May 7, 2010

How to lose friends & alienate people

posted by philip in Snooth

By Philip James

As of last week, April 27th, the well-known eBobParker Bulletin Board switched to Wine Advocate subscribers only, effectively killing the worlds largest wine forum with no notice to its members, some of whom had been using the site for over 8 years. The official reason given: that it was “too costly” to supervise and maintain.

The supervision refers to Mark Squires’ heavy-handed involvement, and the maintenance, I’m assuming, refers to the server costs.

In a world that’s inexorably moving towards open and free, its mind boggling to watch one of the old vanguard continue to make such mis-steps. From Parker’s lambasting of wine bloggers to the allegations of pay-for-play, it’s a tough time to be “old media” in the wine industry. There’s an erosion of quality journalism, driven primarily by a glut of free, and engaging content, and compounded by users voting with their (closed) wallets. While sites like WSJ, and debatably the NYT, may survive by erecting a pay wall, the rest of the newspaper industry is a clear bellwether of what is occurring here.

Open sites like Wine Searcher and Snooth, and others have significantly larger user bases than Wine Advocate, and its ilk. Snooth is 3 years old and reaches over 5 million users per month and has 400,000 registered users, and while a Snooth user results in less revenue than an Advocate subscriber, the volume of users, and the growth behind sites like Snooth is considerable.

Today hardware is cheap: $250 for a basic server per month. How much did it really cost to maintain the forums? For $250 per month, and I know a fair bit about scaling web applications today, was it really THAT much of a burden to subsidize? Surely hosting the conversations of that caliber of wine lover generated an incremental 2 or 3 subscriptions to pay the costs?

And what happens to the homeless in this case? They disperse, joining boards like WineBeserkers or Snooth, and Snooth is very happy to pay the $250 per month to host the conversations of some of the most active and knowledgeable wine lovers on the planet.

by orchid1software · May 7, 2010 at 7:15 pm

I love the old guard
Way to call it like it is Snooth

by Tom · May 8, 2010 at 9:44 am

I don’t blame Parker a bit.
The server costs are cheap enough, but the labor isn’t.
Plus the hasles, etc.
I’m sure they’re happy to see it go.

by Jean-Pierre Cauvin · May 8, 2010 at 11:32 am

No great loss, IMHO. I heartily disagree with virtually all of Parker’s ratings. He has the tastebuds of a Mack truck.

by philip · May 8, 2010 at 11:49 am

Tom – you’re right, the labor costs would have been by far the largest component of it. However, its a huge destruction in value to turn away that many users – it kept eBob Parker’s site top of mind for so many collectors, it provided additional value for the registered users, who would have had friends on the site, and it’s not as if the costs suddenly spiked, they were known back in 2001 when the forum began – surely someone could have looked forward and foreseen the issues the forum faced and made a decision not to host it in the first place if the cost would be too great.

Ultimately its bad for the users, and so, I believe, bad for business.

by T. Reasoner · May 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm

So has the parker board dried up yet? I wonder what their numbers are now?

anyone still visiting them?

by Tom · May 8, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Nah, you’ll see that his net worth will continue to rise after this latest move. One could argue that the change is bad for the users. But a few others would argue that the readers were wasting their time blogging to begin with.
Mssr. Parker will win again as people are essentially advertising for him throughout this latest controversy.
My guess is that it was a very well thought out and executed plan.

by Eric Guido · May 8, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Snooth is keeping it real. The WA decision is crazy and I for one now find it hard to chat there, even with a subscription. Many of my peers are gone and the conversations seem to run dry. Maybe it’s all in my head but the board now feels tired.

by Clark Smith · May 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I like this discussion centered around costs and value. A public posting board is like a public park, and it is easier to maintain than a building with sticks and bricks and a staff. A site like, say, Jancis Robinson’s, which generates heaps of professional content (plus a lively discussion from subscribers at least professional enough to foot the subscription bill) offers a much higher value than a public chatroom. Appellation America’s bill was over a half million dollars a year, not $250, but it also offered incredible content.

This is private enterprise, folks, and if you don’t pony up, you can only hope that your click can be converted to enough cash to balance the books. All addictive drugs are marketed on a first-one’s-free basis, but ask your dealer – it doesn’t create a lifetime free entitlement. What did you think?

Parker would have kept it going if it made any sense, and it doesn’t fall to us outsiders to second guess his books. I recommend either paying the piper or sending him a very nice note thanking him for the eight-year free ride, then moving on to the content-free sites, which I hope you may find worth more than you are paying.

by Jonathan Hesford · May 9, 2010 at 1:25 am

I think it is a crazy move. It reminds me of when Merrill Lynch decided to get rid of all their accounts with under $250k in assets. They were already losing new investors to Charles Schwab etc.

They thought that by focussing on the top tier they could ignore the rest. They missed the key point that new investors are young, and grow into older, wealthier investors.

Where are Merrill Lynch today?

I think the future of wine criticism, journalism and communities is online, open and free(or at least low-cost). Lots of new wine lovers are more comfortable with the opinions of many peers than one person with a lopsided palate.

by philip · May 9, 2010 at 11:08 am

Clark – Snooth’s “bill” is in the millions of dollars per year, but we don’t charge users anything, and we’re profitable. Google/Yahoo and others have multi-billion dollar expense amounts, and they don’t charge users either, yet, clearly offer incredible value to their user bases.

I don’t agree that users have to pay cash for something to have value. Many business are built on 3-way models (users consume content, advertisers pay to reach those users, the corporation does not charge the user). I don’t believe the message board contributed less value (goodwill, intangibles, knock on subscriptions etc) than the direct costs associated with it.

by Tom · May 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

There was very little value to that blog. A few were tricked into it of course, there always is.
But on balance, it made sense for people to either not waste their time blogging, or for Parker to preempt them and just shut it down.

by Gregory Dal Piaz · May 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

Clark, free ride? Really, you think the hours we spent contributing original content and compelling discussions was free for us? There was the cost of time, an opportunity cost there and now that that content has been locked away, a distinct cost in the loss of access to OUR OWN content.

No it’s was not free for Herr Parker et al, but it was also a great source of traffic and for many people a better source of advise than the “official” reviews.

There is nothing free about the “free sites” unless you are simply a lurker, and even then you are adding page views to the site.

T Reasoner – Maui Girl?

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