is perfect for Instagram, of course, since that social medium is all about pictures, and the only part of a wine that ever appears in most pictures is the label.

Wine influence

Where does this leave the wine industry? It leaves us with one version of the field of Influencer Marketing — a form of social media marketing involving endorsements from Influencers (eg. Influencer marketing is trending right now because it can work). You don’t put an ad in a magazine, instead you put a bottle in the hand of an Influencer. This could be cheaper, except that the Influencer may charge you more than the magazine ever possibly could. This is called Pay to Play, of course.

On the other hand, the wine industry is still pretty much where it always was, because we have always had what are now called Micro- or Nano-Influencers:
Social media marketing involving endorsements from influencers, people and organizations who possess an expert level of knowledge as well as social influence in their respective field.
The key difference here (Micro influencers on Instagram) is that:
Micro-influencers aren’t big-name celebrities that you’ll find in the tabloids. Instead, they are [people] with anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 followers. They’ve built their audience thanks to their niche knowledge and authenticity. Most importantly, their followers trust them and engage with them at a much higher rate than other [influencers]. Indeed, micro-influencers have been found to be among the most effective sellers on the market.
So, marketers may get better responses from sponsored posts when they’re published by Nano-influencers — they have a smaller reach, but their followers are highly dedicated.

Once again, there is nothing fundamentally new here. We have always had media personalities with wine expertise, and with many followers — in the old days they just used magazines and newsletters (and blogs!) rather than Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube. As noted by David Shaw way back in 1987 (Wine writers: squeezing the grape for news):
A wine writer is a physician or a lawyer with a bottle of wine and a typewriter, looking to see his or her name in print, looking for an invitation to a free lunch, and a way to write off the wine cellar.
The most famous and influential of these has been Robert M. Parker Jr, who was a corporate lawyer before he became a Wine Influencer. In another 1987 article, Shaw noted (Wine critics: influence of writers can be heady):
Parker is the most influential wine writer on any publication, by such a wide margin that there really isn’t anyone in second place ... Parker’s visibility and impact have been magnified far beyond that of his newsletter readership [The Wine Advocate]. Several other wine newsletters and newspaper and magazine wine writers also trigger consumer demand when they write favorable reviews, but none approaches Parker’s extraordinary influence.
Parker, himself, seems to have always downplayed his own role, at least in public, referring instead to his “alleged power”. He set out to be a consumer advocate (hence the name of his newsletter), but instead he became principally a marketing tool. I would find this annoying, if it had happened to me.

Anyway, there is nothing new under the sun, just new ways to do the same old things. There are a number of online lists to tell us who are the current wine Micro-influencers (eg. Here are some of the top wine influencers that you need to check out in 2019 ; Top ten influential wine experts in the beverage industry).

The consequences of influence

There have been recent media comments about the potential downsides of the use of social media for influence. Is this a new phenomenon?

There have always been questions about potential conflicts of interest in the wine media. Indeed, David Shaw’s articles quoted above were intended to reveal what was then presumably unknown to much of the reading public — many, if not most, newspaper and magazine wine writers were paid very little money, and relied on wine producers and marketers in a way that could easily be seen as a conflict of interest.

Shaw seemed to take it a bit too far, mind you, because he tried to apply what he calls “ethical standards” for journalists to a bunch of amateurs who were (and are) emphatically and self-admittedly not professional journalists. However, the debate continues (see Is “pay to play” wrecking wine criticism?); and wine commentators continue to be questioned about their real motives for writing about wine (and in the past people such as Nathan Chroman and Jay Miller have left their publishers, under a cloud).

To what extent, then, are potential conflicts of interest relevant in the modern social media?

I noted above that Pay to Play is an established part of Influencer Marketing. Indeed, a simple web search will lead you to several sites that list Influencers who are available for a fee. At least it is out in the open in this case.

Marketers come under the same scrutiny, of course. For example, some Australian wine companies have recently been accused of using social media influencers to promote their products without disclosing their sponsorship (Australian wine companies accused of influencing influencers). Clearly, transparency has always been the key when conflicts of interest are under the microscope. The attempts by the Australian wine industry to penetrate the Chinese wine market are well known, and this year they openly hosted a group of Chinese wine influencers in Australia (China’s wine imports continue to slide as Australia overtakes France).

There is also the matter of having too much influence. Quoting Shaw from 1987 again:
The major criticism of Parker is that he has become too influential, too powerful a force in the industry. Indeed, many wine makers worry that his influence is so pervasive and his preferences so clear — he generally seems to like big, robust wines more than lighter, more elegant wines — that he is influencing wine makers as well as wine buyers.
This level of influence has not yet happened in the modern social media.

Reactions to Influencers

One of the more pointed comments comes from Outwines:
Unfortunately, wine seems to be one of a growing number of subjects that an individual can “influence” and have minimum actual knowledge about it. Snap a ton of pictures with wine bottles and smile, make sure to comment constantly and generically on others posts (something like “That looks like some good wine!” or “I’ll have to try that!”), join multiple pods, and boom – you’re on your way to being an influencer. For those in the wine industry, some of these influencer accounts can be exasperating since they tend to focus way more on engagement as opposed to actual wine education or experience. In order to be a true “wine influencer” – shouldn’t an individual ideally have some combination of all three?
Indeed, a couple of years ago Miquel Hudin discussed Why social media doesn’t sell wine, suggesting that places like Instagram aren't particularly well-suited to communicating about wine education or experience.

More recently, Miquel also discussed the potential for fraudulent use of social media (How that “wine influencer” might very well be a fraud). That blog post engendered a range of quite strong comments.

Finally, there are extreme examples of what happens in the world of Influencers. For example, recently an Instagram “star” posted a suicide note online, which has lead to Denmark planning government regulation of Influencers. Sadly, the note apparently got 30,000 likes before it was taken down.


Perhaps this is all a storm in a teacup. A recent report notes: Sponsored posts from Instagram influencers are driving less engagement (engagement is measured by comparing the average number of likes on each Instagram post to the number of followers of the account). Maybe it will all simply go away again, like a fad. After all, there are other members of The real influencers of the wine world.


  1. From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (April 28, 2016):

    "The Growing Influence of ‘Influencer’;
    A social media byword goes back to Chaucer’s era"


    By Ben Zimmer
    "Word on the Street" Column

    “This word is revolting and must be purged,” wrote Greg Baumann in the Silicon Valley Business Journal two years ago, in a roundup of “the most loathsome business words in 2014.” The offending jargon? “Influencer.”

    “It’s fine as applied to people who actually wield influence,” Mr. Baumann complained. “However it has spawned a wannabe army of self-appointed experts who pen too-often insipid business how-tos. Can anything be done about this?”

    Bad news: In 2016, influencers are everywhere. On the professional networking site LinkedIn, a search turns up nearly 70,000 profiles with the word “influencer.” (LinkedIn is a primary culprit in propagating the term. Since 2012, its “Influencers” program has shared posts from such industry leaders as Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Arianna Huffington.)

    The situation is even more dire on social-media sites like Twitter and Instagram, which are full of lifestyle, fashion and beauty influencers, often joining with brands for “influencer marketing” opportunities. And as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, even stylish dogs can now be social-media influencers, or “dogfluencers,” for short.

    The influence of “influence,” from Latin roots meaning “flowing in,” goes back to medieval astrological thinking. Heavenly bodies were believed to emit an invisible fluid that would affect the fate of humans, streaming into their bodies. Chaucer wrote of the ethereal substance in “Troilus and Criseyde”: “O influences of these heavens high.”

    The word eventually got transferred to the invisible power that could be wielded over people in the material world. “Influence” often shows up in Jane Austen novels, as in “Emma,” when the title character wonders of her beloved Mr. Knightley, “When had his influence, such influence begun?”

    Influence found a more psychological footing with Harry A. Overstreet’s 1925 “Influencing Human Behavior.” Overstreet’s findings were put into practical use in Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

    Modern techniques of “influencer marketing” owe a debt to the sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, whose 1955 book “Personal Influence” laid out the “two-step flow” model of mass communication, with information flowing first to opinion leaders before spreading out to the populace at large.

    The influence of opinion leaders in the digital era can be carefully quantified in terms of their “reach” or following. As early as 2003, at an event sponsored by Procter & Gamble called Buzzpoint, marketers shared ways of getting their message out to key influencers.

    While prominent bloggers were the original online influencers, the rise of social media has allowed just about anyone with a healthy number of followers to assume the mantle. On the visual bookmarking site Pinterest, top users are called, naturally, “Pinfluencers.”

    The techie obsession with influence and “thought leadership” is certainly ripe for ridicule. As the Twitter parody account @ProfJeffJarvis, a spoof of real-life media pundit Jeff Jarvis, memorably proclaimed, “We are now in the post-thinker era. This new age belongs to a different group: the thinkfluencers.”

  2. Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal Online
    (December 15, 2017):

    "Social-Media Stars Are Turning Heads -- of Regulators;
    Regulators say financial rewards to influencers -- even if made without explicit demands in return -- can run afoul of deceptive-marketing rules."


    By Matthew Dalton
    Staff Reporter

    Influencers, the social-media stars courted by fashion, beauty and luxury brands for their legions of internet followers, are attracting a new crowd—regulators.

    These stars offer their fans on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms what might seem like unscripted glimpses into their daily lives, complete with products and brand mentions -- but sometimes without disclosing that companies have paid them in cash, goods or services.

    Regulators say such financial rewards -- even those given to influencers without explicit demands in return -- can run afoul of longstanding rules against deceptive marketing if they aren't disclosed. Authorities in the U.S., the U.K., France and elsewhere are policing social media to ferret out potential offenders.

    The Federal Trade Commission in September sent warning letters to 21 social-media influencers asking them to disclose any financial arrangements with brands mentioned in recent posts on Instagram.

    . . .

    With consumers’ eyeballs increasingly directed to social-media networks, brands are intensifying efforts to woo influencers with perks and cash. In return, brands expect influencers to trumpet them to followers, who can number in the tens of millions.

    Brands and influencers also have agreed on so-called affiliate marketing services, which allow influencers to earn commissions based on the traffic or sales that they drive from their blogs and social-media accounts to companies’ e-commerce operations.

    The FTC letters and responses were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Several influencers said they were unaware that their social-media posts risked violating deceptive-advertising rules.

    . . .

    FTC officials say that merely tagging a brand or business on social media is a form of endorsement that falls under its purview. Disclosure should happen, the agency says, if an audience would view an endorsement differently knowing that an influencer had financially benefited from the brand.

    While the FTC doesn’t dictate the exact wording for disclosures, it says influencers can write “#ad” or “#sponsored” in a social-media post to indicate a business relationship.

    The FTC is acting beyond the world of fashion and luxury. In September, it reached a settlement with two influencers who promoted an online gambling service on social media without disclosing that they owned the company.

    The agency can order brands and endorsers to surrender money made from deceptive marketing practices. To date, it has decided against using that authority in enforcement actions involving influencer marketing, the FTC’s Mr. Ostheimer says. Consumer advocates say that needs to change.

    “Until there are actual consequences for breaking this rule, I don’t think people are going to take it seriously,” says Kristen Strader of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group.

    To make disclosure easier, Instagram this summer rolled out a template for influencers that places the label “paid partnership” on top of a post.

    Mr. Ostheimer said the label isn’t particularly noticeable to a reader and that he has “significant doubts” about whether the Instagram disclosure was enough.

    Jessica Gibby, a spokeswoman for Instagram, said the template should offer “a consistent look and feel for branded content on the platform, which is good for every Instagrammer.”

  3. From yesterday's newspaper:

    "Online Influencers Tell You What to Buy, Advertisers Wonder Who's Listening"

    The Wall Street Journal front page - October 21, 2019