Marijuana is legal in some form (medical, recreational or both) in 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, but when it comes to digital media efforts related to the industry, social media platforms seem to be stuck in 1936, when the cult classic Reefer Madness was released.
Several experts explained that many social networks, like Facebook and Instagram, hold conservative and antiquated stances when it comes to marketing cannabis. Digital publishers and ad agencies involved in the cannabis industry said they have been hamstrung because they’re banned from advertising on some social platforms, seeing their social accounts (and, in some cases, the influencers they were working with) go up in smoke.
“It’s been frustrating for us not being able to advertise on Facebook and Google because of our involvement in the cannabis industry,” said Jeffrey Zucker, co-founder and president of Green Lion Partners, a business strategy firm focused on early-stage development in the regulated cannabis industry. He added that he has had to deal with influencers who have spent a lot of time building up their followings suddenly seeing their accounts deleted without any prior messaging or warning, and often with no recourse.
Isaac Dietrich, CEO of MassRoots, a digital community for medical cannabis users, expressed similar frustrations, saying that MassRoots’ Instagram account has been removed and restored three times, and adding that Instagram and its parent company Facebook “don’t seem to give much guidance on what type of cannabis content is allowed and what type isn’t.”
While MassRoots and other marijuana-related companies have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram, Dietrich said his company uses influencers and has also been able to run some ads on Twitter, spending more than $150,000 on that social network over the past two years. He added that those Twitter ads “have been extremely successful compared to other forms of advertising,” but did not elaborate further.
On the organic side, Dietrich said MassRoots has seen strong performance from videos, particularly on Snapchat, where they often reach “tens of thousands” of views. MassRoots’ videos run the gamut of topics—how-to content, product reviews, industry news and even pot-related humor.
The underlying thread connecting what ails the cannabis industry: federal regulation. Since the plant has not been legalized on the federal level, cannabis brands don’t have a standardized structure to simplify advertising on social platforms.
Laws on how marijuana brands can advertise vary from state to state where it has been legalized. For example, marijuana retailers in Colorado can’t run a TV ad or a digital ad unless it has “reliable evidence” that no more than 30 percent of the audience for the TV program or website is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21—you can run ads against Saturday Night Live but not SpongeBob SquarePants.
On Facebook, while you can target by age and location, you may not know if the company hits that 30 percent threshold. And Facebook doesn’t want to be on the hook for errant targeting or ads, so it opted to take a blanket approach. According to its prohibited ads policy, “Ads must not constitute, facilitate or promote illegal products, services or activities. Ads targeted to minors must not promote products, services or content that are inappropriate, illegal or unsafe, or that exploit, mislead or exert undue pressure on the age groups targeted.” Another clause: “Ads can’t promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs,” meaning no images of bongs, joints or marijuana itself.
Dietrich said, “Despite the progress on the legalization front, it seems like a lot of these networks have become stricter and more prohibitionist.”
Cannabis industry experts like Krista Whitley, founder of Social Media Unicorn, a full-service marketing and sales agency for cannabis brands, said when that even though marijuana is legal in many states, social platforms have much more stringent rules on marketing than other vices, like alcohol.
“Many social media platforms have taken a federal stance. Things alcohol companies are allowed to do, cannabis companies are not allowed to do—even targeting. The tide has turned when you have 80 percent of Americans in favor of some form of legalization: It’s inevitable that we’re heading toward federalization.”
Like brands from other industries, the cannabis industry finds multiple ways to message and market their products and services.
Whitley mentioned billboards (particularly in Las Vegas and California) and educational digital media promoting the legitimacy of cannabis as a medicine, and she said, “We find ourselves utilizing guerilla techniques that have worked in marketing for generations. The challenge with newer brands is: How do you gain momentum? It’s a struggle to find catalysts that will get momentum and actually convert to a level of ROI (return on investment) that justifies (the expense).”
Dietrich said he sees ad revenue at MassRoots growing by 200 percent to 250 percent this year, and was pretty excited about mainstream clients starting to get involved, including Uber—which ran a “don’t smoke and drive” campaign—and Univision Communications’ Fusion television network. He added, “I would love to see the day when Domino’s Pizza puts an ad on our platform.”