(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.
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.
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]