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Challenges with Marketing Cannabis (and How to Overcome Them)

By Wired Messenger Email Marketing


Challenges with marketing cannabis

The cannabis industry in Canada is growing like a weed since it was nationally legalized in October 2018. However, cannabis companies are experiencing growing pains when it comes to promoting their business on traditional digital marketing channels.

Between the novelty of the industry, the restrictions of the Canadian Cannabis Promotion Prohibition Laws, and the haziness of platform policies, most marketers are scratching their heads on how to promote their cannabis business without losing their accounts. To clear up the confusion, we’re breaking down current policies and practices for each platform.

Cannabis Marketing Policy By Platform

Email Platforms – I.e. MailChimp

Policy:

Although MailChimp doesn’t directly reference cannabis or drug use and accessories in its policy, its prohibited content section does request that users refrain from using MailChimp to “promote anything illegal,” which is the case for cannabis in several countries outside of Canada.

It also lists “pharmaceutical products” as a type of business that is prohibited from using the email service, which is a category that some medical cannabis products could easily fall under.

Practice:

To regulate what content goes out, MailChimp uses an automated system that can sometimes get tripped up by trigger words. As a result, some accounts have been suspended even if they operate well within policy guidelines.

Such was the case with Shea Gunther, who runs the newsletter MJToday Daily. A Forbes article covered how his account was temporarily shut down twice but was reinstated after “human review” of the content, when MailChimp conceded that the newsletter was legitimate and was not promoting or selling anything illegal.

We also noticed that in some cases, the suspension isn’t even content-related. A large Cannabis Producer we were working with this year had their account suspended because their credit card was flagged. We quickly moved their templates, lists and other assets over to another platform we use that doesn’t have issues.

Google AdWords

Policy:

In general, Google has a policy against “promoting or advertising recreational drug use, products or services that could facilitate drug use, or instructional content for acquiring, producing or using recreational drugs” – even in areas where it’s legalized.

However, Google does allow for second chances if your ad isn’t approved. You have a chance to fix a disapproved ad by going to your account and editing the content that Google flagged to fit its guidelines – which may mean removing any mentions of cannabis or recreational uses of the plant.

Practice:

Google’s policy is pretty clear. But we’ve still seen ads from cannabis-related businesses pop up in our searches. So, what gives?

Google AdWords

Because Google relies on automation to track, flag, and approve advertisements, some cannabis companies are learning certain tricks to skirt by the censors when submitting their ads for approval. Some of these tricks include:

  1. Playing the numbers game: More testing means more chances of getting your ads approved by the censors, and there are multiple ways to advertise on Google – including basic text ads, displayed ads, Gmail Sponsored Promotions, and Google Shopping Ads.
  2. Using the right keywords: Avoiding certain keywords will give you a better chance of slipping your ad content pass the censors. Several sites have noted that using any form of the phrase “canna-” will likely get your content flagged – but we’ve still seen ads with cannabis-phrasing show up on Google (like the one above). Alternatively, phrases like “hemp” seem to go through without an issue.
  3. Covering all of your bases: When checking ads, Google bots look at more than the advertisement itself. So, it helps to avoid using those trigger words and phrases on any other part of your company’s web presence, including your website, metadata descriptions and even your business name.

Although using these tricks may help get your ad approved, it is not not a guarantee. You still run the risk of getting your content flagged – it’s just a slightly smaller risk if you know how to play your cards right.

Facebook

Policy:

Facebook’s ad policy has a section specifically prohibiting the “sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” But, also like Google AdWords, it does give you the chance to appeal its decision if an advertisement is rejected.

Practice:

Although Facebook’s ad policy regarding recreational drugs seems clear, we’ve still noticed some cannabis company ads appearing on the platform. So, we did a little of our own testing to figure out what kind of cannabis ads would be flagged.

Here are some things we found:

  1. Informational or educational content was usually approved.
  2. All cannabis-related content had a longer wait time for approval.
  3. Any content with a CTA to purchase was blocked.

We’ll be posting our full findings soon, so stay tuned – and sign up for our newsletter so you can have the details sent directly to your inbox!

Instagram

Policy:

Instagram is owned by Facebook, so it’s not surprising that it shares the same policy when it comes to drug or drug-related content for advertisements.

During our testing, we actually found that more cannabis-related pages were taken down on Instagram, which was the case for companies several companies we tracked, like Aphria, CannTrust, and Peace Naturals. But in some cases, the suspension was temporary – like with Aurora’s profile page which seems to be back up.

Instagram

Practice:

We noticed that some cannabis companies are still able to share content without suspension, depending on the type of content they post. Educational and informative content seem to be the safest, and it seems best to avoid posting anything with a call to action. However, that doesn’t mean recreational content will necessarily get your page shut down. For example, MedMen shares a plethora of original content geared towards recreational use of cannabis and their page is thriving.

But on another note, Instagram is also the main platform where companies use influencers as part of their marketing strategy. So, how does the policy apply to them? From what we’ve seen, not consistently.

Several cannabis influencer profiles have been on a seesaw of being suspended then shortly reinstated due to their content – like @iamcannabess, who shared a blog post chronicling how her account had been shut down and reactivated at least eight times. The influencer received a response from Instagram multiple times stating that the suspension was a mistake, but she never received any further details about how the mistake was made or how to prevent it in the future.

The same thing happened to @jodiesjoint, a Toronto coffee shop that is also known for its cannabis and hemp advocacy work. The account was shut down because it violated Instagram guidelines – but when Jodie Emery, who runs the account, appealed, it was reinstated after a week with no further clarification on why her account was suspended.

Influencers aren’t just frustrated by the vague policy, but also the arbitrary nature of it’s enforcement. @thealicemoon, an edible reviewer, noted that while her account was suspended, other similar accounts like Medmen Enterprises Inc. and Beboe were still allowed to create and post sponsored content.

Twitter

Policy:

Twitter also follows a platform-wide regulation of “prohibiting the promotion of drugs and drug paraphernalia as paid advertising products on a global scale.” It even mentions that the policy includes recreational and herbal drugs and accessories associated with drug use.

Practice:

Despite the blanket policy, things are changing in the Twitter-verse. We had a recent conversation with the people at Twitter, who stated that they have opened up advertising to cannabis companies.

There are regulations – for example, cannabis companies can only run the minimum number of ads and all content needs to go through a review – but it is proof that platform policies are changing. We had a similar conversation with the SnapChat team, which stated that it has also started to allow cannabis marketing on its platform.

Given the changing policy, it seems like Twitter is one of the more lenient of the platforms when it comes to cannabis content and advertising. It’s an important distinction that cannabis companies are celebrating – like Lift & Co, which recently shared a list of cannabis industry insiders to follow on Twitter.

YouTube

Policy:

Under its policies on harmful or dangerous content, YouTube states: “We also restrict Content that intends to sell regulated or illegal goods and services through direct sales or links to sites that sell these items. These items include, but may not be limited to, drugs, pharmaceuticals that require a prescription, alcohol, nicotine products, online gambling casinos, counterfeit documents, or stolen credit card information.”

Practice:

Over the last several years, YouTube was thought to be one of the friendliest platforms for cannabis-related content – many companies used YouTube to market their business through their own channels. But things changed quickly when cannabis-related channels started disappearing from the platform with no warning or explanation.

At the time, YouTube stated that cannabis channels were in violation of its guidelines. But some of the suspended channels had thrived on the platform for years without any issues, so the sudden change was confusing to cannabis companies.

Such was the case for big names in the cannabis industry, like Lift & Co and Leafly, which both temporarily lost their accounts in early 2018. Other channels that looked to educate and entertain cannabis users, like Greenbox Grown and That High Couple, also experienced a temporary account shut down with little explanation about what triggered the suspension.

All of these accounts were eventually reinstated and some now feature a warning before playing content, stating that the video may not be appropriate for all audiences. Viewers then need to opt in to watch the video.

YouTube

It’s still not 100% clear why YouTube started deleting cannabis videos and channels, as they’ve only provided generic and general responses of term violations when asked by their users. But it’s theorized that sponsors started pulling advertisements when they noticed their ads appearing on videos promoting products or services that go against their brand.

As a result, YouTube may have started proactively suspending accounts that could be deemed as an advertising risk for their sponsors – which included cannabis channels.

An Expert Solution for Cannabis Marketing on Traditional Platforms

As you’ve probably gathered, cannabis marketing requires a lot of due diligence to get your message noticed. That’s where a team of cannabis marketing experts can help.

A credible marketing team that has experience with cannabis advertising and a legal team that understands the tricky cannabis promotion laws will protect your company and ensure that you are able to legally and effectively promote your product or service – despite the sea of confusing platform policies.

Here’s what a team of cannabis marketing experts can bring to the table:

  1. You receive expert advice that will get your message noticed.
    Relying on a team of marketing experts will not only help you plan the right marketing strategy for your business and follow best practices, but ensure that you’re navigating each platform like a pro – meaning more people will see your content.
  2. Your account will be safer with a team of experts behind the wheel.
    Cannabis marketing isn’t just about finding a message that resonates with your audience – you need to also ensure that you’re following platform policies and the cannabis promotion laws. A panel of marketing experts that understand the intricacies of the promotional laws and platforms will be able to craft a strategy that keeps your account safe from being shut down, so you won’t have to worry about losing followers or content.
  3. Cannabis marketing done right is well worth the investment. Unless you have a team in-house, hiring extra help could add to your marketing budget. However, getting your strategy right the first time could pay off big for your business. Not only will it help spread your message (which results in more potential sales), it ensures that you won’t lose your followers or all the hard work you already put into building an audience.

Every platform is different and the changing laws and inconsistent enforcement make it difficult to tell if your message will make it to your audience – or if your account will get shut down. But as the laws become more lenient and the use of cannabis more normalized, we may start seeing more marketing opportunities open up on traditional channels. Until then, the hazy guidelines and inconsistent enforcement seem to be the norm as the cannabis marketing industry works through the novelty of legalization.

Fortunately, the experts at Wired Messenger are here to assist your company with navigating the confusing platform policies to make your marketing strategy work. Schedule an appointment today to learn how we can help.

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