Article by Colin Bambury, High! Canada
Cannabis businesses have been banned from purchasing advertising on all mainstream social media platforms. With the recent crackdown on cannabis-related YouTube channels, it is important to re-examine the relationship between social media and the cannabis industry.
YouTube has been an important media for cannabis creators and brands. The visual nature of cannabis lends itself to this video-sharing website. Product reviewers and social media influencers have used the platform to build large followings. Recently, YouTube has started cracking down on cannabis-related channels and videos in particular. YouTube doesn’t clearly state their policy on appropriate video content. This secretive company simply acts by removing or restricting content and lets the creators try to figure out what violation was made.
Canadian cannabis creators and brands have experienced more problems with YouTube in the past week. Most notably Lift & Co, a medical marijuana marketplace and community, had their YouTube account suspended and videos were taken down. This is especially interesting because the channel’s videos were completely innocuous and didn’t feature any consumption. These videos were mainly speeches from Lift’s cannabis business conferences and reviews of legal medical marijuana products from patients. It seems that all cannabis content is being targeted regardless of context or intent.
YouTube was once seen as a safe haven for cannabis content. This is obviously no longer the case. Start-ups like “The WeedTube” have gained some traction by offering a platform for these creators. But it’s hard for these new websites to build substantial user bases to the point where they can be a viable solution. We will need to wait and see what YouTube’s next moves are.
Facebook is the largest social media platform and its targeting features are extremely valuable for marketers. Facebook still refuses to accept advertising money from cannabis-related businesses.
Facebook’s official advertising policy prohibited content section states, “Adverts must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs.” The policy continues by singling out cannabis in particular by including, “Avoid using images of smoking-related accessories (such as bongs and rolling papers) and “Avoid using images of either recreational or medical marijuana.” No other drugs are listed but there is a picture of cocaine with the caption “avoid using images that imply the use of a recreational drug” also included in this section of the policy.
Tobacco products currently face similar restrictions on the platform and are also listed as prohibited content. Advertisements are not accepted for cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, tobacco pipes, hookahs, hookah lounges, rolling papers, vaporizer devices and electronic cigarettes.
A different section of the policy deals with alcohol, dating, gambling, lotteries, pharmacies and supplements. These businesses are listed as restricted content. Alcohol companies are only limited by age restrictions based on local laws. Alcohol companies can only advertise to individuals over the age of 19 in Canada. Alcohol-related businesses also purport to follow self-governing digital advertising rules. However, these brands are basically given free rein on the platform to advertise their products and services to Facebook’s users.
Facebook is still a valuable platform for cannabis businesses that want to build an organic following and interact with their existing customers. Licensed producers can use Facebook Pages to answer questions/concerns and reward loyal customers. Facebook may allow cannabis content to be advertised on their platform in the future, so it is wise to start building a following and some familiarity with Facebook’s ad manager. Some grey market and ancillary businesses have been able to run advertisements without any problems. However, once several ads are flagged your ad account is deactivated permanently.
Instagram is likely the most popular social media platform for cannabis businesses and consumers. Many creators and brands have built enormous followings through organic growth. Instagram is an important tool for cannabis businesses looking to connect with their customers and cultivate a larger audience.
Instagram is owned by Facebook, which means that it follows the same advertising policy. Cannabis-related content is seen as prohibited and ads from cannabis businesses will usually be denied. Cannabis companies have turned to social media influencers who act as distribution channels for their marketing messages. These influencers have large dedicated followings and their content is less likely to be targeted by regulators. These influencers also have the ability to run ads that indirectly advertise for brands.
There is a long history of Instagram deleting and removing cannabis-related pages. Lift & Co. and licensed producer Tweed both had their Instagram pages removed back in 2016. Account suspension and removal still happens on Instagram, but not as frequently.
Instagram has the attention of the cannabis community and will remain a valuable tool for brands. It is also important to note that some cannabis-related brands like Tokyo Smoke have actually received a verified blue check mark on their Instagram page. There is some hope that Instagram and Facebook recognizes these businesses as legitimate and will one day allow them to purchase advertising.
Twitter is an interesting platform for the cannabis industry. Twitter also prohibits the promotion of drugs and drug paraphernalia on their website. They prohibit all content promoting drugs such as cannabis, all accessories related to drug use such as bongs and even prohibit products and services that further access to drugs such as dispensary directories.
However, the policy does not apply to hemp and news and information about cannabis. This is the opportunity that many canna-businesses are now seeing. By turning themselves into a media agency first and a cannabis retailer/grower/extractor second, they are able to spread their content while simultaneously promoting their products. Licensed producers have started blogs and even separate websites dedicated to creating and pushing cannabis content. Every time these articles are shared or read, the brand gains awareness. Twitter actually allows these media companies that simply share news and information to run advertisements. Position your company as a news source and you can efficiently grow your brand while educating and informing the masses.
Twitter is an excellent place for B2B networking and social listening. Industry CEOs and business executives love sharing news articles and information on the platform. Twitter is a great way to find and become an expert on all topics related to cannabis. Twitter Search function allows you to monitor any conversations surrounding your brand and other relevant topics in the industry. Although growth has stabilized, Twitter still has more active monthly users than ever before. Do not overlook this important social media platform.
Snapchat presents a unique opportunity to cannabis marketers. This company seems to be open to working with cannabis companies looking to advertise. Some brands have purchased geo-filters, which are text/images that appear for users in a certain location. Cannabis content is regularly featured on the Snapchat Explore page. Snapchat works with channels like Vice to curate content for this Explore tab. These media agencies have directly and indirectly advertised cannabis products in these swipe stories.
Snapchat’s official advertising policy states that ads that promote “illegal or recreational drugs or drug paraphernalia” are prohibited. Cannabis is not specifically named in the policy. Ads that promote or reference alcohol and other adult products/services are restricted and require approval on a case-by-case basis.
The main issue is that the platform skews very young, with over half of their users being under the age of 35. As it is with alcohol, any cannabis advertising shown to Snapchat users must ensure the viewer is of legal age under local law. SC has seen some decline in user growth but still maintains the attention of its user base. There are many under-regulated emerging platforms that cannabis marketers should be paying attention to. Twitch is a streaming platform that allows creators to stream live to audiences and has been known to allow some cannabis content. Podcasts are very popular and can advertise for cannabis businesses, as the ads they say are not regulated by any agency. Spotify and other music streaming platforms may accept cannabis advertising in the future. Amazon Alexa and Google Home device skills and voice-based applications present a giant opportunity as well.
The goal of cannabis marketers like myself is to educate these social media companies about the benefits of allowing cannabis brands to advertise on their platforms. I would personally love to see cannabis regulated like alcohol as opposed to tobacco. Cannabis marketing regulations set by both the federal government and these technology companies will loosen up substantially over the next decade. It is important for this industry to respectfully push boundaries and stay on the cutting edge of digital marketing. Advertising these products and services online will help further mainstream acceptance of cannabis and bring the plant to more people.