The intersection of social media and the politics of cannabis creates a persistent sense of anxiety for social media managers of cannabis businesses, and a frustrating relationship between consumers and their favorite cannabis brands.
If you spend any time reading about the cannabis industry, one of the dominant “hot takes” out there is that the industry is a present-day “Wild West.” It’s an evocative image of lawlessness, regulatory abandon, and smoky saloons. Keaton Miller, writing for Policy Options, notes how Oregon created a “'Wild West’ marketplace” that has few controls and is flooding neighboring states with black market weed. Other states arguably have more control over their cannabis industry.
But what happens when the Wild West of the cannabis industry—which is transforming economic realities and conversations around criminal justice and healthcare—meets the Wild West of social media—which is transforming the way we think about our public and private lives?
Pandemonium, that’s what.
Cannabis in the age of social media
In 2015, Cision listed me as one of the "Top-50 Rich Media Social Influencers" on Twitter. Not only is Twitter the place for breaking, up-to-date news, but it's also a key B2B business communication network for the tech industry where I began. This isn't true for the cannabis industry, however, where Twitter isn't as prevalent of a social network for building following and dialogue.
Instagram—thanks to the power of smartphone cameras—has changed the way we view traveling, food, art, nature, and dozens of everyday things, including cannabis. Facebook has radically transformed our notion of privacy, as “an overwhelming majority of 91% post a photo of themselves, 71% post the city or town where they live…and more than half give up email addresses.”
One way in which these companies have yet to progress, though, is in relation to cannabis. In theory, the big three of social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) all ban advertising for social media companies. In reality, cannabis companies are finding ways to reach their audiences organically.
For social media giants like Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), and Twitter, they hold a lot of the power in the relationship with the cannabis businesses who use their platforms. Social media algorithms determine how many followers see a business’ content, whether or not their content is permitted, and whether the account should be deleted. But, as this article from CNet argues about the coming-reckoning for the social media giants, “The tech industry finds itself under a microscope again” and lawmakers are “challenging tech companies for not being transparent about their internal processes and about their decision-making around election tampering, fake news and the banning of account holders.”
While much of the hubbub around social media companies stems from the disinformation campaign in the 2016 election and its fallout, the cannabis industry, which is legal to some degree in the majority of states but remains federally prohibited, finds itself suffering from the same lack of transparency in regards to speech policies and account bans. Under an abundance of public scrutiny, social media sites have cracked down on what they view to be illegal and unethical behavior on the platforms. Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, social media sites have, for example, changed how they handled social media “influencers” who would peddle products to their massive followings without disclosing compensation from a company.
Though, on the one hand, cannabis businesses aren’t supposed to be allowed on most social media sites, nevertheless, there are special rules in place for cannabis businesses on social media. The restrictions on advertising (no ads where minors are expected to be or see them) rule out TV and radio and make social media a critical avenue for cannabis businesses, but companies need to put age restrictions on content shared online as well to remain compliant. E-Commerce is also technically not allowed (although in the new CBD-frenzied American market we're seeing more of it), so posting prices and sales to attract consumer interest is a non-starter on social media. In many ways, cannabis brands can be limited to a lifestyle and educational approach, rather than a traditional retail approach.
All of this is on top of the normal social media marketing challenges that businesses face. Getting a return on social media investment is always a challenge and targeting the right audiences with the right message is a constant struggle.
I spoke with many cannabis business owners, from dispensary owners to people who offer ancillary services like legal counsel, and there are some clear takeaways across the board to manage compliance, grow the brand, and improve engagement with consumers through social media.
Social media is critical (and fleeting)
It is clear, given the restrictions on other forms of cannabis advertising, that social media is a critical form of advertising for cannabis companies. However, the reality of running a social media account for a cannabis company is more like living in a reality run by Thanos: one snap and your account is dust.
Michael Katz, co-founder of the Emerald Exchange, a West Coast cannabis farmer's market for craft brands, recently saw the @EmeraldExchange shut down by Instagram. All 20,000 organic followers and 1,000 posts disappeared in an instant. Now they’re left with an alternate account that has hundreds, not tens of thousands, of followers.
This tenuous existence—where months and years of work can be wiped out with little transparency into why—can keep some from fully investing in a social media presence.
Jessie Gill, the Cannabis Nurse at MarijuanaMommy.com, told me she doesn’t put any time into Instagram, which can demand a lot of time to curate Insta-worthy images. “Too many excellent industry accounts have been shut down to be worth the risk,” she told me through Facebook, “It feels smarter to spend my time focusing on SEO and email.”
Many cannabis business owners find it to be worth the risk (and time) because so many people rely on social media for their news and information. According to the most recent Pew Research report, 69% of American adults use Facebook, while 37% use Instagram, and 22% use Twitter. Most of these people are using the platforms daily.
And, while the myth of Instagram and, to an extent, Twitter, is that only young people use these platforms, the Pew Research shows that the user bases of these platforms aren’t so generationally divided. Facebook has the most diverse user base, but Instagram has more older users than you may otherwise be told. In the 50-64 year old demographic, 68% of U.S. adults had used Facebook, while 47% of U.S. adults aged 50-64 had used Instagram.
For cannabis businesses, the key to social media use is to recognize that accounts are easy come, easy go. And, for many in the industry, there are clear differences between each platform.
Twitter’s freedom doesn’t necessarily make it a better platform
In the “Wild West” of social media, Twitter is far and above the wildest. Of the big three, Twitter is the most permissive when it comes to cannabis content. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a better experience for businesses and customers though. As a platform, Twitter is a place for hyper-reactive, labor-intensive interactions, which doesn’t lend itself to the types of productive top-of-the-funnel engagement you might get on Instagram or Facebook.
“Yes, the rules are easier to work with,” Meg Sanders, CEO at Canna Provisions, told me, “but we view Twitter as a customer service platform that requires intense time and energy. At this time, we are still scaling-up our business and haven’t yet dedicated a resource to live-and-breath Twitter all day, every day.”
While Twitter won’t come down as hard on cannabis accounts (or anyone for that matter), the limited characters and convoluted threads don’t lend themselves to effective cannabis marketing.
Instagram is king in cannabis
Though it is owned by Facebook and has many of the same restrictive stances towards cannabis content, Instagram is hands down the favorite mainstream social media platform of cannabis business owners. That is thanks in large part to two things: the platform’s emphasis on beautiful visuals and the demographics on the site.
"Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence,” Ryan Kocot, a lawyer specializing in cannabis law, told me recently, “but to do so, the account must bring value in the form of education or entertainment to its followers. Once Instagram loosens up its advertising guidelines, the platform will be all the more essential to cannabis businesses.”
Instagram is the king of B2C cannabis social media, but for B2B interactions, some companies are turned off by the hard work required to make Insta-worthy content. “It took my team and I almost two years to finally realize how many hours and wasted effort we put into focusing so much time on Instagram,” Adelia Carrillo, Founder of Direct Cannabis Network, recounted, “By focusing our social media content strategy for our B2B audience towards Twitter, LinkedIn, and our Facebook groups, we have noticed increased engagement, click-through rates and leads.”
With its emphasis on beautiful visuals and influencer lifestyle, Instagram helps drive the zeitgeist of youth culture. Some believe, though, that Instagram’s younger user demographic means they’re not able to connect to the growing segment of older buyers who are trying legal marijuana for the first time. But, for some B2C cannabis companies, they’re able to tap into broader markets than the casual observer may think.
As Michael Katz of Emerald Exchange revealed, the demographics on the company’s business Instagram accounts skewed older. Only 11% of their followers range between 18-24 years old, while 46% of the audience is 25-34 and 29% is 35-44 and a surprising 10% hail from the 45-54 demographic. While it may be counterintuitive for social media, it makes sense for the cannabis industry: older users spend more money per item than their younger counterparts—and social media is one of the key ways people discover cannabis brands.
Not everyone finds success on Instagram, though. Lisa Hurwitz, the Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer at Grassroots Cannabis, a producer of high-quality medical cannabis products for several Midwest states including Illinois and Ohio, shared with me that, across their multiple Instagram accounts, the main demographic “skews younger and male, with males accounting for 55% of our users and only about 3% of our users over 55.” Compared to Facebook, where their audience is “as high as 60% female and about 12% of the audience is over 55.”
As both social media and cannabis become part of the broader social fabric, it is important to remain connected to the consumer through in-person marketing and events. When Grassroots held two events on 4/20 this year, they found that the demographics of the community street festival attracted an audience where 45% of attendees were over 55. A dispensary-hosted event focused on flower, however, brought in an audience where only 10% were over 55. It is important to understand that one message, one event, or one image, will not appeal to your entire consumer base, so market segmentation in marketing is important.
What makes a successful cannabis social media account?
So how does one turn a social media account into a reliable marketing and customer engagement tool, without running afoul of social media rules and legal compliance issues? There’s no one way, and it all depends on the type of business you’re running and the outcomes you want to achieve with your audience.
One good rule of thumb, though, according to Ryan Kocot, is to ensure that your social media account focuses on providing valuable information, rather than “hard selling.” “The ‘please buy my product’ approach is not going to work in an increasingly saturated market. Cannabis businesses must bring value to their potential customer and become well versed in how to strategically market to target demographics. This requires familiarity with Instagram's targeting capabilities, as well the ability to run and test multiple forms of creative against target demographics."
Liz Zucco, the CEO of Cannisence, which provides high-quality hemp health and wellness products, agrees with Kocot: “If you are simply thinking of social platform as a sales tool, you may be missing out on a lot more value for the time and expense.” According to Zucco, Cannisence focuses on building community through their social platforms. For the older demographics that they cater to, Instagram is less effective, and they’ve found the need to clearly segment within older age groups to create targeted messaging.
“We currently market to what we consider three very different older markets," Zucco said. “There are no less than three conversations that must be maintained simultaneously within this broad category. Within those age categories, we segment out male vs. female, lifestyle, and even geography. Our goal is to utilize all viable social platforms to engage with our customers to share, to tell our story, and to hear theirs.
Targeted content has to do more than get people to like a post or engage with a link, though, since cannabis e-commerce is not allowed on social media. The key, Meg Sanders told me, is to create content that gets people to sign up for newsletters and to come to a brick-and-mortar location. “Since we can’t engage in e-commerce, we aren’t able to use Instagram the way so many other businesses are able to. We have to develop content that is so fantastic it will drive people into our brick-and-mortar location, not just drive people to click a link.”
If you’re putting all of your eggs in the social media basket, when an account gets deleted you’ve lost everything. Social media interactions must be the starting point, not the end point, of social media engagement. As Adelia Carrillo recounted, for their Facebook group, which has a 59% average monthly growth rate, they have an astounding 94% rate for newsletter signups as well. In the precarious relationship between social media and cannabis companies, getting people to make the leap from Facebook or Instagram to a property owned by the cannabis company is critical.
Regardless of what platform you’re using, Carrillo agrees that engaging content is crucial. “When looking at our LinkedIn,” Carrillo said, “last year we were barely reaching 22% growth on page views on our LinkedIn profile. Starting in December when we started putting more time and thought into the content, the copy, the call-to-action, we noticed an average of 166% increase in page views along increasing month-after-month from LinkedIn.”
So, despite the risks, if you come at social media with a responsible approach with quality content driven by a desire to drive non-social media engagements as well, your cannabis company may just tame the Wild West of the social media and cannabis.
Disclosure: I have no financial interest or positions in the aforementioned companies. This information is for educational purposes and does not constitute financial and/or legal advice.
Andre is a cannabis connector and the VP of Bus. Dev. for Verdantis Advisors, a full-service consulting agency.
Andre Bourque (@SocialMktgFella) is a cannabis industry connector, brand advisor, contributing writer, and the Vice President of Business Development for Verdantis Advis...