“Influencer” is a word many of us will have heard of at this point even if not in marketing circles where it’s the current brass ring in terms of social media advertising campaigns. In brief, the influencer is someone on social media (usually Instagram these days) whose mere mention of a specific body cream, vitamin supplement, or possibly even laxative can make sales soar. Likewise, their denouncing a product can theoretically tank it, thus why they’ve been deemed, “influencers”.
In its most blatant form, the influencer will simply pose with the product and say something positively banal about it. In the more insidious form, the product is incorporated into a photo (or perhaps a tweet) and is more akin to the older practice of product placement that’s been with us for decades in film and television.
The principle is based upon the fact that product ads don’t really work anymore and this “genuine authority” offhandedly mentioning your product will lead to their followers putting faith in the product. To a large extent, this has been effective both for product promotion as well as “influencers”. People like the Kardashians, in addition to stealing the souls of orphaned children at night in order to replenish their alien life force, use these paid “influencings” to fund their otherwise vapid lives.
This has not gone unnoticed and so many would-be influencers have sprouted up in recent times to offer their placing of whatever you like in their photos to feed their “thousands of engaged followers”. It’s slowly slipped into the wine world as an “authentic voice” in wine is someone who can move bottles and someone marketers are more than a little hungry for. Wine advertising is probably one of the most difficult sectors there are given perceptions of wine being elitist and snobby. Thus influencers are seen as a way to break out of this as pushing a wine brand outside these circles because otherwise, it’s like trying to put your cat on a diet. Thus, finding that rare soul who can “cut through the crap” is highly desirable.
Beyond the legal issues of wine being an alcohol, there are also regulations in terms of influencers promoting a product as this constitutes a paid sponsorship and entities such as the Federal Trade Commission in the United States require that it be plainly stated that an ad is an ad. Just how this should be done has yet to be figured out perfectly, although adding #ad seems to be the most reasonable approach.
There are however few who want to do this, especially in wine as #ad suddenly breaks the suspension of authenticity. Is the influencer posting a wine for their followers because they believe it in or simply because they were paid to say that they do? And thus, the promotion will readily fail as authenticity (much like egos) in wine is an extremely fragile construct. But this issue of being paid to promote a wine or not pales in how easy it is to actually fake being an influencer.
Influence bought and followed
The old way people would fake their supposed influence would be to buy followers. This was and I assume, still is extremely easy to do on Twitter. Despite Twitter having cracked down on fake bot accounts, it’s still very easy to pump up fake followers but then you’ll see that tweets and more importantly clicking through on links in tweets does not add up to the followers claimed. This is where Instagram has become a vastly different beast.
In case you’ve not heard of “Instagram pods”, have a read as due to it being somewhat harder to buy fake followers on Instagram (although still possible) and Instagram’s algorithm making it harder to fake likes, the “pods” have sprouted up like mushrooms recently because influencer product placement rates have skyrocketed.
Basically, how it works is that they game the Instagram algorithm. A member of a pod (an informal group that communicates via a third medium such as Telegram) will announce to everyone that they’ve posted a new photo. Everyone in the pod already follows each other and they’ll then go in and like it quickly, boosting its perceived interest on the platform and thus making it more visible for others, potentially having it “go viral”.
This is all down to using Instagram’s algorithm (which I passionately hate as it destroyed what was a fun medium) against itself in order to boost people to influencer status. “What’s the harm in this?” you may ask as it’s similar to how movie producers shuck around a project to generate interest or how politicians make themselves known. If you will, the Trump rallies were essentially “pods” (or more accurately “bots”) that worked to boost his profile in a field of Republican candidates in 2016.
The issue is that these people aren’t actually influencing anything. They are simply getting likes from a group of people not interested in their photos but boosting their own profiles and no one benefits from this. If someone then pays them to promote a product, this constitutes fraud as it’s entering into an agreement (paid promotion of a product) based upon what are perceived to be factual and contractual items (perceived influencer has X number of followers who view product and potentially buy it) when the second part of that isn’t true at all. It would be akin to agreeing to surgery because the doctor claims to have graduated from Harvard when in fact, he has no medical license at all.
The influencers in wine are pretty small operations at this point but they keep growing and increasing as marketers keep turning to them more and they keep sucking up more of the already slim budgets wineries have for promotion. While this article is in Spanish the key takeaways from it are that one in every four influencers is fraudulent and one in every five likes they have is one they paid for. I don’t think this even takes into account this issue of pods which, while clever, has made a difficult situation even harder as it’s estimated to be somewhere north of $1bn spent annually on “influencer campaigns” although few want to talk about it for all the aforementioned perception issues.
Know how to spot your Fake Influencer (#flafencer?)
But if the manner in which these people work is so obfuscated by pods and whatever else, how do you find them out?
There are several tells, the first being the engagement rate vs follower count and anything over 10-12% should immediately be suspect. Instagram’s algorithm will keep most any photo at around 4-5% of likes of the total followers. Have 1,000 followers? Most of your photos will get around 50 likes. Don’t ask me why it’s like this, but I’ve seen it time and again and it appears that the more followers one has, the more it drifts to 4% instead of 5%.
People who I would bet a great deal of money as to not be buying followers nor using pods would be @jancisrobinson, @timatkinmw, and @drjamiegoode to name a few. Jancis and Tim are Masters of Wine with a great deal of respect and history of writing about wine. Jamie, while not an MW has gained a great deal of following, written several books, and he does a very good job of engaging people in social media.
All of these accounts usually follow the 4% engagement rule with the occasional photo rising above that rarely and almost never exceedingly 10%. Another great example is my co-author on the Georgia book, @darikomogzauri. She’s extremely engaged in Instagram and is generally seeing about 4-5% of her total follower count in terms of likes with the very infrequent peak to 7%
For a fake wine influencer, you’ll see much higher totals, sometimes peaking at 20% which is not just abnormal for Instagram, it’s nearly impossible these days. I say this because wine is inherently not exciting to look at, only to drink. Wine will never be the latest shoe from Nike, nor SpaceX landing two booster rockets side by side, which, sorry, I still find fucking awesome.
Then there’s the photo history of potential fake influencer accounts. You’ll see that if you scroll back on anyone legitimate in wine, there is slow growth. You can scroll back on my meager account @mhudin and see that like and follower growth were very slow and gradual, same goes for @vinologue which is actually a testament to how the algorithm really choked off heavy engagement as it grew steadily and then dropped once the algorithm gnashed its teeth.
In case you want more tells of fake influencers, look at the comments. People deep into wine are pretty geeky and so if they comment, it’s pretty specific. Post a photo of a Burgundy Chardonnay from 2005 and someone will probably quip back, “How’s the Premox?” If you don’t know what that means, you probably don’t follow a lot of wine people.
If however, someone is engaging in pod tactics, the comments are a great deal dumber. “Nice shot!” “Hey cool!” “Great!” and the such rule the day. More important is that you go and click on the profile of the commenter and you’ll more often than not find someone with (surprise, surprise) a very similar number of followers, a very similar number of likes, and a very similar follower/like ratio that exceeds what is typical. Why? Because they’re all part of the same pod, building each other up. It may not always be symmetric but it certainly won’t look organic.
But all of this isn’t written in stone and things could change with pods being replaced by, I don’t know, “tubes” or something and the methodology being employed to counter some new change to the Instagram algorithm or even some other social media that comes along. The key is to always question it as it’s an industry of promotion that has built itself upon its own fame. Let’s not forget that Kim Kardashian got famous for having a “celebrity” sex tape… before she was a celebrity but that sex tape then made her a celebrity and… it just hurts my head to understand this any further.
The moral of the story is the extremely old adage that “if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is”. If someone is claiming to be an influencer in wine, but you’ve never heard of them and they’ve popped out of nowhere, chances are, they’re probably not and are just part of the nameless hordes trying to take shortcuts to get freebies (wine, books, etc.), free trips, or possibly some degree of suposed “fame”, instead of putting in the painful hours it takes to get there.
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Whether it is used sincerely or not, Instagram is not the ideal platform for wine promotion. Image and sound target sight and hearing, that are the right senses for shoes, handbags, garments, food, holiday resorts etc. But they completely fail to communicate directly with smell, taste and touch, which are the only senses triggered by a wine. The view of a label and a bottle tell so little about the wine that the message is void. In my opinion, Instagram is off target when it comes to wine. Contrary to what people think, because it creates interacting communities, FB is probably a better choice for wine influencers.
It’s funny you should mention that as several years back, I wrote an article how social media in general is worthless for selling wine for exactly the reasons you opened with: https://www.hudin.com/why-social-media-doesnt-sell-wine/
I believe that great wine is ultimately made in the mind of the consumer. It occupies a space that is a composite of memories, aromas, flavors; but much more that that. Our brain builds complex links to previous friends that we enjoyed wine with, wonderful meals paired with a suprising wine, beautiful vistas from a hilltop village in Tuscany, clever label graphics, a road sign that drew us into a forgotten tasting room, that first date with a late night coversation over a bottle of Wisconsin Cab (yes, Wisconsin!), and many more real or imagined visual wine stimuli. So, for me, instagram and pinterest are very relevant social media channels for visual engagement about wine.
1. Agree with the point of the article – it’s easy to buy followers and we’ve seen people approach wineries offering promotions and we turn them down based on engagement rates and with tools providing follow graphs (example, we found one that bought followers, which we could tell because they gained exactly the same number every day for a month).
2. Regarding comments about whether social is even a good match for wineries – of course it is. It might not be the strongest direct sales tool (although it does sell wine if done right) but it’s a wonderful branding and communications tool. Wineries that use it can get more tasting room traffic, get better event attendance, have better customer interaction, have better press communications, and can play the “top of mind” game better when people are purchasing wine.
I will agree that social media in general helps with branding in the same way having a listing on Google Maps, a functioning website, and a visible sign in front of the winery do. But, to put on my “nag hat”, the only I ever heard touting what a wonderful and amazing medium it is with tremendous benefits are those selling services related to it…
Our level of wine knowledge derived from the amount of effort each of us has invested in the subject can act as a filter to help us screen out irrelevant and false content and commentary. Short of the optimal experience of tasting or sharing wine with a knowlegeable person, I personally do find value in thoughtfully written wine comentary (regardless of the medium) that is provocative and motivates us to further research explore and reach our own conclusions.
I bought and enjoyed your books on Priorat and Monsant downstairs from your place in Porrera.
Wonderful Marvin and great to hear and I hope they were of good use to you!
punctuation should generally be inside the quote marks, as counterintutive as that may be.
I truly love it when people like you make sweeping untrue statements and get people to believe you. Lets take your issues step by step here. Also, I’d love to know exactly where you did all of this indepth research for your article. The ability to simply tar so many people with the same brush is astounding.
First of all, those who I personally interact with at least have the WSET2 distinction and level of education. So lets just say that they have each invested in a minimum of $3000 for just that amount of education – often far more. That does not include any of the other classes or seminars we all have to attend to train our palates. This also does not include of the conferences we go to spending our own money to do so to gain knowledge and the personal money that we spend to buy wine. Practically none of the people I know or support are wanna be models using a wine bottle as an accessory. Some of the people are WSET Diploma students, famous Somms etc.
Instagram is a very frustraiting platform. Its simply a fact that if you want to reach younger people who are coming into wine drinking age that is the platform to use. Facebook and Pintrests demographics are for 45+ and Twitter is all about personality of the person tweeting. It is a confusing place for many to navigate for quality info other than being able to post articles.
What does Instagram do for wine – a few things. It sells the same as any other glossy magazine – Lifestyle. If you drink this wine, you could be in this picture, living this life. It uses the psychology of envy and aspirational living. This is where the brainless wanna be models come in to the picture. Think about this – for mostly FREE or the price of a wine tasting these people give you content to post on your own social media sites, photography that would cost you $1000’s to do on your own. Yes, some people get paid but 99% don’t. They do it to be seen or as a status symbol.
For people like myself, Instagram is a place where I can share my knowledge of wine and experiences… giving beautiful photography and an understanding of why someone should visit that winery. I give tasting notes and explain things about the wine I am drinking there. Its the opportunity to be drawn in by the photograph and then learn in a succinct manner about the wine or the place. I do not post selfies next to ever. All shots are of gorgeous vineyards, wine bottles, or amazing food. I don’t stray from my topic. I can personally attest that people see my images and follow my advice. I get thank you emails all of the time for my suggestions.
Remember there is actually a psychology to “the name you know”. How many times have you heard from somewhere vague the name of a product. A friend talking about it. Next time you are going to buy a product like that, the name pops into your head. Instagram does that with the beautiful photos. Its all about subconciously getting your name out there. In wine stores where you have literally 1000’s of choices, people will choose a name they recognize far more than one they don’t. This is why there are still television advertisements. Its is simple as that.
So lets go to why people cheat on Instagram? Because Instagram have decided to monetize their services. How? They cut how many people can see your photos down to nothing through their algorhithm. Instagram want you to pay them to show your content to people have subscribed and follow you. When you do pay them money, Instagram does a lousey job getting your post out there for others to see – they give it to people who already should be seeing you as they have subscribed to following you already. Its very frustraiting.
Getting around the algorithm is extremely hard. You think people are in pods to boost their engagement? You are wrong. People form pods to be seen on Instagram period. The more engagement you get in the first hour, the more important your photo becomes and pushes you up the ladder. Your photo goes from being seen by 300 people to 1500. It also helps you get onto the Explore board in hashtags. Then people can search the hashtag and see you. Having your photo in the top Explore photos helps drive people to your page which elicits more likes and engagement. It is a huge cycle which is just gross.
I started my instagram account about 15 months ago. I am currently at 27K followers. Im not saying that to brag, but more to make people understand the work it takes to get there. I spend HOURS AND HOURS every day on Instagram. I am constantly commenting and liking every single account I follow. I follow only 400 people. I also do outreach commenting and liking other people’s photos in the hashtags I use.
What do I get out of all of this???? Ok, so I get press trips. Sounds wonderful right? On those trips they OWN you. They have you going from early morning till night with the expectation that you will be posting about the trip constantly. I do get bottles of wine and comped meals at restaurants, but for the most part all of the “compensation” doesn’t come up to the amount of time and money I spend photographing, writing about and promoting this brand. I have the expenses of travel, maintaining my website, and all of the other little goodies any decent writer has (Technology – cameras, laptop, phone, storage). I do put in #ad in the hashtags. Thats the law. I also get offered products to promote. Wine accessories, food bits and pieces. I rarely accept. If it is out of my three topics then forget it. There is no free lunch.
Lets talk about how someone pops out of Nowhere. This is a good question. When my husband and myself started our little blog we did it simply because we are fine wine collectors. We had lived in Europe for 20 years (my husband is British) and now we moved to Napa and were interested in learning about American wines. We were writing about our experiences. Within two months we were discovered by a local PR agent. She loved what we did so she reached out to all of her little PR friends and put us on the map. I never expected it to blow up so fast. Wineries started promoting what we said about them on their websites and I started getting into twitter and learning from other people I admired. So basically we came from nowhere.
Yes, there are fraudsters out there looking for a free ride. I know of an ugly story of a Texas blogger who came to Napa and got all kinds of hospitality and posted ZERO about any of it. It really put the rest of us who work our asses off into a bad light.
Most of the people I know however are hard workers who are truly passionate about wine and want to share the joy. They want to show off the wines they get to drink so that people discover them and buy them. Isn’t that what it is supposed to be?
It is articles like this one that makes people just want to quit. After all, we are reading YOUR article about this subjet aren’t we?
Greetings Amber and thanks for stopping by.
Also, thanks for taking time to write such a lengthy and detailed comment to an issue I can see that you feel strongly about and affects you directly.
Firstly, I’m certainly not accusing everyone on social media, working in wine of being a fraud; not in the slightest. In addition to the people I mention in the article who are fully valid, I’d add in Brian McClintic MS who has an absolutely massive social media presence, especially on Instagram and I feel that what he says does indeed have influence, although again, he arrived via the old-school, real-world channels of the Master Sommelier exams. And there are many, many others as well.
It seems that you agree with me in terms of a number of frustrations but at the same time, you’ve detailed the points that people are taking to get around various mechanisms in place to stop the artificial inflation of their perception of influence. I don’t agree with the Instagram throttling or mucking with viewing results at all, but then again, I don’t agree with people taking steps to circumvent it. It’s a lot like athletes who dope or take steroids to get a leg up on the competition in that it’s questionable at best and not really ethical nor legal at worst.
Why are we all doing what we’re doing? I can’t really answer that but I love writing and love wine, so this is where it’s at.
Super interesting and informative, in an easily accessible format. TY for breaking it down, Michel.
See this wine blog from David Morrison Ph.D.:
“The role of Wine Influencers — more of the same”