On a Monday morning late last month, at the headquarters of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, the promotional vehicle for a vineyard-speckled region about four hours northwest of Manhattan, something was amiss with Foursquare.
Namely, the Corning, N.Y.-based tourism group's account on the location-sharing social-media site was doing something funny: It was triggering friend requests. That's not supposed to happen with a Foursquare account that's set up as a brand or business page--users should be able to automatically follow the brand or company, rather than having to wait to have their requests approved individually, as would be the case with a regular personal profile. The switch seemed to indicate that Finger Lakes Wine Country's brand page had been, in effect, demoted.
"My office manager, who handles all of our general e-mail inquiries, said, 'Has there been a change to our Foursquare page? All of a sudden I'm getting all these friend requests'," related Morgen McLaughlin, the president of the tourism group. "Then we received an e-mail from Foursquare that they had suspended the account because of the alcohol content."
When some of the trendiest destinations for digital brand marketing and advertising are small social networks with limited resources, brands in restricted sectors like the alcohol industry--and those that might be on the periphery of it--start to run into these kinds of problems. Foursquare built a name for itself as a way for nightlife-happy 20-somethings to "check in" to bars in cities and let their friends know where they were throwing back brews. But because Foursquare does not at present have technology in place to effectively verify users' ages, alcohol-related brands are currently barred from participating in its brand pages program.
Twitter, too, has been hesitant to permit the promotion or inclusion of alcohol in its Promoted Tweets and Promoted Trends ad program, excluding them from it at first and now cautiously allowing a few very large companies. (It should be noted that Promoted Products are still restricted overall to a few hundred brands. None of the alcohol brands that have been permitted access have bought Twitter ads yet, according to a company spokesman.)
Finger Lakes Wine Country managed to contact Foursquare to resolve the problem, and after explaining that it was a tourist group rather than an organization that actually sells wine, its brand page was reinstated. McLaughlin says she can see where Foursquare was coming from. "It absolutely makes sense, especially when you're talking about specific businesses that sell and market alcohol. So, yeah, a winery should have its page restricted. Thirteen-year-olds or 15-year-olds probably shouldn't be thinking about wineries and breweries," she told CNET. "We're not a wine marketing company, per se, we're a destination, and so for some people, especially in legal, that becomes a very hard point of definition."
Social-media companies like Foursquare do, of course, ask for users' ages and can theoretically use that to gauge which users are of legal drinking age. But it's not that easy, explains Ted Zeller, an attorney with law firm Norris McLaughlin and Marcus, P.A. who specializes in alcohol beverage law. "If you're an alcohol brand, I know of no federal Internet law restrictions as far as advertisements go--the same would be applicable to TV advertisements," Zeller said. "The problems that you run into are more state-based regulations."
A few states, like Utah and Pennsylvania--where Zeller, who has represented the Yuengling brewing company in court, is based--have extremely stringent regulations that extend all the way up the alcohol industry's chain of command from wholesalers to consumer marketing. Foursquare's hurdle here would be that it would either need to abide by different laws for different states, or put in place overarching age verification and advertising regulations that adhere to even the strictest state laws. "That's the difficulty," Zeller said. "It's a tremendous hurdle from a legal perspective."
The irony is that social media, given the vast amount of personal information that users are prone to entering into profiles, ought to make things easier for an industry that needs to carefully target its advertising and marketing based on legal restrictions. But that information can be so vast and unverifiable, and a social-networking site's reach so global, that it can instead get even more complex. Geolocation services like Foursquare, where an essential part of the experience is moving from place to place, crossing state or even international boundaries in the process, brings a whole new piece to the puzzle. In comparison, traditional advertisements--TV ads distributed based on a static television market, ensuring that billboard ads are kept the required distance from churches or schools based on state laws--seem far simpler.
The company that's perhaps figured this out best is Facebook, which has fine-tuned its targeted display ads so meticulously that it's been able to put forth a precise set of regulations for alcohol advertisers. Age-based restrictions are in place for multiple countries, as are some outright bans in countries like Egypt, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, which prohibit alcohol advertising of any type. If a Facebook user has not filled out his or her profile extensively enough to determine age or location, that user will not see any alcohol-related ads. Access to alcohol-related "fan pages" can also be age-restricted.
And some alcohol-related brands have actually taken advantage of restrictions in order to create campaigns that give their brands an elite, "secret club" vibe. Tequila company Patron and beer brand Stella Artois have created, respectively, the "Patron Social Club" and "La Societe Stella Artois," members-only networking communities that offer perks and promotions in exchange for top-of-the-line age verification.
But when it comes to the most basic and obvious uses of social media--a Foursquare brand page, a promoted tweet on Twitter--the roadblocks can be frustrating for companies ranging from a local winery or brewpub to a mass-market rum company looking to launch a spring break promotion.
"I feel sorry for a lot of these small start-up companies, because the percentage of usage growth is huge, so the companies don't have the internal infrastructure to be able to deal with these things case by case," Finger Lakes Wine Country's Morgen McLaughlin said. "I remember in the beginning with Facebook, I actually got thrown off because I was posting about our new travel guide to too many friends."
But in spite of the inherent red tape that comes from working with small start-ups in a rigid advertising environment--and the continual need to explain that, no, her company doesn't sell liquor--social media is where McLaughlin plans to continue focusing. "In 2010, Facebook was the No. 1 Web referral to our Web site outside of organic search, by huge numbers," she told CNET. "We've connected with major wine and travel writers on Twitter. Without those tools, our destination would not be nearly as visible."