First published in TChing here.
I've mentioned a very successful pioneering case of social media channel creation before, the Yunnan Sourcing Fans Facebook group. This post is focused on that kind of thing, versus a vendor creating good information content that can support sales in a recent post. Of course any given vendor can do both; Farmerleaf is a good example of that, with only the content creation really clearly successful so far.
the feel of those groups is familiar, but the functional structure is a bit limited
The prompt for talking about this is being invited to a Farmerleaf Discord server (group), and hearing a nice audio interview there with a friend, Anna of Kinnari Tea, about development issues in Laos. There are other vendor-specific tea-related groups there. I don't buy enough Farmerleaf tea to talk about them in a group, or enough of any one vendor's tea (except maybe Moychay; they send me more than average for review). I suppose that's one drawback, that a premise for participation is based on consuming a lot of one vendor's products. Some people do that, or maybe even only buy tea from one source.
What other channel forms are out there? Vendors using open form social discussion themed channels for promotion tends to be heavily restricted and moderated, for obvious reasons. In the Facebook group I run, International Tea Talk, mostly populated by vendors, content about products is allowed but not explicit sales information. For whatever reasons it's hard for vendors to adjust to talking about their products without moving on to sales range (mentioning a special, emphasizing contact information, utilizing marketing content that looks like obvious marketing content--ads). Discussing background in other types of social media settings is an option, it would just require carefully working around restrictions. Adagio created and hosted Tea Chat, really the former main old-style tea forum, but activity dropped off when they tried to play a more direct role in leveraging that for marketing. Way off; one part of that upset some of the forum members so much that they created a spin-off forum, Tea Forum.
But what else, like Discord, or that Facebook group? A Facebook page can work for a contact point, or providing information, but it wouldn't provide the same function. Crimson Lotus has been developing a cool variation on these themes, doing a podcast series on Youtube. They're a pu'er vendor (mainly), so it might be a conflict to have another similar pu'er vendor as a guest (eg. the Bitterleaf or Yunnan Sourcing guys), but even that might still work. It's not as if their customers don't know about source options. One episode had the Liquid Proust vendor Andrew Richardson on; he sells pu'er, but the business theme is a little different. Making a podcast work can be hit and miss, but it would work to have really interesting people on, and do a good job of asking the questions people would want to hear answers to, just the basics. It's quite indirect as marketing goes, and not so interactive, but live streaming versus posting edited video can give it a little more of that feel.
What else? Due to covid lots of forms of online seminars and conferences are turning up; participating as a speaker could work. This really assumes that the vendor has something to say beyond "I sell such and such tea." Not all vendors are further through a learning and experience curve than an average social media group participant. Someone having been to a tea production area in China--or anywhere--only one time could be used for all its worth; it would be enough. Elyse of Tealet seems to do both seminar style events and informal streaming group talks, all really seeming more social than business-networking oriented.
I recently participated in a small Malaysian vendor holding an online meetup session to discuss this issue, hosted by Bigfuller Foong (his profile name), what would work for marketing or sales approach in the new business and social climate. We didn't get so far. Related to his own tea business he was expanding tea types, embracing a new Japanese tea interest there, and exploring cold brewing, so sharing that online could indirectly lead to sales. The point related to this theme is that even without a group or channel base online video meetups could fulfill a similar function, with people networking to set up contacts to join those in any way that works. He was doing more conventional tea enthusiast meetups too, not just talking among vendors and tea professionals.
Rather than arriving at approaches, in that discussion, we ended up discussing the context, how tea perspectives and very local cultures vary. It makes a huge difference where you are and what you are trying to sell. That Malaysian vendor was trying to move beyond the most conventional and in-demand Chinese teas that are popular there. Another prospective vendor in Sydney, Australia was considering how to initiate and develop a Gongfu practice sub-culture there similar to what she had experienced in Austin, Texas. It could work, it would just take some doing. A one to one mapping of interest form and perspective might not work, actually, but with the right approach a similar theme and practices might be adapted.
One theme that often comes up: it's a real challenge to try to replicate the effect of in-person tastings online. Of course related to the main end-point you just can't, handing over someone tea to try. You can mail it, but that still skips the brewing part. A novel initiative combining training and online group tasting themes sold tasting sets and allowed participants to try a variety of Japanese teas together, a set they sold prior to the meetings, along with content presentation and discussion (the Tea Creative Japanese Tea Marathon). That's different.
these online meetups used to be more about sharing tasting experience
No matter what the approach is it seems critical to identify a point of connection. Going after existing customers who already have the existing product interest could be a challenge, given some sources have already taken steps to solidify a relationship with their customer base. There would have to be an angle, something new to offer. Regardless of channel format or approach if a vendor is sharing their own passion for a tea type that could help, some of it would come across.
To my limited awareness--which must be missing more than I've caught word of--Yunnan Sourcing is the only success case in setting up a really active channel, on par with a main social media group for activity level, that ties back to developing sales so far. Many others have had some success but aren't quite there yet (excluding podcast and seminar cases, many of which may have been successful, and I wouldn't know for not really following any). A number of Discord channels could change that in short order, with those already in existence now.
To switch over to fortune-telling mode it seems likely that vendors who can provide the best source-neutral content and develop a shared-interest community theme will be most successful. In one sense that's the opposite of the Yunnan Sourcing case; you can't even mention another vendor in that FB fan group. To cite a possible example, once pandemic impact settles a bit doing local events could link together online connections and a meeting in real life theme, which would be helpful for an experiential subject like tea. Now only vendor-neutral groups fill this kind of space, as far as I'm aware, usually local area themed. A vendor being open to broadening discussion restrictions in running such a group could work, or just shifting what YS is doing to include real-life contact scope might, keeping that scope restriction. That's back to the theme that most successful vendor I mentioned uses, Moychay using shop based tastings and events as a very successful tool to promote awareness, just using social media contact as a catalyst.
a Chinese IT vendor hosted a tea ceremony that helped me get started into tea
I'm guessing this, that a vendor hosted but vendor-neutral approach might work in the long run, because few other sources will be able to match the single-source loyalty of Yunnan Sourcing. Related pu'er-themed vendors might, outlets like Crimson Lotus or Liquid Proust, or maybe even Bitterleaf, but somehow this group contact function doesn't seem to match with the White 2 Tea theme, to me.
It's nice how this sort of function can seem to work out based entirely online (maybe in part now since so many people are stuck in isolation). The main Discord tea community, Communitea, successfully shifts old forum style and FB / Reddit post comment discussion connection to a number of chat channels instead, covering some of the scope that had occurred in real life or through private messages. It's promising. All sorts of meetup circles seem to be initiating from lots of different starting points.
That Farmerleaf Discord server / group may mix vendor promotion and community / awareness themes, or it might not take, and limited early activity isn't a clear indication either way. It's interesting how that location and form invokes gaming and tech interest, just related to being there, and to some extent excludes more people than it includes (like Reddit group sub-culture patterns, which can be rough). Then it's odd thinking through how other permutations might work, how other social media channel biases might combine or prevent combination with a tea shared interest theme. Communicator app versions, like Slack or Snapchat groups, might have as much potential as other forms, and for sure those forms will keep evolving.