Let’s Be Clear about Influencers in the Wine World

wine influencerIf you spend much time around marketing types you can’t avoid the term “influencer”. Allegedly , it’s what all of us writers with social media accounts are striving to be. What is an influencer you might ask? Here is one definition from a website called the “influencer marketing hub”:

  • An influencer is an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience.
  • An individual who has a following in a particular niche, which they actively engage with. The size of the following depends on the size of the niche.

So “influence” is specifically about influencing purchasing decisions. This definition is followed by some corporate-speak which is enough to make you gag:

It is important to note that these individuals are not simply marketing tools, but rather social relationship assets with which brands can collaborate to achieve their marketing objectives.

WTF. A “social relationship asset?” A “social relationship asset” that “brands can use to achieve marketing objectives” sounds pretty much like a “marketing tool”. We can shorten this to just “tool”—that is what you are if you’re an “influencer”. Marketers seem to think that people who write and post on social media have nothing better to do than promote their products. I can only speak for myself but I don’t want to be anyone’s “asset”.

I seriously doubt that, in the wine world, bloggers, tweeters and Instagrammers are influencers as defined here. Former wine retailer Amber Lebeau wrote a post about this recently and I think she’s exactly right:

In over seven years working on the floor, I’ve never had a customer come in with a blog post, Instagram or tweet on their phone looking for a wine. Again, anecdotal, but that is the stark truth.

Amber goes on to list several types of people who do influence purchase decisions—friends and family, somms and restaurant by-the-glass programs, visits to wineries, and published media among others. Among writers, the large circulation wine magazines such as Wine Spectator and newsletters such as the Wine Advocate or Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages apparently have some influence. But this is a very small group whose words actually induce people to make specific purchases. The rest of us are doing something else.

The problem here is a conceptual problem. The concept of an “influencer” tries to shoehorn something as complex and multifaceted as human communication into a narrowly focused activity with a clear, instrumental payoff such as a “purchasing decision”. Wine writers, bloggers, Twitter publishers, and Instagrammers are first and foremost communicators. What they do is create discourse. They transmit information of all sorts, entertain, instruct, mark discoveries, give commands, cajole, mimic or confuse. They articulate, reinforce or undermine values, and most importantly, they establish connections, passageways that people can use to conduct life.

All of this communication is about influence of some sort—it changes minds, provokes emotion, motivates action. Purchasing decisions are only a very small part of this.

We create discourse because communities need communication to survive and individuals need connections to be, well, connected.  As writers we aren’t assets for individual wineries but web spinners and mesh makers, establishing connections, showing relationships, forging alliances, creating concepts of good and bad. It’s about establishing the background conditions that allow some wines to emerge as desirable.

If you want a handy marketing term to hang this on then think of it as creating “buzz”—a time worn term but still accurate.If no one is talking about your wine then it’s unlikely to be successful.

Once you instrumentalize this important work and reduce it to a purchase decision it no longer functions effectively as communication and begins to lose its community function. It’s purpose is directed away from its core function. Communication and the maintenance of discourse is not something that can be easily measured and thus will never appear to be cost effective. To insist that it must is to measure it according to a standard it cannot meet which will destroy it.

If you want a vibrant wine community we should put this concept of “influencer” in its proper place.

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