As one of the most powerful social media platforms, Instagram is a major opportunity for cannabis businesses to find and interact with their target audiences. Many accounts have built followings in the tens of thousands and rely on social media as a key part of their marketing strategy.
However, between shadow bans and full-scale shutdowns, the industry is feeling the heat. Even nonprofits like the Sweetleaf Collective—which does not sell cannabis—face the consequences of simply being in the industry. Instagram shut down the California-based compassion organization’s account, and Sweetleaf has since struggled to navigate the platform’s latest slew of unpopular changes.
Rule followers or not, cannabis businesses are attacked by social media platforms. Many non-plant-touching entities, from accessories companies and ancillary businesses to advocacy groups and nonprofits, have experienced deactivated accounts or flagged content. In classic frenemy fashion, Instagram has never made any official statement about its dislike for cannabis accounts. Instead, the platform issued a vague statement about the “advertisement and sale” of marijuana, regardless of state or country. “Our policy prohibits any marijuana seller, including dispensaries, from promoting their business by providing contact information like phone numbers, email addresses, street addresses, or by using the ‘Contact Us’ tab in Instagram Business Accounts,” the platform stated in a response to one recently banned entity. “However, we do allow people to include a website link in their bio information.”
In other words, if you promote the sale of your cannabis products, Instagram is going to put you in the Burn Book.
For brands like Sweetleaf, product marketing makes all the difference when it comes to gaining awareness and momentum to save patient lives. When the company’s account was shut down with more than 4,000 followers, the team felt lost. Did it make sense to start over, or was it worth the battle with Instagram to try to get the account back?
Ultimately, Sweetleaf discovered its account was axed for using “selling language” in association with donations and lighter campaigns that fund the group’s work with low-income veterans and terminally-ill patients.
When brands get suspended or shut down, it can be disheartening to start from scratch, but sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise. As a compassion nonprofit, Sweetleaf had been donating cannabis to patients for years. Its team boasted well-known advocates and speakers. However, transitioning from underground grassroots organizations to above-ground, fully legal nonprofits takes some adjustment, especially in the marketing department. Rather than remain hush-hush about its work, now was Sweetleaf’s time to shine a light on its impact. Doing so not only opens up more opportunities to help patients but also gives other legal cannabis businesses a chance to pitch in and partner up.
In this case, starting a new account from scratch enabled Sweetleaf to put its best foot forward from the beginning. The company was able to leverage the well-established personal brand of its founder, Joe Airone, and showcase local farmers and dispensaries that were already long-time partners. With such a stronghold in the history of cannabis advocacy, Sweetleaf grew a much more engaged audience from the start of its second-generation Instagram account.
Often, cannabis businesses focus so much on navigating rules that they forget social media is meant to be social. If your business runs into deactivation, consider it an opportunity to pivot your strategy. Rather than see it as a detriment to your brand or bottom line, shift your focus back to your audience, as Sweetleaf did.
5 best practices to avoid getting banned on Instagram
- Do not engage in spam, such as mass following/unfollowing or using unauthorized third-party applications.
- Link to educational or informational pages only.
- Censor “cannabis” and related terms in captions, tags, and hashtags.
- Focus on educational posts and videos; limit the product and flower shots.
- Age-gate your account to keep minors off your page.
Sweetleaf implemented many of the above practices in its new Instagram strategy to protect its account from future bans. Combined with on-brand, visually appealing posts, the company is building a fortress for its nonprofit content, allowing the team to create more brand awareness and action around its mission.
Of course, implementing all these best practices may make it harder to find the right audience or even be clear about what your business actually does. But Sweetleaf was able to turn its luck around and return to creating a massive impact in the lives of California patients in need simply by investing time and energy into its social media marketing.
Sadly, as long as the plant remains federally illegal, Instagram will continue victimizing businesses and professionals. Until federal legalization becomes reality, working with a professional marketing agency and/or educating yourself about the ever-changing rules and regulations on digital platforms will help you find success. Don’t give up!
Dan Serard oversees business development and strategic partnerships for marketing agency Cannabis Creative Group. With more than four years of experience in the industry, he is active in associations including the Cannabis Marketing Association, Rolling Stone Culture Council, and National Association of Cannabis Businesses. He serves on the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Marketing and Advertising Committee and co-chairs the Content and Education Committee.