The TTB, the ABC, and Social Media for Craft Breweries

For craft breweries, establishing a powerful social media program can be the key to winning new customers thumbsand standing out from the competition (last year, nearly 400 new craft breweries opened in the United States—a number that looks like it will be dwarfed this year).

But the rules that govern breweries’ social media marketing can be difficult to navigate. For instance, if a brewery sells a keg to a restaurant, the brewery cannot post on Facebook that its beer will be on tap at that restaurant. Such a post is considered advertising—and if the brewery were to give its client, the restaurant, “free advertising” by posting about it… well, best not to even go there. (And don’t even get us started on the “two clicks” rule that is a goofball–though legal–workaround allowing breweries to publicize where their beers are on tap.)

At the Bizability Group, we work with a number of craft breweries on their websites, social media marketing, and public relations. We know firsthand how difficult it can be to pin down all the ins and outs of these rules—even when we contact the rule-makers directly. (It took us weeks to finally track down someone at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control [ABC] who could answer specific questions about Facebook and Twitter announcements—and even then, we couldn’t get a firm answer one persnickety question: if a third party, unemployed by the brewery or the restaurant, were to post that the brewery’s beer is on tap at the restaurant… and then the brewery shared that post, which had originated with someone else… would that still be going against regulation? Is sharing someone else’s post equal to creating an original post? The ABC staff we spoke with evidently don’t use Facebook, and couldn’t really understand the question in order to give it an answer.)

Recently the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced social media guidelines for breweries and wineries. The same issue came up, as Brewbound very astutely pointed out in a recent newsletter: if the rule-making agency isn’t familiar with social media, how can it establish rules that can be understood–and followed?

First of all, this “industry circular” does not appear to be stating any new regulations—confusing enough; why make a major formal announcement about regulations that have already been in place?

Secondly, the TTB announcement mentions several social media platforms by name, like Facebook, Twitter… and Friendster. “Friendster, once the apple of Google’s investing eye, has been defunct as a social media site – – at least in the U.S. — since about 2009,” Brewbound points out. “The domain is now a gaming site based in Malaysia.”

The Brewbound piece goes on to quote Terry Lozoff, co-founder of the social experiential marketing company Antler Agency, who says that the inclusion of Friendster simply highlights how out of touch the TTB is with the social media landscape—just like those ABC staffers who couldn’t tell Bizability Group whether sharing a third-party post carries the same requirements as creating an original post. (Interestingly, the TTB does address this issue; according to them, a post not originally created by a brewery, but simply shared by it, must follow all the same regulations.)

Most interesting is Lozoff’s emphasis on the fact that social media should not be considered advertising at all. We couldn’t agree more. Advertisements are interruptive; they pop up in the middle of television shows, radio broadcasts, magazine articles. Social media is interactive, a back-and-forth between the account owner and the followers.

It’s a conversation, not an advertisement. But while the rule-makers–whether or not they play the social media game–disagree, craft breweries have little choice but to stay inside the lines drawn up by the agencies that govern them.

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