The Law and Business of Social Media
January 06, 2012 - Online Promotions, Terms of Use

Running Contests and Sweepstakes on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter: How the Rules Stack Up

Running Contests and Sweepstakes on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter: How the Rules Stack Up

Over the past two years, Socially Aware has revisited Facebook’s Promotions Guidelines from time to time — even as recently as August 2011 — to help keep our readers up-to-date on how popular social media platforms seek to regulate contests, sweepstakes and other promotions.

Online promotions are as popular as ever, and given that two-thirds of American adults now use some type of social media platform, we decided to take a broader, comparative look at the promotions guidelines of three major social networks — Facebook, Google+ and Twitter — to give our readers a sense of how these guidelines stack up.

A social network’s terms and conditions governing promotions are typically a mix of rules, restrictions and best-practices suggestions that can be difficult to navigate.  Equally tough to digest are the dozens of “how to” websites that purport to instruct social media users how to conduct successful (and legal) promotions online, and the numerous companion sites that advertise social media promotions to anyone who wishes to join.  What’s more, social media services’ promotions policies are updated and amended frequently, as we have noted previously, and they typically incorporate or are incorporated into other, far more general rules and restrictions that both protect the respective service providers and give those providers considerable latitude in accepting, rejecting, suspending or terminating promotions on their platforms.

Here’s a quick look at where Facebook’s, Google+’s and Twitter’s promotions guidelines stand today:

1.  Google+.  Let’s start with Google+, the newest social network on our list.  Google+ recently published its policies for contests and promotions.  Simply put, Google+ users are not permitted to run contests, sweepstakes, offers, coupons or other such promotions directly on their Google+ Pages; however, users are permitted to post links on their Google+ Pages to such users’ promotions on other sites, as long as they agree to be solely responsible for such promotions and for compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.  (In a sense, this approach mirrors Facebook’s rule, discussed in our August 2011 issue, on communicating about promotions:  “If you use Facebook to communicate about . . . a promotion, you are responsible for the lawful operation of that promotion.”)  Some have noted that Google+’s restrictive promotions policies are somewhat counterintuitive in light of Google+’s recent launch of “Brand Pages,” which finally enable brands, products, companies, businesses, places, groups, and everyone else to establish branded presences on the fledgling service.

User promotions that are linked from users’ Google+ Pages are required to adhere to a variety of other Google+ terms and conditions, including the Google+ Pages Additional Terms of Service.  Those terms incorporate by reference even more Google+ terms and conditions, such as the Google+ User Content and Conduct Policy.  Google retains the right both to remove a user’s “Promotion content” from the user’s Google+ Page for any reason and to block or remove Pages that violate Google+’s Pages terms (and even, in the case of repeat violations of the Pages terms, to suspend the user’s Google+ account).

One other interesting point:  For now, according to the Google+ Pages Additional Terms of Service, “[e]xcept as otherwise required by the Google+ Pages Terms, you may not include terms, conditions or non-Google provided technical restrictions on Google+ Pages.”  This implies that, even though a user is permitted to link to the user’s promotion from his or her Google+ Page, the user is not permitted to include on the Page any “terms” or “conditions” governing the promotion — let alone the promotion’s “Official Rules.”

2.  Twitter.  In contrast to Google+’s prohibitive policies, Twitter specifically permits users to operate promotions on its platform.  In fact, Twitter’s Guidelines for Contests on Twitter (the “Twitter Guidelines,” which despite their name, govern both contests and sweepstakes) take a different approach from other platforms’ promotions terms, as they read more like a set of suggestions that promotions operators are encouraged to follow in order to generally enhance the Twitter user experience and to steer entrants clear of violating other Twitter rules.  (Unlike the promotions guidelines for Google+ and Facebook, the Twitter Guidelines do not distinguish between promotions “run on” Twitter and those merely advertised on or promoted using Twitter; the guidelines simply govern any contests and sweepstakes “on Twitter,” for example, offering prizes for Tweeting updates, following a particular user or posting updates with a specific hashtag.)

As an example, the Twitter Guidelines admonish users to discourage the creation of multiple accounts (which could lead to account suspension under “The Twitter Rules”) by “be[ing] sure to” impose a rule that users will be ineligible if they create multiple accounts to enter a promotion more than once.  The Twitter Guidelines also note that users “might want to set a clear contest rule” that multiple entries from a given entrant in a single day will not be accepted, in order to help discourage posting of the same Tweet repeatedly (e.g., “whoever re-Tweets the most wins”).

3.  Facebook.  While Google+’s promotions guidelines flatly prohibit onsite promotions and instead focus on how users can communicate about their offsite promotions, and Twitter’s guidelines do not distinguish clearly between operating and communicating about promotions on Twitter, Facebook’s Promotions Guidelines squarely address both communicating about and operating promotions on Facebook.

Facebook’s Promotions Guidelines get into plenty of detail on how promotion operators can and cannot use Facebook and its many features to operate promotions.  A few highlights:

  • Promotions operated on Facebook must be administered using Apps on Facebook, Facebook’s development tools for app builders, both to ensure interoperability with Facebook’s platform and to enable Facebook to advertise to users of the app.
  • Promotions operators are required to make certain mandatory disclosures, including (i) a complete release of Facebook by each entrant, (ii) an acknowledgement that the promotion is not sponsored, endorsed or administered by Facebook, and (iii) that the entrant is providing information to the promotions operator only and not to Facebook.  (Neither Google+ nor Twitter requires disclosures such as these, although Google+’s promotions terms include broad language releasing Google from liability for users’ promotions and requiring users to indemnify Google from claims and losses arising from such promotions, and Twitter’s general terms simply disclaim any liability for Twitter’s use of content provided by Twitter users.)
  • Facebook features and functionality cannot be used (i) as a way to register for or enter a promotion (e.g., “Liking” a Facebook Page cannot constitute an entry in a promotion), (ii) as a prerequisite to participating in a promotion (although promotion operators are permitted to require users to Like a Page, check into a Place, or connect to the operator’s page in order to enter a promotion), (iii) as a promotion voting mechanism, or (iv) to notify promotion winners (e.g., through messages, chat, or posts on profiles or pages).  This is an interesting contrast to the Twitter Guidelines, which imply that Twitter is comfortable with the use of a wide range of Twitter features in connection with Twitter-based promotions.

Conclusions.  The promotions guidelines promulgated by Facebook, Google and Twitter reveal a few common threads.  Each service seems to be concerned with protecting its community members, for example, by restricting the creation of false accounts, by prohibiting the publication of misleading or false information or by limiting the collection and use of personal information by promotions operators for purposes other than the promotion itself.  Similarly, each service’s guidelines require promotion operators to take certain actions to ensure that their promotions do not interfere with, and are otherwise compatible with, the general functioning of the service.  Finally, each provider has put measures in place to shield itself from the legal complications arising from operating or communicating about promotions on its service — in at least one case (Google+), by prohibiting the operation of promotions outright.

Moreover, keep in mind that a social media site’s promotions guidelines are only part — typically, a very small part — of the universe of terms and conditions that bind promotions operators.  Each service described in this article requires compliance with various other sites-pecific policies, terms and conditions, which often further restrict how promotions can be run or advertised.  Google+’s promotions guidelines link to three other Google+ policies, each of which links to several other policies that impose additional restrictions, for example, the Google+ Pages Additional Terms of Service’s prohibition on posting content that violates third-party rights or content that is considered inappropriate under yet another policy, the Google+ User Content and Conduct Policy.  Similarly, Twitter requires all promotions operators to comply with The Twitter Rules and Twitter’s search best practices before commencing a promotion, and Facebook supplements its Promotions Guidelines by requiring promoters to comply with Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (which, as we have noted previously, incorporate many other Facebook policies), its Ad Guidelines, and its Platform Policies.  And bear in mind that all of these policies, rules and guidelines change over time.

The complexity of social media services’ various promotions guidelines, rules and best practices means that any would-be promotions operator needs to carefully review — and monitor over time — each service’s terms, particularly when a promotion is designed to leverage multiple social media services simultaneously.  First-time social media promotions operators in particular may want to seek legal guidance, both in understanding each target service’s terms and in helping to craft a set of “Official Rules” that can help the operator manage risk and maximize the chances of running a successful social media promotion.