On a recent July afternoon I sat down with Wine Enthusiast wine writer, Steve Heimoff to talk about social media. Over the past four years Mr. Heimoff has developed a bit of a reputation for debunking social media and its promise to sell more wine. It was time to debunk the debunkery and put the issue to rest. I asked Steve some of my own questions as well as some questions crowd sourced from Twitter.
Steve has been a wine writer since 1989, well before wine bloggers and the rise of the social web. What I wanted to sort out with him was to understand the context of what he’s trying to say in his ‘social media doesn’t work’ blog posts. Some people accuse Heimoff of link baiting on his blog with controversial headlines meant to stir the pot about social media (like I did with this post), while using social media to push the message out.
Over the course of our conversation I got the sense he has gotten to know many of the winery owners and wine makers over the years, and has a loyalty to them. So when social media came onto the scene a few years ago, Heimoff started asking, “what can this really do for my friends?”
It’s apparent Steve’s opinions are rooted in seeing the world of technology through the eyes of a Baby Boomer. And his blog is just that—opinions. He generates no income from his blog, but rather uses it as his own personal space to share his own thoughts that he can’t in his day job. Throughout the interview Heimoff was a bit cagey. Like a seasoned veteran of writing, he knew when to side step questions or give a vague answer.
This whole “Steve Heimoff hates social media” perception may have began in 2008 with his Rockaway piece about Rodney Strong. Back then the winery picked 14 wine bloggers and sent them wine making them promise to write about the wine. Steve was quick to point out the pay-to-play approach is borderline illegal and would never fly in professional writing. Jay Miller, formerly of the Wine Advocate recently discovered that when he and former MW Pancho Campo got into a bit of hot water for a pay-to-play scandal last year.
According the Heimoff, “mommy bloggers who suddenly start gushing about the latest baby stroller aren’t being transparent about getting the stroller for free from the manufacturer.” Steve went on to say, “I don’t hate social media, I just question the claims for-profit marketers make about what social media can do for a winery. I actually really like social media.”
Aside from seeing the world through Steve’s eyes as a Baby Boomer, it also became apparent Steve suffers from what many traditional media personalities suffer from. They’re so used to the one-way broadcast message of, “I talk, you listen to me” that a two-way dialogue is a foreign concept. A few times throughout the conversation I tried to educate Steve on some basic social media nuggets but he showed no interest in hearing what I had to say.
It reminds me of the TODAY show. Kathie Lee and Hoda have been lobbying on the fourth hour of the TODAY show to get viewers to ‘Like’ them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. They don’t understand the concept of engaging people through two-way dialogue. If Steve (or Kathie Lee and Hoda) would talk with people instead of at them it would open up their eyes to the power of the social web. But they can’t wrap their heads around taking time for one-to-one conversations online. I referenced Steve’s Twitter feed saying it was lacking @ replies. My comment went right over his head.
I was ready to give Steve some answers about social media, but that’ll have to wait until a later conversation. In the meantime, here’s how our interview went down:
Q: How many blog posts have you written about debunking social media?
A: I’m not a debunker of social media” Humans are social creatures..it’s the latest way we communicate. When I see these sweeping statements about “social media is supposed to do this or that” I question it.
A lot of wineries are small family wineries. Who’s gonna find the time to do SM? I feel sorry for the small wineries are being harassed to “do” social media.
My question: How does this help the winery make money?
Q: How much blog traffic would you say you’ve generated on average per post? It’s kind of a controversial subject that helps your brand, right?
A: Social media posts get less traffic than other link bait topics like ‘Robert Parker’ or ‘The 100-pt. scale’. My blog has pretty much the same traffic every week. It’s a predictable pattern.
Q: The big question people have is why do you use social media to push your social media doesn’t work message?
A: I never said social media doesn’t work. I’ve asked questions about the claims made by for-profit social media marketers about sales for wineries.
Q: Is there any chance you (or wineries) might not be using it right?
A: I don’t think I’m using it as frequently. I haven’t seen proof that wineries can generate sales from SM. I don’t spend that much time online.
(Steve mentioned a few times he thinks we are becoming too addicted to online interactions and not enough time offline. I fully agree with his observation—we are becoming addicted to the social web in lieu of the real world around us.)
Q: In your eyes, what is ‘social media’ supposed to be?
A: I question the claims that marketers say social media can lead to sales.
It doesn’t mean wineries shouldn’t engage in social media.
Q: What’s the role of wine writers in the industry?
A: Education of consumer, wine recommendations are the single most effective driver of sales, wine writers humanize publications.
Q: What’s the role of sommeliers in the wine industry?
A: Help diners figure out what to drink with their food.
(This answer was surprisingly naive to me. Steve had just got done telling me how wine writers and ratings were the single most effective driver of wine sales. Apparently sommeliers don’t educate consumers, buy wine or sell it on the floor?)
Q: Do you think wine will be sold with a single tweet on #CabernetDay day?
A: I haven’t heard of it, what is that?
Q: How do you explain online wine people like Joe Roberts gaining any sort of voice or influence in the industry?
A: There’s certain people I’m rooting for as the next ‘James Laube’s’ of the world. There’s probably only a few people who can be influential about wine writing and make a living. I won’t name names but I’m rooting for a few people.
A big take away from this dialogue is the point Heimoff made about us being too addicted to the web. Over the past four years I had one perception of Steve through his blog posts and blog post comments, but I had never sat down with him in person.
There’s still a value in face to face conversation. Our sit down changed my perception a bit about Steve’s message because I was able to get more context about what he’s been trying to say.
Hopefully I was able to change his perception about what the social web is or isn’t. I’d still like to share some insights about how the social web works, and successful case studies from my time at St. Supéry or with some of the Bakas Media clients. We have plenty of successful examples but I don’t publicize them.
In the future, I suggested Mr. Heimoff reach out to people who know more about this subject and interview them for his articles. But the blog posts are just op-ed opinions so I doubt there will be any input from credible sources.
Either way, our time together was valuable and serves as a reminder communication is best served online AND face to face.