Picture this: Your marketing team hired a photographer and got some incredible shots of your dankest buds. Then you paid your graphic designer to make a gorgeous, stand-out post that highlights your healthiest, most picturesque plants. Or maybe it’s a lifestyle post featuring two friends smoking, but no clear indicator of what they’re smoking on. You post to Instagram with a notice that nothing is for sale, and the next time you click on that tiny camera icon, you see your post has been flagged and removed. Cool. Why bother?
Social media’s hostility toward cannabis
Before joining the MJ Brand Insights team, my career centered around freelance work for cannabis businesses. I wrote social media captions, created Instagram posts, filmed Tik Tok videos–the whole works. I became fully aware of how these platforms treat cannabis and CBD businesses after just about everything I posted got removed.
Most brands don’t experience this level of problems. I was working with a lot of newbie brands that didn’t even know about the best practices, many of which had already gotten their accounts flagged again and again before I started to post for them. By that point, Instagram was on high alert and ready to flag just about anything, even if there was no cannabis imagery to be seen. Heck, one time I posted a video on Tik Tok of me adding some CBD tincture to a cup of coffee, without even mentioning the three letters. Instead, I used a leaf emoji. About 30 seconds later, the post was taken down. Okay, Tik Tok…as if a big portion of the content on your app isn’t significantly more questionable than a CBD tincture. I digress…
Why does it matter that social media platforms despise cannabis content? These days it matters a lot. Social media provides a unique opportunity to humanize your brand and engage with consumers. A few years back, a study found that ⅓ of Instagram users had purchased a product directly from an ad.
As we all know, advertisements for cannabis are prohibited across Facebook, Tik Tok, and Instagram. But regular organic posts often get flagged and removed for violating community guidelines, too. Companies can adjust to advertising restrictions, but losing organic content can do a lot of damage when it’s the only avenue they can use on the platforms.
But as with most things cannabis, brands have to pivot to make it work. This means getting a little creative.
Social media best practices for cannabis brands
Despite the anti-cannabis nature of social media platforms, a lot of cannabis brands are doing just fine on these apps. Most have figured out how to delicately tiptoe around the line without crossing it. When they get flagged, they take a look at what they did “wrong” and avoid making the same mistake on the next day’s post. It’s not a foolproof method, but it’s the only option right now–assuming the account doesn’t get permanently disabled.
For Katherine Wolf, the Chief Marketing and Operations Officer at Malek’s Premium Cannabis, it’s been a game of experimentation to figure out what she can post on Instagram.
“Since compliance regulations, industry standards, and Instagram’s monitoring practices are always changing and evolving, it’s honestly a lot of trial and error and constant learning,” she told me.
Although her brand’s Instagram account hasn’t faced many problems, she still errs on the side of caution whenever posting, because that dreaded flag alert can come when companies least expect it, especially if they’ve let their guard down a bit. Even without getting a post flagged, companies can experience “shadowbans” where Instagram doesn’t show posts to followers or in hashtags.
“I think the messaging used in captions is where a lot of brands have issues, so I use more generic terms like ‘sparking up’ or ‘puffing on’ instead of ‘smoking,’ and always include a “nothing for sale” disclaimer,” Wolf told me. “I’ve also noticed that nug and grow room shots are really what get flagged the most, so my focus recently has been bringing in more of a mix of behind-the-scenes and lifestyle content. This still showcases our product but in a way that doesn’t necessarily scream ‘this is a cannabis post’ to Instagram.”
According to Guillermo Bravo, the Chief Evangelist at digital marketing company MediaJel, Wolf’s approach is the right way to go.
“These companies that are posting just flower porn and pictures, they’re really just putting themselves at risk. So I would look at more of a lifestyle approach,” he told me.
Bravo also mentioned that including hashtags that relate to cannabis can put your brand at risk, as well as tagging other accounts that post a lot of weed-centric content. Websites linked in your Instagram bio can be hit or miss, but should definitely be left out if the link leads to a platform where users can buy something.
The hit-or-miss nature of Instagram, Facebook, and other popular social media sites used to market cannabis has led some brands to look at alternatives or significantly alter their strategies.
What’s a brand to do?
Social media is a saturated place for cannabis marketing. So many brands are competing for the same piece of the pie, and this competition can lead to some shady practices.
“It’s sad to say, but in our industry, a lot of people are getting reported by their competitors,” Bravo told me. “I’ve had that happen quite a bit on the retailer side and on the brand side. As soon as you reach about 10,000 followers on Instagram, your competitors may get jealous and start to report your posts, stories and accounts with the goal of getting you shut down.”
That’s a lot of effort to boot a competitor off of Zuckerberg’s platform. And it’s one reason some companies are pivoting away from social media in general.
I recently attended the Cannabis Marketing Best Practices for Brands and Retailers event hosted by the Cannabis Marketing Association and learned that I’m not alone in feeling burnt out with using social media for branding.
Marcus Naramore, the Chief Revenue Officer at the Edgemont Group, mentioned that his brands are pivoting more toward using social media to push the audience to their websites, where their best content lives. This means publishing little nuggets of information occasionally, with each post telling users to click on their website to learn more information or engage further. They’ve stopped putting as much effort into creating beautiful content for social media since, in the end, it’s someone else’s platform, and they must abide by their rules. Brands own their websites, so they can post freely and use them to connect with audiences in more meaningful ways.
This approach aligns with Bravo’s advice for brands: Utilize social media for brand awareness, but don’t push your limits. Don’t put your eggs in one basket, and show up authentically.
“As far as brand awareness goes, you need to do more. You need to be at events. You need to invest in programmatic advertising. You need to invest in being a part of these marketplaces.”
Real life over social media? That’s something we can all benefit from.