It’s no secret that Instagram has waged war on the cannabis industry. From banned hashtags and safety controls to completely shutting down accounts, the app has made its stance clear: Post at your own risk. Combined with the high level of maintenance already required to stand out on the platform and face the beast that is the Instagram algorithm, many brands wonder whether the platform is worth all the trouble.
According to a report from eMarketer, Instagram hosted an estimated 1.1 billion users worldwide in 2021. Brands and consumers alike are using the app more than ever before for selling, sharing, and shopping. In the past few years, Instagram has gone as far as supporting content creators and businesses with valuable ecommerce tools and monetized platform features.
The truth is hard to deny: In order to meet people where they are, social media is essential.
But here’s where brands go wrong: Instagram is a useful channel for increasing brand loyalty, not making sales. Organic and original content on social media is meant to build a community around a brand and nurture an audience into becoming genuine fans and friends. Done correctly, this can be a catalyst to sales. Done poorly, it can lead to account closure.
There are three things you can do to safeguard your Instagram account.
Avoid unauthorized third-party apps and spam. Third-party apps can help automate many of the high-maintenance engagement strategies that result in success on Instagram: mass following and unfollowing, scheduled commenting, automatic direct message replies, and more. However, connecting unauthorized third-party apps to your accounts and engaging in spam activity will flag your account and put it at risk.
Mind your hashtags. In the past few years, Instagram has increased content scrutiny in an effort to create a safer space for younger users. As part of this effort, the platform has been banning and hiding certain hashtags to limit the spread of false information or inflammatory content.
If your account intentionally or unwittingly uses banned hashtags, Instagram may not only shadow-ban the post in question but also flag your entire account.
To see whether a hashtag has been hidden or banned, type the tag into the search bar preceded by a “#” and pay close attention to the results and search predictions. If the search returns no results, the tag likely is banned. For instance, searching #cannabisheals returns no results. Even when results appear, further investigation is wise. Many hashtags are hidden by Instagram and will be noted as such in the search results.
Even hashtags that are not hidden or banned should be used with caution. In fact, it’s best to completely avoid hashtags with the word “cannabis” unless they are niched down.
Do not buy followers. Years ago, paying for followers was a popular method to achieve quick success on Instagram. Those days are long gone. Fake followers can’t provide your business with real customers. While the numbers may look impressive, fake followers will lower your engagement rate. As a result, the Instagram algorithm will view your content as unpopular and won’t push it out to new users.
Social media is about being social, and you want to interact with and impress your real-life customers — so bots aren’t the way to go.
How can cannabis businesses build a community online? First, change the way you think about sales.
On social media, selling is serving. Embrace the lifestyle around your brand rather than the product itself, and provide value above all. This approach not only helps you navigate content restrictions but also allows you to emphasize the unique advantages of your business.
Rather than promoting new strains, share stories about real customers and their favorite products. Instead of posting about the different types of products you sell, educate your audience about what form is better for which effect.
These slight shifts in content will allow you to focus less on cannabis and more on providing value to customers and potential customers. The tactic may not only prevent you from getting shut down, but also helps you connect with the platform’s audience on a deeper level.
Another general rule of thumb is to avoid listing a price or including any sort of direct sales language in social media posts, whether in the post itself, the alt text, or photo captions. Ultimately, if you make a point of prioritizing storytelling over sales, your success on social media will begin to come more naturally.
Despite the array of minefields Instagram throws in the way of cannabis brands, the path to brand awareness, customer loyalty, and increased sales requires social media success.
Until the plant is federally legal, social media platforms probably won’t become any friendlier. But playing by their rules — and occasionally finding loopholes — can create memorable experiences for consumers and increase brand recognition and reputation.
And that’s a fight worth winning.
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.