Marijuana firms and advocates struggle as Instagram targets accounts

Collage of Instagram logos

For marketer Colin Bambury, there is no bigger headache than Instagram’s seemingly low tolerance for the marijuana industry – and the popular photo-sharing app’s penchant for deactivating or shuttering marijuana-related accounts.

“This is one of the biggest pain points in my life,” he said.

Since 2016, British Columbia-based Bambury has worked with brands such as the California-based cannabis advertising platform Weedmaps, rapper Wiz Khalifa’s Khalifa Kush Enterprises (KKE) and its short-lived entry into the Canadian market as well as Canada’s Supreme Cannabis.

Some of the brands Bambury has worked with boast Instagram followings as high as 200,000 followers.

Yet countless times, accounts Bambury was managing have been flagged for content violations.

Alternatively, Instagram has deactivated accounts for breaching the social media platform’s terms of service or for a user complaint – even when Bambury is certain he’s following the rules.

Considering Instagram has a billion monthly users, such disruptions can have mild to massive implications for marketers, from breaking the line of communication with clients and leads to undermining crucial targets, including revenue or event attendee numbers.

Bambury has gone through it so many times, he started to get requests for help from a number of friends and acquaintances, so he wrote a guide for his website, Adcann, on how to restore an account.

But even though he has experienced deactivation firsthand plenty of times, he and many other marketers in regulated marijuana industries across North America complain that Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – is cracking down harder than ever before.

“Before, if (a cannabis brand) got deleted, it was a big deal,” Bambury said. “Everyone rallied around them and tried to help them come back.

“And now, everyone I know basically in the cannabis industry has had an account deleted at some point.”

The platform’s terms of service are clear: No brand can sell or promote sales of drugs on their page.

But many cannabis marketers who insist they are following the rules, as well as many non-cannabis-selling entities – from accessories and ancillary firms to advocacy and equity groups – complain that even their accounts are being deactivated more often.

MJBizDaily’s Instagram account was closed down for the first time ever on June 25 but later reinstated.

Some believe the social media platform is using more sophisticated tools such as artificial intelligence to flag any type of cannabis identifiers, including hashtags or certain types of images.

Others claim that the increasingly competitive landscape means more cannabis companies are blowing the whistle on rivals’ Instagram accounts.

From time to time, accounts that have followed the sometimes-murky terms of service and community guidelines can be successfully restored. But not everyone is so lucky.

The rules (and what to do if you’re deactivated)

“First and foremost, the promotion of sale of cannabis products is not permitted on our platform,” Raki Wane, the policy communications manager at Instagram, said in a phone interview.

That doesn’t mean cannabis companies aren’t allowed to use the platform, but they can’t talk about selling cannabis or induce its sale, link to an e-commerce site selling marijuana or do straightforward marketing of products.

“It is perfectly fine for a company to, for example, raise awareness or to talk about the societal implications of legalization, things like that,” Wane said. “That does not violate our rules.”

That’s why it’s unclear why accounts such as Los Angeles-based Cannaclusive, an equity-focused marketing, public relations and consulting group, and the Oregon-headquartered Minority Cannabis Business Association have both dealt with recent deactivations, said Lisa Buffo, the founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association in Denver.

“If we had clarity, we’d be shouting it from the rooftops,” Buffo said. “We are working on it but don’t have clear guidance from them directly.”

In the case of Cannaclusive, the organization appealed the deactivation through the app and also asked its network of followers on other social platforms to report a problem, too. The account was later reactivated.

“Between our personal pages and our campaign we have a lot of shares, saves, and comments reporting to our benefit,” a Cannaclusive spokesperson wrote in an email to MJBizDaily.

“We did a lot of communication with people who had contacts at Facebook as well. But, to be honest, we do not know what brought us back.”

Bambury said most accounts can be reactivated at least once. But he also said it becomes more difficult with multiple deactivations.

“A lot of people receive a message saying that’s actually been deleted, as opposed to just disabled. And that’s when you can’t get it back through the same steps,” Bambury noted.

Clear rules, erroneous enforcement

According to Instagram’s Wane, the platform’s intention is to keep children safe from drug ads and respect the global nature of the app’s user base; cannabis remains mostly prohibited in much of the world.

Still, it can be difficult to successfully moderate all the content on the popular app.

“There is quite a bit of automatic enforcement here, whereby our systems may detect some words, and they don’t always get it right,” she said.

Wane rejected the thesis that there might be a limit to how many times a company or organization can appeal a deactivation or deletion, and she insisted that they’re crucial to the functioning of the community.

“If somebody believes that we made a mistake, they can kind of point us as to what they are thinking on their end,” she said. “Because if you think about the amount of content that gets uploaded to Instagram every day, our systems may not be looking at things as closely as somebody who has been impacted by this.”

So what should you do if your appeal still doesn’t go anywhere?

Some have had success contacting an agency with a friend at Instagram.

Others theorize that buying ads for events and other non-cannabis sales marketing could help.

Wane agreed there are limits to what’s possible to appeal and communicate through the app.

“We are working on additional ways where people can let us know when they think the mistake has been made on our end, but for the time being, reports and appeals are the best course of action.”

How to protect your account

Cannaclusive’s spokesperson said that using Instagram is still worth the headache and risk, provided there’s value in engaging with your audience there.

But for straightforward marketing, the spokesperson added, Instagram is not the best tool: “Your outreach and audience connectivity needs to extend beyond an IG (Instagram) page.”

But knowing how many people are reachable through the platform and how valuable engagement can be, Cannaclusive put together a slideshow explaining how to get an account restored and how to protect it from being flagged from the start.

Many marketers have created best practices, largely based on experience but without explanation or clarification from Instagram. They include:

  • Don’t link to a site that sells cannabis products.
  • Don’t use “cannabis” or related terms in captions, tags or hashtags.
  • Don’t post cannabis products or flower; instead, aim for lifestyle or advocacy-related content.

“Focus on educational material and stay away from anything that alludes to a sale of a scheduled substance – that is what Instagram is focused on preventing,” Buffo said.

You can also add an “age-gate” to the account to try to keep minors off your page.

On top of the list of do’s and don’ts, there are allegations of  a thriving gig economy around reporting cannabis brands on behalf of competitors on social media.

Alice Moon, a Los Angeles-based marketing and PR specialist, said that, although Instagram is the least friendly of all the social media networks to cannabis companies, there is still value in having a presence on the platform.

“I think Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn should all be utilized,” she said, adding that LinkedIn doesn’t censor cannabis content and Twitter will even allow you to post promotions and specials.

“It’s just the audience isn’t as strong on Twitter. But Instagram is absolutely a place that every brand should have an active presence on. And there’s definitely challenges even having an active presence, because then you can get deleted if you’re too active.”

Moon said if brands really want to protect their networks from deletion, backup accounts will capture only a certain portion of your former network.

Instead, she suggested logging new followers on a spreadsheet to track each one. That way, if you’re deleted, you can at least go through the list and add them back.

That is, if your team agrees that it’s worth the headache.

With all the tiptoeing and risk, it’s worth thinking carefully about what portion of resources to allocate to the platform and what you hope to gain from it.

“Everything is about your appetite for risk,” Buffo said, “so have a conversation with your marketing team about what you’ll include and what you’ll leave out of your content.”