Marijuana advertisers face hurdles with Twitter’s newest ad policies

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Image of a pile of Twitter Blue check marks

(This story has been updated to correct the pricing for the check mark program and to delete incorrect information about the license requirement for CBD and hemp advertisers.) 

Twitter might have further eased its rules for cannabis advertising, but the changes don’t seem to have made it any easier for marijuana businesses to take advantage of the social media platform’s wide reach.

Regulatory red tape, Twitter’s unfamiliarity with the cannabis industry and cost are among the continued stumbling blocks.

For example, Twitter requires advertisers to be a Twitter Blue or Verified Organization subscriber, which enables them to add blue or gold check marks to their accounts, respectively.

It costs $8 a month to get the blue check mark or $1,000 a month for a gold check mark – the latter being an expense many smaller marijuana businesses can’t afford, particularly when companies are struggling financially because of low wholesale and retail prices and fierce competition from the illicit market.

“As a smaller company, we’re very cognizant of our costs, and the cannabis market isn’t what it used to be,” said Nikki Stanley, director of marketing for multistate operator Battle Green, whose retail brands include UpTop in Massachusetts and Terrasana Cannabis Co. in Ohio.

The company’s Neighborgoods brand is available in Massachusetts and will soon launch in Ohio.

Stanley said that aside from being cost-prohibitive, the platform doesn’t necessarily reach the audience Battle Green is trying to capture.

Instead of advertising on Twitter, Battle Green works with the marketing technology firm Surfside to place programmatic advertising throughout ad networks that targets customers who have shopped in its stores – and the company hopes to entice them back.

“Twitter seems to be more about people interested in the business side of cannabis versus the consumer,” she said.

“You see consumers engaging more on Instagram and Reddit, not on Twitter.”

 Twitter pivots

The privately held social media platform opened the door to U.S. marijuana advertising in February.

But cannabis companies reported mixed results as they started experimenting with marketing on Twitter.

“We have gathered meaningful feedback from the cannabis industry which we have taken into consideration to create even more opportunity,” Alexa Alianiello, Twitter’s head of sales and partnerships, wrote in an April blog post announcing the latest changes.

Under the newly revised rules, cannabis advertisers are allowed to promote branding and product-specific content.

The ads can only feature products in their packaging.

And the ads cannot include pricing, offer promotions or discounts or promote giveaways, sweepstakes or contests.

In addition, Twitter is permitting ads in new marijuana markets, although its publicly posted policy for advertising drugs doesn’t spell out those medical and recreational markets.

According to Rosie Mattio, CEO of New York-based cannabis industry marketing firm Mattio Communications, Twitter is permitting medical cannabis ads targeting users in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Adult-use marijuana ads also are permitted in Missouri’s new adult-use market.

At the same time, cannabis companies advertising on Twitter must sign an attestation form indicating they are licensed to do business in the states their ads will appear.

They can target only customers 21 and older in jurisdictions where they are licensed.

Potential benefits

Cannabis businesses that choose to use the platform will see benefits in terms of being able to educate consumers about their products, Mattio said.

“Now they can promote their products with great content in the ad copy,” she noted. “Now you can have photos.”

The advantage of advertising on Twitter versus the ways cannabis companies have been able to reach their audience up until now is that they can talk about their specific products rather than educate consumers with broad brushstrokes.

“You can be more thoughtful about demographics,” Mattio said.

“You can target consumer profiles instead of just throwing it out into the ether.

“You can create copy that resonates with that consumer and be very targeted with the message about what products go to what markets and what consumer profile.”

Hemp stumbling block

 CBDistillery, a Denver-based manufacturer of hemp-derived CBD, was the first CBD company to launch ads on Twitter, company President and CEO Chase Terwilliger said.

Although the company sells its products in all 50 states, it’s succeeded in getting Twitter ads in only 20 – even though hemp was legalized federally in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“(Twitter is) new to this, too, and they’re obviously going through a lot of changes,” he said. “We have to walk them through the process.”

Terwilliger suggests companies that want to try the platform determine which states they want to start advertising in, ensure they have the correct licenses and labels, and then contact Twitter.

Although CBDistillery hasn’t yet seen a return on its investment, Terwilliger said the ads have led to sales.

“We’re being patient with it,” he said. “With digital advertising, it takes some time to get the right formula.

“We’re still in the testing phase, but we’re confident it will produce a meaningful ROI in the future.”

Red tape, paperwork

It’s been more difficult for some other cannabis companies.

Chicago-based PharmaCann, a multistate operator that is one of the largest vertically integrated marijuana companies in the U.S., has been trying to advertise on Twitter for more than a month.

The privately held company has been adjusting to Twitter’s regulations and restrictions by building new creative and defining new audiences in its network.

PharmaCann couldn’t use existing campaigns on Twitter, which delayed its launch on the platform.

The company also had to figure out how to accurately track conversions.

“We wanted to be live for 4/20,” said Bryan Benavides, PharmaCann’s director of digital marketing, referring to the unofficial April 20 cannabis holiday.

“We had to fill out forms and prove we have licenses in certain states and markets.”

But even for a large company such as PharmaCann, the $1,000-per-month fee to get the gold check mark is off-putting.

“I haven’t committed to that quite yet,” Benavides said. “I’m already spending money.

“Why do I have to spend more just to get the check mark?”

Lack of understanding

Before announcing it would allow marijuana ads on its platform, Twitter contacted Boulder, Colorado-based edibles maker Wana Brands.

After reviewing the rules, Wana Chief Marketing Officer Joe Hodas said he determined that the social media company didn’t understand the cannabis industry and how the pieces fit together.

Hodas and his team suggested ways to rewrite the rules to make them less onerous, but Twitter refused to revise them.

“We are a cannabis company, so we have to sign all this additional stuff saying we’re not responsible for anything,” Hodas said.

“It’s inconvenient, but it’s not a deal-killer.”

Hodas’ first idea was to run specials on Wana products with specific dispensaries, but Twitter’s rules prohibit it.

He’d also like the ability to insert the company into conversations on the platform to start a dialog with potential customers about conditions its products can address.

“Twitter offers us access to folks who aren’t thinking of cannabis as a solution,” he said.

“I like what Twitter can potentially do for us, but if we’re not allowed to hyper-locally target, it probably doesn’t hold as much value for me.

“I could geotarget with their sophisticated targeting capabilities. I need something that helps me target and convert and drive sales so I can measure it.”

Other social media platforms, including Facebook, are starting to consider allowing cannabis ads but may be too late to the party if Twitter grabs a big portion of the market.

“The advertising dollars will be spoken for by the time they get there,” Hodas said.