Joel Vincent

Technology. Wine. Family. (maybe not in that order)

Archive for Industry Analysis

eCommerce Holiday Season – "Hooray! We suck less!"

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Is there ever an occasion to celebrate sucking?  I’m hyper competitive and I can personally tell you that typically “sucking” is not an option.  Let me strike that, I’m hyper competitive with a smidge of lazy.  So if I actually choose to do something – a project, blog, social network, whatever – then I insist on it being the best possible.  (The lazy helps by making sure I don’t commit to everything under the sun and thereby giving myself to excel and be the best I can).

Researching some of the eCommerce data thats being reported to draw a picture of the environment for our clients at VinTank I noticed something – eCommerce can celebrate sucking this holiday season!

Sounds wierd, I know.  But look what these numbers bear out (I’m clipping from various notes and sources that I’ve been looking at):

Amazon’s sales peaked on Dec. 15, when online shoppers worldwide bought 72.9 items per second, amounting to more than 6.3 million items that day, the company said, although it did not report a dollar total for how much it sold. Wal-Mart and Apple also reportedly had strong online sales.

U.S. e-commerce sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 were down 2.3 percent compared to 2007, according to SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors. SpendingPulse called online sales “an area of relative strength” amid overall holiday retail sales that rank among the worst in recent memory.

And the the stories keep coming, mostly generated by SpendingPulse report (a subsidiary MasterCard).  I don’t think all the evidence is in just yet but its obvious that the value of ecommerce (easy, search capabilities, avoidance of difficult crowds and/or customer service situations) played a pretty big role this holiday season.  The question that has to be worked on is how to best get over the hurdles to wine ecommerce (logistical, legal, as well as product proliferation) to make sure wine companies can share in this rising tide.

Anyway, back to my homework.  Cheers!

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The DaVino Code: Link Between Social Media and the Wine Industry

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There is endless analysis out there and supposition/assumption that social media is important to the wine industry.  Some people claim the vision is over-blown and that traditional sales methods will dominate for a very long time to come.  Those people would be very wrong and taking their business, in the short term, in an OK position but long term dangerous position.  The decisions about online strategies for wine companies today will have long range impact on winery, retail, etc… business success and ultimately determine if the business will survive.  Here’s why.

I’ve written a bit about how wine is bought a couple years ago in what I called the Wine Life Value chain where I describe a bit on how wine is bought when people trust the source.  Stronger the trust bond is, the more likely the sale.  This is a little more elaboration on that idea and how Social Media is critically important to understanding that trust and scaling it to global proportions.

First a bit about the wine industry.  According to Wine Business Monthly and US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau there were 5960 bonded wineries in the US representing 12,000 US wine brands in 2006.  Lets just assume that number is still valid (even though its grown, those are just the latest I have on hand for this post).  Add to that the approximately 20,000 import brands (a number I’ve been told by several industry contacts) and we’re talking somewhere on the order of 32,000 brands available in the US, with new vintages every year, multiple varietals and blends and you’re looking at an incredible amount of selection for just the US consumer (only gated by protectionist government policies).

Add to this that many of the wineries (like most of the US economy) are small businesses with few employees and even fewer resources dedicated to creating a recognizable brand by the average person and what you are left with is an industry that is driven primarily by “Buying Pattern Influencers” (BPIs).  Every industry has them – people who are knowledgeable and can guide your decision – but no industry has such a confluence of factors (selection, unique characteristics, variety of flavors, degrees of desireability influenced by individual body chemistry) such that word-of-mouth and BPIs become the primary driver (Yes, there are lots of HDTVs out there, but if you took every factor – size, brands, prices, etc… – you still don’t come anywhere near the selections of wines that change every year of production).

Hence wine is bought and sold by BPIs more than anything else.  If you look at the Wine Life Value chain I discussed in my other post, BPIs vary in influence depending on the strength of the bond between the consumer and the BPI.  Basic laws of business still apply in the wine industry, don’t get me wrong.  If your product has no distribution of any kind, either direct to consumer or through three-tier distribution, then the consumer can’t buy it.  But the BPIs matter the most.  What are some examples?  Well:

  • Wine Spectator is an entire magazine that used the concept of BPIs, aggregates them and publishes a magazine that is very widely distributed.  The experts, by virtue of their qualifications, are BPIs though their bonds to the consumer are weaker than say your wine geek friend.  But in the end, its better than nothing and therefore influences a large number of people.
  • Robert Parker and his newsletter are another example of a BPI using traditional media to distribute his opinions to a large number of people.
  • I’ll get a little more personal – I know for a fact that the buyers of the Whole Foods and other grocery stores near me go to my wine guy (Bert over at Joseph George in San Jose), check out what he’s getting, and use that to select brands.  Bert and his crew are BPIs not only to his customers but to other local liquor operations interestingly enough.
  • Another one – my brother buys anything I tell him I think is good.  He’ll do it blindly because I’m basically his BPI (or one of) and we have a strong bond (i.e. we’re close) so he’ll buy it site unseen.

OK, now Social Media and what does all this have to do with anything.  The connection between the wine industry and social media is the basic understanding that Buying Pattern Influencers decide what gets bought and sold in the wine industry and the strength of the bond between the BPI and consumer is the factor that tips the decision from “maybe someday I’ll get that” to “gimme that right now” (i.e. it’s the factor that increases the conversion rate of touches – in marketing terms).  If you understand that then you need to look at Social Media in this way – you can try to become the BPI or you can find a way to work with BPIs that are mutually beneficial to your business and/or the community of BPIs (i.e. the social network between BPIs).

Prior to online social media, it was nearly impossible to understand who were BPIs.  You didn’t know an individual’s network, how big it was, or how influential that person is over his/her network.  How could you?  The only measure was this magazine/newsletter has this many readers therefore at a minimum you’ll get lots of exposure and at a maximum the publication will influence many many people.  And it does just that through wide distribution.  The weakness of such publications is that, save for a select few fanatics, they create a weak bond between the consumer and the BPI.  Hundreds of thousands of weak bonds, but relatively weak none the less.  Given no alternative, again, it’s the best bond there is for a newbie.

Along comes Social Media.  Here’s a couple of videos with a simplified explanation of Social Networks and social media.  But basically, it allows for communities to evolve, BPIs to develop to much wider audiences, and exposes the social graph of a person and scales it in ways never possible before.  A single person can connect to thousands of other people and maintain communication with those people – two way communication, unlike magazines – and not only create a bond but maintain it and make it very strong.  And that bond is not necessarily local either – that person can be equally connected to someone next door as they could with someone in another continent.  Social Media allows individuals to become BPIs (see the most famous example in Gary Vaynerchuk and the like) or to get to know communities of BPIs and create strong bonds with the members.

This fact is reinforced by a recently release study of consumer behavior online conducted by Razorfish called “FEED:  The Consumer Experience Report”.  In it they surmise that:

And not too surprisingly, most consumers are using social networking services to connect with others—either actively or passively. Few are venturing there for less-social goals, such as finding out about new products or services. And despite the proliferation of games and applications available on social media sites, user activity is still dominated by communicating with friends and updating status messages to keep others abreast of personal news and developments.

They are also concluding that the “one-stop” destination for information and updates is in a state of disintegration because of the ability of the individual to make these connections, filter information, and federate tools to create highly personalized portals to their digital life – but that’s a topic for another discussion on Social Media and the wine world.

Its been speculated that wine enthusiasts that leverage one of the earliest social media tools – Blogs – are important and a catalyst of change.  Wine Bloggers are in effect early adopters of this new technology and they, as a community, represent a group of BPIs.  They are people who, through their passion for wine – either by trade or just because they love it – write about wine just to share that passion and potentially educate other people.  They generally have small audiences but the important thing to remember is that there is genuine two-way conversation happening on blogs and each blog creates a micro-community with very strong bonds.  Now there are by some estimates 1000 wine blogs out there.  The industry is saying “yeah, but their audiences are small and they’re all spread out”.  True…today.

Social Media is in its infancy and there are spectacular tools that have yet to be written.  This first stage of social technologies are allowing for information to be liberated and democratized.  Over time, technologies for how these disparate bits of information – 1000 wine blogs, hundreds of thousands of wine reviews on sites like Cork’d or WineLog, etc… are correlated and tailored to a single persons tastes and how this person influences the buying patterns of their social graph are all coming.  (FYI – therein lies the danger behind the door for publications attempting to create the “one-stop” destination for their readers.  Its the technology that changes the playing field that ends companies’ dominance and changes markets.)

For the wine industry this is a fantastic new frontier.  The technology world is working feverishly to simplify the creation and identification of BPIs, something the naturally social world of wine has done offline for centuries as good wine would be recommended from one friend to the next.  Technology and the Internet are just now catching up to where the wine world needs it to be – all about social interaction.

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Lots of "Analysis" on how to "use" social media, is it missing the point?

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Social Media Friends

Social media is creating quite a long tail of industries – lots of software companies, consultants, new modes of public relations, etc, etc.  Some of them focused on getting you into using social media, which is great, and many of them aspiring to help you “use” social media for your business.  The latter point is what I find interesting.

I’ve spoken on the topic of social media before (with assistance from the self-proclaimed “Bonafide Marketing Genius” Marta Kagan – FYI, I’m glad she has the confidence in herself to tag herself that way b/c she’s one of the few I would actually agree with) and I think the biggest point from my talk and others that I’ve seen (like Marta’s deck) is that this all is an excercise in sociology.  There are so many technologies that one could use, so many things that you could do, but in the end what is happening to the web is just another means of connecting, interacting, and getting to know people; not unlike joining a social club (like a sports team, a cultural center, or whatever).  In fact, just as you have “different circles of friends” offline (work friends, drinking buddies, sports friends), you’ll develop the same thing online and your community will drive you to the tools.

That’s where the idea “use social media” sticks in my craw a little bit.

I’ve had this blog since 2004 and I’ve interacted with many many people thanks to it.  It’s mainly an outlet for my thoughts, creativity, and passion (wine, technology, and marketing) and I’ve made a serious number of friends in the wine industry because of it.  My goal was to do exactly that, get to know people in the wine industry.  One of the major things its taught me though is that the only way to truly understand what this “social media” thing is all about is to get out and do it.  BUT – do it with a genuine desire and understand that its a means to reach out to a community (blog in particular).  Its not a sales tool and its not a PR tool for social media any more then going to a conference is a PR tool for you.  What I mean is you can go to a conference, chat with people, network, find people that you can stay connected with.  If you contribute to the conference (effectively contributing to the ‘community’ that the conference is bringing together) then you can get noticed and in that sense you get some good word-of-mouth publicity.

But here is how to think of “use social media” (Ugh!).  Its a sociological, human based filter.  Its not a broadcast engine like the “information super highway” or the “series of tubes”.  Doesn’t matter what tool/site you use, first and foremost your community has to be on that site and/or using that tool.  There is always a “critical mass” that needs to be achieved before the tool gets useful.  Kind of like a party, its not really fun until there are a bunch of people you know there.

Once your community is there, interacting, chatting, whatever then the dynamics of what happens is facinating.  Things start to get “useful” and the human filter is formed.  It becomes a situation where the community is as close as a bunch of office mates even though they are all over the world.  I literally consider the community I interact with on Twitter my “virtual office mates” and I genuinely like interacting with them.  The reason is that you can contribute (chat, answer questions, and otherwise participate) just like you would any other office.  In the case of Twitter, it becomes just like a hallway conversation in an office.  You can ignore it for a while, pop your head in with a little bit of nothing to say, put out some information or useful tool to the community, or you can put out a serious question to the group and get some solid answers.  Pretty much how you would for any office with cubilcles and hallways.

The best part of all this is that when the community reaches critical mass of people in a certain technology/tool who genuinely like to talk about a particular topic, forming an open community, thats when the best things come out.  If you contribute something to that community that is truly useful, it will get passed on to everyone very quickly.  People will decide if what you said is interesting, show their friends and, if its applicable, their friends may pass on the information to their other “open communities”.  The network effect takes over and your information has just become “viral” (i.e. it will spread not only in the current ‘circle of friends’ but to other ‘circles of friends’).  More importantly, the human filter took over and since that useful piece of information you generated is actually VERY useful, it will get passed on for a while (or very funny, or very interesting in some other way – the latest on Twitter was a streaming video of puppies, not useful, just very Zen).

So if you find an open community or want to know where there is critical mass already for a community you want to learn about (for instance – the wine community is embracing Twitter and Social Networks) on one of these tools the best way to “use social media” (I hate the term because it makes me feel like “use your friends”, but I guess there isn’t a better way to say it) is to contribute in significant ways.  Add to the community but more importantly be YOURSELF.  If people like you, they like you.  If they don’t, guess what…they don’t.  There isn’t alot of advice that can be given there that your parents should’ve taught you before Kindergarten.  Thats the funny truth of this “social media” craze.  The fundamental sociological point is that this is making friends.  Because even if you contribute something that spreads from network to network like wildfire, when those people check you out and “follow you” on Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, then they start to get to know you in a more personal way then anyone over 25 ever thought possible.  If you’re obviously contributing to promote your business it will come across.  If you genuinely approach this medium (regardless of technology) as “getting to know people” in the way you’ve always done then you’ll not only have that “viral hit” you won’t be an online “one hit wonder”, you’ll have friends who can help you when you’re down, connect you to others, help you build business, get emotionally invested in your brand…. i.e. you’ll be a part of a community and how you do that is something your Mom and Dad shoulda taught you.

FYI – if you’re doing it for a business/brand it doesn’t matter – if people don’t like your personality, they won’t like your brand.  These things have a way of piercing the corporate PR veil.  Want an example?  Supposedly Cisco “gets” blogging.  Read their blogs and you tell me what you think….

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Repetitive iteration is killing to Innovation

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Image via Wikipedia

I have two real passions that I’ve spent the last few years trying to combine – technology and wine.  This post is about technology.  My technology passion goes back a long long way (in my life) to Commodore Vic20 to working in a computer software store all through High School to going to MIT for an Electrical Engineering degree.  I just love to learn about it and having grown into my skin as somewhat of a geek I feel fine diving in and ripping things apart just to figure out how it works at its most basic level.

Anyway, one thing I’ve seen, particularly in the latest “craze” of social media, is the utter lack on innovation.  There is a repetitive iteration (yes, that was on purpose) to sites and technology I see coming out all over tech but particularly in social media websites.  People, particularly in wine, are confused as to which site to use, why?  Because that are pretty much the same thing.  Slight variations, but for the most part the same.

And yet, many of these sites call their releases “innovation”.  Blech!  Come on.  Innovation is disruptive to the status quo.  In my mind, disruptive makes things interesting.  I’ve gotten involved in a few projects that I found interesting (i.e. I thought could be disruptive) and have tried to counsel these companies on how to highlight their innovations.  I’m not going to blather on about them in this post, this is more of a post to highlight what is and isn’t innovation which is pretty simple – if you’ve created something with some defensible intellectual property then you’ve likely got an innovation.  That means a NEW WAY of doing things.  Not a re-swizzle of old technology.

Unfortunately, far too often folks in Marketing (I guess my current field, technically) walk around touting innovation and what this does is create a high noise floor for real innovation.  One very innovative company that I worked with, Cruvee, went through some intensive messaging sessions with me and are going through some re-designs to reinforce that messaging.  But why did they have to do that and why did they have to call me and ask for my help?  Because the sheer number of “social media” sites that lack innovation in the tiny tiny area of “Wine” made it actually challenging to highlight what they do differently, and believe me, they are taking a very different approach and actually introducing some new concepts.  But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

I think this is in part due to a diluted engineering discipline called “agile development“, which I’ve written about before.  I say “diluted” because the interpretation of the interpretation of the interpretation of the original discipline has made people think that pumping out any old crap and then adding features will eventually allow you to hit the one thing that people need (or somehow early adopters will just start using it for what they need).  That is a horrible assumption.  That is called “luck” and its no replacement for hard, smart, innovative work.  If you know the story of YouTube you might disagree with me.  If so, then “good luck”, you’re gonna need it.

If you agree with me then what’s the cure?  Easy, proper Product Management – think about what you’re doing, the audience you’re attracting, what their actual problem is, and have a directed effort.  What a Product Management discpline is all about is INCREASING YOUR CHANCES OF SUCCESS.  You can count on luck, or you can do the work.  I guess it depends on how much time you have and how long you can go without a salary.

On the plus side, investors that I know just ask me “who’s got something innovative?” or “what do you think of this company?” and I can keep being employed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Is it me or is this guy a TOTAL douche bag?

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Image by Getty Images via Daylife

OK, so I’m trying to insure that the Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Sonoma has good, solid Wi-Fi access.  I’ve spent a decade and a half in the networking industry and the last 8 years designing wireless products so when I setup a conference for 160+ BLOGGERS, i.e. many many laptops in the same room, I have my concerns because of the physical limitations of Wi-Fi.

So the hotel hooks me up with the contact information for their service provider (the Wi-Fi is outsourced which is typical for a hotel).  I send him a message stating exactly my concerns and pointing out that I’ve setup many tradeshow demos as well as conference networks that got hammered by a techie conference.  Here is the email that he sends back to me (understand, I am the hotel’s customer and I am selling out their hotel for this weekend and giving them untold exposure through media the whole weekend).  Is it me or is this dude kinda of a douche?

Dear Sirs-

There are a total of 19 APs interspersed throughout the hotel, not including extra devices occasionally set up by catering.  Depending on the unit, they’ll support from 12-36 users on the wireless (multiple internals).  This has been the design at the Flamingo since its initial design and installation, almost as if we knew what we were doing…

Please inform the users that the codes will be bound to the MAC address of the NIC they use at the time of connection and entry of the code.  They cannot switch computers and use the same code.  The time in contiguous and not broken up to when they are using the connection, ie: 3 hrs ≠ 9 hrs of 15 minute usage periods.

Also, be aware that the total bandwidth for the Hotel Guests use is 6mb/3mb.  Therefore, this should not be a time for these “HEAVY internet users” to download all the Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda videos as this type of abuse will naturally hinder the enjoyable experience that such a convention should foster, human dialogue and contact.

I hope that you enjoy your stay at the Flamingo and that all elements of your convention are a total success.

JJ

Maybe its me, I don’t know…

Updated: The hotel worked on the service provider to create a parallel network in the main conference area that will be supported by additional APs on non-adjacent channels and they committed to having staff on hand throughout the entire conference should this network shit the bed.  I feel better about the chances of success.

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Still alive and kicking…

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Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

As a fugitive of the cubicle nation I’ve learned a few interesting things.  Some about myself and some about actually jumping ship and really trying to get things going.  In fact, I don’t have much time today but this blog is an important part of my life and I don’t want it to go dark for too long.

So its about three months since I was officially “jumped” and the main thing I’ve learned is this – have your shit together, ducks in a row, and get ready because having little visibility into where the money is going to come from is a scary thing.  Don’t let all these entrepreneurs tell you “oh yeah, just do it; shit or get off the pot; blah blah blah”.  All crap.  There is NOTHING impulsive about jumping ship and going it alone.

If you’re part of the cubicle nation you’ve most likely gotten extremely good at your job and that gives you confidence to “give it a try”.  Recognize this – while you may be a genius in your field, you do NOT know everything you should to go it alone.  Go into it with your eyes open and allow yourself to “know what you don’t know”.  Business development, marketing, networking, tech services, administrative assistant, bookkeeper, customer support, legal secretary, etc…

Its not that you CAN’T do all this stuff, but just know that you’ll need to plan some time where you don’t have money (or assume you don’t) figure out how you’ll pull that off – assuming no income – and then when you’re OK with that you can go for it.  Because what will happen is things will take longer then you think and you need to make sure you’re not rushed into bad decisions for your business just because of the uneasy feeling that “no visibility” gives you.  In fact, you want to figure out everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph as a way to give yourself visibility into your business and the more visibility you have the better you’ll feel about the jump.

Next – you can’t get away from politics.  Now granted, there are no office politics unless you want to count arguments over why the dogs haven’t been walked in a week and the potential of withholding of certain marital obligations as politics.  But the politics that I’m talking about are around meeting new people, making a name for yourself, and building your business.  I’m not big on politics and generally as a consultant, even early in building the business, I tell it like it is, turn down business that while I’m perfectly capable of doing the work, it doesn’t add to my “portfolio” if you will.  Its a tricky thing breaking into new markets and its clear that there are “circles” everywhere you go.  I’ve always known that and I’ve been ready for it.  But its more important to understand that going into it then I would’ve thought before making the leap.  So I think its important to communicate that out – You are not getting away from politics by escaping from the cubicle nation; you are just dealing with a different type of politics.  So “how to gain friends and influence people” is still an important skill!!

OK, I have to run but I think I’ll be doing more and more around communicating my Cubicle Nation Fugitive experiences as they seem to be coming fast and furious and they are actually interesting as I learn from this.

Cheers!

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