When it comes to marketing your cannabis brand on social media platforms, it’s normal to run into hang-ups with the antiquated rules set by the digital behemoth networks. Business leaders and marketing professionals engaged in legal marijuana markets often complain about frequent bans on social media networks where their carefully cultivated followings are easily lost one day to the next. With 30 states and the District of Columbia giving the thumbs up to the legalization of medicinal or recreational marijuana, it’s somewhat perplexing to see prohibition alive and thriving on the social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Social media is a powerful channel for digital marketing activities. While it’s possible to use other channels like newspapers, SEO-optimized web content and even broadcast networks such as radio in many states, social media can still be a challenge for businesses making their way into the industry. Despite a massive push for legalization across the country, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
Federal government law means social media prohibition
Since U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Epidiolex, a CBD-based oral solution for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has faced increasing pressure to reschedule at least cannabidiol. While the DEA has said that it has no plans to reschedule or reschedule marijuana, it admits that there is "discussion" about rescheduling CBD.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s ban on marijuana has made many of the social media and technology giants such as Facebook and Google nervous about taking in ad revenue from cannabis advertising. With the array of targeting techniques it offers, for example, Facebook would be an optimal place to market marijuana with targeted advertising tactics. But the company refuses to take cannabis dollars to make sure it stays within the federal guidelines.
The platforms’ policy about acceptable cannabis related advertising is short and to the point. Facebook has only a single sentence describing its “Drug and Drug-Related Products” under its Prohibited Content policy section that says:
“Ads must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.”
Lisa Jordan, Director of Marketing for Colorado-based Canna Advisors, told The Stash that virtually none of the major social media networks allow cannabis-related promoted content — with the exception of LinkedIn.
“There is no guarantee that any type of marijuana message won’t be taken down on the social media platforms,” said Jordan. “LinkedIn is the only cannabis-friendly platform, the only one that hasn’t given us problems with sponsored posts.”
LinkedIn, however, is not the preferred social media platform for marketers. According to Facebook’s investor relations press release, the social media giant had 2.23 billion active monthly users as of the second quarter of 2018 while LinkedIn only had 250 million active monthly users as of January, 2018.
"Flying under the radar"
There are cannabis companies that argue that the best way to get around Facebook and Instagram’s anti-marijuana ad policies is to pay influencers to spread the word about their flowers, edibles and topical products.
Christie Strong, marketing communications manager at cannabis company Kiva Confections, told Digiday that the company could spread its message organically through accounts connected to celebrities like Sarah Silverman and Charlize Theron.
“Individuals can share with impunity, which means influencers are in the unique position to share products they are passionate about without fear of getting shut down as a business would,” said Strong to Digiday. Of course, this isn't entirely true. With Instagram starting to crack down on influencers as well (cannabis influencer Bess Byers aka @imcannabess was shut down twice in one month) it seems like anyone is fair game.
Other companies claim it is possible to evade the social media algorithms meant to stop cannabis ads from targeting the public by working with publishers to create native advertising. Also known as branded content, this cannabis-related content can shared on social media if the article or video is editorial and not strictly promotional.
Additionally, entrepreneurs can try to get their messages through by being intentionally vague in the messages to make it unclear that the advertisement is meant to sell cannabis-related product. Mike Schwarz, CMO of greenRush, told Digiday that it’s possible to create content that is sufficiently generic enough to not trip Facebook’s algorithms.
“It’s about creating content that appeals to cannabis consumers, without explicitly offering them weed to purchase,” Schwarz said. “You can target cannabis consumers; you can brand to them. You just can’t directly solicit their business.”
Join together to change prohibition policy
Jordan, who also sits on the Marketing and Advertising Committee at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), told the Stash that in the end, the “tricks” for avoiding the prohibition policies on social media are not effective in the long-term.
“You can fly under the radar for a while with those tricks, but sooner or later, they’re going to notice and they’re going to shut you down,” said Jordan. “Any action is fair game to be taken down.
Jordan advocated pushing back on the companies to change their policies. According to Jordan, the social media giants have only further “dug in their heels” in regards to cannabis prohibition. It was recently discovered that Facebook’s search tools were censoring the results of marijuana-related searches.
“The best thing we can do is to be loud,” said Jordan. “Even though we can each try to get around it on our own, there is no assurance that our strategies will work… We need to take the long-term view and push back."
To enact this change in policy, the NCIA recently started a petition to demand Facebook change its policies that “ negatively impact state-licensed cannabis businesses and marijuana policy reform advocates, even as the majority of U.S. states have legally regulated cannabis for medical or adult use through laws that continue to enjoy wide public support.” The petition Facebook - Stop Censoring Marijuana Industry, Advocacy Groups, and Regulators has 19,640 signatures. Help them reach their goal of 25,000! The petition can be found on Change.org.