Back in 1997, Gary Vaynerchuk wanted to turn Wine Library, his family's liquor store in Springfield, N.J., into a major Web retailer. Nobody thought he could do it, but over time he proved them wrong.
Today — thanks to his early adoption of social media and his offbeat wine video commentary — Vaynerchuk sells $60 million worth of wine a year. His new book, The Thank You Economy, is part memoir, part handbook for success.
Vaynerchuk tells NPR's Michelle Norris that when he first put Wine Library online, he was exploring uncharted territory.
"I launched WineLibrary.com and people [weren't doing] that in 1997 — you didn't have a local liquor store in New Jersey [with] a website," he says.
But the site was a success and in 2006, Vaynerchuk launched Wine Library TV, a video wine blog in which Vaynerchuk would taste wines, spit them out into a New York Jets football helmet and deliver his review.
"That led to a lot of people watching and buying wine from our business as well," he says.
In The Thank You Economy, Vaynerchuk shares the philosophy behind his success. He says the "thank you" in the title represents a return to the kind of personal attention mom-and-pop-type businesses used to give their customers.
"When you pay forward, I really believe that there's a return on investment — especially now that word of mouth is on steroids," he says.
Vaynerchuk says the word "economy" in the book title is meant to underscore the business potential of new digital platforms.
"Most people are grossly underestimating the impact on business that all these new apps and gadgets and websites are going to have," he says. "We live in a world with Facebook and Twitter and other platforms where we're sharing thoughts we never would have picked up the phone and called about, and it's my belief that every business needs to humanize and overcare for the customer if they want to be successful going forward."
One way businesses can start "overcaring" for customers, Vaynerchuk says, is simply by following what customers are saying on Twitter and Facebook. So if a new customer is a big Chicago Cubs fan on Facebook, you can thank him for his business by sending tickets to a Cubs game.
It's all part of creating a truly meaningful connection, which is hard to do if you're pushing too hard.
"For the last hundred years ... we've all been pushing," Vaynerchuk says of classic radio, TV, print and billboard ads. "What these platforms have done is actually allowed us to listen."
These days, he says he'll search Twitter for, say, "merlot" to start a conversation.
"We don't try to sell them a merlot when they say on Twitter, 'Thinking about having a nice merlot tonight,' " he says. "What we do is we say, 'What kind of merlots do you like?' And all of a sudden we become a service and try to help them pair that wine that evening with what they're eating."
Some users are receptive, while others aren't — and that's OK, Vaynerchuk says. The important thing is for a business to be as polite and genuine as possible.
"There's always a place for a heartfelt everything, whether it's a hug or a handshake or a gift basket or even a head nod — even a wink on Twitter," Vaynerchuk says. "Consumers' BS radars are much better than we think and they're going to continue to get better in this transparent world."
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORRIS: He's written a new book which is part how-I-did-it memoir and part you-can-do- this-too handbook. It's called "The Thank You Economy." And he joins now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.
GARY VAYNERCHUK: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Can you explain the title? Let's start there. What exactly is a thank you economy?
VAYNERCHUK: I think a lot of people listening right now understand these things are happening. But I do believe that most people are grossly underestimating the impact on business that all these new apps and gadgets and websites are going to have.
NORRIS: Now, help me understand how this changed your business. You were an early adapter, I guess we could say. You jumped in at full force.
VAYNERCHUK: And then in 2006, I launched Wine Library TV which was educational and entertainment and that led to a lot of people watching and buying from our business as well. So, I think...
NORRIS: And I should say - can I just jump in here?
NORRIS: I should say, pretty simple.
NORRIS: I mean it's sort of like close-circuit television almost. It's like you sitting in front of a camera.
VAYNERCHUK: It's super ghetto.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAYNERCHUK: I mean there's nothing, you know, these tools are bringing us back to old school rules, small town rules where the end user is the game again.
NORRIS: So it's like the mom and pop shop that you remember, where you walked in and they remembered, isn't your daughter in the fourth grade now? Weren't you going on vacation to Idaho or something like that?
VAYNERCHUK: But when you then are attaching that email to the data and finding out what they're saying on Facebook and Twitter and you find out they're huge Cubs, you know, Chicago Cubs fan. And you can send them two tickets to a game saying, thank you for becoming a new customer. Now you're creating that context that really matters.
NORRIS: What actually brings you closer to your customers? How do you reach out and build some sort of relationship with them through social media?
VAYNERCHUK: What we do is we say, well, what kind of merlots do you like? And all of a sudden we become a service and try to help them pair that wine that evening with what they're eating and all of a sudden they go, well, who are these people? And because we've created context of bringing in value, not trying to sell down their throat, we think that we've established a better opportunity to do business with those people.
NORRIS: If someone is online on their Facebook or tweeting about merlot or vouvray, should you assume that they want to hear from someone like you with a suggestion?
VAYNERCHUK: You know, I would assume that 85 percent of the people do, right? It's really the similar thing that we see and have always saw, which is that some people will be receptive to something, some won't - and then that's fine. The job of the business, in my opinion, is to try to be polite - to not try to be over intrusive and you move on to the next opportunity.
NORRIS: Is this not just about influencing people or making friends? Is it also about making sure that you take care of people who didn't have a good experience? Because if they didn't have a good experience, they have this huge platform and they can tell all kinds of people about it.
VAYNERCHUK: And the fact that we have data now on them because they didn't complain or call the 800 number, they were just saying something to another friend on the social Web about their good experience, I think it's businesses' jobs to start taking care of the anti-squeaky wheel. And that's something I'm very passionate about. I think that social brings that opportunity as well.
NORRIS: This book caught my attention in part because I'm obsessive about thank you notes. It's perhaps because I was raised by two postal workers, but there's nothing for me quite like an old-fashioned thank you note on a nice piece of stationary. Is there still a place for that in the thank you economy?
VAYNERCHUK: Well, listen, I'll be honest with you, I think that's kind of like a passing fad. I think the last six months to a year have been the golden era of, you know, the handwritten note. It's unbelievable to me how a handwritten note gets brought up every single day because it's such an anomaly, so much so that I think people are now doing it as a tactic, not because they actually mean it.
NORRIS: But there's always a place for a heartfelt, handwritten note. If you meant it, then you should've put on a stamp on it.
VAYNERCHUK: There's always a place for a heartfelt everything, right? Like, whether it's a hug or a handshake or a gift basket or, you know, even a head nod, even a wink on Twitter. If you meant it, if you meant it, I think it's going to matter because I think consumers' BS radars are much better than we think, and they're going to continue to get better in this transparent world.
NORRIS: Gary Vaynerchuk, it's been great talking to you. Gary Vaynerchuk is the author of "The Thank You Economy." Gary, thank you.
VAYNERCHUK: Thank you so much.
NORRIS: And Gary is also director of wine operations at Wine Library. And given his expertise, we asked him for three perfect wines for a warm spring evening. To see his recommendations, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.