Marijuana firms in the dark when it comes to social media advertising

(This is the first installment of a two-part series about the marijuana industry and advertising. Part II: Traditional advertising.)

By Bart Schaneman

Years after legal markets have come online, marijuana businesses are still at a loss when it comes to what’s considered acceptable advertising on social media.

They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall, and absent any feedback from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like, it’s almost impossible to know what’s going to stick.

It’s still not uncommon for marijuana businesses – whether plant-touching or ancillary – to have their social media pages taken down.

For instance, two cannabis retail stores in Fort Collins, Colorado, were kicked off Facebook and Instagram earlier this year, and little to no reason was provided.

But that’s not the industry’s most immediate problem anymore.

As marijuana businesses become more savvy about social media policies, they’re learning how to navigate those murky waters.

What’s happening now is many companies are running afoul of social media moderators when posting advertisements through the sites, and there seems to be little agreement between sites on what’s acceptable.

Kyra Reed – founder of social media strategy service Markyr Digital and CEO of Los Angeles-based online business school Kadin Academy – no longer is hearing the horror stories about a company’s page being shut down and losing, say, 20,000 followers.

“I think most companies are now aware of what they can’t be doing,” she said.

Mainly what Reed’s hearing today is “I can’t get my ads approved.”

It’s one of the top questions people ask her.

No clear guidelines

As a general policy for posting, Facebook and Instagram don’t allow content that promotes the sale of marijuana:

  • Instagram prohibits marijuana businesses from providing contact information, including websites or phone numbers.
  • Facebook and Instagram do allow advocacy content as long as it’s not promoting the sale of cannabis.

Those rules are for run-of-the-mill posts.

For advertisements, the way Reed understands it, SEC regulations dictate that marijuana businesses can’t advertise promotions such as contests or giveaways. She also says Facebook doesn’t allow ads depicting people consuming cannabis, making health claims or targeting anyone younger than 21.

But it all can seem very arbitrary when, for example, Instagram adheres to different rules than its parent, Facebook.

As proof of the seeming inconsistency of Facebook’s policies, Markyr Digital had an ad approved and it was up on the site for three weeks before being pulled.

The ad featured a woman’s hand holding a cannabis flower and promoted a webinar on how to be a cannabis entrepreneur. The post had nothing to do with the sale of the plant.

“We’re not talking about consumption. We’re not talking about sales. We’re not talking about anything that’s directly violating the policies on Facebook,” Reed said.

Reed’s business partner, Jamie Cooper, handles the appeals process when Facebook and Instagram remove an ad. Cooper wins about 90% of the appeals she files, Reed said, “but it’s a fight.”

“(Social media companies) are so overly sensitive to the idea that anything could be misconstrued or misinterpreted as the promotion of drugs that they lean really heavy on the side of not letting anything through,” she added.

Wide open

VMR Products – a Miami-based vaporizer company – says Facebook doesn’t like the company to show its products in use.

“They have shut down our ads for showcasing the actual device,” said Karl Riedel, vice president of marketing for VMR, which started in the nicotine industry but has made a foray into the cannabis sector.

While VMR has had effective engagement via posting directly on its business page, it finds the restrictions much more rigid when creating an ad through Facebook.

Many cannabis businesses are simply hoping for some guidance from social media companies.

“It’s pretty much a wide-open category right now,” Riedel said. “There are no guidelines about what you can and cannot do in the world of social media marketing for the cannabis business.”

VMR currently is testing the boundaries to see what works and what doesn’t. The ads they’re creating are pay-per-click, so if they’re taken down the company doesn’t lose anything.

Cloudy forecast

Is there a chance social media regulations will ever relax?

“No,” Reed said. “It’s not going to loosen up. Ever. If you look at the alcohol industry, there are a lot of rules and regulations.”

VMR CEO Jan Verleur said it could be worse. Marijuana could have the same restrictions as the tobacco industry, for example.

“We find that the amount of interference from the (social media) companies and their legal departments is at present substantially less in the cannabis space than what it has been in the nicotine space,” he added.

In fact, Riedel expects social media companies might eventually get stricter.

“I recommend people leverage social media as much as they can these days. While they can,” he said. “We don’t know if more restrictions are coming down the pipeline.”

Bart Schaneman can be reached at [email protected]

14 comments on “Marijuana firms in the dark when it comes to social media advertising
  1. Morgan Glenn on

    Twitter is better than Facebook. And lots of flagging is from unethical competitors complaining. I’ve seen ads with old paintings showing breasts rejected by Facebook.

    Reply
  2. Mitch Mitchell on

    I wrote a similar article back in 2014. Social media drives less than 5% traffic to cananbis businesses. Except for large brands, social media is way overrated as a sales channel. It is good for evangelizing. With the restrictions from Facebook, and Instagram, I think other forms of online marketing are much more important.

    In Denver Colorado 70 percent of all cannabis searches happen on smart phones. 70-80 percent of all website leads/traffic come from organic searches in Google. However, most cannabis businesses don’t even have the Internet marketing basics addressed. (Professional design, professional photography/video, with an active blog, and any REAL search engine optimization). There is INSANE organic search volume in Google, for cannabis terms. Wanna make money? Tap into organic traffic before others figure it out, and beat you to the first page.

    This publication has never even held a online marketing session at the national show. Glad you guys are finally at least allowing “some” online marketing topics.

    Google never sleeps. And, you are gaining, or losing, based upon your online marketing strategy.

    Reply
    • Amy Donohue on

      Things have changed in a BIG way since 2014 and the marketing of cannabis. The dispensary I work with gets the majority of its website traffic from Instagram.

      Reply
      • Mitch Mitchell on

        Google Analytics does not lie. Social media drives less than 5 percent to any business. I mentioned the article I wrote. That does not mean what I said is dated. In fact, it is the very latest information available from Google. Where are your stats coming from?

        Reply
        • Mitch Mitchell on

          Nothing has changed since 2014. I have been marketing cannabis businesses for 5 years. And, hotels for 15 years before that. Google Analytics is the great equalizer. It shows what channels really drive the most business. Google organic traffic drives over 80 percent of all cannabis leads. Social media drives less than 5 percent. EVEN IN 2017. Unless you are a large brand, social is overrated, and unpredictable. They can pull your Instagram account overnight. They can’t take away your website, local listings, and organic SEO. Everyone thinks social media is the marketing best channel. Fact is, social media is the most work, for the the lowest ROI. Don’t expect people to jump on Instagram to find your dispensary. Not how it works. The Smart Phone revolution (and voice search) is even bigger, than social media popularity. People shop with their smart phones, in local areas, using detailed voice searches. This is all powered by Google. Not Facebook.

          Reply
  3. Amy Donohue on

    I have been helping cannabis companies for a few years, and what I see is people who don’t know how to do social media anyway, let alone read the rules to see what’s ok to post.

    The problem with facebook and instagram is that competing companies report each other’s stuff, and those networks react immediately. They don’t review the content first. It’s maddening for me because I follow the rules.

    Reply
  4. Splat Kenoreno on

    Facebook is psychotic. I have three advocacy pages, all of which I have advertised on Facebook. Then, suddenly, they refused anything further. Thanks for the organic search info, Mitch. Looks like some site building is in my future. See y’all in Vegas!!

    Reply
  5. Sara Conrad on

    Exactly. ^ If you don’t hire someone who knows what they are doing, how to build up a following, your target market, hashtag research etc and know the cannabis industry. Half of these people entering as “social media gurus” don’t know our industry or anything. My hashtag is #hireapro – not an intern, not a $12 employee, we are worth our money and can produce evidence.

    Reply
    • Amy Donohue on

      Heck yes! Social media is your welcome mat. It had better look great! It’s also a disservice to the entire industry to have a junky social media presence.

      Reply
  6. Christian on

    Great Article, I am glad to see cannabis advertising in the news. I agree with the comments in the previous post, social media is your welcome mat. Unfortunately, social media channels are inconsistent with their guidelines and ad approvals causing brands to have their accounts closed and leaving cannabis brands out in the cold. Mitch has a great point, social media is over rated, it’s a needed presence but shouldn’t be your main source for branding/advertising. Your best engagement is going to be from search and display advertising on cannabis friendly site.

    We need more cannabis friendly ad networks to facilitate digital ad real estate at scale. I am not just talking cannabis sites. I am referring to mainstream sites that are cannabis friendly that have a direct correlation to the community such as natural health, music, gaming, and medical. By doing so we can bypass the red tape of social media and mainstream ad networks and expand the digital footprint of cannabis brands exponentially. Niche advertising networks exist in other industries that are regulated similar to cannabis.

    There are legal and creative ways to advertise in the industry, we just have to be aware of constant changes at a state by state level. As an example, the new guidelines that where recently released (SB94 sec84 section 26150) shed new light on revised metrics that impact the content that cannabis companies can advertise.

    Reply
    • Mitch Mitchell on

      Thanks for the props Christian. I couldn’t agree more. Social media is not what people whip out when they buy cannabis. It is a smart phone. It is a voice search. And, it is an immediate purchase. 70 percent of all cannabis searches in Denver, in 2017, come from SMART PHONES. This is Google. This is responsive design. This is Google My Business. This is local directories. After all those are covered, you can spend time on social media. Google Analytics stats from 2017 show less than 5 percent of all leads come from social media in cannabis. This is a fact. We need to follow where the opportunity is best.

      Reply

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