Marijuana firms are still fighting for legitimacy on social media platforms

Social media giants are yet again reverting to suspending and deleting the accounts of marijuana companies. Some industry officials are blaming competitors for flagging their posts and reporting pages to moderators, in turn costing businesses time, thousands of dollars, and excess labor.

Marijuana is legal in some form in 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, whether recreational, medical or both. However, despite the growth of this industry and a steady erosion of the stigma associated with marijuana in mainstream circles, social media platforms, especially Facebook and Instagram, seem not to have consistent policies surrounding cannabis business pages.

When it comes to digital marketing, several experts explained that most social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram are siding with federal laws. Cannabis digital publishers and ad agencies continue to lament how they have been hamstrung because they’ve either been banned from advertising on some social media platforms or see their social accounts (sometimes including the accounts of influencers they engaged) go up in smoke.

This leaves marijuana businesses wondering how best to adhere to the set rules and avoid seeing their social media accounts deleted or blocked. Instagram and Facebook don’t seem to be clear on what type of marijuana content they want to see and what is not allowed.

For example, in marijuana news dated October 2018, MarketWatch reported that Facebook would stop blocking Facebook pages with marijuana-related searches as it had previously deleted legitimate businesses with the word ‘marijuana’ or ‘cannabis’ in their names.

However, in November of the same year, at least six Facebook and Instagram accounts of marijuana companies in Massachusetts were reportedly deleted. New England Treatment (NETA) and Cultivate were the first casualties even though they were the first two stores in the state to have the license to sell recreational cannabis.

The CEO of MassRoots, Isaac Dietrich, leads a digital community which connects medical cannabis users. He also expresses similar frustrations saying that MassRoot’s Instagram account was suddenly removed. While Dietrich’s company and other marijuana-related businesses have had their Facebook and Instagram accounts deleted, some are using influencers to run some ads on Twitter.

Laws around marijuana marketing

Marijuana advertising laws vary from state to state where it’s been legalized. For instance, marijuana retailers in Colorado cannot run digital or TV ads unless there’s “reliable evidence” that no more than 30% of the audience is expected to be under the age of 21. You can, therefore, run ads against Saturday Night Live and not SpongeBob SquarePants.

On social media, though, you can never know if your company hits the 30% threshold. You may target according to age and location, but Facebook has opted to take a blanket approach against errant targeting or ads.

Under federal law, there’s a possible risk of prosecution for cannabis advertising under the Controlled Substances Act 21 U.S.C. Section 843(c). The Act prohibits any placement of written ads for marijuana and any other controlled substances in magazines, newspapers, handbills or any other publication for the purpose of offering or seeking unlawfully, receiving, purchasing, or distributing marijuana…

Does this Act then say you cannot publish? No, because it is rarely enforced. However, you need to proceed with the necessary caution.

Conversely, media outlets are somewhat protected under what’s commonly referred to as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to a 2014 federal spending bill, which prevents the U.S. Justice Department from interfering from medical cannabis-related programs that are already legal at the state level. Unfortunately, this kind of protection only touches medical marijuana programs and commercial marijuana businesses and their publishing mediums don’t enjoy such protection.

A marijuana business attorney will be quick to explain that this is why you see discretion from large social media companies such as Facebook and Instagram. Facebook, for instance, has a policy that prohibits content and ads that promote the sale or use of recreational drugs or unlawful prescription.

In other cannabis news, industry expert Krista Whitley who founded Social Media Unicorn – a full-service marketing agency focused on cannabis brands – said that even though marijuana is legal in most U.S. states, social media platforms are becoming more prohibitionist than even tobacco and alcohol industries.

How marijuana businesses are affected

Dan Osterman, a marketing and social media manager for Nice Guys Delivery focused on cannabis delivery and distribution in San Rafael, CA, says “it’s been a nightmare.” He has seen five of his Instagram accounts go up in flames since July 2018 in addition to his Facebook account. He’s lost a total of 4,000 followers he had struggled to build. He has since tried to dispute the decisions three times to no avail.

Meanwhile, Google has said no to all cannabis-related service apps since May this year. This means Android users cannot download any delivery facilitation apps.

Kendra Losee, CEO and owner of a cannabis-focused marketing firm Mota Marketing, says that Google and Facebook are being extreme as they are heading backward with their cannabis policies.

Lost revenue

Losee was quick to say that a company which legitimately builds its followers and doesn’t pay for followers, for example, could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if its page is deleted. That could mean that any pages which businesses have worked hard to build could be suspended or blocked, with lost time and energy.

Are competitors to blame?

According to Dan Osterman, when he lost his Instagram page, four other companies within Marin County where his business is located saw their pages closed too. His Facebook account was recently deleted after an individual reported his company’s logo, which Osterman insists had been online for over two years. This has made him believe that some of his competitors often visit his pages and flag or report his pages to Instagram and Facebook moderators.

This potentially means that while a cannabis business page may not be running any ads, showing consumption or promoting sales, it runs the risk deletion if someone flags the posts or reports the pages.

Other options

All hope is not lost, however. Marijuana advertisers need to start thinking outside the box. Even though Facebook remains the giant in the social media sphere, most marijuana business owners are choosing to jump ship.

One serviceable alternative is Twitter, where marketers posts sales and engage with customers using the direct message feature. They can also use Twitter’s feature that allows tagging locations to highlight local events and offers as Losee suggests.

LinkedIn has also been open to discussions with cannabis businesses, while some other social media gurus use Pinterest. Losee also suggests the creation of web-based apps or publishing with an alternative store that hosts apps outside the conventional Apple/Android stores. Another worthwhile option business owners can attempt is posting videos on Snapchat.

If a social media platform doesn’t permit publishing of promotional content, then marijuana businesses should use them to post educational content for their influencers and their businesses. Be careful to follow the social media platforms rules on marijuana companies and appeal immediately once your page has been suspended.

Legitimacy issues and marketing challenges faced by marijuana companies are not going to disappear any time soon. Marijuana businesses will need to educate themselves on regulations that apply to them before investing money into any marketing campaigns.

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