As more and more craft distillers start to jump on the virtual tasting bandwagon amidst the global pandemic, there are two common themes. Those who take them on with a temporary mindset and those who treat them as a potentially new, permanent part of their marketing plan. Hands down, across all of the craft distillers I’ve talked to and worked with on virtual tastings, the ones who are treating them as serious, permanent marketing tactics are getting superior and even enviable results — results so good that they would be crazy to stop putting effort into their virtual experiences even when the pandemic is over.
For example, one maker has grown his mailing list 30%, with a much higher percentage of out-of-state sign-ups than they’ve previously seen. Another has had an astounding 90% success rate with virtual demos for retail accounts, which is significantly higher than their new account close rate when they’ve done these in person in the past. Yet another is scheduling four or more private barrel selection tastings per week with pre-confirmed full barrel sales for every single one of them. And then there are the more commonly seen impressive results from many makers who are investing in virtual tastings seriously: 20+ attendees per event, online sales revenue both pre- and post-event, higher engagement with existing fans and the acquisition of new fans they likely wouldn’t have reached without this virtual effort.
Global pandemic or not, one thing is clear. Virtual experiences have real, lasting value when done right (for a free tutorial on how to host engaging virtual events yourself — from planning to promoting to technology and more — visit bit.ly/FreeVTtutorial). Furthermore, because of their relative low cost, many makers believe they are key to leveling the playing field between smaller, craft brands and larger ones with deep pockets. If growing your brand is an objective, virtual experiences should be one of your tactics. And the time is now to get those virtual experiences up, optimized and successful while the consumer demand and interest is at its highest. Let’s take a look at our top five reasons why these initially temporary-seeming experiences should now be a permanent tool in your marketing toolbox.
Drive Real Sales with Relatively Low Effort
Whether or not you’re currently set up for online sales and shipping, when done correctly virtual experiences can and will drive real sales, often with lower effort and cost than it would take to drive that same number of sales with in-person or other marketing tactics. From driving tasting room pick-up sales, to partnering with retailers to cross-promote and drive sales through them, to making mini sample-size bottles available, to creating a barrel sales program, to setting up new online sales distribution channels specifically to help support your virtual experiences: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the payoff can be big, so it’s worth the up-front investment (and currently looser guidelines in some states) to figure it out now.
At one of The Crafty Cask’s recent weekly virtual tasting experiences, where we feature two craft makers centered around a theme, one of our makers sold over $1,700 in bottles from participating in that one 90-minute tasting alone. And then there’s the maker we previously mentioned who’s pre-selling up to four full barrels of whiskey per week with their private barrel selection virtual experiences. If driving sales is your goal, virtual experiences can help you do just that with a little up-front infrastructure investment and good promotions. And if you’re treating virtual experiences as a serious marketing tactic that will stand the test of time, as you should, the work is well worth it.
Grow Your Audience & Efficiently Increase Brand Awareness
Now, even if you’re driving sales with your virtual experiences, it’s also important that you are continuing to grow your brand awareness and audience. Luckily, virtual experiences are a slam dunk for this objective as well. Think about it… would you rather get 10 new followers on Instagram or 10 new fans who you’ve interacted with face-to-face and who are now on your mailing list? It’s a no-brainer. If you’re putting effort into growing your audience and brand awareness, virtual tasting experiences are a higher-touch, more immersive, personal and lasting way to do just that.
To make the most of this audience-growth strategy, promote your events widely and often. Remember to target specific Facebook groups around that event’s topic to find enthusiasts and offer them a great event to attend. Then, require registration to attend the event. This is the benefit over using services like Zoom vs. Facebook or Instagram Live alone. By requiring registration, you capture their email addresses (make sure to include a disclaimer on the registration page that they will be added to your mailing list and can opt out at any time) so you can add them to your mailing list and continue to deepen your new fans’ relationship with your brand.
And don’t forget, this works great for securing new trade accounts as well. Offer private virtual tasting demos and drop off a tasting pack with bottles, tasting note booklets, branded materials and more. We see more and more craft makers doing this and from everyone we’ve talked to, they’ve indicated that they’re seeing better results with securing accounts virtually than they ever did with the standard in-person approach. Change can be scary, but it can also be much needed and very beneficial.
Engage with Your Existing Audience More Frequently
For many craft distillers, unless you’re able to offer cocktails in your tasting room, it can be hard to encourage frequent repeat visits — especially since many consumers take months to drink through one bottle at home. By providing regularly engaging virtual experiences, you can encourage them to engage with you and your brand more frequently from the comfort of home, all while teaching and encouraging them to enjoy your spirits in new ways so they either need a new bottle faster or want to get their hands on additional spirits they haven’t previously purchased. Cocktail classes are perfect for this, as are home scavenger hunts, trivia and meet-the-maker events.
Private virtual tastings are also an easy way to “visit” frequently with the people who already know and love your brand. They also allow you to deepen your relationship in a meaningful way since there are no other guests or tasting room activities to distract you from their experience. In this instance, it’s entirely appropriate to charge a tasting fee and/or require bottle purchases for the experience — great for things like birthday celebrations, family gatherings, holiday parties and more. This is also where you can consider a single barrel selection experience if you have a consumer or trade-facing barrel sales program.
Provide Much Desired Access to Your Busy Maker & Owners
One of the most common complaints we hear when it comes to in-person tasting room visits is disappointment that the distiller or owner wasn’t available. It’s understandable: We all have responsibilities, so it’s impossible to give every visitor a distiller or owner-led experience. Virtual experiences, however, make that an easier nut to crack, which means you’re giving your guests what they really want… to meet you!
Spending an hour or two per week on camera to give consumers that “in the know,” personal experience is efficient and effective. Just make sure you leave ample time for your virtual guests to actually engage with you directly and ask questions. For this reason, we always prefer to host our Zoom virtual experiences as meetings vs. webinars. That way everyone can see and interact with everyone and attendees can unmute themselves to talk directly to the makers and owners.
While I know not all makers and owners like to be “on stage,” your consumers value it tremendously, so it’s an important marketing tactic both virtually and beyond. People connect with people and stories, not products or brands. So leverage the efficiency of virtual experiences to give your consumers the maker and owner access they crave and watch your consumer loyalty and word-of-mouth connections grow.
Build Community That Will Sustain You Through Future Ups & Downs (options are endless)
Lastly, virtual experiences are incredible at building community. This is more important than ever, as we’ve all recently realized, when it comes to weathering the storm of difficult times. While hosting your own virtual experiences solely focused on your brand and products will help you build your community, there are also creative ways to build a broader community to reach even more people and deepen relationships that can support you.
Consider co-hosting a virtual whiskey event with another local distiller in town. You’ll get the benefit of both brands promoting one event and you’ll each get access to the other brand’s audience, helping you grow your awareness and interest. Or, partner with a local restaurant in town to host a food pairing to support both businesses and grow your audiences. If you proudly use local ingredients, you could even collaborate with one of your suppliers and have the farmer join in on the fun to grow true grain to glass appreciation and further differentiate your brand.
Virtual Experiences Are Needed Now, but Valuable Always
By building community and providing engaging virtual experiences now, when the need is at its highest, you’ll train your consumers and trade partners to expect these types of events in the future. So even when life does get back to normal, they’ll have fond memories of these events and be more likely to continue to join so you can reap the benefits of more efficiently reaching and engaging fans, new and old, far and wide, into the future. Out of crisis often comes opportunity — and virtual experiences are one of the best new opportunities for craft distillers to level the playing field, drive loyalty, sell more spirits and grow your brand.