The most common term we hear in the wine industry these days is “D to C” (Direct to Consumer) marketing. It is a hot topic because the statistics show it keeps increasing, but more than that –  it is a more attractive channel than traditional distributors because it leads to greater profitability, increased customer loyalty  – and the holy grail, ultimately it can generate commitments to future sales.

Late last month ShipCompliant and Wines & Vines released the 2014 D to C Wine Shipping Report, revealing wine shipments grew at an impressive 7.5% in 2013, topping $1.57 billion, which equates to a total volume of 3.47 million cases.

The interesting thing is, what the wine industry is experiencing now, the travel industry experienced 15 years ago for the same reasons.

Over the past 15 years the travel industry has been on a roller coaster ride.  It has experienced a transformation, thanks to advances in online technology.  Back in the mid 90s, travel agents and wholesalers dominated the industry, and the consumer relied on these traditional channels for advice and booking services. At that time we saw the emergence of sites like Expedia and Travelocity. In 2009, user-generated content came to the forefront and another change-maker emerged. TripAdvisor put the power back in the hands of the consumer, and waged a bet that the most powerful influencer in travel would be word of mouth.  They were right.  It is now the #1 travel site in the world.  All of these sites shifted travel decisions and purchasing tools to the consumer, and literally put thousands of travel agents out of business almost overnight. Even cruise lines and airlines pulled back from trade marketing and today continue to be more consumer-focused. The wine (sales) industry is late to the party largely because it is highly regulated (thanks to state to state shipping laws).

While Jeff Carroll, VP at ShipCompliant believes the D to C shift is about access to information via the Internet, and secondly, wine tourism,  I’d argue that it goes deeper than that. The shift we’re seeing is largely due to what today’s consumer has been accustomed to expect.  Consumers expect, and demand, immediate access to information and the ability to purchase anything, anytime, anywhere, on any device. They want it, they expect it, give it to them, make it easy and they will do it.

These changes in the travel industry also meant marketers needed to change tact. Here are the changes the wine industry should be thinking about:

  1. Develop a Tourism Marketing plan. There is no more powerful way than giving consumers a direct experience with your brand, that goes beyond a tasting in a wine shop. Getting visitors to your winery will help them build an emotional connection with your brand and result in 1. Sales, and 2. Word of Mouth – the most powerful form of marketing. Planning this strategically and thinking through how your winery can be a destination people will travel 3,000 miles to see, is key.
  2. Develop a compelling Website & Mobile website. This is how consumers will find, and experience your product first. To tune this to travelers, websites should rank well on Google (social sharing helps) and embody the experience someone will have when the visit your winery. Do not forget your tasting room hours and address which should be front and center on the homepage. Online wine stores must be too be attractive and user friendly (consider sites like Amazon and MyHabit when designing the interface).
  3. Does your visitor experience “wow” your customers? Too many wineries are not thinking through the visitor experience – or maybe they are too close to their own winery they think everyone will love it as much as them. No your baby is not ugly, but is it really something people will tell their friends about?  Consider how luxury hotels brands like Ritz-Carlton or Michelin-Star restaurants, like Napa Valley’s Meadowood do it. With a focus on “legendary service”, customer intelligence, and anticipating customer wants, there is a lot we can learn from luxury brands that excel in this. For example, if you know they are coming in advance you can Google them, or if you know they are a wine club customer you can research what they tasted/purchased last time.  Simply remembering the customer’s name goes a long way.  These things will go a long way in strengthening their relationship with your brand – and ultimately more sales. You can do a great job of marketing, but if the actual visitor experience does not live up to expectations the whole thing falls flat. One simple thing you can do (that wineries still do not do) is thank them for coming with an email the next day.
  4. Would you ask someone to marry you on a first date?  Do not ask visitors to sign up to your wine club on a first visit. The holy grail of the wine club may be unique to the wine industry in a way. Wine clubs generally commit customers to spending a certain amount of money per year in advance of the shipments. In the travel industry, what has worked is reward and loyalty programs.  But, I believe the wineries lose customers because they try and sell the wine club too early. Customer acquisition can happen in a variety of ways. Would you ask someone to marry you on your first date? Probably not. Long-term relationships are best developed over time. You want to give them memorable experiences, and have a conversation with them over time. Get visitors to your tasting room, (or web site) to sign up for your email newsletter and implement a long-term strategy to cultivate this into group of buyers.
  5. Don’t underestimate the power of email marketing. Many successful travel industry brands have fine-tuned this to customize information based on where you clicked, where you traveled last, who your friends are, and what airport you’ll be flying out of.  In the wine industry the same type of personalized approach can be applied. Yes, you want to tell your story, provide wine purchasing and tasting opportunities, reaffirming why they should love your brand, but all the while you should be collecting data and information about what they click on, what they purchase, and what they care about. Once you build your list and data to a point, you can segment the list and start personalizing emails to consumers by specific interest i.e.: Cabernet lovers, your gold list, highflier club etc. Personalization and customer data is the absolute key to successful e-commerce in this industry.
  6. Social media is the most misunderstood form of marketing in the wine industry.  Ninety-nine percent of wineries are using social media in the WRONG way. Twitter for one is a “customer service” and engagement opportunity that really should be an extension of your other wine club communications, just like calling the customer. It is also an opportunity to converse with influencers anywhere, any day, any time – and it is free. Facebook is an opportunity to have existing customers share their experiences, and your job is to share, entertain and delight. Location-based apps like Foursquare provide visitors with tips and recommendations on places to go that are skewed by check-ins and recommendations from friends. Too many wineries ignore TripAdvisor and Yelp. No matter where it happens, online or through mobile apps, these people are your customers and they are talking about your business.  You can and should be part of the conversation. Many hotels have great success on TripAdvisor just by having the General manager acknowledge customer comments.

Most of all, as in the travel industry, the wine industry is really in the entertainment business. It may sound strange to you, but that is how you need to start thinking about what you do. If you’re not already you should be fine-tuning your marketing plan, and your experience, to surprise, delight and dazzle your customers.