Cannabis 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, reviewers, industry folk and models.
Content Creators are those that create images and/or videos for social media that 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 consists of photos of the actual products and packaging.
Reviewers 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 cannabis. These people have personal brands around being at the forefront of the industry.
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.
Cannabis Influencer Marketing Strategies
Friendships: Cannabis company marketers and agencies that work in the industry frequently make real connections and friendships with “influencers”, so many of these posts are unspoken favours done for each other. For many influencer marketing posts there is no “quid pro quo”, so the companies are largely safe from scrutiny from the regulator.
Events: Cannabis companies aren’t supposed to give their product to influencers, but many brands organize events, parties and infused dinners where product is gifted to attendees. If attendees of the event just all *happen* to be social media influencers, they may post about their experience online. It is technically legal for one individual to gift another individual up to 30 grams of dried cannabis flower or cannabis equivalent products. Additionally, influencers love attending cool events and posting about them on their social media pages.
Swag: One of the most simple and common ways that cannabis brands interact with influencers is by simply sending them some branded apparel and merchandise for their personal use. Most influencers, even the ones with large followings, will accept packages from cool cannabis brands and will likely post about their gifts online.
The rules around promoting merchandise are seemingly different than those surrounding actual cannabis products. Because of this, some Licensed Producers have partnered with influencers to giveaway swag and merchandise items through the influencer’s pages.
Partnerships: Just like other celebrity partnerships in this industry, if an influencer is part of forming the company or joins the company as a stakeholder, they can presumably help promote the business as an individual.
Challenges with Influencer Marketing
Health Canada Regulations
As part of the Cannabis Act, Health Canada prohibits any promotion of a cannabis product “by means of a testimonial or endorsement, however displayed or communicated”. This can make influencer marketing tricky. However, similar to most other cannabis marketing rules, there are creatively compliant loopholes to be found (many of these loopholes are mentioned in the previous section).
Health Canada has not made any public announcements around influencer marketing in the cannabis industry, but there will likely be a crackdown at some point in the future. It is important that cannabis companies are incredibly careful with their marketing practices and the way that they interact with influencers to ensure that they are not breaking promotional rules.
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. Facebook’s policies are confusing because several Canadian cannabis businesses are verified on the platform, and some corporate companies have even found ways to run ads (mostly for stock promotion) on the social network.
A past 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 the 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 and Instagram 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.
Twitter has recently opened their platform up to cannabis marketing for larger Licensed Producers. They offer managed services exclusively (meaning cannabis companies can’t upload their own content, they must go through and get it approved by an account manager) and require a minimum spend of $50k per quarter for cannabis clients specifically. This is much too expensive for most cannabis brands, who are instead turning to influencer marketing practices. Snapchat has also been known to allow cannabis-friendly advertising, although there has been a series of controversies surrounding this.
‘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 has begun banning paid-for likes and followers. IG uses new “machine learning tools” to help identify “suspect” users. They have begun removing inauthentic likes, follows, and comments from accounts believed to be utilizing third-party services to boost followers and engagements.
Why Influencer Marketing Works for Cannabis
Influencer marketing has been and continues to be an important strategy for cannabis brands looking to grow their awareness. The smart marketers will continue to find the leading edge loopholes to stay ahead of their competition. Influencer marketing will only continue to grow, both within and outside of the cannabis industry.
Having an employee in the marketing department responsible for starting and developing relationships with social media influencers is a worthwhile investment. Creating authentic connections and providing real value to these influencers will encourage them to post about and honestly recommend your brand.
The goal is to have the influencer’s followers check out your social media page, website or online store. Make sure to have quality and interesting content available wherever you choose to drive traffic in order to keep these new potential customers in your ecosystem.
Remember that licensed producers don’t need to give away swag or money to have influential people post about their company on social media. Having an exceptional product, good customer service and prioritizing social media community engagement will naturally create ambassadors for your brand that can’t help but spread the word.
In the world of cannabis marketing, where companies can’t typically purchase ads on digital platforms, influencers may be the key to increasing brand awareness on social media.