How to enhance your virtual experience and keep customers engaged

by | Jun 30, 2020 | Article

Wineries and off-premise establishments know how important it is to keep their customers engaged – not just with their wines, but also with their brands. Fortunately enthusiastic wine lovers increasingly have the opportunity to meet online and discuss their favourite wines from (and often with) their favourite winemakers. We look at how it’s done. 

Screenshot of a virtual tour of several wine farms by Stanley Edwards from Platypus Digital, creator of the WINE360 Experience (www.wine360.world).

Severe restrictions placed on the wine industry during South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown forced many enterprising wine businesses to take their wine experience online, and while some had been doing it for a while, others were new to the concept and had to learn fast. With a plethora of formats, from personal and mass events, formal tastings and informal happy hours to livestreams and prerecordings, the experience can be tailored for every skill level and consumer type.

Pitch perfect

Dan Nicholl of the online show Dan Really Likes Wine (danreallylikeswine.com) says lining up the right people is the first step. His tastings involve various winemakers or estate representatives. They should be comfortable on camera and have the required knowledge for the tasting.

Of course, wine is the real star of the show. “I try to have the same varietal and vintage so we’re all sampling the same wine, which is challenging during lockdown,” Dan says. It might be a good idea to give your audience some tips around what conditions they should try to taste under. For background, a little research also goes a long way. “Dan Really Likes Wine isn’t an overly technical platform, but it’s still important to have some facts on the wine and estate.”

As with anything involving IT, it’s crucial to get the technical preparation right. “Make sure you’re comfortable with the online platform you’re using and the interactive process – bringing guests in and out of interviews, and running the production as smoothly as possible,” Dan says. “Next, promote the event once you’ve settled on the time, date and details.”

Going live

“Ideally we would do a live event but due to the circumstances we’re doing prerecorded tastings,” De Grendel social media coordinator Hanro van Tonder says. “Facebook allows us to share these prerecorded videos in a manner similar to live videos.”

“Direct physical tastings are very interactive and it’s wonderful to witness people’s reactions and facial expressions as they go through the experience,” De Grendel winemaker Charles Hopkins says. “With a virtual tasting you’re mostly just staring into a computer screen.” But he also sees the advantages. “Depending on your following, I think you can do it for a much bigger crowd online.”

Besides the glaring absence of people around you, another big difference between real and virtual tastings is often the wine itself. While Mike Ratcliffe of Vilafonté and others have had great success with wine club members around the world using Zoom, participants often don’t have the same wine you’re tasting as André Morgenthal discovered while doing Old Vine tastings online with groups in Europe. In this event it’s best to convey the wine to a remote audience – the nose and palate, and comparisons to other wines people can relate to. But don’t drag it out, Dan advises. “You’re trying to keep people’s attention, so the presentation needs energy and entertainment.”

A time and place

It’s tempting to think virtual events aren’t as bound to a specific time or place as real events, but with a potential global audience these considerations can’t be left to chance. “Late afternoon works best for me,” Dan says. “Although we have people watching and engaging from around the world – Dave Farrell of Linkin Park is a big South African wine fan and once joined me from Los Angeles where he was tasting wine at eight in the morning!”

Dan suggests 30-40 minutes as ideal for a tasting and splits the event between two people or estates with four bottles in total. “I use Zoom to connect with my guests on the show and run the interviews through my director in Stellenbosch, who then live edits them onto the Dan Really Likes Wine Facebook page, and out onto the public forum. I find that works well for me. A Zoom meeting with a lot of participants requires a degree of management. Fortunately I work in television and have the resources, so it’s easier for me to set up a tasting that approximates a live television broadcast.”

Baleia winemaker Gunter Schultz, who led #LockdownLivestream tastings and cellar tours, prefers specific conditions for a successful tasting. “I always try to taste between 10 and 11 in the morning as this is when people’s senses are awake,” he says, adding he likes to keep it sweet and short. “Seven minutes per wine and a total time of less than 20 minutes, with no limit on viewers but one presenter only,” he says. He also cautions against too much preparation which can make the tasting seem rehearsed and artificial.

Avoiding snags

Even with all the preparation in the world, there’s still a learning curve and anything can go wrong. “Our first couple [of episodes] were a little hit and miss – mute buttons on, poor internet connections, guests not properly familiar with how the process works,” Dan says. “But it’s also important to remember you’re entertaining people, and although the internet gives you unlimited time to record and post, it also offers viewers almost unlimited options for what to watch. So keep it reasonably short, stay relevant, understand the audience you’re speaking to and the brand or focus you’re pushing, and tailor what you’re doing accordingly to ensure people watch, engage and share – the holy trinity of online broadcasting.”

Building an audience

As a media personality Dan already had a platform to help him build an audience base, but for the wine show he included a variety of estates and personalities with their own social media followings to help leverage the virtual tastings. The tastings are streamed live on Facebook and remain online, from where they are promoted on other social media channels. “Wine estates and brands with PR representation are usually very happy to help you promote a tasting that they’ve been involved with,” he says.

To help make the platform more engaging, Dan tries to mention people who are watching or address the questions they ask. Creating quality content also helps. “We focus on keeping it light, telling stories beyond just the bottles in question, and letting the personalities of the guests come to the fore.”

De Grendel’s “Together with wine” is a mix between online and offline offerings, which helps to keep it real. Each week Charles presents an online tasting featuring a wine from degrendel.co.za that’s paired with a new recipe from the estate’s chef. He keeps the experience as natural as possible, infusing it with a blend of education and entertainment. Like Dan, he adds a personal touch through stories and insights customers wouldn’t necessarily have encountered otherwise.

Pros and cons

Livestreams are cheaper and less time-consuming than prerecorded shows because you don’t need video editing afterwards. “But they also leave you open to the vagaries of a live production such as connection cuts, guests making inappropriate comments or your three-year-old walking in on you demanding to watch Peppa Pig,” Dan says.

A prerecorded show allows you to polish the video, edit for time, and cut out anything you don’t want to include. “I find Facebook Live offers the best of both worlds,” Dan says. “I’ve been doing live television for 20 years, so it’s a space I know well. I also have a very experienced director so we’re comfortable going live which gives the broadcast a nice immediacy and energy, but it lives on so it can be watched later as well.”

The biggest drawback of virtual tastings is relying on technology as a mediator. You need good internet connections on both sides and an understanding of your platform. “It’s worth watching Zoom or Skype tutorials or working with someone who understands your platform to get the best out of what you’re doing.”

Finally, pay attention to filming basics. “No bright light behind you, camera ideally at eye level or slightly above, and regularly clean the camera on your phone or laptop – it’s amazing what a difference that can make,” Dan says. “Most importantly, have fun! If you’re not enjoying the process, chances are your audience isn’t either!’

Ultimately it’s the shared experience of wine that contributes to a virtual event – and not the other way around!

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