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In just two years, wine subscription company Winc has seen its partnership program mature into a robust customer acquisition channel on par with its paid social, SEO, display, and native marketing investments. 

At the SubSummit virtual conference this fall, I interviewed Eric Miller, Senior Manager of Partnership and Influencer Marketing at Winc, to learn more about the company’s partnership program growth and how its partners now drive 15% of its customer acquisitions. 

You don’t have to be a subscription-based business to learn a lot about influencer partnerships from Miller’s insights. Check out the video of our great convo here, or read the full transcript below.

Winc’s partners serve up conversions and content

Winc’s goal is to introduce people to great wines in a way that is fun and friendly. So they don’t only rely on big-name oenophiles to bring in new customers. The company works with thousands of “everyday” micro- and nano-influencers and ambassadors who are vital not only to meeting customer acquisition goals, but also to generating a versatile stream of content for the business.

In recruiting new influencers, the company looks for original voices and engaging content, not just big audiences. In fact, Miller finds that sometimes the most powerful content comes from the smallest of influencers. And when that quality content is repurposed company-wide on channels from paid social to Winc’s own Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds, it has an outsized ROI.

Automation prevents bottlenecks

Miller believes that partnership diversity and volume are vital for customer acquisition, and he advises subscription-based businesses to test and onboard as many partners as their budgets will allow. He also credits partnership automation with enabling Winc to manage its nearly 4000 influencer partnerships with just a few people rather than 10 or 11.

Impact Partnership Cloud not only enables the Winc team to efficiently manage its vast network of influencers, it also provides flexibility to measure each partner’s value — whether derived from activations or content — and customize payout terms accordingly.

Letting partners breathe

Winc is known for its massive variety of great wines, especially California varietals. That’s one reason Miller is committed to giving influencers flexibility in what they order and promote so they can convey their experiences and preferences in a genuine and engaging way. 

Especially during the pandemic, Winc’s influencers have been able to share a very authentic narrative that has helped the company grow and thrive.

Want to grow your partnership program into something worth celebrating? Reach out to an Impact growth technologist at grow@impact.com.

Here’s the full interview transcript:

Cristy Garcia:

I’m Cristy coming to you live from New York. And I’m here with Eric Miller, who is the senior manager of partnerships and influencer marketing at Winc. Hi Eric.

Eric Miller:

Hey, thanks so much for having me

Cristy Garcia:

Tell us a little bit about Winc. Who is your audience? What do you guys do? What is Winc?

Eric Miller:

Winc is a premier wine subscription company here in the U S. Our goal is to introduce people to great wines in a way that’s really fun and not intimidating. We have a really great selection from all over the world and particularly a lot of great California varietals, which is where the company is based, in Los Angeles. The goal really is to bring people together and to get people drinking wine in a way that again is fun and not intimidating. First-time users will come to the website and take a really easy six-question profile detailing their palate preferences. From there, we recommend four bottles, and you get them shipped directly to your house. Hopefully you like all of them, but if you don’t, you can actually send a bottle back, and we’ll send you a new one. The membership is very flexible. You can cancel any time. You can order as many bottles as you want from whatever regions or styles you want. The kind of general goal is just getting people drinking wine in a way that’s really fun and not intimidating or confusing or scary.

Cristy Garcia:

So your role is very interesting: senior manager of partnerships and influencer marketing. What is it that you do, and how has it evolved over the course of time that you’ve been with Winc?

Eric Miller:

Yeah, the influencer marketing role was new to me, too. When I was hired, I actually didn’t have very much experience at all doing anything related to influencer marketing. I was working mostly in affiliate marketing, but Winc was looking to build a channel for influencers that mimicked what other growth acquisition channels had become for them, so, paid social, SEO, affiliate marketing, display, and native marketing. They really felt that influencer marketing could become another big acquisition driver for the company. So primarily my goal over the two years has been to build out that program. And fortunately it’s been really successful and we’ve seen a ton of growth especially this year. We also do a bunch of partnership marketing that kind of encompasses a lot of other stuff, but with the goal throughout all of those different channels of customer acquisition.

Cristy Garcia:

So can you walk me through the anatomy of Winc’s partnerships? How does someone become a partner? How are you tracking performance? What is their performance goal? How are you paying them?

Eric Miller:

The anatomy of a partnership at Winc as it relates to influencers is really that everything falls under the lens of growth marketing. So when we’re evaluating partnerships, we’re always looking at how much acquisition can they drive. And I think the way the program is broken down really reflects that. So, I really broke it down into kind of two different groups based primarily on size, and that kind of determines everything else that falls after. 

So on the one side you have kind of the ambassador/nano/micro — I know there are a lot of different words for it —and we run that primarily through Impact. 

And then on the other side we have the macro program, which is done internally but also through an agency.

So the big difference is kind of again, size, but also on the macro side of things, we’re spending a lot upfront on those partnerships. And on the micro/nano/ambassador, it’s mostly product swap and more of a cost per sale structure on payout. So what you have is a much larger group of people on the micro and nano ambassador side and a smaller group on the macro side of things. But all encompassing, we’re looking at all of those partners to drive new customer acquisition for the subscription.

Cristy Garcia:

That’s cool. And it sounds like the appeal of the influencer channel in general is that there are so many new and evolving ways to kind of work with them. So how do you find your influencer partners? How are you discovering them?

Eric Miller:

Whenever I talk about influencers and how I work is really in those two groups, and that defines really everything about how I prospect and work with influencers overall. So prospecting is done differently depending on which group they fall on. When we’re looking at kind of that macro level, those bigger influencers, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with an agency for about a year and a half. That’s really helped in the early stages to provide context and kind of be a shepherd into who to work with and giving us direction in how to do that. And we’ve been able to maintain that partnership with them, and since then we’ve grown an internal program with our macro influencers, which is doing direct partnerships with people not through the agency.

And all of those partnerships, whether through that agency or direct, we’re looking at people who we think can drive a lot of traffic and ultimately customer acquisition for us. So, over time, we’ve been able to build up a really great analytical database that we can review and get the best sense possible of what we think will work. Those are really specific metrics that can be about engagement, audience insights, where the audience is located, their audience interests… so it’s never an exact science, but it’s been a great base to build off. 

As we continue to scale the program, we utilize Impact a lot to help us to prospect for that group of, of partners. because you know, it is less about upfront spend and more about quantity.

So, my team helps me prospect utilizing Impact, as I said, and we look mostly at their content and their kind of voice. And if they have a unique voice or angle on promoting content or kind of just sharing their everyday life, it’s, it’s usually going to be a good fit for us, and we’ll reach out to them actively through Impact and the email tool. Then we’ll bring them in onto Impact to create content for us. 

I think the great thing about the nano/micro/ambassador program is it’s really not as reliant on just how many activations or sales they’re bringing in. We’re also looking at how original and unique the content is and how much that content can help us on other channels on our own social as non-paid media as well.

I think there’s a lot more flexibility there. We’re running a lot of different fun campaigns all the time, and it’s a big part of what we’re doing because we’re able to work with thousands of people at once, and that’s a huge win for us as far as content generation. It’s not just how many activations or clicks they’re driving, but again, that content generation is something we are really able to utilize across the company on various channels from paid social to, to our organic social like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Cristy Garcia:

So I think what’s really interesting is that influencers are generating content that you are using for your own marketing purposes. In that case, how are they compensated for that?

Eric Miller:

Compensation when we utilize influencers’ content on our own page channels can be a percentage of our media spend, meaning that we decide up front on an amount of specific percentage, 5%, 10% of the overall spend we’re putting into the content to promote it on Facebook. Or it can be an additional fee, say a percentage of the initial cost, what we paid to have the influencer promote on their channel. Or it can be more product or additional higher CPA spend or some sort of rev share that the activations we’re bringing in with their content on the page channels. So it’s really customizable to what the influencer feels comfortable with and what we think makes sense and gives us the best capability of scaling the media itself.

Cristy Garcia:

Are there any additional partner types that you plan on working with in the future? Is there a Kardashian Winc partnership in the works, or can we expect any type of partnerships?

Eric Miller:

I think there’s always discussions of those types of bigger, more integrated partnership that goes beyond just digital and into the physical. So, you know, talking about creating a wine with someone that is kind of a standalone brand, we don’t do it very often and it’s something that we’ve again had discussions about, but haven’t explored. But as the program itself grows and we start kind of stepping into these longer term partnerships, I definitely think it’s in the realm of possibility where you’ll see some sort of influencer wine with Winc at some point in the future. I definitely wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s a big commitment. It’s a lot of different teams. It touches a lot of different people in the company and it’s a big investment on our end. So, it’s not something we would do very much so when you do see something like that, it’s usually a sign of a really strong partnership. We’ll see what happens as we continue to grow in 2021 and beyond.

Cristy Garcia:

That’s very cool. So earlier you mentioned using Impact. Why are you using Impact, and what features and functionalities are important for you for tracking and discovery?

Eric Miller:

I think there are two key business partnerships that helped me kind of unlock the kind of influencer world in a way that I would have otherwise not been able to do. One of those was the agency that helped us with the macro stuff that I touched on earlier. And the other is Impact with growing our micro and ambassador program. 

And in our case, we have a very small team. And so being able to give my colleagues the capabilities of Impact probably saves us from having 10 or 11 people do it down to one or two and doing it in a way that would otherwise take months can take a few weeks.

There’s no way I would have been able to build the program. We have almost 4,000 partners on Impact for influencers right now, and they’re generating thousands and thousands of clicks each month and creating a ton of content that otherwise, now that we’re in this pandemic and our offices are remote and we don’t have access to the studio and our creative team, it’s a content generation capability that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see during these times.

Cristy Garcia:

So there’s been a lot of criticism in the influencer space of companies saying that there’s no way to track the influence of these influencers, and maybe they’re not deserving of the money that they’re getting paid. How are you guys tackling that at Winc?

Eric Miller:

I think that’s a, it’s a valid concern and something that we take very seriously considering how focused we are on growth, and we are very keenly aware of where our spend is going and what that return on investment can be from a cost per acquisition standpoint and just the cost of acquiring customers. And so Impact is an incredible tool to be able to granularly track on a partner by partner basis that performance seamlessly, being able to integrate that into our own tracking and analytical platform is just giving that next level of overall spend and a view on the program as a whole. I can look at what’s happening on the ambassador/influencer/nano side right next to what’s happening on our macro side.

Cristy Garcia:

And as far as your marketing mix, how big is your influencer program and your partnership program in general? Was it 10%? 20% of your marketing budget?

Eric Miller:

We didn’t really have a program when I began at Winc. And that was a little over two years ago. And so to see what it has become, which is a major kind of acquisition tool for us, has been great. I think especially since everything that happened with the pandemic mixed in with the unpredictability of what Facebook has become, the channel has really stepped up and become a huge acquisition tool for us. I think it has accounted for around 15% of our acquisitions this year, which is on par with those other channels that I mentioned before. It’s continuing to grow, and as the stuff with Facebook, you know, as we get closer to the election, Facebook is becoming more expensive, we’re definitely seeing a lot of allocation towards the influencer program and continuing to be able to hit our numbers and grow at a reasonable cost. So I think by the end of the year, that that percentage will grow even more.

Cristy Garcia:

If an influencer has a very successful campaign, does that change the way that you’re marketing that particular product?

Eric Miller:

I think we’re pretty flexible with what we have influencers promote. On the nano and ambassador side of things, we actually let them order whatever they want. We think giving them the most realistic experience possible, taking our quiz and being matched to the wines and then trying the wines and seeing what they like and didn’t like, it offers the best dialogue from their perspective to convey to the audience what Winc is all about. We try to keep that all the way through to the biggest people we work with. And so we were really flexible with what they want and what they like, and then they can convey their experience and opinion that much more genuinely than trying to have us kind of force specific bottles or specific things on them that they otherwise maybe wouldn’t like or promote.

So we want to listen to them, especially on partnerships that are a little more long-term and they’re promoting a lot over and over again. And we can adjust to their lives. So if it’s winter when we started and they were interested in just red wines for throwing parties, then that’s great. But as we get into the summer and they’re getting into more fitness and they want to be healthier, we can have them promote our more organic and vegan wines. I think the great thing about Winc and what makes us unique is our variety is massive. And the biggest thing about what influencers give is this very authentic, direct correspondence to a huge group of people. So we want to keep that as organic and natural as possible with whatever they’re going through, represented by the wines that we give them.

Cristy Garcia:

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. A bit earlier you touched on the pandemic and how things have kind of shifted. Could you give us some examples of what’s going on with the business as a result, how you’ve changed strategies as you’ve seen what’s been happening?

Eric Miller:

Yeah, I think, we were really fortunate to be in a position where when everything shut down, we saw a massive growth, in the subscription side of the business and the DTC side of the business. The influencer channel in particular was something that just took off. And I think a culmination of things: our core business principles were kind of right there for what people needed, which is delivering wine right to your door and allowing you to experience a world of wine without leaving your home, which is something that became invaluable, especially in those first few months. 

So the influencer program was set up in a way that was really beneficial for the business overall, because I think you were able to get a contextualized, very human introduction to the brand that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to maybe get on affiliates or social or even on like an SEO ad or something like that. Here someone’s telling you they’re going through the same thing that you are. Maybe they’re home with kids or they’re someone who is now living with their parents because they lost their job, and whatever the story was, the influencer will kind of allow you to create this very wide ranging narrative in a short amount of time.

That gets to a lot of people that I think resonated greatly, especially through Instagram and YouTube and the influencer channel overall.

Cristy Garcia:

And what advice would you give to any other subscription service when it comes to working with influencers?

Eric Miller:

I think just, just having a really good mix of people you’re working with and as large a group of partners as your budgets can hold is huge. Don’t be afraid to test it. I know testing and jumping into this at first can be really challenging, especially on the bigger side of things when you’re spending up front and you really don’t know what’s working. Great agency partners can help with that and kind of shepherd you into that world. And then, you know, utilizing platforms and tools like Impact on the other side of things has been so helpful to us. And I think any other subscription looking to get into this, it’s really important to have that whole spectrum covered where you are working with those paid people, those bigger people up front, but you also have a great mix of those everyday ambassadors, the nano, the micro partners that you’re spending less up front and you can work with more people.

You can get content from them as well as activations or clicks or brand awareness or whatever you’re working with. So I think just having a great mix of partners spreading your spend out as much as possible and testing a lot of different people. And I think being open to what each partner can provide you. So maybe that one partner can’t provide you with a lot of activations, but they make great content; talk to them and try to get access to that content and test it on Facebook. 

Some of our best performing content we’ve seen on Facebook from influencers has been from the smallest influencers. We work with people with a couple thousand followers who didn’t get us any activations on their own channel, but when we put it on Facebook, it became one of our longest, best performing pieces of content on there. So be flexible, be open-minded, rely on your data, collect as much analytical data as possible. Use that data to continue to scale.

Cristy Garcia:

Well, this has been really cool, Eric. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. 

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