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Wine lovers use social media tools to foster an online community

The non-profit Guild of Sommeliers could teach big business a thing or two about building an online community.

For the Guild of Sommeliers, creating a full-bodied online community was an essential step in establishing its reputation as the stomping ground for wine connoisseurs.

By combining social media tools with education and conversation, the Guild created an unprecedented Internet resource for those in the wine industry. The Guild boasts a diverse range of members -- 20% are from outside the U.S. -- that represent different walks of wine life. The membership includes everyone from industry workers and wineries to people with a passion for wine.

The Guild's website provides a platform for these wine specialists to engage with one another through familiar social media steps, like friending, posting to discussion boards and sending private messages. The site also offers users the opportunity to consult a one-stop shop of learning materials to study the latest advancements in the industry. But the lively interactive forum doesn't just provide a harbor for member growth; it's also been the key player in fleshing out the Guild's identity.  

The non-profit membership organization, now comprised of over 4,000 wine specialists, began as a simple scholarship foundation with a board of directors but no full-time employees, according to Geoff Kruth, the Guild's chief operating officer.

The U.S. chapter of the Guild was founded in 2003 by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization that educates and certifies sommeliers who work in the hotel and restaurant industries. A sommelier is defined as a wine professional. Kruth, a Court member himself, was enlisted to kick-start the community and helped launch the member site in January 2009. The site ultimately led to the Guild being named a semifinalist in this year's Constellation SuperNova Awards, which honors organizations that use technology to offer innovative customer, member or user experiences.  

"[It] just seemed like the time was right," Kruth said of the Guild's decision to create an interactive Web site. "The technology was available to be able to build it, and we have sommeliers all over the world."

Building an online community

When the website creation process began, Kruth used his worldwide Court contacts to assemble a group of 500 early community patrons.

With his technological know-how, Kruth, who has a degree in computer science, provided a means for the Guild to realize its longstanding goal of hosting an interactive member platform. However, even with Kruth on board, the organization was faced with a lack of examples to model success after. To Kruth's knowledge, no similar community sites had ever been attempted in the wine industry.

Kruth turned to popular public forums, with particular focus on Facebook, for insight into forming an effective, interactive online experience. While he learned quite a bit looking at the public forums, Kruth ultimately concluded that private online communities are more effective vehicles for uniting people "with a particular interest."

Nate Elliott, social media analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., echoed Kruth's assessment, dating the tradition of interest-oriented networking to the dawn of the Internet.

"The history of the Internet as a non-military application is connecting people around niche topics," Elliott said. "This is actually the foundation of social networking, and when you look back at the creation of the Internet, [it was] organized into groups [in which] people congregated around specific topics."

To build or to buy: Guild considers a vendor

The concept of using social media tools to build an online community is nothing new, but back in 2009 it was a fresh development in the wine industry, according to Kruth.

"I feel like we were a couple of years ahead of the curve on this," said Kruth, who had many decisions to make with regards to the logistics of the site's construction.

It was either "build or buy," and the Guild, with its limited technical resources and budget, opted to buy. The organization decided to deploy enterprise social software from Dallas, Texas-based Telligent Systems Inc., software provider to five of this year's SuperNova semifinalists.

"[Telligent] was at the time the only product that had the full capabilities we were looking for," said Kruth, adding that the software allowed the Guild to create discussion forums, blogs, an online textbook and a compendium of wine laws from around the world. 

While Kruth appreciates Telligent's ability to help users form online communities, he wishes the software was more tailored to the needs of private organizations like the Guild. Telligent's list of clients includes Microsoft and Dell, and its products are used primarily to enable online customer service and marketing support activities. The software is not geared toward managing certain aspects of an exclusive membership site, such as subscriptions, Kruth said.

Still, he stressed that Telligent enabled the Guild to add a whole new dimension to its identity as it shifted from a scholarship organization to a membership community that proffers scholarships and in-person educational events.

"I think [the Guild's appeal is its] ability to share across the world," Kruth said. "Now there's one place where everyone goes and says, 'OK, whatever's on the Guild site, that's sort of a standard.'"

Community features

Members pay an annual fee to access the Guild's comprehensive community site, which is arranged with a series of tabs along the top. Of particular interest is the Discussions tab, which draws a lot of member activity. It embodies the interactive crux of the community, boasting 10 to 15 new threads on a host of wine-related topics daily, according to Kruth.

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Facebook and LinkedIn-like profiles, friending and private messages called conversations enhance community interplay. With the ability to post resumes and converse in one-to-one threads, the community helps people build their reputations and network, Kruth explained. And professional relationships are not the only kinds that have blossomed in the community.

"We've even had people dating," Kruth said with a laugh. 

The site's educational leaning is evident in its Features tab, a revamped blog page. Though the Guild originally let any member write blogs, it now hires "thought leaders in the industry" to craft more educational and insightful articles. The Guild publishes about one blog per week.

The site also features study guides, which are a series of wiki docs that serve as an oft-updated textbook complete with videos, photos, maps and a section for member questions. The guides provide accurate information about the ever-changing wine industry, according to Kruth, who said a printed textbook on the same topic would be "out of date before it even hits the shelf."

Guild seeks to branch out

Looking ahead, the Guild hopes to blend the private experience with the public Internet landscape by more closely integrating its community with broader social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter.

Kruth is also working on implementing automatic language translations to bolster communication for the Guild's international demographic, though there are still some kinks to smooth out. While the automatic translation seems to work well for general conversations, it's less effective for Guild-published texts.

"Technology is evolving," Kruth said. "One of the biggest challenges is trying to balance new features and functionality with where the actual products and technology are at."

For those thinking about braving the technological waters and creating an online community of their own, Kruth recommends "trying to visit as many other communities as possible to get ideas."

Forrester's Elliott adds that while social media software can serve as "good" and "longstanding" resources, they work best as supplemental tools for organizations.

"What we find in the business world [is that] online tools [are] not replacing face-to-face communication and industry events, but certainly they're taking some of the burden off," Elliott said. "They are providing another channel where people can connect with their peers [and] that seems appropriate in lots of different spaces and industries."

Kruth, for his part, expects to see many more of these industries, particularly professional trade associations, adding interactive platforms and social media tools. After all, constructing a private online community did wonders for the Guild.

"In a way, [the online community] really is the organization," Kruth said. "It's at the heart of our business model."

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