Social media challenges continue for cannabis firms – sometimes costing thousands in lost investment

After what seemed to be a brief hiatus, social media giants are once again suspending – and outright deleting – the accounts of marijuana companies.

Some industry officials say this is a result of spiteful competitors flagging posts and reporting pages to the platforms’ moderators, costing businesses thousands of dollars in lost time and labor when pages are taken down.

And despite the cannabis industry’s rapid growth and steady eroding of the stigma against marijuana use in mainstream circles, the social media platforms with the most users – Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, in particular – have proved inconsistent about their official policies surrounding MJ business pages.

This leaves marijuana companies wondering how to best follow the rules to avoid seeing their social media accounts shut down or frozen.

For instance:

  • In October 2018, MarketWatch reported that Facebook would stop blocking marijuana-related searches, as it had previously done for legitimate businesses with the word “cannabis” or “marijuana” in the name.
  • However, just a month later, Facebook and Instagram accounts for at least six marijuana companies in Massachusetts were reportedly deactivated. Among the casualties were Cultivate and New England Treatment Access (NETA), which were the first two stores in the state allowed to begin selling recreational cannabis. And that’s an example from only one part of the country.

How MJ businesses are affected

“It has been a nightmare,” said Dan Osterman, marketing and social media manager for Nice Guys Delivery, a cannabis delivery and distribution company based in San Rafael, California.

Since July 2018, Instagram has shuttered five of the accounts he created for the delivery business. Earlier in June, Facebook took down his business page.

He’s lost more than 4,000 followers in total with the six shuttered accounts.

Over a period of three months, he attempted three times a day to dispute the shutdowns, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Google barred all cannabis-related apps from its play store last month. Now, Android phone users can’t download apps that facilitate home delivery or other marijuana-related commerce.

“Google (and Facebook) are being very extreme as they head in a backward direction with their cannabis policies,” said Kendra Losee, owner and CEO of Mota Marketing, a cannabis-focused marketing firm in San Diego.

Competitors to blame?

According to Osterman, the first time his Instagram was shuttered, four other similar companies in Marin County, where his company is located, saw their pages closed.

His Facebook page was removed recently after a user reported his company’s logo, which Osterman says had been on the page for over two years.

All of this leads him to believe that competitors are visiting his social media pages and reporting/flagging posts to Facebook and Instagram’s moderators.

“It definitely feels like there’s a form of competition,” he said. “It feels like this is a marketing tactic.”

Losee said that if your business isn’t running ads or promoting sales or showing consumption, yet your page is shut down, it’s likely a competitor who flagged it.

“It happens more than we like to admit, sadly,” she said. “Something has to alert Facebook or Instagram to the issue.”

Amy Donohue, a cannabis company social media consultant with Phoenix-based High Growth Communications, knows of employees at rival businesses in Arizona who have gone on competitors’ pages and flagged posts for the sole purpose of getting the pages shut down.

“Accounts get taken down immediately,” she said.

Lost revenue

Osterman was hesitant to put a dollar figure on how much it’s cost his company, but he said it has been “a considerable amount.”

Losee said a company that legitimately builds its audience – and doesn’t pay for followers, for example – could be out hundreds of thousands of dollars if it loses its page.

Taylor West, senior communications director for Denver-based marijuana marketing agency Cohnnabis, declined to put a specific dollar figure on the lost revenue to companies.

But she emphasized that advertising restrictions for cannabis companies prohibit the same avenues for gaining brand awareness as mainstream businesses enjoy.

“If your account is shut down, and you lose access to all those followers you’ve built up over months and years of work, all that time and energy goes down the drain,” West said.

Donohue lost a client’s Instagram account last week but got it restored after filing several appeals.

She was also unwilling to put a dollar figure on how much it costs when a client loses an account but pointed to all the sunk time and effort rebuilding an audience requires.

“It takes away from what you should be doing,” such as simply running the business, Donohue said.

Other options

While Facebook remains the giant in the social media space and its sister site, Instagram, has been gaining market share, cannabis companies looking to reach a mainstream audience do have alternatives.

“Cannabis people are jumping ship from Facebook and Instagram because they’re just tired of all it,” Donohue said.

She recommends Twitter as a serviceable alternative, noting that she can post sales for her clients and can engage often with customers using the direct messages feature.

Losee also likes Twitter but admits it’s not for everyone. She advises clients who want to focus on highlighting local offers and events to use its feature that allows tagging locations.

Both West and Losee have found business-to-business success with LinkedIn.

“LinkedIn has been much more open and willing to work with cannabis companies,” West said. “You’re much more likely to find businesses discussing strategies or recruiting for new employees.”

The social media gurus also have seen a bump in clients’ success with Pinterest.

For companies looking to offer apps, or whose apps get pulled, Losee suggests they create a web-based app or publish privately or with an alternative store that hosts apps outside the Android/Apple stores.

“Either way, those options aren’t ideal,” she said. “We need to be lobbying for the basic access to these platforms.”

West added that if your account does get shut down, you should file an appeal immediately.

“Don’t take it lying down,” she said.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at [email protected]

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