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In response to growing criticism from universities, Molson has pulled a controversial photo contest on Facebook, underlining the challenges that companies face in trying to pitch their products on new social media.

Molson's online marketing campaign, in which students were encouraged to post pictures of themselves partying on campus, was "misinterpreted" as promoting irresponsible drinking, said Ferg Devins, a vice-president at Molson Coors Brewing Co.

After a Globe and Mail article ran Friday, the brewer decided to end the contest one week early, he said.

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"The whole realm of social media - there's lots to learn," he said. "It's really a new area. We're probably groundbreaking and leading in a lot of things we've been doing."

Business leaders are scratching their heads when it comes to using social media in their marketing, confirms a new study to be released tomorrow. The survey, done by Pollara Strategic Insights, found that 26 per cent of business and marketing leaders say they are less familiar with social media marketing than their own customers.

But the data also found that 46 per cent of business leaders say social media tools, such as Facebook, YouTube and blogs - which allow people to generate their own content and share it with others worldwide - are becoming more important than traditional mass media, including television, newspapers and radio.

And 85 per cent said these forums have become an essential component of the communications mix.

"There's really a high level of interest in social media but at the same time companies are really struggling to understand social media," said Robert Hutton, executive vice-president at Pollara.

"They're starting to devote some budget to it. At the same time they need help to get there."

The survey of 444 business and marketing leaders was done for Veritas Communications, which tomorrow will launch a service called com.motion to help companies navigate the social media marketing space.

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Molson is among those wading into the uncharted territory.

But it stepped over the line of acceptability with its Facebook campaign, said Joe MacDonald, dean of students at St. Francis Xavier University and one of the administrators who complained to Molson. "It's cheap marketing," he said. "I'm concerned about Molson's lack of contrition."

Mr. Devins said Molson ditched the contest Friday afternoon after complaints, and published criticism, from university administrators and student groups.

"We promote responsible choices and wanted to be pro-active in responding to concerns expressed from a number of different audiences," the company says in a message on its Facebook page.

Students at Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld., had posted the most photos; this week Molson will announce the winner of a trip for five to Cancun, worth about $8,000.

Despite its setback, Molson will look to expand its social media marketing, and already has developed some blogs and other online initiatives, Mr. Devins said.

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"We need to be communicating with our consumers because that's where our consumers are communicating among themselves. ... We need to make sure we're in that relevant channel."

Other companies, such as Boston Pizza International Inc. of Richmond, B.C., are also keen to forge ahead with Facebook marketing.

Indeed, last week Boston Pizza picked Lowe Roche as its ad agency, partly because of its insights into using social media, said Joanne Forrester, vice-president of marketing at the Richmond, B.C.-based restaurant chain.

Lowe had discovered about 500 Boston Pizza groups on Facebook, many of them started by employees, said Scot Keith, vice-president at the ad agency.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to cash in on this untapped source of free publicity, Mr. Keith said.

"I don't think anybody right now has cracked this thing."

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Boston Pizza targets some of the same people who are becoming regulars on the site - young and old alike, Ms. Forrester said.

"I certainly know how many friends I have who are in their mid-30s and early-40s who are on Facebook reconnecting with people," she said. "It's quite a phenomenon."

Mr. Keith said he is looking into how to tap into Facebook's popularity for his other clients too, including Nike Bauer and Audi.

Marketers have to be more subtle than Molson in trying to capture users' attention, he said.

The risk always remains that the marketer can lose control of its brand, he said.

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