Advertising and marketing restrictions aren’t new to businesses operating in highly-regulated industries, but most legal businesses can leverage the cost effective tools of social media to promote their businesses, build brand awareness and loyalty, and generate sales. However, for cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, that’s not the case.
Since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, the big social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, YouTube, and Pinterest – all have policies that limit social media marketing and advertising options for cannabis businesses as well as for cannabis-related (ancillary) businesses that don’t touch the cannabis plant at all (e.g., POS software companies, cannabis industry career training companies, career recruiters, and more).
Cannabis and cannabis-related businesses that publish content on these social media platforms might have their Pages and Profiles shut down without notice, and businesses that try to place ads on these platforms could have their ad accounts and Pages/Profiles shut down.
It seems like news spreads nearly every day about another cannabis brand’s accounts being shut down by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Some of these account shut downs are initiated by the social media networks but others come as a result of businesses flagging competitors’ social content as violating the networks’ rules.
Furthermore, if recent history is an indication of how things will look for cannabis businesses in the future, even if social networks say cannabis businesses are allowed, the reality could be quite different. As Marijuana Business Daily reported in June, Facebook announced it would stop blocking marijuana-related searches in October 2018, but one month later, Facebook and Instagram accounts for numerous cannabis companies were deactivated.
Every time a business that built a social media audience has its account, profile, or page deactivated, that business loses a significant amount of money in terms of the time and financial investments that went into building it.
However, despite all of the problems and risks associated with cannabis businesses and social media marketing, there are still tactics cannabis and cannabis-related businesses can use to leverage the reach of these sites while reducing the risk of losing everything you’ve worked to build.
Social media advertising is an option, but unless you follow the rules of the specific social media platforms where you hope to place ads, you’ll be out of luck. The reality is that social media advertising is challenging (if not impossible) for all businesses that operate in the cannabis industry.
If your ads don’t promote cannabis or cannabis products in any way and they’re strictly educational (including the image or video, the message, and the landing page that the ad leads to) or used only for advocacy, then you might have a chance to get your ads approved by social media sites.
That’s not always the case though. I know a company that provides professional training to people who want to start cannabis businesses or pursue careers in the cannabis industry whose Facebook ad account was shut down when it promoted one of its seminars to a targeted audience of people over the age of 21 in the local area where the seminar would be held (in a state with legal medical marijuana). According to Facebook, a professional business and career training seminar promotes the use of cannabis and violates its ad policy, and despite filing numerous appeals, Facebook would not reactivate the ad account. This is not an uncommon story.
Bottom-line, some cannabis businesses have had success getting their ads approved by Facebook and other social media platforms, but they’re among a very small (and fortunate) minority.
Publish Useful, Educational Content
The key to using social media marketing to build your cannabis brand and business is to publish useful content that your target audience will be interested in.
Your content should be meaningful, not promotional, because content that directly or indirectly promotes the use of cannabis is prohibited on most social media sites. Besides, no one wants to follow a business or brand on social media that just promotes its products and services all the time.
To that end, create images, videos, and text posts that educate your audience so they seek it out and want to read and share it. The Instagram post by Baker shown below is a perfect example of how to share useful data and indirectly promote your brand, product, or services.
In line with using social media to inform and educate your audience, avoid promoting your business, products, or services in your social media posts because doing so could be a violation of the network’s rules related to directly or indirectly promoting something that it deems to be illegal.
Therefore, don’t post images or videos of people using your products, don’t list your pricing, and don’t ask your audience to contact you about your products. In fact if you want to reduce your risk as much as possible, don’t list your contact information at all if people can use it to make a purchase.
Earned Media and Organic Reach
The biggest social media marketing opportunity for cannabis and ancillary businesses is to generate earned media and organic reach. You earn media when other people share and talk about your content and brand across social media, blogs, and so on. Rather than paying for this publicity, which extends your brand’s reach to wider audiences organically, you earn it.
Focus on publishing great content on your blog and sharing it on your social media channels in addition to directly publishing useful content through your social media posts. Ideally, your audience will see that content, like it, and share it to their own audiences.
The post published to the Vangst Facebook Page shown below is a great example of publishing interesting content that the company’s target audience of job seekers and employers would read and share.
In addition, encourage your audience and your customers to create their own content related to your brand and share it on social media. For example, hang a sign in your dispensary with a special hashtag and let customers take pictures to post on their social media profiles using that hashtag.
The key is to be useful and meaningful in your social media content and people will want to share it thus deepening your brand’s relationship with them and extending your brand’s reach to new audiences.
Tap Social Media Influencers to Help You
There are many social media influencers who have the eyes and ears of your target audience. Your goal is to find them and extend an offer to partner with them so they’ll publish and share content about your brand to their followers.
Keep in mind, you don’t have to start with big name celebrities who have millions of followers. Choose an online influencer who your target audience already engages with and whose content matches your brand image. It’s important to work with influencers who elevate your brand, not damage it.
Furthermore, make sure you only work with influencers who understand the laws related to publishing content for businesses and disclosing material connections. Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, if an influencer is compensated in any way for publishing or sharing content (e.g., with money, free products, etc.), then the material connection must be disclosed in the published content or else both the influencer and the business could face hefty fines. You can read the relevant code here.
Cannabis-Friendly Social Media Platforms
In addition to the largest and broadest social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, there are many niche social media sites dedicated to cannabis consumers and businesses. One or more of these sites are likely to have targeted audiences that include people who would be interested in your brand.
Research these sites, follow the conversations happening, and look for the best opportunities to engage and build your following. Here are several cannabis-friendly social media platforms to help you start your research:
- Leafwire: Leafwire is a new cannabis social network, but it’s growing quickly. This community is targeted to businesses and professionals and calls itself the LinkedIn of cannabis.
- MjLink: Formerly known as WeedCircles, MjLink focuses on businesses and professionals.
- Duby: Duby is known as the largest cannabis social network for consumers.
- Weedable: You can create a business profile on Weedable to connect with individuals and other businesses.
- CannaSOS: CannaSOS is one of the larger cannabis social networks with a focus on consumers.
- WeedCircles: You can create a profile for your cannabis business and create groups to connect with individuals and business professionals.
Key Takeaways about Social Media Marketing for Cannabis Businesses
Social media marketing is challenging and limited for cannabis businesses and cannabis-related businesses but it’s not impossible. Despite the restrictions that the big social media platforms have in place related to cannabis advertising and content publishing, you can gain some traction and turn that into sales using a strategic approach.
Focus on publishing and sharing useful, educational content that doesn’t directly promote cannabis products and services, and develop a plan to increase earned media and organic growth. In time, you’ll see positive results from your efforts.
Originally published 4/4/19. Updated 10/4/19.
Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.