In the cannabis industry, entrepreneurs will find that many of the conventional marketing and advertising tactics that work in other industries aren’t available to cannabis businesses, both plant-touching and ancillary alike. To generate new leads and raise awareness, cannabis companies need to get creative, thoroughly understanding the compliance and regulations that affect them. What are some of the main issues in cannabis marketing, and how can companies find new ways to get customers?
What are the three main issues that complicate marketing cannabis products?
To devise successful cannabis marketing campaigns, it’s first important to understand the obstacles facing cannabis marketers today. Chief among these obstacles are three key problems cannabis businesses face, and each demands creative problem solving to ensure cannabis marketers can reach their target audience.
Regulatory compliance and federal prohibition
The biggest struggle that cannabis marketing professionals encounter is the patchwork regulations that vary greatly from state to state. Just because two states may have legal cannabis markets does not mean their regulations look similar to one another. This impacts marketing as well: Some states have regulations that prohibit all marketing, while others permit it with restrictions and guidelines on how these businesses can market themselves.
Restricted access to marketing channels
Because cannabis remains a federally illegal substance, some publishers won’t promote cannabis content. This creates yet another complexity cannabis marketers must keep top of mind when managing social accounts on behalf of their clients.
Many social media channels, for example, are hostile to cannabis-related accounts, leaving businesses cut off from an important channel. Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, are two common challenges for cannabis companies. As explained by Facebook’s help center, “Instagram doesn’t allow people or organizations to use the platform to advertise or sell marijuana, regardless of the seller’s state or country.” Cannabis marketers hoping to use other marketing channels must consider their tactics carefully, tailoring the language and imagery they use to avoid violating each platforms’ terms of service (ToS).
Moreover, some social media sites restrict users’ ability to search for cannabis-related search terms. For example, Facebook famously implemented such a “shadowban” on cannabis search terms in 2018, though the site now returns some results for keywords like “cannabis” and “marijuana.” Individual profiles could also be subject to shadowbans as well, especially if they are more ostentatious about their use of cannabis imagery or promotional language in their posts.
Consumer education and addressing cannabis stigma
Most everyone involved in the legal cannabis industry is familiar with the stigma that still surrounds the plant. Despite gains in research and the legalization movement, there is still a lot of misinformation in the general public about what cannabis actually does. This stigma still impacts everything from marketing for cannabis brands to cannabis banking access, even going so far as to prevent legalization federally and in some states.
Furthermore, there’s false information abound about cannabis, which both continues to demonize the plant while exaggerating what’s known about it. This leaves cannabis marketers responsible for educating consumers and dispelling popular misconceptions, unlike other industries where reaching the target audience is the primary objective. Cannabis marketers are part-teachers, part-salespeople.
To fill this educational void, cannabis marketers must learn to become skilled communicators on a wide range of topics, from plant science to manufacturing processes to business trends. Cannabis marketing teams should be prepared to deliver technical concepts in an easy-to-understand format so that consumers — many of whom are new to cannabis — are able to see past the stigma and disinformation.
7 suggestions for cannabis marketing campaigns
The laws surrounding cannabis may make it seem too restrictive to effectively market your cannabis business. However, with a bit of creativity, cannabis marketers can remain compliant with state laws and platforms’ terms of services while running marketing campaigns that both reach and teach their target audiences.
To help your cannabis business navigate these marketing roadblocks, we spoke with Lisa Buffo, founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association, who offered her insights on creative ways for marketers to be successful and make the most of the historic opportunity facing the legal cannabis industry today.
Work with the press to reach your target audience
One thing that is never prohibited is promoting educational content about cannabis in cooperation with news organizations, which enjoy constitutional protections to distribute information to the public.
“Our ability to talk to the press is protected by the First Amendment,” Buffo explained. “PR is something that cannot change; we will always have that ability.”
With that in mind, marketers should consider what channel they are using and what particular message they want to emphasize. Consider the types of news outlets your audience flocks to, and then work to make contact with the editors that plan the editorial calendar for those organizations.
When working with journalists, Buffo says to stay away from sales language and lean more toward education when submitting content to news outlets or answering questions from members of the press.
Focus on your owned channels
One great way to protect your company from social media regulations is to market through channels you own, such as a blog on your website or an email newsletter you send to an email list that you built yourself.
“The ability to have your own channel that cannot, in theory, be shut down is essential,” explained Buffo. “Be thoughtful with how you build and maintain that channel.”
Understand your obligations
Knowing the state regulations that apply to your marketing and advertising campaigns is essential. In New York, for example, restrictions prohibit adult-use cannabis companies from placing advertisements within 500 feet of school grounds, public parks, and other businesses, which can be a logistical nightmare in densely-populated cities. The same goes for social platforms: Some are very tolerant of cannabis related content, while others aren’t.
Once you know the parameters, it’s important to understand your business’s tolerance for risk, Buffo said. While your campaigns should never flagrantly break the law or run afoul of guidelines, there may be “gray areas” that can be reasonably pushed.
Establish a brand voice that resonates with your target audience
How you think, speak, write and act as a brand is crucial to any successful marketing tactic. The way to speak to current and potential customers reflects the values your company embodies. Without a strong brand voice, your ideal customers may simply pass your marketing materials by without a second thought.
In the legal cannabis industry, especially when the first legal markets were just coming online, Buffo said many companies were overly buttoned up and lost personalities, assuming that the draw to legal cannabis would be enough to drive sales.
Today, she said, the industry has come a long way from this “weed will sell itself” mentality. In order to maintain trust and favorability with your clients, marketers must work to build a deeper development of personality and brand voice that appeals to the types of people they want to serve.
Be culturally sensitive in your marketing content
Cannabis companies have a responsibility to consider the effects of the War on Drugs in all areas of their business. Companies need to do their homework and avoid any language or messaging that is culturally insensitive, especially regarding communities that were disproportionately affected by the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis.
“Do your homework and make sure your message is appropriate in all lenses, racial groups, and religious groups,” noted Buffo. “Speak with those people and understand their sensitivities. Do not invoke stereotypes to promote products and brands.”
Think about the future
With all the challenges facing a cannabis company’s marketing strategy, it can be easy to focus solely on the here and now or on the short-term. However, Buffo cautions against that, instead reinforcing the importance of considering a long term strategy.
“Federal legalization is the path forward,” said Buffo. “We don’t know when, but it will happen, and you need to think about how your brand will play to a national audience.”
Even with one eye on a longer term strategy, cannabis marketers must always remember the regional culture of their target audience first. These nuances between states and regions, including the impact of legalization on those regions, will play a role.
“People respond differently to things in the northeast than they do in the deep south,” said Buffo.
Document, document, document
Just like any marketing strategy, you’ll have to test what works and what doesn’t work, But documenting your progress takes on a whole new meaning when it could mean a shadowban or a letter from the state. This information can formulate a powerful internal marketing guide.
“Anytime you get advice from regulators, write that down,” she added. “Anytime your messaging sticks, write that down. Anytime your messaging is taken down and removed, write that down.”
What to do if your social media profile gets shut down
This is perhaps one of the most oft-asked questions by cannabis marketers and brands alike! An account suspension or ban is a big fear for many who may not feel comfortable navigating what’s allowed and what’s not. Unfortunately, appealing these decisions isn’t always a clear-cut process, so Buffo recommends that brands take some extra steps. These include:
- Back up your data regularly: Instagram first rolled out its “Data Download” tool in 2018. Use this to download a copy of all Instagram data into a ZIP folder. You may also want to look into third party platforms that can help you save that information.
- Closely follow the platform’s ToS: A good understanding of a channel’s terms of service will help users to know the ground they are standing on if their account is removed. In the event of removal, users can refer back to the platform’s ToS to look for reasons for reinstatements.
- Document your activity: Keep a log of anytime your profile has done well or gotten flagged. Refer to the record when determining future campaigns to ensure that you will not make the same mistakes twice. You may also want to track every post and image you use in a spreadsheet so you can offer more proof to the platform that you were compliant.
- Submit an appeal daily to social media platforms: File an appeal as soon as you can to try to get them to reinstate your account. File this appeal daily. You should always try to speak with a human when possible, but be forewarned that social media platforms don’t make that an easy task. You may also want to enlist friends and followers to help you get the attention of the platform, as several cannabis companies have successfully done.
Defining your cannabis marketing strategy in a new industry
All in all, while compliance is essential, cannabis marketers should also remember to have fun. After all, not everyone gets the unique responsibility of serving as the first point of contact for new consumers hungry for educational information on an exciting topic.
“Compliance and prohibition are important, but [you can] still have fun with the creating,” Buffo said. “We are defining a new industry, and we should enjoy it!”