social media for tea companies – q and a with five tea retailers

I’m of the belief that social media can be a very useful part of a company’s advertising and communications strategy, but it is just a part, not the be all and end all.  After all, a successful business is a profitable one, not just one with the most Twitter followers. Tony Gebely said that “social media 98% about helping people and learning, and 2% telling people about your company” and I think that’s a great comment, it can be a powerful customer service tool, if used well.

For this piece I wanted to hear directly from tea retailers – how they use social media, why they use it and how they feel it’s paid off in terms of results, customer service and marketing.

I wanted to represent a range of company sizes so we’ve got larger retailers: Ghazal Sheei of Rishi Tea, Guy Munsch & Methee Thavornvongkajorn of Zen Tara Tea and Steve Popec of ESP Emporium.  The smaller start-ups are represented by Brandi Barnes Shelton of just add honey and Benjamin Morris of Welcome Rain Tea Company.

Personally, there are a few brands that I, as a tea-drinking consumer, feel more affinity to as a result of their social media presence, because I know more about the people behind the brand.  There are also brands that I have stopped following as they decided to talk about Glee more than tea – that’s their choice, but it’s also mine as a customer to stop listening when their message isn’t relevant to me anymore.  There are other brands whose wonderful in-store experience hasn’t really translated into a social media presence, but given their in-store experience is so enjoyable, it doesn’t bother me.

Conversation Agent has a neat little piece called 100 Thoughts on Social Media that you might like to read, it’s a good one.


When did you get started with social media and what  was it that prompted you to start factoring social media into your marketing efforts.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

ESP Emporium initialized a social media campaign in the early part of 2010. Our primary purpose was to control messaging, branding and to engage customers while positioning ourselves as an authoritative figure in the loose leaf tea industry. Since the SE’s (search engines) decided to heavily invest into vertical search, it only made sense to jump on the band wagon to channel social traffic and to contribute to our SEO tactics by strengthening our diversified link portfolio. It’s well-known that the SE’s have added social media into the algorithms patterns, creating a natural partnership between SEO and social media. All sites will eventually have to consider participating in the social arena before they fall behind the curve.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

I started at Rishi Tea in 2008 and at that time, we were already using social media sites like MySpace and Blogger to connect our business to others and share our story.  We decided to expand to Facebook as well having heard quite a bit about its potential. We immediately saw positive results – we were simultaneously learning more about our customers and sharing our tea knowledge. We hesitated to join Twitter, but once we learned what other companies were doing with it and how quickly and easily you could share information, we decided to join. I now strongly believe that Twitter is a fantastic asset to businesses and organizations. Facebook and Twitter really helped us learn about people’s interest in our origin travels which lead to the development of our YouTube and Flickr pages. They allow us to share Joshua’s travels and direct work with farmers more thoroughly and cohesively.

Note: At the time we started using Facebook, their business pages were not as sophisticated as the profile pages with many features lacking, so we decided to develop a profile page instead. We are currently using both the profile and business page but I would highly suggest forgoing the personal profile option as it has a friend cap of 5,000 and the business pages have really developed to offer great features.

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

just add honey created a myspace, facebook, and twitter account when business began using different avenues to promote their companies (early/mid 2009). We occasionally posted information but didn’t see the value in it. After hearing positive stories and seeing results from other small businesses (using social media), we decided to rethink our casual (social media) marketing efforts. Now we regularly post and offer information about tea on a weekly basis.

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

We started using Facebook and Twitter at the same time that we started the business, in August of this year.  To be honest, the primary reasons we decided to use it is because it’s free and ubiquitous.  It’s an easy way to get our name in front of a lot of people without having to pay for advertising.

The downside is that the posts have to compete with a hundred thousand blurbs of information—everything from how someone’s day is going to chatter from other businesses.  The upside is that, since we aren’t paying for the advertising, we don’t have to add cost to our product.  That way we keep the prices reasonable without sacrificing quality.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

We started paying more attention to using social media consistently a couple of years ago once plans began to come together to open a new shop and we had most of our teas available online through our website. What prompted us? – money and age. We’re a small tea company and don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on traditional newspaper or magazine advertising. Online advertising at that time was relatively inexpensive, social media is generally free but you really do have to make a time commitment. The age issue was that from 2007-2009 our retail space was a small section at a Co-Op Farmers Market in Bethesda, MD. We had a wonderful following but we sensed that the overall customer profile at the market didn’t include a lot of newer, younger tea drinkers. We looked at social media as a way to bring an awareness of our teas to a wider audience.

What are the elements used in your social media strategy and which do you feel is the most effective.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

First of all we have decided to put more emphasis on Twitter than Facebook. Facebook turns out to be a more difficult atmosphere to convert a base versus Twitter enjoys a lot of content. In order to be effective on Facebook, a fanpage would have to run expensive ads to build a large enough base that will “like” the content to the point that it becomes viral. Because of the cost, we don’t feel that the ROI is worthwhile, nor should the cost be passed down to the consumer by raising prices.

With this said, the organic approach is the best way to engage and to build upon a base. We see several companies that are using software to capture a base but this approach leads to substantial noise (unqualified followers, i.e. who write in foreign languages) with no participation to the content supplied. Many will say it’s a numbers game, the bigger the better. We decided a quantified and qualified base will create long lasting results with high participation. It’s best to develop an effective strategy that defines a social road map; research, objectives and actions. This is our primary methodology within all social networks.

The only tool we use daily is Hootsuite, we love the fact that we can schedule our tweets in advance. In conjunction, we comb the web looking for interesting topics which are added to our ongoing dialogs. When consumers visit our site, they will find our popular “Tea Is for Twitter” promotion, which is a great way for our followers to save $5.00 off their order. This has two elements: it helps to expand our base and reduces the tension of buying on a site for the first time by saving a few bucks. This is a fairly simple custom script that will send a personalized coupon code via Direct Messaging. It’s really that simple. If we could give one tip for every company, it would be to create an internal policy for your employees, articulating the rules of social engagement.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

We really try to vary the content in our social media so that it’s not specifically sales oriented. We want our audience to gain from being a part of our social media network. We try to achieve that by posting educational tea content, updates on Joshua’s origin travels, event information, PR updates (tea reviews and write ups), news about our partnerships, contests, coupon codes, recipes, staff updates (what teas we’re drinking), etc.

I find that tea education, origin updates and contests are really effective ways at drawing in our audience and engaging them. While tea has become more popular in the last few years, there’s still a lack of education in the form of workshops, tastings, classes, and magazines.

There are lots of magazines about coffee but very few on tea, though tea bloggers have done quite a bit to share tea information and experiences within the tea community.  Tea novices and experts alike are interested in learning more about the people, places and processing behind each tea and social media is a very direct way of communicating that information.

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

We use several ways to stay relevant in the social media industry. On Twitter and Facebook we let our fan base know where they can get their hands on our teas (since we do not have a brick and mortar location). We also offer tea tips, facts, and information on a weekly basis. Another good strategy is to promote other businesses on twitter. We have found that to be most effective. It breaks up the conversation about your business and in turn the promoted company “tweets” about you in the future.

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

We try to let our followers know what’s going on with the business—new products coming in, special offers and sales, etc.—but we don’t want it to just be advertising.  I try to talk to people on Facebook and Twitter, not just advertise to them.  Because of this, sometimes my posts will be completely off-topic regarding tea—perhaps about an author or musician I enjoy, a trip I’m taking, or an important news article that I think people should read.  As far as efficacy, I’m probably not a good judge.  I’m still very new to this, and just try to make it so that when I post, people like to see what I have to say, rather than feeling like they signed up to read an ad campaign.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

It would be a nice compliment to call it a “strategy”. If there is one driving force behind our more intuitive approach to social media it is that we are trying to bring to our social media interactions and to our website a level of personal interaction that reflects what we experience day-to-day in our shop. There is a huge gulf between online interaction/e-commerce and the more interpersonal customer/shop staff exchange in a specialty tea shop. To us, it matters less whether it is a posting on Facebook vs. Twitter – the vehicle isn’t as important as the message: we’re real tea people, with a real tea shop, we spend a lot of time selecting and improving our teas, we want you to know who we are, we want to know who you are, and we love getting your feedback.

I realize there are serious numbers that get crunched on a massive scale by larger companies partnering with social media experts to try and get the most effective social media plans to drive their sales. Their approach to social media is much more about volume – most followers, most hits, most online sales linked to recommendations (paid or peer provided). We’re so much smaller we can’t even think about competing on that kind of level. We have to be more nimble, more personal and at times maybe a little more provoking.

Do you feel the effort you put into social media is worthwhile, does it pay for itself in terms of time and sales.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

The short answer is absolutely, it’s well worth the effort. We thoroughly enjoy exchanging thoughts and ideas with our fan base. Without getting into details, the ROI would be best described as moderate. Our metrics are emotionally rewarding, immediate and personally engaging which creates brand loyalty.

A highly effective success is when our followers ask us real-time questions about a particular purchase or inquire about which tea would best suit their needs. Recently we received a direct message at 1:15 AM about making a purchase. Since I am normally awake at this hour, I was able to directly help this customer to complete a purchase. This happens frequently, it should be noted that I personally answer all DM’s to stay connected.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

Social media efforts are absolutely worthwhile. Marketing has changed dramatically and companies shouldn’t solely rely on mailers, advertisements or PR to get their message out. As a company that buys and works direct with farmers and artisans at origin, communicating directly with our customers is essential. Our customers are much more interested in a product when they know the story behind it. A blog post allows us to quickly and easily share that personal story and link it directly to the product page on our website. Sales are always stronger when we have a blog post or contest to promote a product.

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

While the efforts may seem pointless, it is worthwhile in the bigger picture. Your goal (or at least just add honey’s goal) is to be heard, recognized, branded, top of the mind awareness. Customers come to events, festivals, businesses that carry our product because we told them where to find us.

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

I haven’t seen a lot of activity yet, but this is a very new project, and it takes time for things to begin to turn around.  I feel like my time is well-spent, and I think in the future as I make more information available to my customers (like brewing tips, little bits of history, and tasting notes, for example), the work I’m doing now will help people enjoy drinking tea in ways they haven’t thought of before.  I can’t directly tie any sales yet to Twitter or Facebook followers, but you never know who might have come to an event because of something I posted and come to get some tea.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

Is it all worthwhile – depends what day you ask 😉  We definitely have made connections with customers in other parts of the country we otherwise would not have made and who we value highly. In some respects, tea being such a small world, perhaps because we got into it a little ahead of the curve our social media presence is sometimes outsized compared to the scale of our small company.

Does it pay for itself? When there are so few hands to attend to so many daily details around the shop and online, time is almost more valuable than money to us. There isn’t a lot of real cost in the way we have been approaching social media but it can be a time-suck. In the end, we feel pretty strongly that this is the new way that business operates. It’s not really a choice, adapt or die.

Direct successes – There have been times when we have put our accounting visors on and specifically promoted a particular tea or tea event exclusively to see how social media will drive sales of that item or event. We’ve had hits and misses. I think what we’ve learned in general is to stay true to who we are regardless of what the social media platform is or the product we are promoting. We try and focus on organically grown teas, having an adventurous inventory of teas, providing exceptional personal service and ultimately we’re never going to be the cheapest tea out there and can’t really compete on price. When we’ve tried heavy discounting it doesn’t ring true to our regular customers, and the we’ve found the online, price driven consumer can be very fickle – they may buy from you today because there was a discount but tomorrow they’ve moved on to the next great deal. We try and stick with a guideline of if we wouldn’t be comfortable presenting ourselves or our products a certain way in the store, face-to-face with a customer, then we shouldn’t do it online.

just add honey

Who are you targeting through your social media efforts, and how do you expand your base of followers / fans.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

Since tea is a sociable beverage, social media is a perfect environment to broadcast our mission to introduce the nation to a world of tea. Our philosophy is that everyone is either a tea drinker to some degree or a potential consumer. Therefore, our base is composed of an A to Z mix of followers. Our company has one of the largest Twitter bases within our industry; it has expanded quickly over this short period of time. Content is king, keeping it unique, engaging our base, hash tags and Follow Friday will continue to expand our base organically.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

We expand our fan base by having our social media links prominently on our homepage, in our newsletters, in our email signatures and linked within our various social media accounts. For example, our Facebook page not only links to our website, but also to our Twitter, Youtube, Flickr, etc.

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

We target anyone who loves tea! We keep our conversation light and avoid personal and political topics (although we did tell the #tea party to change their hash tag!). We expand our base by promotions to invite friends of friends, include our social media outlets in our email signature, and cross marketing.

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

I’m mainly targeting people who don’t have a lot of experience with good tea, but are interested in finding out what’s there.  That’s why I provide basic brewing instructions, tasting notes, and whatever other detailed information I can.  Someone did this for me years ago when I thought of tea as the bitter dust in the bags that my parents seemed to drink for unknown reasons.  Now I like the idea of being the guy that gets to make a living helping people discover oolongs and pu-erhs, darjeelings and little clay pots—things that have enriched my life so much.

As far as expanding my base of followers, it’s still the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth.  It’s a slow way of doing things, but in the end I think it’s not a bad way to go because I hope to have followers who actually interact, ask questions, make requests, and give me feedback, rather than a bunch of mute receivers who just saw an advertisement somewhere so they check it out but don’t stick around.  I let people know at events that I’m on Twitter and Facebook and they can follow to see where we’re going to make an appearance next and what deals we have going on, and when people do get tea or teaware from me and are happy with it, I hope that they point others in my direction.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

Tea drinkers and their friends. With our shop being in a large metropolitan area that draws customers from Baltimore, DC and northern Virginia we have had the chance to meet customers who initially purchased tea from us online and then eventually made a pilgrimage to the store. In person, they’re almost never a match our preconceived mental image, so we’ve learned to not get to fixated on who who think may enjoy our teas. That said, if young to middle age women stop drinking tea tomorrow, we would probably have to shut our doors.

Expanding followers? Organically – no pun intended. While of course we want more followers, we really want engaged followers. Early on we tried one of the online follower harvesting tools to beef-up our number of followers and we stopped it after one day. The time it was taking to delete porn stars and online sales scams wasn’t worth whatever vanity satisfaction we may have gotten from seeing our follower numbers grow. Stay active, be interesting, don’t schedule tweets, don’t become a social media ad spammer and show an interest in others and the followers will grow.

welcome rain tea co.

Can you describe your normal social media routine. When you have a competition, event or new product launch how long does the media process tend to take, do you favor having a long lead-up or do you favor quick one-day offers.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

Our routine is very detailed which may not educate businesses that either have a small base or have not updated their account recently. Instead, we would like to provide a generalized routine for Facebook and Twitter that has worked wonders for our accounts. As far as time, the more the merrier, it depends on the available resources and commitment a company dedicates to social networking.


A) Create a fanpage for your brand, do not use a personal profile like we see many in our industry do.  Whatever friends that you may have on a personal account, can be used to suggest to “like” a fan page; B) Update your page daily, 2 to 3 times per day. Be careful not to push a lot of product. Your base is already aware that product can be purchased, therefore it should be more conversational in nature; C) Read all comments and engage in a conversation with all fans; D) Create a “Welcome” (landing) page for people that have not “liked” a page yet. It’s a great place to run your promotions and post a current YouTube video; E) Utilize notes by updating it with a feed to your blog, it brings additional content that has already been created.


A) Create a profile image that matches your brand;  B) Use all 140 charters in the bio description; C) Update tweets daily, as much content as time permits; D) Engage with your followers! It doesn’t necessarily have to relate to your brand or product. It’s important to show that you are a human being that’s truly interested in what others contribute; E) Monitor the mentions and respond to all non-automated DM’s; F) Use services like Twitpics to get the followers interested into who you are personally.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

Each weekday, we typically post about one to three times on Facebook and Twitter, each time with different types of content. I think anything more than 4 updates, especially on Facebook, begins to overwhelm people and may become counterproductive. If we run a promotion like a coupon or a contest, we allow one full week to generate views and hits as opposed to offering a one-day only offer.

When we launch a new line of products (recently our Chai retail tins) or a very special tea (Hong Yue black tea from Taiwan), we’ll create a blog post. Once the post is up, we’ll link it on our Facebook and Twitter pages a couple of times and may run a contest as well. The great thing with social media is that you don’t need a long lead time because it’s so immediate; that allows us to adapt quickly and work around last-minute changes

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

We create a calendar (yearly, quarterly, monthly) and target our efforts based on what is going on. We plan the promotion and offer clever ways to reach our audience. For example, with the “Black Friday” weekend, we offered all of our black teas at a discount. Its promotion began with a blog and grew from there. It was a quick turn around time of less than a week. The launch of a new product can take longer.

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

I’m getting better at giving people advanced notice when something’s going to happen.  When you’re competing with so many posts (especially on Twitter), it’s easy for your post to get swept along and carried out of sight down the page before anyone actually reads it, so I think it’s better to start earlier and make several announcements so more people are likely to see at least one.  By my nature, I’m a last-minute planner, so it takes work to remember to do this, but I’ve learned how to make lists for myself (today: brew taster of tea to take to the bank with me, drop off deposit at the bank, update the budget, fill out this interview, tweet about a recent conversation with Stephane Erler (a tea blogger in Taiwan) and an upcoming event in Austin in December, and look for venues for other events).  Some days my social media activity takes just a couple of minutes, while some days it takes several hours—depends on the tasks at hand.  Today I’m spending more time catching up on computer work since I seem to have broken my foot, and so I’m trying to be up and about as little as possible.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

Again, refer to our comments above on strategy – SOP (Seat of Our Pants). To us, social media is very much about what is happening RIGHT NOW. A week later whatever was important is old and more than likely forgotten. The plan, such as it is, really only revolves around three bedrock factors – at some point we have to make decisions and buy inventory, the seasons will change and change tea drinking patterns, and there will be holidays that influence how people buy tea. Everything else in a plan is written in pencil and subject to change.

Our routine is that we try to update every social media outlets we participate in at least once a day. We are very thankful for mobile phone apps that let us update from our phones otherwise it would be more cumbersome. We start with what is going on in the shop and on the calendar and then branch out from there. We hate teases. We hate quick one day offers almost as much. For now.

See, we are still stuck on the 20th century notion that buying/selling tea online is really not a good idea. Tea is all about taste and smell and involves so many sensory inputs plus interacting with the shop staff and talking, testing, recommending, trying a cup, etc. – degrading the tea experience to trying to get a really good picture of the tea online with a description as the sole arbitrator of whether to buy the tea or not – seems a bit of a folly. We honestly tell anyone who will listen, if you have a local tea shop that meets your needs, please go there and buy your tea rather than buying them online, even if it means not buying online from us. There are really only two reasons we justify to ourselves having our teas online to sell on our website : either for customers who have traveled quite a distance to our shop and have tried our teas and know what they like and want to order them shipped to them rather than driving back to the shop, or those who unfortunately don’t have a local tea shop, in which case we are happy to be their local shop in an online format.

zen tara tea

What have you learned about your customer that you didn’t know previously, as a result of using social media.

Steve Popec: ESP Emporium

Being an e-commerce business, there is no other way to be able to connect/engage with customers if social media didn’t exist. Therefore, the mom & pop’s marketing model is demanded by our loyal base. Customers are the priority, treat them as they are visiting your local corner store by genuinely being concerned about their needs even if it doesn’t have anything to do with selling product. We know our customers by name, who they are and some of their interest because of their content and bio provided online. People overall are sick and tired of mainstream corporate mentality, they want us to be more involved with their daily experiences while expanding a personal relationship with the happenings of our lives. When we first started with social media, we never imagine that a personal connection was possible. It’s amazing how much they enjoy our #500 reasons to drink tea, tea drinking tips, or our behind the scene photographs that get retweeted daily. Also, it’s is nice to read comments that customers are drinking their favorite flavor of ESP Emporium loose leaf tea. We are proud of our personalized connection with our followers even when it has nothing to do with tea.

Ghazal Sheei: Rishi Tea

We’ve learned that our customers vary greatly from age, gender and background and that people of all types are using social media. Additionally, more of our customers are interested in single origin teas and seeing photographs and video footage of Joshua’s many travels to tea producing regions.

Brandi Barnes Shelton: just add honey

We have learned that our customer wants to know about us! We were shy about social media and didn’t want to overwhelm or seem pushy, but our customers want to hear from us. And we want them to!!!

Benjamin Morris: Welcome Rain Tea Company

Peoples’ comments on Facebook clued me in to a lot of things that most people don’t know about tea, which was really helpful for giving me a place to start on the educational side of things.  It also let me know that a number of people are interested, but it’s hard to get interested in a food-item if you can’t smell it or taste it, so letting people know about events where they can come and smell the teas and taste samples is really important.

Guy Munsch and Methee Thavornvongkajorn: Zen Tara Tea

We probably answered this in the questions above. To add to the answers above, we’ve probably learned who our customer isn’t in some ways and have learned to be OK with that fact. I think every small business retailer wants to believe that everyone would love the products they sell if customers just had a chance to experience them. Sadly, no. We’ve also learned that customers on social media sites are only a segment of our customers. We are so thankful to have the store in this regard because it regularly reminds us how many tea drinkers aren’t involved or have very little time for social media. You can’t get too focused on social media representing your full customer profile.


I want to thank everyone involved for taking the time to participate in this case study, I know it’s a busy time of year and I appreciate all of your time and willingness to share the ways you use social media. I’d also like to point out that these questions were focused around the common usage tools like Facebook and Twitter – I feel like places like LeafBoxTea are a different animal all together, they are a dedicated tea forum/community, with a different level of participation by individuals, not just ‘brands’.

7 Responses to “social media for tea companies – q and a with five tea retailers”
  1. Steve Popec says:

    Thank you for allowing us to participate with such as vast group of educated tea companies, its been an honor. We hope that all of our combined thoughts will lead others into creating successful social media strategies that balances consumers and marketing well into the future.

  2. Holly Harvey says:

    What a fabulous post! I learned so much. Thank you — all of you!

  3. Some very interesting and enlightened comments. Education is the key to growing the premium tea market. Classes, books,blogs, webinars etc are a great way reach a wide audience. The personal experience of traveling and studying in the tea producing countries is enhanced even more when coming from a good foundation.

  4. Deb says:

    @Steve – Thanks again for participating and sharing, I really appreciate it!

    @Holly – So glad you found it valuable 🙂

    @Dan – Thanks for the comment, and the email – you’re right, education is key!

  5. Thank you for this valuable post. I am also a huge advocate of Social Media. Social Media really is democracy at its best; a David and Goliath environment where the small businesses are on an even playing field with the bigger corporates. What I love about Social Media is the ability to connect with your customers too. It’s not just about packaging up the purchases and posting them on. It’s finding out what they liked, what they didn’t like about the purchasing experience; if there was a way in which we can improve; a platform to educate (the importance of which has been emphasised in the comments and to which I agree wholeheartedly).

    Thank you once again for sharing your valuable insights to your experiences surrounding Social Media. I am always keen to learn from others and there is certainly a lot to take in here so thank you for taking the time to share.

  6. Thank you Deb for such an informative article! I love that no matter the size of your company, that social media marketing efforts are crucial in growing.
    Here’s to a prosperous New Year!!!

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