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Binging on social media: challenges for the drinks sector


The issue of responsible social media marketing by the drinks’ sector was the topic of a seminar hosted this week by Birmingham PR agency Seal. Attendees from brands such as Heineken, Purity and Kingsland Wines as well as the Advertising Standards Authority looked at research on the popularity of alcohol brands to consumers, case studies of brands and their experiences at the coalface and a roundtable discussion on how to use these channels responsibly.

The event was well timed. Last week the House of Commons health committee suggested that there should be greater restrictions on alcohol advertising. The UK drinks sector isn’t alone in feeling the heat form politicians and regulators. Concerns about the ability of social media is highlighted in a series of videos by the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. The final video in the series is shown below.

This shows some examples of Facebook activity from some of the leading brands. What’s interesting is that the guidelines from the UK’s self-regulatory body the Portman Group and the CAP codes for alcohol advertising appear much more robust than US requirements. Brands in the UK are taking strenuous measures to ensure compliance. Perhaps the one of the biggest challenges is in demonstrating their efforts in this area.

Compliance isn’t difficult and the key take outs from Monday’s event were:

1. It starts with a sound strategy. Any steps into social need considering as rigorously as any other investment. This should be coupled with a risk assessment of the downsides, on a channel-by-channel basis.

2. It requires processes. The whimsical nature of personal social media interactions cannot be used by the drinks sector. Sound processes covering roles, responsibilities, escalation and traceability are vital. Marketing via social networks also requires constant attention.

3. The regulators should be talking to the channels. There is huge ambiguity in some of the codes but equally, some fundamentals that should exist across the social web. The ability to effectively age-gated social channels is a must. The ASA and others should be lobbying to get this done by the sites concerned.

4. If in doubt, stay out! In the current climate, why take a risk on a channel that doesn’t offer you the ability to protect your reputation?

The attention on the drinks sector isn’t going to disappear. Bodies such as Alcohol Concern would rather see a complete ban on alcohol marketing in the social space. Yet it’s huge popularity with over 18s means that brands should be able to engage with their consumers. In a sector under the spotlight, it makes sense to take a lead on this and go further than the current rules.

We’re talking social at an alcohol sector summit…


Birmingham PR agency Seal are hosting a round table debate for marketers in the alcohol sector. We’re taking part in what promises to be a packed event.

The growth in social media marketing shows no signs of slowing down and alcohol brands are among the most active sectors using these channels. But what are the risks? And what do brands need to do to ensure regulatory compliance?

Senior figures from the sector will meet in Birmingham to plot a clear route through the channels and the maze of rules surrounding the use of social media for marketing communications.

The panel will consider the consumer and see the results of a survey, commissioned by Seal, into how 18 – 25 year olds use social channels to engage with brands and what this means for purchasing habits.

The session will also look at case studies from those at the coal face with the aim of producing a practical guide for marketers.

The event takes place on Monday 23rd July. We’ll be live tweeting from the event and you can follow using the hashtag #bingingonsocial.

Alcohol brands, social media and regulatory compliance


Europe’s leading alcohol brands recently launched their “Responsible Marketing Pact” designed to create verifiable, common standards for marketing communications. Much of the focus of the pact is to reduce the risks of under age consumers being exposed to advertising campaigns. The pact itself is designed to head off further regulations on the industry’s advertising.

Social media is a key aspect to this and UK brands already have guidelines from CAP and the industry self-regulatory body, the Portman Group. Social’s popularity with consumers is part of its attraction to marketers. Alcohol brands achieve some of the highest levels presents a number of challenges for brand owners and a key component is preventing under age consumers from accessing such content.

Brand websites have long been covered by this but the scope extends to include social channels, blogs, email, MMS and Twitter. The Portman Group’s “Digital Marketing Guidelines” clearly stipulate that:

”Over 18 age confirmation details can be provided by third parties. However, the onus is on the drinks company to ensure that the third party has appropriate procedures in place to obtain this information.”

Restricting under-18s access to branded social networking content would seem like a simple element to deliver but the reality is that adherence requires some effort.

Facebook is an ideal channel for the sector because age controls are built into the brand page settings. The one issue to consider is geographical variations. A UK over -18 page is fine but if you have significant US traffic (and this data is easily obtainable) then consider a US page. The UK page can then be set-up to only be accessible to UK residents aged 18+ (and the US page, 21+).

YouTube is a more difficult channel to crack. As far as the ASA is concerned, it is within the scope of the respective codes. Setting up filters isn’t an easy process. The tools aren’t built into the standard channel settings though are available to commercial partners. The age verification filters do work when visitors access a specific channel. However, they fall down when a visitor accesses via the video’s URL. This is an element that regulators should be pushing back to Google to address given the popularity of the site.

Twitter is even more vague. It’s terms of service contain a statement regarding binding contracts which is taken as a reference to over 18s (who in the US are the only people who can form a binding contract). Yet this is far too opaque for those registering. Who reads the terms and conditions anyway? A wordy legal statement is hardly a concrete solution to the issue. And why no age capture at registration?

For alcohol brands it means a presence here requires much greater care. The lack of age capture when registering means that brand messaging could be seen by under-18s. It also means that the size of this audience is an unknown. Research has always suggested that Twitter was popular with older consumers but recent data contradicts this.

Brand owners should consider using Twitter solely for corporate messaging as this offers some respite (as the code allows for corporate sites to avoid age verification, the same rationale could be used here if the messaging is trade/stakeholder focused). This is important because the code and the responsible marketing pact stipulate that advertising should only be shown on channels where 70% of the audience are over 18. Twitter is the big unknown.

The guidelines are clear and there is no excuse for non-compliance. Brand owners should avoid entering each new channel without considering their ability to control who sees their communications. Whilst ignorance is no defence if challenged, the regulators should also be pushing the site owners to ensure that minors are categorized and that advertisers can control whether these audiences are exposed to advertising and social messages. We’ve been through the process of reviewing all social channels for a drinks client. Our takeout? It’s complex, inconsistent and marketers must tread carefully.

(An earlier version of this post first appeared on the blog of Birmingham PR agency, Seal).

Is display advertising evolving?


I’m always in two mind about display advertising. Despite the fact that spend continues to grow (18.5% according to the IAB) response rates still seem to be very, very low. Proponents argue that engagement levels are more important and that these are much higher (10% compared to 0.4% for clicks). The IAB’s Future Formats competition saw publishers’ ideas as to what the next generation of display ads might look like.

There’s definitely some interesting ideas here such as the “Premium Display Canvas” and “Shuffle Box”  (both from Yahoo) and Doubleclick’s “Picture Frame”. These ideas offer lots of potential for engagement but what’s the next step for consumers? If you can view a video of a new phone, check out the colour options, features and specs all within the ad, will these ads encourage purchases? And what do these ads mean for brand websites where purchasing isn’t an option? Is display going to make the leap into generating meaningful actions from consumers? Or are we simply going to get better quality (or more annoying if you’re not a fan) distractions?

Mobile web: how many people really use their phones to access the web?


The mobile web is coming of age. At least that’s the impression you’d get from the research statements and digital marketing press. Back in August Ofcom reported that one in three adults used a smartphone to access the web. More recently it emerged that nearly 10% of eBay’s UK activity is done via smarthphones. There are plenty of other articles and blogs talking about the value of mobile commerce, the need for apps and of course, the pros and cons of each of the main mobile operating systems.

But is mobile usage of websites really that high? We took a look at a couple of client sites and the data suggested otherwise. This led a hypothesis that the published data is probably biased by usage of a small number of hugely popular sites and apps from the big publishers, retailers and brands as well as massive use by gamers. If so, what’s the reality for most businesses and organisations?

To test this we decided to analyse data from a range of websites. In partnership with HEERA we gained access to 21 academic and educational websites alongside 5 from the commercial sector. This gave us a decent sample – on average the sites receive over 350,000 unique visitors per month and 700,000+ visits. Total traffic ranged from 6 million unique visitors month to over 10 million.

So what do the results tell us? The results for both segments are shown in the chart below showing the percentage of visits coming via mobile devices:

Mobile is definitely growing. In August 2010 it accounted for less than 3% of all visits in both segments. In the education sector it had doubled by August 2011 to just over 5% before dipping back to 4% in September. For the smaller commercial segment growth was much faster passing 9% in September (and is now at 11%).

Within the HE segment there was significant variation. This can be seen on the chart below which shows mobile visits (as a % of all traffic) for eight of the respondents:

Mobile accounted for between 3% and 8% of visits to the educational sites. Usage is growing at a reasonable pace though less than for the commercial sites. This might in part be due to the younger audiences using the HE sites who are less likely to own a smartphone, or at least to have a package with extensive data/web bandwidth. This will be explored more fully in a follow up post looking at the actual devices used.

What does this mean for businesses? Well mobile is here, and here to stay. It’s growing but perhaps not quite as rapidly as we’ve been led to believe. Usage of the most popular apps, games and sites has skewed the data somewhat. The picture for most organisations is that mobile accounts for less than one in ten visits to their sites. In HE it’s much lower, for commercial sites slightly higher but still less than 1 in 8. At the very least, all site owners need to be looking at their analytics data before deciding what, if any, investments to make in mobile content, advertising or apps.

We’re talking mobile to the HE sector


HEERA have teamed up with Clarity Digital to help members understand what the mobile web is and its importance to the sector.

Many of you will have seen the latest data that suggests that 1 in 3 adults now use smartphones to access the web. However, what does this actually mean?

Outline research suggests that the data is skewed by the usage of the high profile mobile sites and apps (e.g. Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tesco, etc).

So what’s the reality for higher education? And what should institutions be doing with mobile? 
To find out, we ran a meta-analysis of website data in the HE sector to determine what the true picture is for members. We’re presenting the results of this exciting project at a workshop at the University of Birmingham on the December 7th.

Foursqaure 3.0: the location battle continues…


Competition between the location-based services is increasing with this week’s launch of foursquare’s latest update and its newest feature, recommendations. This follows on from Facebook “Deals” which gives businesses the opportunity to offer rewards to customers checking-in via Facebook Places. A range of offers are available from those that aim to drive new customers to discounts for loyalty (for individuals and groups). The UK launch at the end of January saw Mazda, Starbucks, Yo Sushi and Bennetton signing up.

Foursquare has been offering vouchers and discounts for longer yet businesses had seemed reluctant to embrace the service to attract new customers. I’ve been enticed by several of the “Special Nearby” panels only to be presented with rewards that are for the venue’s “Mayor” (person who has checked in the most for those not familiar with the term). This seems to be a wasted opportunity to drive new footfall into outlets though its understandable given foursquare’s relatively low user base.

With the release of foursquare 3.0 users can prompt foursquare for recommendations when they’re going out. Venues are recommended based on factors such the as user’s behaviour, that of their friends, the popularity of venues, time/date and quality of tips. You can also search for specific venues such as food, coffee and nightlife.

One aspect to it that feels odd is that lack of venue ratings. The tips attached to venues vary both in quantity and quality. A ratings system similar to Tripadvisor might offer more scope for suggestions based not just on check-ins but the overall visitor experience. An initial play with the restaurant recommendations for tonight left me feeling less than impressed. To be fair, it might be the lack of data in Birmingham that makes the results seem underwhelming.

To help businesses get more from the service, foursquare have also enhanced their merchant services with a range of extra offers. The impact of Facebook Deals is evident with some similar offers and others that are trying to go further such as Flash specials.

Will this latest release help foursquare grow or stop Facebook gaining further momentum? It’s way too early to tell though the user numbers don’t bode well for foursquare. With 7.5 million users worldwide, it still feels like a service that is popular with early adopters despite being over 2 years old. Facebook’s is reported to have approximately 30 million users in the UK alone. This might work against foursquare with bars, restaurants and retailers increasingly targeting the larger audience available on Facebook.