Gary Vaynerchuk “Superstar:” Retailer & Entrepreneur Walks the Social Media Walk

If you don’t know who Gary Vaynerchuk is as yet, you will soon. On April 10th, HarperStudio announced that they have signed a “seven figure, ten book” deal with Gary Vaynerchuk. That deal culminates this week with the release of the first book: Crush-It – Why Now Is the Time to Cash In On Your Passion.

Who, you may ask, is Gary Vaynerchuk?

Gary is an early 30s, Belorussian-born wine retailer from New Jersey. And though his relentless diligence and grasp of the medium, he has quickly become one of the first bona fide superstars of social media. A stardom that he has parlayed into a branding agency, a speaking business and a host of associated business endeavours. And to top it off, he is a straight-up business person who is not an academic, marketing/communications professional or guru – and this status is being recognized by the mainstream media.

How did Gary attain his cult/superstar status in the social media world? Quite frankly, dedication to the media, commitment to “always hustling the business”  and staying authentic. And his single focus of one day owning the New York Jets. 🙂

When Gary’s dad Sasha moved his family from Belarus (then part of the USSR) to the United States, they eventually settled in New Jersey and took over the operations of a wine retail operation known as Wine Library. As a family run operation, business growth was slow and steady. In his formative years before he was of legal drinking age, Gary spent his time learning about flavours in new and unique ways that few could imagine (I urge all to view the soon to be more famous Episode 148 at the tv.winelibrary.com website to get a sense of Gary’s commitment). After college he entered the family business – which was his boot camp before a serious nose-dive into the wine business.

Things took a dramatic turn about four years ago. With the advent of social media coming on stream, he talked his family into incorporating social media tools into the business, and redefine Wine Library’s sales strategy. With some resistance, the family supported him. Gary then set forth in motion a number of different websites, among the first being Wine Library TV.

Looking at the early episodes of the site, we can see Gary feeling his way in the world. But with more episodes under his belt, Gary became more confident, and started to incorporate more social media tools into his videocasts. He got on Facebook (almost 22,000 fans and counting), Twitter (over 850,000 followers), Tumblr, he was amongst the first retailers to incorporate tags to del.icio.us, Digg and StumbleUpon. He also got his podcasts up on iTunes as well as creating blogs for Cork’d (a discussion group about wine). He also took the time to write a book – 101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World – that cemented his unique approach and language to reviewing wine (indeed, wine connoisseurs rarely faced such REAL and FRANK descriptors as “Big League Chew,” “Fruit Roll-Ups” and “poopie” in their tasting notes). But, more importantly, he tied everything back to the core business of selling wine (evolving simultaneously as a venue selling himself). His use of social media aligned with the operations of Wine Library to emphasize that there is a dialogue about wine that could be realized through product that could be purchased at Wine Library.

While sales may have fallen in the short-term, Wine Library has experienced phenomenal growth and is now a $50  to $60 million a year business. On his videocast, Gary now has the star power to attract the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was on an episode this spring. Tack on appearances on Good Morning America, CNN, Conan O’Brien, Ellen and hosting such luminaries as Jim Cramer, Kevin Rose (founder of Digg) and Timothy Ferriss (“The 4-hour Work Week”), Gary has become an industry unto himself. So big that is Gary was one of the keynotes at the 2009 SXSW interactive conference and his appearance/speaking fees are well into the 5-digits a shot (OK, lower 5-digits at this point).

What’s driving this success? Three things – Gary (authentically) LOVES Wine, he is a GREAT STORYTELLER and is WHOLLY COMMITTED to social media. As he says, “if something is new (in social media), I am all over it.” And he lives by that mantra. One needs to watch Gary in action carefully to understand this – he uses his daily broadcast to cross-reference what he is doing by literally, while on camera, pointing to other parts of the computer screen of where to connect with him on social networks, where to link up previous episodes and where to read reviews of the wines he is tasting below the video screen. He always manages to chat about football, and his personal appearances (referenced at the top of the screen), as well is what is going on with the retail operation at Wine Library. Further, he encourages his audience – lovingly named by him as the VaynerNation (even they are branded) – by encouraging them to post comments at the video blog to look at what is going on in the wine club, to follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, and to buy the swag that he has related to wine. Further, he aligned the retail and online operation with his push efforts – staff share their passion for wine with customer and support the social media platform. While it is shameless, he is absolutely authentic in what he does and his cross-platform promotion is natural in his banter.

What is also key to Gary’s success in using social media as a marketing tool is that he rewards his viewership (i.e., Vayniacs and the retailer’s customers) for being part of this community. He is always doing giveaways, he reads comments left by his viewers, he is also putting up special offers on the various social media platforms . For example, there are Facebook specific offers where members of that group get a code for a tremendous deal on when purchasing wine at Wine Library. He understands that the conversation goes both ways and his viewers and customers’ participation in this dialogue should be validated.

Gary has clearly demonstrated a grasp of this medium. He is also fully committed to social media as a pillar of Wine Library’s core business strategy (as you can read in this March 2009 article in the New York Times). Wine Library’s operation has been completely re-engineered to capitalize on social media – sure it takes time, but for them it is substantially more cost effective than traditional advertising. He is also committed to the notion that every opportunity to interact is an opportunity to market the business… as long as one stays true to oneself and understands the marketing is part of a greater conversation of building a relationship.

What can marketers learn from Gary? Social media is an important tool is getting your message out and engaging your customers. If you are going to incorporate social media tools in your marketing strategy, have it connected to your corporate strategy first, commit to it and reward your audience for establishing a relationship and sticking around. And ask your audience for their opinion (no matter how harsh it may be). It is only through such conversations, where there is a mutual reward, that authenticity can be manifested, expressed and relationships become more rewarding.

Gary signs off every broadcast with “You, with a little bit of me, we are changing the wine world.” This is among a host of catch phrases which contribute to the Gary Vaynerchuk “brand,” that reinforces that he is the front man for Wine Library. Gary gets the triad of social media, business strategy and branding, and is now commuting this knowledge into a marketing and branding agency. Yet another rung in his long climb to attain his goal of owning the New York Jets. And this researcher believes that he will get there.

Congrats Gary on the release of Crush It and to your continued success.

Some handy background resources:

Crush It – sample chapter: Click here to download.

Gary’s national television appearances: Click here to view.

Brian F. Singh, CMRP
ZINC Research
Web: www.zincresearch.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/BFSingh
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/6/186/181

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