Cannabis is one of the fastest growing industries in recent years, due to widespread expansion of medical marijuana and even full legalization of weed at the state level in the U.S. Use of recreational marijuana has become increasingly mainstream, a trend led by states that have chosen to legalize. Canada officially legalized marijuana this month, further expanding the Western weed economy.
Marijuana is still illegal under U.S. federal law, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I substance. Federal regulations around illicit psychoactive substances make advertising a challenge.
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Social networks like Facebook and Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary, err on the side of federal laws, thus banning all promotions for drugs and drug-related products. Google, which owns YouTube, strictly prohibits digital ads promoting drugs or anything even remotely related to illicit substances anywhere within its vast ad networks. Drug ads are prohibited even in places where the drug is legal.
Facebook and Google dominate the online advertising space, so their policies require marijuana advertisers to use alternate avenues to advertise, including podcasts, print media, experiential marketing, and mobile apps (e.g. Leafly). Radio, billboards, and television advertising are other options; each of these more traditional methods of advertising has its own complex set of rules which vary by geographic location.
This creates a paradox: cannabis sales are booming, but laws make it hard to advertise. Marketers must seek alternative ways to get cannabis brands in front of consumers, including influencer marketing and advertising in niche media outlets.
“Marijuana brands have a huge opportunity to connect with the cannabis community through influencers,” explains Kirk Crenshaw, CMO of the influencer analytics platform Traackr. “Influencer-generated content uncovers where customers are most engaged so brands can nurture customer relationships on a highly personal level while building brand awareness.”
There’s an ever-expanding list of cannabis products and services on the market. To name just a few: CBD capsules, topicals, vaporizers, glassware, edibles, weed delivery, and even pet food.
Social media influencers present a path for cannabis brands to connect with would-be marijuana consumers. Cannabis influencers specialize in 420-friendly content that goes beyond selfie videos of milky bong rips. Weed-centric Instagrammers share weed reviews, bud photos, how-tos on growing plants, and of course, hawking merchandise and products.
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It’s unsurprising that some influencers are wary of partnering with cannabis brands. The reasons that influencers might avoid doing sponsorships with cannabis brands include:
A well-known fact by those in the cannabis industry is that Instagram can and will shut down accounts that feature marijuana content. This forces cannabis creators and companies to start new accounts and lose their existing follower counts.
For example, Kiva Confections, a brand that makes THC-infused candies and chocolates, has been shuttered on Instagram eight times since 2015. Allegedly, Kiva Confections’ posts were overly promotional thus a violation of Instagram’s rules. Their first account, @kivaconfections had over 60,000 followers; their current account, @madebykiva, has just over 8,000 followers.
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Over here waiting on @instagram to reply to my @imcannabess appeal… Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to everyone who has called, texted, followed, shared stories and shown support since my account got taken down. I have a friend who’s filing an internal appeal, and until I hear back, I’m not giving up hope. If anything, this has only motivated me to demand transparency and equality from tech giants towards their treatment of cannabis content. In the interim, follow my backup @cannabess and comment to @Instagram below why they should reactivate my account! ???? #cannabess #censorship ?: @mandeerae . #instagram #peerspace #hcollective #seattle #stigmaandstyle
Cannabis influencer Bess Byers had her account with 96,000+ followers deleted by Instagram earlier this year. She managed to get it restored after filing 20+ complaints and enlisting the support of her followers, only to get her account disabled again shortly after. She wrote a lengthy account of this experience on her blog. Byers has been petitioning to Instagram to release clearer guidelines to allow the voice of the cannabis community to be heard.
These deactivations happen without notice and are inconsistently applied to retail marijuana brands, cannabis influencers, and weed-centric media companies. Brands and influencers can appeal for account reactivation, but the process is arduous and there are no guarantees.
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Navigating the ever-changing regulations of the Cannabis industry can be a difficult task. We’re here to clear the fog and help you find the light at the end of the end of the tunnel. ___ #cannabusiness #cannabiscommunity #digitalmarketing #cannabrand #socialmediamarketing #contentmarketing #denverCO #DEN #denverbusiness #denver #colorado #5280 #303 #coloradical #coloradoproud #coloradolife
The cannabis community has complained about Instagram’s strict–but oftentimes inconsistent–policies, in particular. Instagram has yet to outline specific rules to guide influencers and brands on what is or isn’t permitted within cannabis content.
“Instagram is either applying its rules arbitrarily, or is basing its decisions on user reports, which means anyone could report their competitor’s account to have it shut down,” says David Brown, the Communications Director of Lift Cannabis. Lift, a news and reviews website, has had its account deleted, even though the company is based in Canada where medical marijuana is legalized at a national level.
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YouTube issues a series of strikes against channels that feature marijuana through a generic message citing a violation of community guidelines. The online video giant eventually deletes those channels if they continue to post cannabis content. YouTube has gone through large rounds of purges, where many cannabis-centric channels are shut down in a single swoop. YouTube, which is owned by Google, has largely remained silent on the issue.
Many cannabis influencers theorize that YouTube’s stance on marijuana comes from advertisers objecting to their ads being served alongside drug-related content. Says Coral Reefer, a popular cannabis content creator, “I think the message YouTube is sending by including cannabis content in their removal of what’s considered not advertiser-friendly is sending a really loud message to other social media networks.”
Snapchat, too, doesn’t allow cannabis ads. Snapchat does consider allowing cannabis marketing for CBD products, which is derived from marijuana but doesn’t elicit the same response (users don’t get high).
Brands are getting savvier in response to the threat of shutdown from social media giants. Here are a few brand guidelines for avoiding penalties:
It’s clear that weed isn’t fully embraced by society–-yet. From mass channel deletions on YouTube to the outcry over Tesla CEO Elon Musk smoking a joint on camera, it’s clear that there’s still some time before marijuana goes mainstream.
Still, many influencers are willing to partner with cannabis brands. As with any influencer partnership, the best bet is to choose influencers who genuinely use cannabis products and have engaged audiences who will be receptive to cannabis marketing. In addition, partnering with influencer agencies with wide networks of influencers can help your brand identify the right influencer to broadcast your cannabis brand.
In addition, cannabis marketing agencies are cropping up to cater to the commercial and retail marijuana industry: