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Running a contest on Facebook? That'll cost you

The social network tightened its rules for companies running contests on its platform last week, and sources say those companies will be required to buy ad space too.

For Madison Avenue, Facebook just got a little less free.

Last week, the massive social network announced that brands, advertisers, and marketers that want to run contests or sweepstakes on its platform have to go through an approval process first.

Getting that approval could be a new revenue stream for Facebook: according to multiple sources in the marketing industry, they're being told that running a promotion in a Facebook application or "fan page" requires buying ad space too.

It's pricey. The minimum ad buy is $10,000 for 30 days, using Facebook's self-service advertising system, according to documents seen by CNET, or $30,000 for 30 days of Facebook home page ads. Priority in the approval process will be scaled, based on how much advertising space has been purchased. It's a move that one marketing industry professional called, in perhaps a bit of hyperbole, "a little Death Star-ish."

A Facebook representative declined to confirm and said the company did not have any comment beyond official documents released on its Facebook Marketing Solutions page.

Let's step back. Cracking down on contests and promotions might seem draconian, but it's actually important for Facebook: the U.S. state and federal laws that govern sweepstakes are extremely complicated, and by allowing only approved contests, Facebook is making sure that its bases are covered.

"Any promotion that any brand, product, or company would run has to have a terms of service against it," said Gunter Pfau, CEO of the Stuzo Group, an agency that has developed numerous Facebook contests and sweepstakes for clients. "Also, depending on the prize value, they need to be filed with various state regulatory agencies."

What, exactly, is new for contests? If a brand is running a contest on its fan page, it has to be handled through an embedded, separately developed application--not, for example, in the page's "wall." Promotions also can't involve Facebook users manipulating their user photos or status messages specifically for the contest.

Legal experts agree that this is necessary. "The (new Facebook) guidelines really cover only a narrow subset of promotions, specifically sweepstakes, contests, and similar competitions," explained Thomas Williams, a partner at the Chicago law firm Howrey, who specializes in trademark law. "That type of contest or promotion is governed by a myriad of state and federal regulations, so what I think Facebook is attempting to do here is merely shield itself from liability that arises out of its users' potential violations of these laws."

Williams continued: "I think it's a prudent and reasonable step on Facebook's part. There are lawyers who specialize in sweepstakes law, and there really are a lot of twists and turns to it."

One thing it'll also do, Stuzo Group's Gunter Pfau explained, is keep dishonest campaigns and promotions off the Facebook platform. "I think it's great news for consumers," he said. "I think what Facebook is doing is really laying these guidelines in place for companies to protect consumers more."

But what about the new ad spend requirements? Facebook has historically pitched its developer platform and fan pages as a free way for advertisers and marketers to tap into the power of "the social graph"--its 300 million-plus active users and their connections to one another. And while it's clear that the company sees these free pages and applications as a stepping stone for ad dollars--Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, for example, regularly gives Madison Avenue talks about the company's "engagement ads"--it doesn't have a long track record of requiring advertisers to pay for something that used to be free.

"It makes sense for Facebook, but (it's) a little discouraging to advertisers," commented Alisa Leonard-Hansen, who holds the title of social-media evangelist at digital-marketing firm iCrossing. "Facebook is continually trying to discover new ways to monetize, and they picked up on the trend that advertisers were using their pages to run contests and other promotions. I think Facebook was looking to be able to benefit from this marketing trend."

The ad spend requirements, too, could be considered partial compensation for the new human resources required in Facebook's approval process. Each company running contests on Facebook now has a designated advertising sales representative, and fan pages will continue to have to be policed for potential violations of both advertiser regulations and sweepstakes law.

There might not be a lot of friction as the new regulations go into effect. Companies that don't run contests on their Facebook fan pages or applications won't be affected. Even some that do, especially small-scale fan pages that could easily go unnoticed by Facebook, won't have to change much. "Of course, there are going to be savvy marketers who skirt this and run (contests) under the radar," Alisa Leonard-Hansen said.

It really goes without saying the obvious: this is Facebook's service, and it can do what it wants with it. That doesn't mean marketers will stop grumbling. As one put it in a phone call to CNET, "This is another example of Facebook saying, 'Sorry, eat it, you've got no choice.'"