Wine Vault gets an A+ in social studies

Screen shot 2009-12-14 at 12.15.46 PMJust over a year ago, The Wine Vault would have been categorised as your traditional, conservative, small New Zealand business. Its marketing tactics consisted of leaflet drops, direct mail campaigns, a monthly email to the customer database and a few fairly unsuccessful radio ads. But owner Jayson Bryant changed all that when he decided to dive head-first into the then-nascent world of social media retailing in New Zealand.

Since then, without spending anything on traditional advertising, Bryant says online sales and foot traffic for the Auckland store have increased by 20-25 percent. And now, after the success of his foray into the social media frontier, he proudly claims the company has committed to a “zero-dollar advertising budget”.

It all began last year when Bryant started filming video wine tastings and posting the reviews on YouTube and Viddler. He had seen the technique employed by overseas wine retailers but it had yet to be attempted in New Zealand.

In October this year, The Wine Vault TV website was launched, with the audience consisting solely of contacts made through Twitter. It now hosts almost 150 video reviews, which are advertised via Twitter, Facebook and the shop’s email database and it has so far had 50,000 views, with 80 percent of them coming from local consumers.

Despite committing to a “zero-dollar advertising budget”, he knows social media is not free. Time is money and for any small business hoping to leverage their social networks for financial gain, he says it has to be an all or nothing approach. As a result, he’s often dealing with customers from the moment he wakes up to the moment his head hits the pillow that night.

The many unknowns of social media are often daunting for small businesses concerned with return on investment and the bottom-line. But it’s not a short-term approach. Of course, social media can be used to get short-term gains and measurable results (for example, Grabaseat offering deals on Twitter or 2degrees quickly creating a lage community on Facebook), but to be successful you still have spend time building up the level of trust and, for him, “social media is a long-term approach”.

He thinks wine is the perfect fit for the medium because it’s “such a social product” and everyone seems to have an opinion on it and now, after building that trust, he sees his community as a group of business advocates; a network of unpaid sales people spreading the word about The Wine Vault and, by extension, New Zealand wine.

Social media is typically seen as a social and technological advancement. But Bryant also sees it as something of a regression, because it’s actually meant that customers are reverting back to personal connections; to a time when we actually knew the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. So, for him, it’s just a modern, digital spin on word of mouth and it also allows him to focus more heavily on customer service, which he thinks is an integral part of any service or hospitality business.

“Social networking has been around long before the internet. It hasn’t changed at all. It’s still about those personal relationships. The best relationships are the ones you develop online and then they come and see you in-store.”

He says a lot of small businesses worry about the numbers on their networks (in case you were wondering, The Wine Vault has 2,500 followers on Twitter, 400 on Facebook, 2000 on its email list and between 200-1000 people a day watching the videos), but he thinks it’s more about quality than quantity.

It’s also about using the whole social media toolbox, although each tool offers different attributes and so, needs to be used differently. He uses Twitter as an immediate customer service tool, because customers will often ask for recommendations and he creates different online videos for Wine Vault TV (five a week) than for Facebook. He also does a wine tasting show on Kiwi FM, which came about through social media connections, and he regularly holds social media wine tastings for his online communities.

“We end up doing marketing, really, not retail,” he says. “You have to tell your story in so many different ways.”

While e-commerce and social media retailing is still small in New Zealand, especially when compared to US and UK, he thinks New Zealand businesses are well-suited to the medium because Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, tend to suit scrappier organisations who aren’t trying to control what’s said about them like some larger businesses (added to that, he says customers tend to buy much more wine online than in-store).

He says Air New Zealand, Hello Social, Vodafone, Idealog and Orcon are good examples of organisations using social media effectively. But he says most traditional media outlets have continued to see it as a channel to spew out information, rather than engage with their audience. Ironically, he says talkback radio, which relies so heavily on audience engagement, fails dismally in this regard.

To Bryant, however, it’s not important whether customers are online or instore. They’re all customers. And social media is just a new way of dealing with – and attracting – them.

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