The digital conversation

The annual Digital Wine Communications Conference brought together wine lovers and communicators of all kinds, found Robert Joseph. He found the focus firmly on wine.

Robert McIntosh, Gabriella Opaz and Ryan Opaz
Robert McIntosh, Gabriella Opaz and Ryan Opaz

What do Swiss wines and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) have in common? Both were among the most popular items on the menu of the eighth Digital Wine Communications Conference which was held in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in October. This impeccably run annual event has been held in places ranging from Rioja and Franciacorta to Ankara, and the 2014 venue, Montreux. On each occasion, an audience of bloggers, public relations professionals and producers have been offered a packed programme containing a mixture of advice on how to communicate more efficiently online, along with often quite esoteric discussions about various kinds of wine, and the opportunity to taste wines they might not encounter elsewhere.

At a glance 

The 2015 event included sessions with titles such as ‘Pivot your Blog – finding new audiences and revenue streams’, ‘Should Wineries and Regions Pay for Better Wine Content’ and ‘How to Become Famous in Wine’ from Meininger’s editor-in-chief Felicity Carter. Richard Hemming MW, in one of the conference’s two keynotes, focused on the essentially non-remunerative area of wine books. Despite publishers’ resistance to the category, the numbers of books being written and published on paper or, increasingly, digitally, is rising dramatically, he explained. The growth – largely digital – has come from writers who are publishing their own work, usually with little hope of earning much money from doing so.

Among the best of the technical presentations were Judith Lewis’s ‘In-Depth SEO Masterclass’ and ‘Top 10 Actionable SEO Tips’, which, for those who understood the concept and were minded to follow her advice, were probably worth the cost of the flights to Bulgaria and the attendance ticket. One of the event organisers, Ryan Opaz, provided similarly invaluable tips for bloggers and other online communicators, including lists of time-saving apps and short cuts.

Would-be book authors learned much from the experiences of Wink Lorch, who used the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to help launch her Andre Simon award-winning guide to Jura nearly two years ago, and Cathy Huyghe who has just published a book called Hungry for Wine. Lorch explained how UK sales taxes and Amazon commissions meant that, surprisingly, she makes less money from digital versions of her work than printed ones she mails out herself. Huyghe revealed a different modus operandi from most of the authors in Hemming’s study; rather than simply write a book on a subject that interested her, she had taken a lead from readers’ preferences for some of the subjects she had covered in pieces she had written for Forbes. I took part in this panel – talking about the future shift towards different kinds of e-reader devices and greater interactivity in non-fiction works – as well as in one on branding that was led by advertising- executive-turned-Italian-winery-owner Reka Haros. With the help of Damien Wilson of the Sonoma State University and Hungarian communications expert Bela Szabo, we attempted to demonstrate the positive financial implications for wineries of building a brand rather than relying on an appellation.

Wine versus wine communicating

Despite the sessions on communication, the hottest tickets were for the tastings – of Swiss, Moldovan, Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian wines, almost all of which focused attention on indigenous grape varieties. At least one panel speaker wondered wryly whether they might have attracted a bigger audience if they’d simply turned up with a few bottles of Albanian wine instead of taking the time to prepare a PowerPoint presentation.

In this, the DWCC does not appear substantially different from its counterpart, the Wine Bloggers Conference in the US. Post-conference reports invariably focus on the wines tasted, not on the communication skills learned. Former Harpers editor Richard Siddle pointed out that it makes no sense for would-be communicators to spend thousands on tasting wines, while neglecting to learn more about the nuts and bolts of communicating, such as basic writing skills. 

But the DWCC organisers have some decisions of their own to make.

As communication of every kind appears in both online and print formats,  does it make sense to devote conventions exclusively to digital platforms? Second, connecting with the right audience – and, more importantly, an audience with whom the sponsors want to connect – is becoming increasingly challenging. The 2015 event attendees’ apparent preference for tastings over communication skills sessions hardly bodes well for their development as key opinion-formers. Revealingly too, as one of the Burgundy Business School students remarked, there were few young faces in the audience.

One way to lower that age and, possibly attract the kind of dynamic, communication-focused participants the Opazes and McIntosh clearly favour, might be to broaden the focus to include lifestyle topics and other beverages. Of the top 45 best-selling alcoholic drink books on amazon.uk, only five are devoted to wine, fewer than half as many as on either cocktails or beer. The idea of rubbing shoulders and sharing conference topics with experts on pale ale and gin may not appeal to some of the  2015 DWCC wine communicators, but seeing how people in other industries communicate may be just the inspiration they need.

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