Drinks companies are juggling the hand grenade of age verification when it comes to social media marketing

Drinks companies are juggling the hand grenade of age verification when it comes to social media marketing

As the use of social media becomes ever more prevalent, just-drinks has asked US- and UK-based social network marketing company Vitrue to look at how alcohol producers can harness the medium going forward.

With drinking being a highly social activity, it’s only natural that alcohol brands would leverage social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to connect and engage with their consumers. Social networks have given brands an unparalleled platform through which to reach and interact with consumers in personal, two-way relationships. The inherent sharing functionality puts already valuable word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. And, social usage is set to continue to rise, with comScore predicting that, in 2012, social networking will eclipse web portals as the most engaging web activity. The stumbling block, however, is that around 15% of social media users are under the age of 18. That poses a problem for alcohol brands wanting to use social media to responsibly engage consumers. 

Recently, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) joined forces with eight leading alcohol brands to create the 'Responsible Marketing Pact', an effort to create standards for responsible marketing across all media, with a key focus on social. The primary goal is to make sure only age-appropriate audiences see and engage with alcohol brands for paid, owned and earned content. “The industry could be doing more to show a commitment to responsible standards,” said Malte Lohan, director of public affairs at the WFA.

This is a smart move: Taking the lead in creating standards is not only the right thing to do, it can also ward off potentially heavy-handed governmental policing and mandates further down the line. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, it’s clear that alcohol brands have placed a priority on engaging in responsible marketing behaviour in their vertical. Social represents a relatively new arena in which marketers are still learning, growing and adapting to an ever-changing, fast-moving landscape.

It’s important to note, however, that many brands already have procedures in place with responsible marketing in mind. Most brands already use the native 'age restriction' settings offered on most social networks. And, new technologies exist to make up ground where native tools may fall short. In February, Vitrue rolled out our 'Twitter Gate' product, enabling our clients to screen or 'gate' potential Twitter followers before authorising them to follow their stream. The feature was designed to allow alcohol brands to restrict followers that are underage, and ensure that promotions, interactions and engagements are with age-appropriate audiences.

Of course, technologies like 'Twitter Gate' rely on individuals providing his/her correct birthdate. That’s on par with current age-validation features on alcohol brands’ websites. So, although this is far from a 100% foolproof validation method, it’s a clear, strong step in the right direction toward the kind of responsible measures Lohan referenced. You can count on ongoing technological innovations being introduced, so it’s in an alcohol brand’s best interests to stay aware of and institute these advancements, provided they make sense in the context of overall social marketing strategies. 

So, how can brands currently ensure responsible communication on their social media properties? Let’s examine the most widely used social networks today.

Facebook is by default a bit more regulated simply by virtue of the way individuals create profiles that require the submission of their birthdate. It’s probably safe to assume most are honest, as they’ll be engaging with friends and family. Of course, anyone can create a false account. Facebook also has an 'age restriction' setting, allowing only users above a certain age to access a certain page. Brands should, at the very least, apply this setting so age-appropriate consumers are viewing their content. Since drinking ages vary per country, brands should be sure that settings are appropriate for each country view/page. Google+ is very similar to Facebook in the way it asks for and requires ages. Twitter, however, is a different story. Consumers do not have to provide a birthdate when setting up an account. Brands on Twitter should seek out some type of age-verification process, to ensure they are interacting with age-appropriate audiences.

In addition to these primary social networks, there’s also Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and all of the social platforms we have yet to hear about that will undoubtedly come along. It’s a fundamental truth that technology changes constantly. Brands must be diligent and stay aligned with the very latest technologies, as well as changes in the various social platforms, to ensure they are engaging in the most responsible ways possible on social.

These efforts may never reach 100% perfection, but it’s inherent on alcohol brands to ensure they are paying attention to the latest trends and always – to quote Lohan – “showing a commitment to responsible standards”.