Saturday 21 May 2011

My talk at the Beer Bloggers Conference

My name is Dave Bailey, I run Hardknott Brewery, write a beer blog and sell my beer mostly via Twitter.

I feel a little bit of a fraud stood here before you all today; this has all happened a little bit by accident. We used to run a pub, in a remote Lakeland valley called Eskdale. As part of our attempt to provide a unique selling proposition for our customers, and so hopefully increase footfall, we started to brew beer. This worked fairly well, but not quite enough to ensure a viable business. A local business advisor suggested, as part of our strategy, and as an easy way to update information about our pub, that we should start a blog. Very quickly I realised that my writing touched on subjects much further than our own pub, so I started my own Woolpack Dave’s blog and the rest, as they say, is history.

We’ve sold the pub now, as you probably know, and concentrate on brewing and selling beer. What is important for me to highlight is that without social networking via blogging and twitter our business would be very different. We have effectively built, off the back of social networking, and with the help of people like yourselves, one of the smallest National beer brands in the Country. At Hardknott we’re passionate about great beer and I know you all are too; none of use would be here if we weren’t. The Internet is shaping many things in the world from entertainment to politics and beer is no different in this respect.

From a brewers perspective, at least from the perspective of a brewer who is looking at more selective, discerning and intelligent market, call it the Craft Beer sector if you like, social networking is a powerful and important tool to creating a market for our product. The interaction between us and the communication medium provided by valuable people like you is key to making this work. I’d like to explore how this interaction works and how this important partnership can be nurtured for the overall promotion of great beer.

Firstly I shall describe what we do and why I think we are reasonably successful in promoting our business via social networking. Many businesses in many different sectors attempt to engage with potential markets through this medium with various degrees of success. The most important thing to consider is how the target audience is engaged. It does not achieve very much by simply sending friend requests on Facebook or following lots of people on twitter. Equally, simply writing a blog that states what you are brewing today is unlikely to attract much attention.

I believe it is important to include content that might be a little bit of a tangent to the core activities. In blogs, the ones that work best are the ones that provoke thought, perhaps are amusing or are informing of information about real earth shattering beer revelations. Engaging in comments encourages the reader that the blog author is interested in the views of the reader.

Twitter works best when there is interaction between users. Discussions can sometimes be lively and even controversial. Not withstanding a recent heated intellectual discussion Tandleman and I had on twitter, I think people become more engaged when there is plenty of interaction with other users.

When the on-line interaction turns into real life sociable drinking with a nice mix of bloggers and brewing industry people this can forge extremely useful links, which I hope is beneficial in both directions. Twissup being a wonderful invention, and I’d like to relate some stories to you, but my best anecdote, apparently, is not to be mentioned.

Our social media interaction is exactly what it says; social interaction. I can’t claim that what we do is a deliberate plan, hence my statement about feeling like a fraud, but what I have described seems to work for us.

It is important to note that the small community of online bloggers and tweeters is in no way big enough to support even a small part of the beer industry. Beer is a multimillion pound industry that is wide and diverse. Much of that volume might well be in the form that most of the people in this room would see as unworthy of consideration. However, without that important bulk foundation to our industry beer would be nothing, and moreover, this conference would not have achieved sufficient funding to ensure it happened.

At my end of the market, without the economies of scale enjoyed by bigger players, margins are tight and every penny counts. I’m not likely to get rich at this job, although beer enriches my life in ways that money just can’t, so this is in no way a complaint. What I’m doing here is trying to excuse myself if you think I don’t give away enough beer to bloggers; I’m not tight really, just skint.

I want explore the relationship between active social media beer enthusiasts and brewers. How you guys help promote my wares and where often you are doing so completely unpaid and often even after you have paid for the very product you are promoting. How can we make this a fair exchange and retain credibility for your impartial and important online critique?

I’ve noticed conversations on Twitter regarding the relationship between brewers and bloggers. Melissa also mentioned this yesterday. It seems that there are two main areas of concern;

The first is the fact that some bloggers are a little more forward than others about asking for free beer in return for an online review. My thoughts on this are fairly simple. It’s like any transaction, if the brewer feels that the blogger can provide, what I believe is known as a good return on investment, then what is wrong with blatant self promotion of your blog or twitter account?

A far more important question is how can the relationship between the brewer and blogger can be made to have value? This comes down to credibility and fairness, which to some extent contradict each other a little. If a blogger has been sent free beer is there a compulsion for the blogger to be kind to the beer, even if in truth the beer wasn’t to their taste?

Equally, is it fair for the blogger to go online and denigrate a beer when there might be the possibility that it was just a one off bad bottle or batch? It certainly sometimes happens to me and I worry about a single bottle or batch problem undermining my credibility. One chambermaid, as the head of the IMF will testify, can wreak your whole life’s work.

But you do have to think about how seriously you are considered. Quite clearly if you consistently praise beer just because you got it free you are likely to reduce your own credibility. Of course there is one notable blogger, who uses the pseudonym of Cooking Lager, who very successfully supports brands most of us might consider too boring to be bothered with. Of course, the satire is obvious and if you read carefully you’ll find he enjoys many forms of beer.

My point about Cookie is that we all have our own style; I don’t normally review beer at all, which means I don’t get much sent to me. Of course, I’m an industry blogger and so my focus is different. For some bloggers a supply of free beer is the reward.

Many bloggers go out, buy a beer they really want to try and write about it in a completely unbiased way. Most of the good reports of my own beer occur in this way and I’m very grateful for that. For this reason I can be sure that those bloggers have a high degree of credibility. Other bloggers might well depend on free beer being sent, and I have no way of knowing how many. You all have to consider your own style and what you want out of beer blogging and how you might like to deal with it.

Of course, if your aim of blogging is to gain some notoriety, and I’d be surprised if that isn’t the main reason most of you blog, then credibility is very important indeed. I sit on the committee of the British Guild of Beer writers and one of the reasons I put in time to that is because I believe in the Guild awards for beer writing and the corresponding impetus for the improvement in beer writing. Winning an award might not be the only way to gain notoriety, but I can confirm that it certainly helps.

What I am trying to indicate is that if we want online beer critique, be it via twitter, blogger, facebook or any other medium, I personally think that there has to be some standards. On the other-hand I also see evidence of those standards being self regulated and it is the discussions I’ve seen online, and had off-line with people that suggests this is already happening.

From a brewers perspective I’d prefer it if you only ever said my beer was great if it really is great.

However, how do we deal with beer you don’t like, or is in someway defective? If you pour it out, smell it, taste it and then pour it down the sink, do you go right on and blog that it’s rubbish or is it better to just stay schtum? Perhaps it’s better to report the fact privately to the brewer, in case it’s a faulty batch or bottle; a one off unfortunate production problem in an otherwise fantastic product.

As a brewer, I’d like to say that you should always tell me first about problems, but go ahead and slag everyone else’s beer, I need the sales.

However, when a brewer engages in on-line promotion there has to be an acceptance that there will be negative feedback. There is part of me wonders, with a fast growing Scottish brewer getting serious criticism right now, but still maintaining incredible demand, that being sociably connected as personalities will always be good, even when things are going a little off kilter.

I think, like BrewDog, being on-line and having a personality, and the fact that the personality is perhaps flawed, is what works for us.

There is no doubt that my beer is being demanded all over the country and our production, albeit a measly 10 brewers barrels a week, has hit capacity and so requiring investment we can’t currently afford. I’m very grateful to you all for your online support as I’m sure all the brewers who have provided time and money to this conference will agree.


Ed said...

Blimey Dave, only 10 bbl a week! And doing deliveries to London. You must be skint.

Ghost Drinker said...

Great post Dave. Given me some food for thought in future posts! I've never recieved any free beer, but I suppose I've never asked for any.(let's face it I only have a little beer lovin blog) If I did get some then I'd like to think I'd be honest about it. Even if I didn't like it, I wouldn't say it's crap, I'd try pick out some good qualities the beer or brewery has and write about that.

Kristy said...

Great post Dave, feel even worse now I didn't get up in time to hear it live :oS

And great to see support for ALL beer, our challenge is to keep drinkers in beer so we need to be fighting wines and spirits not each other.

Rob Sterowski said...

I like wine and spirits.

Neville Grundy said...

An interesting post. Were you as nervous as you look in the picture?

Unknown said...

Ed, yes we are skint. We are actively looking for a sensible logistics solution for delivering to London. We are also actively looking at buying more stainless. However, Cumbria just doesn't get our progressive attitude to beer and anyway, the market up here is saturated.

Ghost, I think being in the industry rather reduces the amount of freebies one gets.

Kristy, the list of things that I can use against you is just getting longer and longer.....

The issue of support for ALL beer is interesting. As always, I can see both sides of this. Being friends with Martin and James as well as Molson Coors throws up some interesting dilemmas. There will be more....

Barm, good point, so do I.

Nev, I don't think I was particularly nervous, but I had decided to read it out rather than use my more comfortable MO of ad-libbing. I thought there was a lot I had to say in a short time; I would have run over time and waffled too much otherwise. I think my delivery was rather wooden as a result.

Mark Dredge said...

You did a great job Dave - thanks for taking part!

It was really interesting to get your take on why it works for you as a small, new brewery. More breweries should take notice at the potentials of social media and what it can do.

You also bring up some excellent general points about blogging and social media in general.

Zoe said...

Hi Dave,

I really appreciated your insights on the acceptance of negative feedback when it comes to brands and social media. Many companies shy away from social media because they feel it opens them up to criticism. Even in cases where companies are already involved in social media, I have heard stories from people whose posts were deleted from company blogs or Facebook walls for being perceived as negative.

One key thing for any brand to remember is that it isn't necessarily the negative comment itself that will do the most damage, but how the company chooses to respond (or in some cases, not respond) to it. Unhappy customers will find a way to share their frustrations online regardless of whether brands are willing to listen, and once those conversations move away from company channels, they are that much more difficult to monitor and address. By replying promptly and showing that they are genuinely willing to address customer concerns, brands leave their customers with a positive experience to share with others rather than a negative one, improving customer loyalty and enhancing brand reputation.

I think you summed it up perfectly with your comment about brands having personality and flaws. Being human is what makes brands more approachable and easier to relate to from a customer perspective, and they shouldn’t be afraid to show that.

Thanks for a great article!

Zoe Geddes-Soltess
Community Engagement, Radian6

Mark said...

Enjoyed your talk a great deal Dave, nice work. It was clear that you'd taken the topic on, given it a great deal of thought and put a lot of effort into planning what you wanted to say.