Eight Tips on being a great wine writer – from Karen MacNeil

IMG_9563One of the highlights of this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference was the welcoming keynote speech by Wine Bible author, Karen MacNeil.  In her address to some 250 bloggers, writers, and wine industry professionals, she gave clear and concise advise on how to be your best self.

I’ll give you a hint:  Drink a lot of champagne!  Or, as Karen put it, drink a glass of the good stuff, every night.

But more importantly, how do you become even more successful as a writer and / or blogger?  That has always been an issue for many of us who have been blogging for a long time.  As someone who has been around the wine blogging scene since it’s early days in  2008, I am always asking myself how to be better, smarter, larger.  Better is an interesting word however, as the interpretation of the word can be fraught with misinterpretation and differing opinions.

Karen made several great points in her keynote, of which we can all interpret our own messages from.  Each one of us has to decide how to implement them, and what they mean to us.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Know your subject!  Whether it is wine, whiskey, or Winnetka, you need to know your subject.

This goes without saying.   There are plenty of blogs, websites, books, and so forth that are written well but lack subject matter expertise.  Clearly, most of us blog about wine for pleasure and passion, but take it to the next level and learn your subject.

After completing my Certified Wine Specialist credential this year, I’m constantly thinking about my next step in my wine education.  Whether that be another credential or a new book, when you stop learning, you die and become a dinosaur.

  • Agonize over your writing

This, I have mastered.  As many writers, I am my own worst critic, and often it takes me much longer to write a piece as other bloggers I know as I sit and write, rewrite, analyze, and consider each word.

  • What makes YOU is something important.  Be unique.

Remember, that you need to be real, and be authentic.  Your uniqueness makes you special.  Who wants to be like 100 other wine blogs out there?  While my voice may have evolved over the last 8 years, at its core, it is still the same Luscious Lush.

  • Practice, practice, practice

This is something I need to work on.  There are more ways to practice than by being a prolific blogger.  One way to practice is to find other forums, such as a writers group, or blogging circles that issue challenges.

I often shy away from the cliques or groups that do things together, but the more I write, the more I realize, it’s important that other people see my word and give me inspiration.  Are there writers groups that you belong to?  What inspires you?

  • Be a great writer, don’t be a serviceable one.

Because who wants to be mediocre?  Why not practice (see above) and stand out from the crowd?  There are literally thousands of blogs (and writers) out there that are mediocre at best.  Do you want to be acceptable, or do you want to be amazing?  The key to being amazing is to practice, and learn from other great writers.

  • Great writing tells a story.

If you want to be good, tell your story.  If you want people to engage, and stay engaged, tell your story well.  The worst posts that I read (of my own, and others) are those that don’t tell a story, or get to a point.  While blogging is a unique platform, it doesn’t have to be an excuse to not tell the story.  What was interesting about that wine?  How can you tell a story about that experience?

  • If you really know your subject, you can explain it in 17 words.  Writing tight and writing short are massive skills to have as writer.

This is challenge for me – as I strive to write the story (see above), brevity takes a leap off the cliff.  One thing that has been a great exercise for me is to start the skeleton of an article with 17 words, and then use those as a foundation to expand your story.

  • Feed your reputation

With today’s focus on social media, this should be easy right?  Wrong.  Feeding your reputation can be as tricky as feeding yourself a healthy diet – reputation is more than your social profile.

It’s a daunting task to be on top of social media all the time, and I certainly cannot maintain a constant presence with a full time job and other obligations to maintain.  However, keeping on top of your top social networks is key to feeding your reputation.

But, you need to build your reputation before you can feed it.  Networking with your local wine culture is one key to building a solid reputation.  Additionally, ensuring that your voice is constant, and true will help you build a solid reputation.  You don’t need to be a constant voice, but a clear and strong one in order to have a powerful reputation.

People often ask me how I became so “popular” as a wine blogger.  When I beat myself up and struggle to maintain a blogging schedule or traffic, I think – wait.  Someone thinks I am successful, because I am great networker.  Like any other job, networking isi a skill that has to be practices to be done well.  But networking is a key component in feeding your reputation.  Make it your business to make sure people who you want to know, know you – and for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons.

Once you build a reputation, feed it by participating in the community.  This includes commenting on other blogs (something I have all but given up on due to the fact that…well…the comment is dead), engaging on social platforms, and participating in events like the Wine Bloggers Conference, online events, and online communities.

For me, the Wine Bloggers Conference is an important networking event.  Yes, it’s partially summer camp, partially a high school reunion, and partially an educational forum, with a lot of wine thrown in, but at it’s core it is a chance for bloggers and writers to meet each other, connect, and engage with the wine industry.  For you, that might be the Wine Writers Symposium or a tasting group that you meet with every month. Whatever drives your success, participate, connect, and engage.

As I strive to get back in my game, I appreciate Karen MacNeil’s years of writing experience and her willingness to share them with a room full of (primarily) wine bloggers.  Those of us who write for other reasons can appreciate the solid advise that she offered up.  Primarily, Karen encourages us to persevere, improve, and keep learning; all life skills that I hold dear.  Seeking inspiriation, I am taking her words to heart and hope to spend the next eight years developing as much as she has.

Why your wine business needs CRM

I work in technology, but my heart is in wine. Every day I see things in the wine business that frustrate me; every day I see how archaic some things can be. The wine industry is notoriously behind the times when it comes to technology, and is even slower to adapt to new methodologies.

What are the reasons behind this? Part of it is certainly economic; however part of it is exposure.  As an IT specialist who spends 8-10 hours a day working in CRM and another 12 thinking about CRM and how to integrate with back office systems,  I spend my days working in CRM systems and designing solutions for a wide variety of companies. And yet, while there are a few key players that are opening their eyes to the value of CRM, the wine biz in general is lacking focus in this area.

On a daily basis, I see siloed, independent systems for finance, customer service, marketing, and order entry that make up a company’s operations.  Each of these systems is independent from each other, with unique data sets that may or may not replicate to the rest of the systems in use.  In the world of wine, for example, you might have your retail POS, a wine club management tool, and an ecommerce or marketing tool.  Switching between the systems is time consuming and clunky, as you have to periodically update tech data set and ensure that each system has an accurate record of your customer.

The need in the rest of the world for an integrated solution to provide the full picture is great. Companies not only need to see the full picture of the customer, but they need to see the full picture of operations.  The methodology behind a CRM culture (and we’re not just talking tools here, but rather a way of doing business), is that you get a full, complete picture of your customer at a glance.  CRM, or Customer Relationship Management, is the art of knowing your customer, and knowing how you can better service them.

Yet today, CRM is still a great mystery to many wineries.  Most understand that it would be helpful, but don’t understand exactly why, or how.  If you reframe what CRM is, you will begin to understand how powerful it is.  More than just software, it’s a lifecycle approach to marketing.  A winery that understands this, knows that CRM can help you develop targeted marketing messages to specific customer groups.  A CRM ecosystem can help your customer service reps receive and resolve issues quickly and effectively, maintaining an audit trail.  A CRM order entry system can track your customer likes and dislikes as well as past orders.

What does this mean for DTC sales?  Everything.  Imagine the power of a tool, and a mentality, that allows you to report at your fingertips.  What did Jane buy last month?  Are you trying to move more bottles of the 2009 Merlot?   Target your offer to those that have shown a consistent order history of merlot.  Conversely, target your offer to those that have never seen Merlot.  With the effective use of CRM based marketing, these efforts become dynamic, and your ROI can be tracked automatically.  The use of a  good CRM database can allow you to market in ways you never thought possible.  In truth, if you build it, and market it, they will buy.

Further expanding on the idea of ROI, there has been a lot of debate recently about whether you can measure social ROI.  According to Vintank’s Paul Mabray, ROI can be measured easily if you view it at a wide angel.  No longer is social ROI a one to one measurement.  If you are tracking the long tail of a marketing effort, the use of an effective CRM mentality will allow you to capture traffic on your website, and new lead management in one fell swoop.  Twitter and Facebook landing pages become information gathering tools that feed in to your CRM database.  Some more robust tools allow you to manage these campaigns and analyze the results from within the CRM system.  How many Facebook likes did you get this week?  This month?  Are you prepared to offer your twitter followers a special deal based on how many times they mentioned you?

Additionally, for any business to consumer company, it is imperative that you have an effective customer service system.  Email is no longer the tool of choice for issue resolution.  Do you have an escalation and resolution policy in your customer service department?  CRM tools that are customized to your internal policies will allow you to track, escalate and assist with resolution in a timely, pleasant manner.  Many tools come with knowledge bases and FAQ structures that you can populate for self service.  As a consumer, if I can answer my own question with a few clicks and suggested solutions, that makes me a happier customer, and gives valuable time back to your team.

But, at the heart of CRM, lies the contact manager.  The base of operations, the contact manager is the centralized database of customer information that allows you to manage customer information across platforms.  No longer do you have to update the customer information in multiple systems.  This is a huge win for a customer, as I have had personal experiences where my information is different for each of the different people I talk to at the same company.  This should never happen in this age.  A good CRM system has a customer portal that allows for self service; enter this portal, and you enter the world of the customer.  Can I update my own email address or subscription information?  What about shipping data?

But, CRM is not a panacea for all that is wrong in the wine industry technology wise.  Each system is only as smart as those that design it.  You need to choose the tool that is appropriate for your business, but you also need to instill a culture of CRM within your employee ranks.  Getting your data correct and maintaining it are constant battles in my world; the good news is, with technology, you can automate some of this.  Can’t ship to Virginia?  It’s easy to create a rule that states pick up only or customer not allowed.  Dummy proofing your system will allow you to give more power and confidence to your employees.

CRM offers a universal view of the customer, in as much detail as you want to go in to.  Do you have information signups in your tasting room?  Where does that information reside?  Can you automate that process of data gathering with a laptop or ipad instead a paper sign in sheet?  Having this information populate directly to your CRM database makes it instantly available across the company and therefore available for marketing purposes.  If you were a customer previously, that information will be available; this allows you to redirect your marketing efforts effectively.

The most important thing is that you have management buy in, and a good business analyst to determine what your true needs are.  There is nothing worse than walking in to a system that has been designed without forethought or intelligence, and trying to use that system.  Can you leverage your current tools to make CRM your operating philosophy?

So, to recap, why should the wine industry adopt a customer relationship management philosophy?  We all know it’s a tight market out there.  How do you plan to sell more wine this year?  How do you plan to segment your customer base?  Too many times do I get emails from wineries that don’t know my needs or wants.  Why aren’t you paying attention to me as your customer?  You know I bought 5 cases of pinot last year, so what are you doing with that data/ world of the custom?

  • Integrated database of customers and prospects
  • Full service 360 degree view of your customer
  • Develop more targeted marketing efforts
  • Have the power of analytics at your fingertips
  • Gain insider knowledge about your customers based on existing data patterns
  • Integrated POS, eComm, Marketing, wine club management
  • Customer service at your fingertips, including self service
  • Measure ROI for marketing and social media marketing campaigns

What CRM tool you use can be as critical as if you use CRM at all.  There are dozens of choices out there, and reasons to choose many of them.  What is important to your business?  Do you need to know more about the existing customer database?  Do you need to integrate with your e-marketing tools already in place?  Do you want to analyze social ROI?  Ask yourself these questions and look to some solutions.

Many of the existing eCommerce and POS systems have some form of built in CRM functionality.  Will that suit your needs, or should you consider growing beyond those solutions?  What information do you need to gather to make informed marketing efforts?  Can you make those decisions now based on the information you have?

There are so many options when it comes to selecting the right tool; there are tools that integrate with Gmail.  There are cheap tools that stand alone.  There are full service tools that can be developed in to literally anything you desire, beyond CRM.  There are tools that integrate with POS and eComm solutions seamlessly.

The most important thing to remember is to view the future, and don’t box yourself in.  The biggest mistake that I see in my job is that a choice was made years ago without the foresight to the growth of the business.  Moving from an outdated system that is inflexible and locked down to a flexible, growth oriented system is a painful process that can cost thousands of dollars.  On the flip side, you can start with a cloud based CRM tool, using strictly basic functionality, and grow that in to a full service ERP, CRM, and marketing machine.

So, where do you want to go?

Have questions?  Want to know more about CRM for your business?  Drop me a line and let’s see how I can help rocket you to the next level.

Lessons on being a better blogger…writer…or whatever

Wine:  The final frontier

These are the voyages of the Wine Brat, Thea.
Its 5 year mission (yep, it’s true.  I’ve been blogging for five years!)
To explore strange new wines
To seek out new bottles and new producers
To boldly go where no wine blogger has gone before.

These are the voyages of a wine bloggers writer and lover, trying to discover more about herself and her passion for the grape.

Recently back from a weekend in Virginia at the Wine Bloggers Conference, where both New York Times wine critfc Eric Asimov and London Financial Times wine writer Jancis Robinson gave a key note speeches, my thoughts are jumbled and varied as I think about how to be a better blogger.

Both Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov challenge the word, and somewhat the concept – of blogger.  Is "blogger" still really a valid term?  Bloggers are wine writers who chose to publish on line.  Traditional print media authors choose to publish on paper.  Writing is what brings us all together, today.  Love, true love (of the vine).  I am still getting used to this idea.  I am a proud blogger and I like to refer to myself that way, because if I call myself a wine writer, the mass public naturally assumes that I write for a publication.  Perhaps we should be called "online wine writers".

As wine writers, Jancis challenged us to do more investigative research before we blog.  Er write.  While the core value of this makes sense, I question the validity of her challenge; I am not a journalist, nor do i wish to be one.  While the most successful wine bloggers (not in terms of making money but in readership) have similar core writing styles, none of them assume or claim to be journalists.  Nor do I.  I try to be accurate and truthful in my writing, but in the end – my blog is just my blog, and musings of what I feel like talking about.  one of the major reasons that I decided not to pursue writing with an online wine magazine was because I didn’t want to be subject to the editorial rules that come with being a professional writer.  I write this blog so I can express my  thoughts in a meaningful way, and I hope that you enjoy reading it, and share with others.

One vital point that Jancis made during her speech was that writers, print or otherwise, need to sit up and take notice that while the book is not dead, the delivery method of the written word is changing.  Online, kindle, ebook readers, print, newspapers, magazine.  Essentially, they are all the same thing – but the delivery method is different.  I have an ipad, but most of my books are just that – books.  That said, the Kindle / iPad / Nook market allows you to give readers the option of how they will choose to accept delivery of your material.  I read blogs primary via an RSS reader.  Some people read blogs via the web or on their phone.  The point here, is that you must make your material available and readable for all sorts of platforms, as well as an international audience.  Don’t localize too much or you are putting yourself in a box; I write primarily about American wines, but just one click on Google Analytics, and I know that I have international readers.  The balance is maintaining my wit and style, while limiting colloquialism that would be lost on an international readership.

A key point that both Robinson and Asimov were keen to make is that if you are an online writer, you are also your own editor and publisher, and you need to understand what this means.  My task is to digest these nuggets with a blogger’s mindset, and interpreted to suit your needs.  Jancis further implored us, as wine writers in an online world, to hone our writing skills.  I work at this every day and in every post; but there are, sadly, too many blogs that use poor grammar or just don’t make sense.  If you are a blogger online wine writer, you should ensure that you are taking the time to digest your thoughts, and work & rework your written words.  Writers of all sorts go through multiple iterations before their words are put to print.  I think we should do the same.  Posting things that are not well thought out just add ot the misconception that bloggers online wine writers are hacks that don’t know what they are talking about.  While I don’t think I need an editor to write a blog, I DO think I need to self edit – even if it’s at the most basic level of spelling.  I believe I need to understand how to structure a sentence so that it makes sense and expresses my thought coherently; I also believe that to write a piece for a n audience that won’t hear my inflection and comedic wit, that i need to think about how it looks on the page, and not how I sound when I say it out loud.

Occasionally, writers suffer from a thought block or an uninspired lull.  I am not immune to this but I have found that reading other blogs and using tools like Creative Whack Packs can help blast me out of lull.  Another key trait of a good writer is admitting that you don’t know something.  I hope that you see that in my writing; I don’t know a lot of things, and I’d rather admit that, than make something up.  There shouldn’t be any fear in admitting the unknown.  One of the keys in being to be open an honest in this is fostering a community, both of readers, and other writers, who you can uses as a resource.  Encourage new readers to be engaged.  Wine can be a scary subject for someone just starting to enjoy it, and when you get too esoterica and off on tangents, you will alienate some readers.

The following day, Eric Asimov, author of the New York Times column formerly known as The Pour (now incorporated in the Diner’s Journal), shook up the room my telling us that we shouldn’t write tasting notes.  I emphatically disagree with this statement -0 and even though I think it was really meant rather flippantly, I think many in attendance are taking it too literally.  I am spinning this with my bloggers mindset, and ensuring that my tasting notes have a place within the story of the wine at the focus of the post.  We are, after all, wine bloggers (wine writers wine writers wine writers.  I will get this down eventually!).  To not write a wine review or tasting note for a year, if I take Asimov at his word, would cut out a large amount of wine blogs who are talking about the wine.

In fact, in a simple poll that I did on Facebook, I asked my blog readers if I should write more reviews, less reviews, or something entirely different.  While the majority of respondents said they wanted me to write more about the winery, location, or the STORY, they also indicated that they wanted the tasting notes in context.  So, for my part, I will try to make sure I write about why I like or dislike a wine, what emotions it evokes in me, and why I think you should try it, and try to stay away from triple berry crunch descriptors.  After all, my schnozzberry might be your razzleberry.

The key takeaway I have from Eric’s speech (which I might add, I read on twitter, and watched online after the event – since I was suffering the creeping crud at the time) is that in order to write about wine, you need to learn about wine.  Tasting wine is not enough.  You need to experience wine.  How do you do that? You drink a lot of wine, you explore wine, you read about wine, you learn about wine, you experiment with pairing wine with food.  Why this is important is that it can give you the perspective to be able to think about situations in a new light.  I knew, before going to Virginia, that the VA wines that I had tasted were probably not the best examples of what the state has to offer.  I didn’t like VA wine.  But, I went to VA with an open mind.  I decided, before I went, that I was going to taste VA wines and yes, they might suck, but, then again – they might not.  And, I’m happy to report, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the wines I tried.  This changed my pre-concived notion about wines from the area, and I’m more apt to try a wine from someone off beat as a result.

So go forth, and learn.  I am my own worst critic and I often question if I write well, or if I know anything about wine, so I am ever striving to learn more and do better.  The secret to success in most things is to be on a continuous journey of education.  I know what I like, and I chose to write about that because that’s what I know.  The unconformable challenge, is to learn about what I don’t know, and to share that journey with you.

Wine blogging has evolved.  Even if you write your blog out of passion, as I do, writing with professionalism and knowledge is key to being heard.  That doesn’t mean your blog shouldn’t express your voice, but it does mean:

  • Learn your subject matter
  • Dive in to your material, and don’t be afraid to dig deeper
  • Be honest
  • Ask questions
  • Be inquisitive
  • Be welcoming and gracious

Happy reading!