About six years ago, wine critic Natalie MacLean discovered that text-based e-mail was an efficient way to share the articles she published in regional magazines with colleagues and friends. Thanks to the grassroots nature of the Web, that small group of people began to forward her e-mails to other interested wine buffs until the demand for her current and archived articles became big enough to launch a website, Nat Decants (www.nataliemaclean.com). Now, paired with a sophisticated newsletter 60,000 subscribers strong, this heavily-trafficked, multimedia-friendly and database-rich website has helped her to foster a dedicated audience that extends around the globe.
MacLean credits this online community with both enabling her to increase her opportunities in print and for creating a built-in audience for her new book, “Red, White and Drunk All Over.” With the fresh perspective of her recent excursions on a book tour, MacLean chatted with OJR about the ways the Web has created a synergy that expands the voice of this successful, independent wine critic.
Online Journalism Review: Like many independent online journalists, you started your career in the print world. How did the Web become an important medium to expand your audience and distribute your work?
Natalie MacLean: When I was [exclusively] a print journalist and many of my articles appeared in city-based magazines, friends and colleagues who didn’t live in the that particular city couldn’t read the article or buy the magazine on the stand. I retain the copyrights to my work, so I started by e-mailing about 25 folks the articles, which they would forward. Soon there were 200-300 people who were getting these articles, just through text-based e-mail.
MacLean: About a year out, when people who joined [the e-mail list] started asking how can they could get all of my previous e-mails. So every time someone joined, I’d be sending 30 e-mails, to pass along all the back issues, so to speak. I thought this is getting silly; I better archive these somewhere, so that’s the birth of the website.
OJR: Do you have any technical knowledge, and did you design the site yourself?
MacLean:Yeah, at first I was doing it because I used to work for Silicon Graphics in California and my focus was the Internet. I loved HTML but I’m no wizard and my skills quickly became very rudimentary compared with where websites were going. It wasn’t long before I hired a webmaster, then things just kept evolving. The newsletter kept growing, the website’s content and functionality kept growing, and I started using forms to sign up for the newsletter.
OJR: Why do you think that niche topics such as yours do so well online?
MacLean: That’s [a reference to] the long-tail theory from Wired Magazine. I just love that theory. There are probably millions of wine lovers out there from all around the world and the brilliant thing is that we find each other on the Internet. So I get stories from wine lovers everywhere, from the night nurse at the emergency ward in Saskatoon to the water reservoir manager in Tulsa. [I’ve heard from] someone in Afghanistan who is making wine in his basement- I think it’s illegal! The Internet is efficient, and it’s also–I put this in quotes–cheap. It’s not cheap to make a good-looking website and to have forms that work and links that don’t go dead, but still I could never reach all of these people in print, cost-wise or time-wise.
OJR: You have a distinct, humorous tone to your writing that makes something as daunting as wine selection more accessible to those of us who aren’t sommeliers. Does your writing voice change online? Can you adopt an even more casual or conversational tone?
MacLean: Yeah I think so, although I know 78 people whom I call “Wine Lovers for Better Grammar.” They e-mail me every time there’s a misplaced comma. It’s like this giant editorial board. So it’s that contradictory thing of being relaxed and at the same time having an obsessive level of attention to detail, which is fascinating and helps me clean up my work in print.
OJR: You both write and edit your work, so how do you ensure accuracy when you source and cite information? You’re saying your readers call you out, and not just on grammatical mistakes–
MacLean: But on other things too, yes. They’ll correct anything. I once wrote an article about kir royale—a drink where you infuse any champagne or sparkling wine with the liquor Cassis–that has a black currant flavor. The black currants are famous around the Dijon area of France in Burgundy and I had misspelled a street name. Someone from Dijon contacted me and said that street is close to where I live, and it’s spelled this way.
I get far more corrections online so the feedback has been far more powerful than the print feedback.
OJR: What tool do you use to distribute the newsletter and what does it tell you about who your audience is and how to engage them?
MacLean: It’s called GotCompany.com. It’s a front-end tool and a back-end tool. I think the interface, the aesthetics look beautiful, but really the power is in the database and the reporting tool. It will tell me how many people have opened my newsletter and I can also see who has clicked on what link.
OJR: Can you tell anything about the user demographic?
MacLean: I can tell what topics are most interesting to people by the open rate and which links are most interesting to people. I stay pretty high level, but it’s only because of the time I have to devote to this sort of thing because I have a full-time journalism slate of jobs for print and then I’m just coming off the book.
I do find it synergistic. Every column I write in print, at the bottom there’s a tag that says for Natalie’s free newsletter, visit nataliemaclean.com. Then, of course, I use the newsletter to help sell the book, then point the book to the website, so I make sure that they’re all linked all the time. These days–especially if you’re trying to sell a book–you have to bring the audience, your readership, with you. [Book] publishers [tend to] spend very little on marketing, so you’re the one who has to develop your readership and then keep communicating with them. If I can’t pump out a book every year or two, at least I’ve been communicating with my readers [online] every two weeks in the interim and I hope they’re around the next time a book comes out.
OJR: Your site offers a modest selection of streaming audio and video. How do these multimedia elements advance the functionality of your site?
MacLean: I think people love to watch TV clips and listen to radio interviews, and people [who visit my site] are clicking on them. It’s an expensive form of information because I have to pay for extra bandwidth for no real monetary return. But now I’m starting to post video and audio clips that are interviews about the book.
OJR: So it also becomes a marketing tool–
MacLean: Yes, absolutely. To me it’s part of a multimedia-rich site, and that’s what I want to provide to the best of my budget and the best of my ability.
OJR: You actively encourage user feedback throughout the site. How do you deal with the volume of response and maintain this intimate relationship with your readers?
MacLean: Well, I get a couple of hundred e-mails a day, but a lot of them are questions that I get over and over again, so I’ll refer people to my FAQ. I think it will get to the point where I can’t [respond to everyone] because I have to earn a living and write my columns, but I like the feedback. I encourage it and welcome it and it’s helpful so I try my best to respond to people.
OJR: How do you select which articles you feature on your website or include in the newsletter?
MacLean: I’m more global in my approach. Now I think about which topics will I take on in print that can be repurposed, so it affects what I choose to write about in print and get paid for. In the past, I selected topics such as best restaurants in Ottawa that are really only relevant to people who live in Ottawa. Now I’m more likely to choose a topic like how to choose from a restaurant wine list that everybody can relate to, no matter where they live.
OJR: You run some Google ads, but otherwise ads aren’t featured prominently on your website.
MacLean: It [earns] three bucks a day for Google ads. That won’t even buy cheap wine! I’m going to look at adding advertising in the next year for related products and services that I think are reputable. I won’t be personally endorsing them. It will be clear that they’re ads and I’ll have someone else handle the booking, payment and invoicing so if a winery wants to advertise, I’m not the one negotiating ad rates while they’re also sending me bottles to review.
OJR: Finally, can you recommend some ways to choose a great holiday wine?
MacLean: Sure! All of my wine picks are on my website. It’s also a matter of your budget and whether you like wines that are full-bodied, medium or light. Develop a relationship with a knowledgeable person at your local wine store and ask what they’re excited about. Also, you can buy a mixed case of 12 within your budget and experiment. Try a new one each time you want to crack open a bottle and I’m sure you’ll find at least two or three that you really like.