How Wine Enthusiast’s Mobile-First Site Helps Readers Discover the Perfect Wine, Wherever They Are
When the company now known as Wine Enthusiast was founded in 1979, it boasted neither a print magazine, nor media or publishing assets of any sort. Instead, it was a direct mail business operated out of a home attic in, of all places, upstate New York. The company's primary product? Cork screws.
In the years that followed, Wine Enthusiast Companies slowly transformed itself into a successful niche retailer of wine accessories and a respected producer of wine-specific events. Wine Enthusiast magazine launched in 1988, and for the past 28 years has been known as one of the industry's premier go-to sources for ratings and reviews of wine, as well as beer and spirits.
In the meantime, high-end wine appreciation went from being the exclusive purview of a relatively small number of connoisseurs to a much more mainstream activity. As Wine Enthusiast Media vice president Jay Spaleta points out, the consumption of wine in the United States has risen every year for the past 22 years. More recently, he adds, industry experts have been predicting that wine consumption among the Millennial Generation will exceed that of the Boomer Generation within the year. “Which is a bit of a perfect storm for marketers and media organizations like us,” says Spaleta.
In an effort to better address the wine world's larger and much more youthful audience, Spaleta, who previously spent more than a decade at Condé Nast, directed a redesign of Wine Enthusiast's print publication last year. But given that Generation Y overwhelmingly prefers to access content on phones rather than the printed page, Spaleta decided to up the ante by completely redesigning the magazine's home on the web, winemag.com, into a dynamic, mobile-first site based around user search. Winemag.com relaunched in December 2015.
Along with photo-heavy features boasting integrated video, the new site will host more content from wine industry celebrities, says Spaleta. What's more, ecommerce functionality will soon allow readers to shop for items featured in winemag.com stories. And the newly relaunched Wine Enthusiast Tasting Guide app, available free for Apple and Android devices, allows customers to take thousands of reviews, ratings, and tasting notes into the liquor store.
Perhaps the beefed-up site's most useful feature, however, is its integrated Buying Guide, an incredibly dense and fully searchable collection of more than 190,000 wine, spirit, and beer reviews. Wines, for instance, can be searched by varietal, keyword, brand name, or dollar amount. And the reviews that appear include links to online retail stores along with suggestions of related wines. The guide, Spaleta points out, allows connoisseurs to make a difficult decision much easier, directly at the point of purchase. Indeed, it was designed, he says, “specifically to help consumers make a decision at that last foot of the sale.”
Spaleta recently spoke with Publishing Executive about the decision that led to the site's overhaul, and about other tech-focused publishing projects his team hopes to roll out in the near future.
Why did you relaunch winemag.com?
One of the reasons we did it had to do with the fact that we’d upped the ante on the print magazine so much, and we realized that the website had to match that. It was also due to the fact that wine in general is one of the fastest growing packaged goods categories; I believe it's the only packaged good over the past 20 or so years that's had steady growth. So because there are more entrants into the marketplace, we needed to have more content. There's also the fact that you have more consumers, and younger consumers, who are interested in wine.
You've also said that people who were reading the print magazine kept asking for more content. What type of content, specifically, were they asking for?
First of all, they wanted more ratings, which is one of the most popular sections in the magazine. In fact, we’re now the number one magazine in the U.S. for reviewing wines; we review more wines than anyone else. Wine consumption is getting bigger and bigger, and you’re having people seek out different varietals, different producers, and more people are getting into the game. Therefore, we needed to revamp our website so that it was very simple to search for the wines that people are looking for. But we also needed to have more sophisticated options once we’d pulled readers into the website. We wanted to be able to assist them in navigating to relevant content outside the wine ratings, so that we'd be able to keep them on our site.
Why has Wine Enthusiast put an emphasis on “mobile-first” design for the new website?
We know that the trend for all digital media is gravitating toward everyone’s phones, so that's not something that’s new. But you have to remember that our ratings are used by every single major retailer to, not only buy their wines, but to sell them and to promote them at the point of sale. Restaurants use our ratings to help build their lists. Consumers are walking into retailers and restaurants making their decisions based upon our Tasting Guide app, which also recently relaunched. That app has about 100,000 downloads right now, and we’re going to be doing some more marketing to make that ever larger.
The fact that we rate and review all those wines, and spirits and beer as well, allows everyone to make a decision directly at the point of purchase; we need to be able to help consumers make a decision at that last foot of the sale. So that might be on an iPad at a restaurant, or in a retail shop, where someone's looking at our list and wants to see the tasting notes in our app. You have to be everywhere.
(For more insight on how publishers are utilizing ecommerce read "When Commerce and Content Converge" and "Corner Office: F+W Chairman & CEO David Nussbaum on the Company’s Decisive Strategic Shift Toward Ecommerce.")
Are there plans to monetize the Buying Guide in any way?
Well, we’ll monetize through the app, certainly. We plan to do that through more sophisticated push notifications. We’ll create more content that's customized based upon geography, and improve our ability to geo-target consumers who are interested in certain wine varietals. So as that gets more sophisticated, and we continue to segment our site, you’re going to see something that's far, far more focused.
Are there other monetization plans in place for the website?
A lot of [our monetization plans] have to do with aggregating content, and allowing advertisers to own a search term, like a varietal or a region. The advertising could then be populated for a particular brand. It's just a great opportunity to monetize in a way that's respected by the reader, because it's a message that they’re going to be receptive to. If someone's interested in Riesling, for instance, they're going to be completely interested in getting more information about Riesling from an advertiser, and it's not going to feel exploitive.
I understand sponsored content is going to play a larger role on the new site. Is that something you're earning a decent amount of revenue from now?
Are sponsored content and other digital plays important to the company's bottom line at the moment? Or is the vast majority of your money still coming from print ads?
The majority is still from print, but we’re talking about probably a 75/25 or 70/30 split, print to digital. From a percentage point, we don't see the digital increasing too much, but we do see the actual value increasing on both sides. So unlike the rest of the industry, we’re not exchanging the whole ‘print dollars for digital dimes.’ That's just not happening. We're seeing incredible growth in the print revenue, and we're seeing really, really high growth on the digital side. And mostly that's because almost everything we do is a custom integrated plan.
So, going back to the whole concept of why mobile is so important, it’s because we lead with the idea that we’re a trade organization with a consumer facing publication. We know we can integrate our content at the retail level in a big way. We can partner with retailers to use both print and digital assets to provide them with content that creates a connection between a consumer who is on our site or reading our magazine, with our content at retail. For instance, we have a February travel issue, and we just named the top 10 wine travel destinations. We also rate and review wines from every single one of those regions in the thousands, and those wines are out in the market. One of the things we've done is translate the idea of those top ten destinations in end cap displays in retailers. And then retailers can say, “This is an opportunity, if you can't visit these places, to taste the wines from those regions.” And they'll populate their displays in-store with wine from each one of those regions.
What do you expect will be the most important aspect of the relaunched site, as far as its monetization is concerned?
You know, this is going to sound like a very trite answer, but we worry about money second. We really worry about engagement first. And again, because the market is growing, and the fervor for wine is growing, we don't worry so much about monetization; there is no silver bullet. We feel like monetization can come from anywhere, so we're not banking on any single item. What we do know is that custom ideas that have a great deal of the DNA of our clients in them are the things that work best. And it’s almost never a digital-only advertising play. It's usually a partnership between print, digital, and events.
Any final thoughts you'd like to share about the new site?
I will say that I think we're in an era where you have to be so responsive to how people want to consume media. I think if I’ve learned anything as a publishing executive, it's not to put things in silos, but to understand where your consumer is, to speak to them in a genuine voice, and to give them the information when and how they need it.
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Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.