Cannabis reform may be progressing in America, but access on social media remains an uncertain landscape. While brands have thrived, reaching millions of followers and verified status, many others have been cut short, suspended and deleted along the way.
Even those succeeding appear only to have a glimmer of an idea about what’s right and wrong when marketing cannabis. With so much uncertainty, brands proceed cautiously in a direction that may or may not be the correct path.
The Three Outcomes To Avoid: Deletions, Suspensions and Shadowbans
Whether violating the rules or innocently caught up in the review system, accounts face severe punishments if accused of violating the terms of services. They include:
- Total account deletion
- Suspension, lasting one to 90 days depending on the platform and violation
Each result is devastating, especially to a brand or company spending countless hours building up a following. The first two consequences are straightforward. Shadowbanning, on the other hand, is a bit more unclear. Much like how Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Shadow Realm is an alleged place of suffering, so is social media’s apparent shadowban realm. Instead of anime-purple smoke and monsters, social media accounts face a near-complete banishment from the site without losing their posting privileges.
In short, shadowbanned accounts remain in working order but essentially get removed from communal activity and engagement. While banned, few if any people will be able to see the offending account’s new posts, stories or other activity.
Brittany Hallett, VP of marketing at cannabis CPG brand SLANG Worldwide, elaborated, saying bans are a means of suppressing organic, unpaid-for reach. “Essentially, rather than turn an account off, the content posted on a page is suppressed, limiting the number of impressions you receive on that content,” she explained.
Not confirmed by social media platforms, the existence of shadowbans has broadly been accepted, with most reporting that bans last two to six weeks.
Harrison Baum, CEO of Daily High Club, said shadowbans are an engagement killer, ultimately stunting follower growth and brand bottom lines. “People also won’t find your brand unless they type the whole name into the search bar,” said Baum, who also oversees all social media initiatives for cannabis brand High Tide.
He believes his account has experienced shadowbans several times but cannot confirm if that is the case.
Hallett said some possible solutions to a ban include creating a post asking followers to like, share, comment and save posts. “Instagram wants to show valuable content to the platform’s users, so if you can show that your page is offering value, it will improve your reach,” she said.
Cannabis Brands Try to Stay Compliant
Cannabis is still not welcomed on social media, Google AdWords and other major outlets where people and brands converge. U.S.-based social media companies adhere to federal guidelines, which continue to prohibit cannabis. Therefore, they don’t want cannabis’s money or the consequences if they did.
Instead of outright bans, social media platforms have allowed cannabis brands to develop, with several becoming verified, racking up millions of followers in the process. A few in the space have remained fully or largely compliant by sticking to a few crucial rules they believe social media giants operate by.
Much like the rationale for bans, there is some understanding of what cannabis compliance means on social media. Broadly summarizing the steps, companies should avoid selling products, consuming pot or using imagery they don’t own. However, the ambiguity and potential for unanticipated consequences leave many to form their conclusions and hope they remain online.
Several sources said keeping sales out of content is essential. Unlike many other industries, cannabis brands are recommended to use social media as a lifestyle brand, using their channels to start the conversation with followers rather than generate sales.
“If you’re directly selling a product or linking to your website, don’t show cannabis,” advised Baum. He added, “If you do show cannabis, don’t act like you’re selling it.”
Adam Greenblatt is a Canadian advocate and cannabis brand manager working for Canopy Growth. He creates content regularly on his accounts, amassing nearly 6,000 followers on Twitter and 80,000 on TikTok. He has only had content flagged during his early TikTok days. He was never deterred by the warnings.
“Even when they did, I could submit a written appeal, which worked nine out of 10 times,” Greenblatt said.
Despite cannabis being legalized in Canada, brands and people like Greenblatt must adhere to social media’s U.S.-focused rules. He believes he’s remained relatively unscathed because he does not show or consume cannabis. Instead, he keeps the tone educational or sarcastic.
“That said, other science-focused creators have been banned from TikTok for no apparent reason,” he recalled.
Maria Brasco is the social media manager at MATTIO Communications, managing numerous cannabis clients in the space. She reports that, so far, little has proven effective across the board. She delved into specific tactics, including prohibiting content from reaching underage users via an age-gate, but that has not worked entirely.
Instagram’s current rules have no rhyme or reason, according to Brasco. “Accounts that err on the side of caution are being penalized, while their industry colleagues are blatantly ignoring the rules, and nothing happens,” she said, calling the situation the Wild West.
While frustrating, adhering to the rules is essential. Allison Krongard, co-founder and co-CEO of female-centric cannabis and sexual wellness brand Her Highness, said posting or communicating about any illegal activity is never wise.
“I don’t respond to plugs or people asking me to send them weed,” said Krongard. She said people reach out daily.
Overall, compliance is key for a brand. Courtney Wu is the co-founder of Amnesia, an digital agency devoted to cannabis brand compliance using its social media monitoring tool Highlyte.
“We are always trying to educate people that you have to think about compliance from the very beginning,” said Wu. Amnesia, which boasts zero shutdown accounts as of July 2021, tells brands to consider compliance in the forefront, not as an afterthought.
How to Stay Creative While Walking the Social Media Line
Social media rules limit cannabis content creators. Still, operators have found ways to create compelling content without losing their accounts.
Wu emphasized the importance of compelling content. They noted that companies, cannabis or otherwise, succeed when considering how their brand provides better value than the competition. “Those kind of individual value propositions that may not be necessarily unique to you,” still work, said Wu. She said brands can also excel by showing consumers how their product fits into a person’s life.
The Her Highness co-founders said that reading the rules helps, while being provocative without overdoing it is critical.
“There have been times when we couldn’t show smoke coming out of a joint for text ads, but we could show our gold pre-roll box and a grinder,” said Krongard, calling the issue a design obstacle.
Jim Higdon, co-founder of Cornbread Hemp, went so far as to create alternative phrasing and imagery in YouTube videos promoting a new flower-only extraction process. The company used oranges and juice as slang and a visual aid for CBD and relied on fresh-cut flowers to replace nugs.
“By being creative in these ways, we hope that YouTube’s mods and bots are more friendly to our content and that we remain compliant to their standards,” said Higdon.