How Wine Access Fled Old Media Tactics And Chased Consumers Into The Subscription Economy

Comic: "What's your email?"Wine Access, an almost 20-year-old online wine retailer, has evolved in lockstep with the internet and changing consumer habits.

In 2006, it started operating ecommerce domains for wine publications and vineyards. Because part of its business involves sending email follow-ups on behalf of wine sellers, Wine Access became an early email database with daily newsletter content and special offers. The company also started producing stories and content about its vineyard customers and wines, which generated cookies and publisher data. In 2017, it launched its own online store.

“Our core business is obviously selling wine,” said CEO Joe Fisch. “The way we’ve done that is to build brands for partners on our site and ourselves, with a large element of media and marketing.”

Over the past two years, the company has been surfing the next major wave of the digital economy: the great subscription boom.

Wine Access has its own quarterly wine subscription that costs $150 per box. Another subscription route runs through partnerships with larger wine publishers or organizations with subscribers or members, since those publications can package Wine Access subscriptions as an add-on to their customers.

Just this week, Wine Access launched a cobranded wine subscription with the magazine Decanter. It’s also got a west coast US wine subscription with Sunset Magazine, which chronicles traveling in California, Oregon and Washington. And Michelin Guide, the high-end restaurant rating service, uses Wine Access to offer subscriptions to sommelier packages from top restaurants.

“Subscriptions and partnerships are really where we started to shift our strategy,” Fisch said.

One reason for its heavy subscription focus is that, sometimes, it’s the tail that wags the dog.

“The investor community loves subscriptions,” Fisch said.

Wine Access isn’t on Wall Street. It’s a private company. But, hey, everybody is trying to impress the people who dole out cash and valuations.

But the company is also chasing consumers.

There’s an appetite for services that “do the thinking for you” when it comes to purchases that happen at a regular cadence, Fisch said.

“Whether it’s Amazon sending me razors every couple of months or Ritual vitamins as a subscription,” he said, “there is a massive subset of people who want to buy everything this way, including wine.”

Another important factor behind the subscription revenue craze is the structural changes to media and marketing.

Historically, social media has been an important channel, Fisch said, and it still is. But the tactic Wine Access is investing more in now is direct sales on Instagram, which last year introduced ads for Shops, the on-platform storefront that integrates with Shopify. Instagram also started allowing all accounts to add shoppable links to Stories posts.

“It’s hard to say whether that’s strictly in response to higher cost per acquisition on Facebook and Instagram of late or just us experimenting and finding that it’s effective,” Fisch said.

Higher social customer acquisition costs have pushed the company to other new media. Wine Access launched a podcast in 2021 and has been an active podcast advertiser over the past two years. Even when people don’t use a podcast promo code, the company still sees an organic bump after running podcast ads, according to Fisch.

Marketers are dealing with signal loss for mobile measurement in particular. Finding ways to tie campaign results to data that the brand can still track, like organic traffic, is a top priority. Podcast ads may not look great with standard attribution tools – Apple or other mobile marketers claim the conversion credits – but Fisch said podcasts do drive discovery, judged by organic and other in-bound traffic like search.

Next up, Wine Access is developing an app. The cookie-based approach of site content has lost its edge, but email-based subscriptions and app installs still offer an opportunity for effective personalized marketing, Fisch said.

“Pushing people through an app funnel or a subscription partnership funnel are similar skills, and something we’re putting a tremendous amount of work into right now,” he said.

Still, as of now, subscriptions and cobranded subscription partnerships only account for between 3% and 4% of Wine Access’s overall revenue. But if you look at new buyers, that number jumps to closer to 20%, Fisch said; And the company’s marketing investments lean even more heavily in that direction.

“Those numbers paint a picture of how of how much online ad targeting and privacy changes have affected our go-to-market approach,” he said.

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