During a 20-day tour through top European wine regions this month, the co-founders of SommSelect took their thousands of Instagram followers with them in experiences not many wine aficianados get.
And the hundreds of “likes” on posts of tasting $450-a-bottle 1998 Jamet Côte Brune or hefting magnums of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou red wine help convert followers into email subscribers then buyers of wines, which is how the Sonoma-based company pays the bills.
“Pretty much everything we do is digital marketing,” said CEO Brandon Carneir.
He and fellow Sonoma State University alum Ian Cauble launched the company in 2014 to leverage Cauble’s celebrity as a master sommelier featured in the movie “Somm.”
Cauble was featured in the first two installments of the documentary, released in 2012 and 2015. A third movie is rumored to be in the offing.
The company’s website has ranked highly in internet searches for “Somm” (on the second results page on Google) or Cauble’s name (on the first page) without spending much money with Google or other search companies to advertise in the crowded field for searches for “wine” and related keywords.
But changing approaches taken by social media platforms in the past few years to filter out marketing and other noise for their users has created challenges for SommSelect and other internet-dependent companies.
“In 2015, people began to see their posts’ visibility fell off a cliff,” Carneir said.
That’s when Facebook instituted a major change in whether posts on company pages would be seen in the news feeds of individual users.
Another big change for the dominant social platform at the beginning of this year, with commercial posts getting less likely to appear automatically (typically called “organically”) in user feeds, without a paid “boost.”
“We put a lot of our attention toward Instagram, because we get a lot of conversions to subscribers,” Carneir said. Facebook acquired photo-focused Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion.
SommSelect has been working with Petaluma-based digital marketing agency DEPLabs. Getting through to users on social media these days calls for more creative approaches to content for companies, according to Kari Zanotto, who heads what would be called client services in a traditional agency.
“You have to view social media as a conversation,” she said. “The way you have a good conversation versus a lecture is where you are talking about things that interest users.”
One fatal mistake in digital marketing is to not have an effective online presence, Zanotto said.
“In the world we live in, if you get a recommendation from a friend, the first thing you are going to do is look it up online.”
Yelp and Twitter are examples of social media platforms that companies need to actively participate in to handle customer service, she said.
So the approach for SommSelect was to talk not so much about the product but to show through pictures the places where the wines are produced and the people who produce them.
One goal with these social media conversations is to spur user interactions (clicking “like” buttons or sharing posts with friends), because that is how Facebook and increasingly Instagram are considering commercial content as being relevant for their users, she said.
She has found that company social media pages with more than 200 user “likes” can spur enough interactions to get posts visible on user feeds.