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Is social media the death of real critique for Gin?

10/11/2020
Written by Gin Foundry

In the era of instant gratification and bottomless refresh social streams – does the way that gin is critiqued need to re-invent itself in order to survive, let alone remain relevant?

Identifiable shifts in the way spirits are communicated have happened time and again. The last obvious one was a notable move away from chunky print guides about distilling and the odd mention in a monthly print magazine, into websites frequently talking about booze (some of which even dedicated to a spirit). Access to brands changed, styles of writing changed, the dynamic of how drinkers educated themselves about and what they wanted to know changed. Not only did the pace of turnover dramatically increase – pushing the conversation about spirits online fundamentally changed the discourse itself and what mattered to drinkers.

While that trend can be felt most acutely now, it occurred almost a decade ago. Today the landscape is changing rapidly once more, and the shift has similarly major implications as it did when digital took over from print. Now, we must face the realities of how the Digital era advances into a new Social Media platform-lead era.

Here, we delve into the topic and look at how it is not only impacting Gin, but what the future holds for the idea of critique and in-depth insight about the spirit if the trend continues.

The way we consume information is changing.

Ever since the rise in popularity of social media platforms, people searching for information about Gin has been slowly moved away from destinations (magazines, sites), and onto the platforms themselves. Today, #Gin is the most searched for spirit on Instagram in the UK.

Of course, social networks have acted as feeders and conduits to hook readers into destination sites, but it’s clear that when it comes to reviews, editorial and journalism in the spirits world – the outbound link is at its most redundant point for years.

Just like it is with the news, when it comes to spirits, far more content is being created to live directly on those platforms. Far more is from coming peer to peer conversations or from the brand themselves too, as opposed to a source who is looking at generating a click through. People now consume so much of their information via social media, it’s not just commentary or opinion about something, it’s where the entire conversation is occurring. It’s worth acknowledging that by saying that, we are equally fully aware of the irony of this article…

The stats are quite important to understand if you want to fully comprehend the scale of the shift that’s underway. The total number of Facebook users is forecast to rise to over 41 million users by 2021 In the UK specifically (there are now 45 million social media users across all platforms already). This equates to 67% of the entire population. Of these, 39 million are mobile social media users meaning they are consuming the information on mobiles, not via desk-tops or as print. Every day, the average UK based user (all age groups) spends 1 hour 50 minutes scrolling through social media sites. Conversely, according to OFCOM stats they spend less than a quarter of that reading newspapers and only half that on other internet-based sites.

Love it or hate it, social media is now where much of our lives are being played out, shared and formed.

From a gin communicator perspective, there is a huge difference in the kind of feedback you receive depending on where content placed. The topics one can tackle are vastly different too. Varying social platforms aside, if you just compare self-owned channels like a website vs community driven public networks like Facebook; the feedback received on latter is live and active whereas the former is more akin to a silent satisfaction of having a well written article (whose possible success is only confirmed some weeks later through analytics).

It’s easy to see why so many new commentators focus more time creating content on social platforms rather than their own websites, especially if they are not seeking to grow numbers for commercial purposes. It’s all too easy to forget that a majority of commentary about gin is being made by people who are not being paid for their words – it’s a hobby! The joy of doing it for the sake of it, and the feedback and sense of community is fundamental to the enjoyment of writing.

Wether it is because it is where the audience is at, or because that’s what’s more enjoyable for many to create – there is a reason that there is more content created for social channels and less going elsewhere.

When it comes to education and consumer empowerment, the verdict is out as to whether the benefits of extra reach and mass exposure exceed the downsides of having curtailed the depth of content. While more people are sharing and more people will see content about a brand or cocktail being discussed – it is happening in far more reductive ways, as well as to a less engaged audience with a shorter attention span.

Reach and depth of content aside, what are the platforms doing to the conversation itself?

The first big shift is that there is a more direct brand to consumer conversation (and relationship) taking place every day. This means there is less of a need than ever for a critic to get involved, or for traditional journalistic checks and balances to occur.

To put this into perspective, according to Instagram 80% of users follow a business or a brand and are looking for inspiration. This is great news for many small producers, but the reality is that the brand with the most budget has the ability to control the narrative and sway the exposure as they can simply spend their way into feeds.

Unfortunately, this also means there are now many brands that are telling a version of the truth (e.g. about their production or provenance, category facts) that shows themselves in the best light and who now have a much bigger audience looking on and accepting it as gospel. Sometimes it is a case of subjectively distorted reality and clever marketing, but other times it’s outright disingenuous messaging.

The second major change is remembering that the role of the publication or the critic isn’t primarily to create exposure. Good journalism is actually a filter for quality and relevancy and it exists to be of service to readers.

Everyone has a social media account and therefore everyone can publish opinions to a really big viewer group. Overall, this is hugely positive as it creates an opportunity for many voices to be heard. However, with the democratisation of content comes a certain amount of false equivalence. This is a fact that is compounded by the metrics used to ‘score’ success on social, which are skewed towards other things than factual accuracy or the insight provided.

Step outside the established booze account bubble (who do spend a lot of time giving insight about the brands they feature), the majority of lifestyle influencer accounts so not delve into details of the spirits the feature, nor do they have any knowledge on what the pertinent info is to check off, other than what they’ve been told by the brand. The concept of “reviewing” is changing rapidly as the intention many have for their content is different. It’s not about critiquing something, it’s about creating exposure for it.

This slants the conversation down a dangerous path. If achieving the maximum double taps is the primary (often sole) objective of the vast majority of publishing occurring on social media and that the majority of individuals posting do not have the drinks knowledge to be discerning, the result is inevitable. The majority of commentary about spirits will be, at best, superficial.

We may be heading towards an era of brand lead advertising and of transient champions not commentators. It doesn’t have to be that way though… and it is key that it doesn’t.

A new era is here, it’s time for longer format critique to adapt.

We strongly believe that it’s vital there are critics, critiques, reviews and analysis of brands that question the quality of a product and that share the information about how it came to be. Not only does such content have a place in the wider conversation about Gin, it’s the only way to hold distilleries and retailers accountable when what they make is less than desirable or disingenuous. It’s also the only way a new generation of drinkers will ever fully understand any given spirit category.

Doing so isn’t just about righting any potential wrongs. It ensures that great quality gin is promoted, that good distillers are elevated and that the category is always growing towards something better because drinkers understand more about it in the fullest sense. It prevents the category from becoming more insular and introspected by only being discussed in its most reductive form.

As ever, for anything to survive it needs to have a clear purpose and it needs to do so in a way that delivers what users (in this case readers) want.

The need for insight driven commentary hasn’t changed at all as fundamentally, it is about being of service to drinkers and helping them discover and appreciate what’s inside the bottle. That still holds true in a social media era. The methods about how one can be “of service” however, have fundamentally and irreversibly changed. Unless the longer format commentary evolves, it risks being ostracised by the masses become redundant to a generation who have made do without it.

The challenge we all face today therefore, lies in creating content that engages and empowers drinkers but to do so on their terms and in the place where they want to engage with the subject and spend their time.

That’s no easy feat to achieve as careful insight about a brand is hard to deliver in short format tweets or via the medium of dance on Tik Tok. Nevertheless, time does not wait for anyone or anything and for Gin and spirits as a whole, the next communication transition is well underway. For the industry to thrive, the way we approach reviews and critique must also evolve once more. We must all find ways to dovetail the ideals presented by the longer essay so common in the old world of print, re-imagined on websites and reinvent yet again for an era where Social will be omnipresent.