“We taste with our eyes first,” says Jim Meehan, a partner at the legendary New York City speakeasy PDT and the author of Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Along with David Kaplan, the owner of Death & Co; Jabin Troth, the founder of Licensed to Distill; and Pamela Wiznitzer, the president of the United States Bartenders Guild and a consultant at The Cocktail Guru, Meehan discussed how the sense of sight guides consumer decisions and industry social media practices as part of a panel at the recent Tales of the Cocktail trade conference in New Orleans. The panel was moderated by Jeremy JF Thompson, the director of Thompson Consulting, a digital marketing strategy and event production consultancy.
Under the Influence of Social Media
While Facebook is considered a top social media tool and has more worldwide users (2 billion), the panelists agreed that the rapidly growing and image-driven Instagram (with 1 billion users) is the most important platform in their trade. The hashtag “drinks” alone accounts for more than 32 million unique posts on the app.
The focus of social media is not just on the drinks themselves, explains Wiznitzer. These platforms now play a role in influencing decor and lighting decisions at on-premise venues. “People want to take pictures of drinks,” she says, “so we help many of our clients redesign interiors by taking out lights and making spaces better for photography.”
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Kaplan admits that the original Death & Co. location in New York City is dark and not Instagram-friendly but says that social media was a consideration when opening the bar’s Denver outpost. “We installed pin lighting at the bar,” he says. “It’s subtle and provides good light for photos but doesn’t impact the overall environment.”
At Meehan’s now shuttered Chicago bar Prairie School, adequate lighting and soundproofing were both considerations in designing the space. “People decide if they’re going to invest in a movie or the theater or a nice dinner every week,” he says. “A social media photo is one of the metrics people use for ROI on that experience. I wanted a space where it was easy for people to take that photo [and] then put their phone away and get back to talking to each other and enjoying the evening.”
Building a Brand
“Instagram builds a level playing field for those in hospitality because brands and bars can speak directly to consumers,” says Thompson. “It’s word of mouth amplified.”
Wiznitzer recommends that bartenders maintain separate personal and professional accounts or, if they want to share personal snippets on their professional accounts, to at least keep them consistent with their brand. Most importantly, she says, “find what people are responding to and keep your content consistent—aesthetically and narratively. And remember that someone’s always watching you. What you post online can affect hiring decisions later on.”
Not only can social media content drive customers to bars but it can help individuals without brick-and-mortar spaces build brands, explains Troth. He started his Instagram account two and a half years ago and has built a following of more than a million. He points out that bartenders like Natalie Migliarini (@beautifulbooze), Amanda Colom (@bad_birdy), and Elliott Clark (@apartment_bartender) are also examples of individuals who’ve parlayed a successful online presence into corporate sponsorships, consulting gigs, and other opportunities.
Know Your Metrics
“Part of this job is delivering drinks that do well on social media,” says Wiznitzer. “That’s part of the conversation I have with every single brand and client I work with. These days, your cocktails don’t just have to sell in bars; they have to sell online as well.”
To assess your social media performance, Troth suggests that you look at hashtags and metrics to determine what your audience is responding to. “Make sure you have a business account,” he says, “and view your Insights.” Insights are available to Instagram business profile users; they provide information about the followers who are interacting with your business.
“At Death & Co in Denver, we serve a lot of food,” says Kaplan, “and it looks great, but no one cares on social.” Being aware of that, he says, influences what the bar posts online.
Such observations, suggests Troth, can also be the result of how Instagram’s algorithms determine what your audience sees. “Instagram has tagged Death & Co. as a cocktail brand,” he says, “and it’s most likely determining that food is not for their audience, no matter how well presented it is.”
Keeping track of social media can seem like a full-time job, but Wiznitzer recommends investing time in it. She recommends taking a few hours a week to practice photography, evaluate Instagram Insights, check trending hashtags and most-liked posts—and most importantly, engage with followers, even if it’s just a simple “Thanks for coming in” response.
And while metrics are important, Meehan cautions against using them exclusively to determine branding and voice. “Instagram is an artifice,” he says. “It’s just one of the many things we put out into the world. Don’t rely solely on likes and followers and engagement to define success. In the end, look at what you love, who you are, and what you believe in. That should guide your content.”
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Laura Scholz, a writer and editor based in Atlanta, has covered food, spirits, wellness, and travel for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Atlantan, Eater Atlanta, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, VinePair, and other publications. She is currently the fitness editor of Atlanta magazine. Follow her on Instagram @lbscholz.