When making purchases these days, consumers are quick to consult social media profiles—weighing brand presence and peer comments—before making a final decision. Social media platforms are eclipsing websites, serving as prime real estate in the digital retail market. Realizing the potential, companies of all kinds are striving to develop social media strategies that set their brands apart, and some, like the sommelier André Mack, the founder and winemaker of Maison Noir Wines, are absolutely crushing it. Mack has taken his front-of-house experience and leveraged it as a marketing tool within today’s digitally driven culture, turning engaged fans—thousands of them—into customers.
Wine Marketing: Then and Now
Before starting Maison Noir in 2007, Mack was the head sommelier of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Per Se in New York City from January 2004 through December 2006. While there, he managed a 1,000+ wine list, and the way he sold wine then was quite different from the way he sells it today. Honing his sales technique wasn’t as critical in an environment in which it was generally a given that guests would be ordering wine. “A lot of freedom and trust was bestowed on the sommeliers,” says Mack. “We never had to persuade guests to purchase a label, because [they] were intentional about the experience.”
Mack recalls one of the analog strategies he and the somms on staff implemented at Per Se. They created a list of collectively hand-picked recommendations entitled Sommelier Selections that appeared at the top of each category in the wine list. These were go-to wines that were median in price and would tend to move. They also served as a thoughtful substitute for patrons who might not seek out a sommelier’s recommendation—and a proxy, in case a sommelier wasn’t able to make it to a guest’s table. At the time, this was innovative for a restaurant of Per Se’s caliber.
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A self-proclaimed sommelier-at-large, Mack explains that though he no longer fits the traditional definition of a wine steward, the ethos is still in play. “As a vintner who focuses on digital marketing in my sales strategy,” he says, “I want to treat people with the same gratitude and hospitality as I did in the restaurant.”
With retail, he points out, once a customer buys something, it’s gone—and there isn’t really an element of hospitality afterwards. Whereas at Per Se, Mack was regularly checking in on guests, having conversations with them throughout their meals, and developing long-standing relationships with the restaurant’s regulars. “That’s how I want to connect with the people who buy things from us,” he says, adding that his hospitality may now come in the form of an invitation to an event he’s hosting when he’s in town, or buying a drink for customer if they happen to be at the same bar or restaurant.
He has applied that level of etiquette to his social media strategy, and he says the business he generates from his followers, fans, and subscribers not only “pays his bills,” but has allowed him to live authentically. “I get to live the life that I created and that’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “I’m also able to … connect and even become friends [with customers].” Mack uses digital platforms to create connections, form genuine relationships, and make sales—all from the convenience of his cell phone.
“I want to be where the eyeballs are at,” says Mack. “Traditionally, print media hasn’t allowed me to play in that game. On the other hand, digital helps me target my customers and reach people who are like-minded.”
Facebook, YouTube, and a phone number app (more on that later) are the main tools in Mack’s digital tool kit. At the top of his company’s totem pole is Facebook. “I was an early adapter to Facebook ads and started using them back when they were called dark posts,” says Mack. “Prior to landing our distributor, we implemented Facebook ads to target Washington and Oregon, where shipping was cheap for us.” That was how Mack got people not only to become familiar with the brand but to purchase his wine directly from those ads—or through a request to a retailer. With the average click-through rate (CTR) for Facebook ads across all industries at 0.90 percent, Maison Noir Wines comes in at 1 percent, a testament to Mack’s engagement in the digital space.
With a number of options quite literally at consumers’ fingertips, the courtesy of a thank-you is essential to Mack’s digital strategy and is accomplished with YouTube. Anyone who has ever purchased from Maison Noir Wines receives a 45-second video from Mack—uploaded to a private link on the video platform—that is uniquely tailored to that person, making reference to things like the weather in the customer’s city, or the item the person added to his or her cart. “We buy things every single day,” says Mack. “But when was the last time someone who made a product sent you a thank-you personally?” About 60 percent of Maison Noir’s direct-to-consumer orders are from first-time buyers, but after that, it’s second- and third-time customers. “We want to be close to the people who spend money with us,” Mack says, “and this is a subtle but direct way of solidifying that.”
The most interesting platform Mack employs takes a page from the music industry, whereby a unique phone number connects via the app SuperPhone with current and prospective customers, retailers, and key members of the trade in real time. Mack’s Instagram bio touts a simple call-to-action for his followers: “Call/Text [cell-phone emoji]: 646.846.8885.” Not only does keeping the conversation attached to a phone number add to a digital Rolodex of more than 5,000 contacts but it reinforces an element of humanity. “SuperPhone, to me, is less about acquiring customers and more about keeping in contact,” says Mack. Components of the app give the modern winemaker the opportunity to manage conversations, tease an exclusive label, and promote in-person tastings in key markets. The 40 percent of those contacts who have led to sales are merely the proverbial cherry on top.
Paying It Forward
For his fellow winemakers aiming to improve their digital strategy, Mack offers the following advice:
- Show the “who” behind a brand. Consumers are interested in a winemaker’s narrative, not just the vineyard from which the SKU hails.
- Be a practitioner. Mack says that putting ideas into practice helps him maintain his enthusiasm for his business. And remember, you don’t need to hire a professional to produce an Instagram Story or use Facebook Live.
- If you aren’t using them already, implement Facebook ads. Target your competition, or the employees of an industry retailer.
“In a way,” says Mack, “selling wine is still a very old-school practice. In this industry, there’s a lot of push, but I’m aiming to create pull, where we [can] connect with end users who have experienced our product and go to outlets—whether social or brick-and-mortar—and ask for our wines.”
Shanika Hillocks is the Influencer Marketing & Consumer PR Manager at E.& J. Gallo Winery and a freelance F&B and travel writer based in New York City. Her work can be found on outlets including Condé Nast Traveler, ChefsFeed, and VinePair. She can often be found exploring the NYC culinary scene, at a bar enjoying a Rye Manhattan served up, and on Instagram at @shanikahillocks.