Cannabis and Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing has drastically increased in popularity over the past few years. Influencer marketing can be defined as a relationship between a brand and an “influencer”. The influencer promotes the brand's products or services through social media platforms such as Instagram. The difference between celebrity endorsements and influencer marketing is that the influencer must be a trusted figure within a niche community and retain a loyal following. To build this level of credibility and authenticity with their audience, they typically possess knowledge or experience about the specific types of products that they are promoting.
Influencers Used By Cannabis Companies
Cannabis influencers hold a large amount of influence in their niche community and usually have sizeable followings on social media platforms. Cannabis companies have the challenge of finding influencers with large authentic audiences that are also cannabis friendly. The influencers that cannabis companies use can be split into four main categories: content creators, consumers, industry folk and models.
Content Creators are those that create images and/or videos for social media that to pertain to cannabis. Photographers, videographers and YouTubers all fall into this category. Their work can be lifestyle or product focused. Lifestyle content features people (usually other influencers) using cannabis products or featuring cannabis brands. Product content are photos of the actual products and packaging.
Consumers are influencers who have a large following for consuming cannabis products on their social media pages. They are usually seen as subject matter experts by their followings. These consumers set the tone for what products are popular and act as connoisseurs or “cannabis sommeliers” for the masses.
Industry Folk are thought leaders that work or own a business in the cannabis industry. They usually have a high amount of valuable knowledge about the plant or the business of marijuana.
Models are influencers with large followings on social media because of their physical appearance, or something other than their cannabis use and knowledge. Cannabis companies have started tapping into non-cannabis specific influencers to appeal to an audience outside of the core consumer. These partnerships need to be made with a level of caution and research to ensure that a) the message will look authentic coming from the influencer (the influencer uses cannabis in some capacity) and b) the influencer’s audience will react positively to this message.
Challenges with Influencer Marketing
Deleted Accounts and posts
Instagram is owned by Facebook, which means that it follows the same advertising policy. Cannabis-related content is officially prohibited. There is a long history of Instagram deleting accounts that belong to both brands and influencers in the cannabis space. A current controversy surrounding Seattle-based influencer Bess Byers has seen her account deleted and re-activated over 4 times, with no concrete answer from Instagram about what content caused the deletion or what changes could be made to avoid breaking the rules in the future. Individual posts containing cannabis are also targeted and taken down by Instagram for “violating community guidelines”.
Cannabis companies have turned to social media influencers who act as distribution channels for their marketing messages. This is because individuals are less likely to be targeted by social platforms than businesses selling product. These influencers can promote cannabis products for brands without the company itself taking any risk.
Restrictions on Paid Promotion
Purchasing advertising space on most social media sites is still prohibited for cannabis companies. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will usually deny any ads with words directly related to marijuana in them. Some canna-companies with profiles on Facebook aren’t even given the option to create a promotion or promoted post. It is yet to be seen if these policies will change now that the plant is legal in Canada. If the U.S. legalizes federally, there is still no guarantee that these platforms will open up to cannabis industry dollars.
However, influencers are much more likely to be approved when applying to run a promotion on these social platforms. Cannabis companies can gift product to these influencers and have them create content. The brand and influencer can work together to launch paid promotions through the influencer’s page, ultimately directing the audience back to the brand’s page or website.
‘Fake Influencers’ are a real problem on the platform. There are several websites and methods that people use to purchase fake followers, likes and comments to appear more influential than they are. Companies and brands can give away free product or spend serious amounts of money on influencers with fake audiences if they don’t do their due diligence.
Instagram has announced that it will begin banning paid-for likes and followers in the coming weeks. IG will use new “machine learning tools” developed to help identify “suspect” users. They will begin removing inauthentic likes, follows, and comments from accounts believed to be utilizing third-party services to boost followers and engagements.
The Cannabis Act (Canada)
The Cannabis Act may actually prohibit most forms of influencer marketing.
The act outlaws promotion by means of a “testimonial or endorsement”, however displayed or communicated. Promotion by means of the depiction of a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional is also banned. Cannabis companies definitely can’t use influencers in marketing campaigns that they push forward, but it isn’t completely clear if these regulations apply to individuals and influencers who are promoting for the brand through their personal accounts.
As always, cannabis marketers will employ creative compliance and find ways to exploit these terms. Instead of a direct testimonial or endorsement, the influencer will instead just “feature” products or branded items without directly “endorsing” them.
The first example below shows a possible compliant influencer “ambassador” program that doesn’t feature any actual cannabis or endorsement of their product. Instead, the influencer simply connects the brand back to his morning in Paris and tags their account and uses their hashtags. The other two Canadian examples were posted before legalization when the new marketing regulations officially came into effect.
examples of influencer marketing
Examples of influencer marketing
Cannabis companies in the legal states are not subject to the same strict marketing rules and regulations. Influencers are able to show themselves consuming the products and sharing them with friends. American influencers can utilize lifestyle photography and run extensive creative campaigns. However, Instagram will flag influencer campaigns and delete these posts occasionally.
It is important to note that this type of promoting cannabis is illegal on the federal level in America. The Controlled Substances Act prohibits “knowingly or intentionally us[ing] the Internet, or caus[ing] the Internet to be used, to advertise the sale of, or to offer to sell, distribute, or dispense” controlled substances.
There have not yet been any prosecutions of companies, media outlets or advertising platforms that promote cannabis in the country. Leading many to believe that if they follow best practices, they won’t be targeted by a federal regulator. The best practices in this regard are to follow local state laws and focus your advertising on the business/brand itself and not the product offerings.
Below are three examples of influencer campaigns from influencers in the U.S.