All the talk about Facebook filing its IPO paperwork has me thinking about social media this week and how people interact with one another when it comes to whisky. There are all these tools that companies, publications, critics, and bloggers use to communicate with enthusiastic drinkers, but I'm not sure that they're really having the desired effect. That's not to say that there isn't a strong online community of single malt and Bourbon fanatics, it's just that it isn't really as big as one might think. Every now and again I get access to company memos from the larger whisky suppliers and their goals for each product launch always crack me up. It will be part of an email thread where they accidentally include me in or a memo left in the store after a meeting with vendors. There will be a list of bullet points with suggestions like "Make a splash with the online whisky community," or "Send samples to prominent bloggers for a more grassroots presence." My favorite one was something like, "Attempt to increase presence on Twitter with positive 'tweets' from reputable online personalities." While I think that tools like email, blogs, and interactive websites can be valuable resources for connecting whisky drinkers, I'm more of the opinion that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been relatively ineffective for providing credibility or spreading knowledge.
Even before I worked in the industry, my excitement to learn more about wine and whisky led me to peruse the internet in search of something I could sink my teeth into. Sadly, I'm still searching for that really good website about alcohol-related products (if I had to pick one now it would be http://www.thewinedoctor.com). The truth is that, unlike movies, books, music, or photography, alcohol cannot be digitized or transfered via the world wide web. I know that sounds crazy, but it's true. What can be streamed, however, is information and opinion about alcohol, but there are very few sites that put information above opinion. That's not to say that they should either, it's just to say that tasting notes and availability are all that's being offered to inspired parties. That brings me back to social media. If sites like Facebook and Twitter were being used to offer up more in-depth information about single malt and Bourbon to those interested, they might stand a chance of being successful in their marketing of those products as well. However, the very nature of these operations is to pump out quick, fractured, succinct bits of information - the very opposite of what I think whisky enthusiasts are ultimately looking for.
Rather than offer up and coming whisky drinkers an opportunity to learn more about their interests, the internet, perhaps the most important educational tool ever invented, is providing them with blurbs like, "Drank the 18 year old from Dalmore last night.......Man was that good!" Facebook is full of people holding their favorite bottles and smiling. They might as well be saying, "Ha! I drank this. You didn't!" I'm not seeing much in the way of useful information being passed within online whisky social media. As for the blogs, which do sometimes offer up relative data about distilleries and producers, they're read by the same 100 people over and over again, never really having the impact one might think they're having. You'll see fifty comments on a specfic post and think, "Wow! People are really into this subject," but really it's just the same ten guys who commented last time all having a conversation with each other. Blogs are not the powerhouses reaching the masses that whisky companies mistake them for. They're places where a handful of hobbyists like to discuss current trends, but they're not driving sales.
So if internet social media is full of whisky fluff and blogs are simply catering to the initiated, then why is the online whisky community seen as the best way to market new products? Maybe it's because they think it should be. And it should be! However, no one has figured out how to do it the right way. Reading a tweet about what someone drank last night doesn't make people excited about whisky. Reading a Facebook comment about what someone drank last night doesn't make people excited about whisky. Reading someone's tasting notes is boring unless you're already interested in that particular bottle. I want to drink it, not watch someone else drink it. Supplemental information is what the internet can offer, but that isn't the model we're seeing. The current framework is built around opinion - everyone tell us what you think! In theory, the most successful whisky sites will be the most useful. Facebook is successful because it helps people communicate with each other. The online whisky community doesn't necessarily need more communication, however, it needs more information. Any site that could provide objective insight not centered around personal preference could be huge, but it might not be very lucrative. Maybe that's why it doesn't exist.
Five years ago, when I was headed to my interview at K&L Redwood City, I stopped off and bought a wine magazine for the train ride down, hoping to learn something useful about wine before the meeting. I didn't. Yesterday, I checked a few whisky sites online, hoping to learn something more about a new whisky I was considering bringing in. I didn't. However, I can tell you what five people drank last night.