More than 10 million businesses advertised their products and services on Facebook during the third quarter of 2020. By the end of the year, a total of $2.26 billion was spent in 2020 on Facebook ads. Unfortunately, almost none of those ads were cannabis businesses or cannabis-related businesses.
For years, Facebook has been an important part of most businesses’ social media marketing strategies, but for businesses in the cannabis industry, Facebook can be extremely challenging.
The reason is simple. Since cannabis is illegal at the federal level, businesses operating in or with the industry can easily violate Facebook’s terms of services for content and activities that may be published on company’s Facebook Pages. Furthermore, advertising on Facebook isn’t allowed at all for cannabis businesses and even many cannabis-related businesses.
At any moment, Facebook could shut down a cannabis business’ Facebook Page without notice. The same is true of cannabis-related businesses selling ancillary products and services.
The question for cannabis license holders is quite simple. Is it worth the time and effort to publish content on Facebook when the rules are so murky and seem to vary from one cannabis business to another or one post to another?
The answer for most businesses in the marijuana industry is yes, but with a great deal of caution.
The Evolution Facebook Marketing and Advertising for the Cannabis Industry
Several years ago, Facebook didn’t want any type of cannabis content or businesses on its platform. At the time, cannabis business pages were shut down without notice. Some of these incidents involved multiple pages shut down in large numbers – like the Alaskan dispensary purge of 2017 or the Colorado, New Jersey, Arizona, Maine, Oregon, and Washington dispensary crackdown of 2016.
Eventually, Facebook loosened its restrictions (a bit) and many cannabis and cannabis-related businesses were able to develop their Facebook Pages without getting shut down. However, no one could find those pages unless they knew about them because Facebook omitted them from search results.
It wasn’t until October 2018 that Facebook revised its rules and allowed cannabis business pages to appear in users’ search results. However, there are still a lot of rules that cannabis and cannabis-related businesses need to follow, and most of those rules are vague and up to Facebook’s interpretation.
The Ever-Changing Facebook Rules
Advertising cannabis products and services is very difficult on Facebook. Cannabis businesses’ Facebook Ads accounts are shut down quickly and without notice with an appeals process that is completely useless (unless the media gets involved and Facebook gets bad press – then you might have a chance to get your account reinstated).
While Facebook’s policies don’t allow posts or ads that promote the sale of cannabis, the way the company implements those policies is confusing. The company states that content and ads which promote advocacy and don’t promote the sale or distribution of cannabis are allowed, but ad accounts that follow those guidelines are shut down all the time.
From an educational company that advertised its seminars for people who want to open licensed businesses or secure employment in the legal cannabis industry to non-profit organizations that advertise community events, Facebook has disabled ad accounts with the same message:
“There’s no further action that you may take here. We don’t support ads for your business model. Consider this decision final.”
Despite the murky rules and the inconsistent application of those rules, 2019, Telegraph reported in March 2019 that Facebook was thinking about changing its rules so businesses could promote cannabis products. A Facebook employee said during an internal presentation that the company was considering, “whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana, and brick and mortar stores.”
Two years have passed, and the rules haven’t loosened yet. If they do loosen in the future, they would not apply to paid ads or the Facebook online marketplace. While cannabis would continue to be off limits in those instances, it could be allowed in normal Facebook posts.
According to the Telegraph, Facebook put together an internal working group in 2019 to evaluate how its rules could change to allow posts and discussions related to buying and selling cannabis in areas where it’s legal.
Considering cannabis is now legal for recreational use in 16 states and Washington, D.C. as well as for medical use in 36 states and Washington, D.C. – and more states are hoping to legalize marijuana for medical and adult-use in the near future – Facebook has fallen behind in its efforts to evaluate and change its rules in legal states.
If Facebook ever does open its platform and advertising to cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, it would instantly become a more useful marketing channel for the industry and the consumers it serves.
Today, cannabis businesses must be extremely careful about the content they publish on their Facebook Pages. For example, they can’t include their addresses, phone numbers, or prices, and they can’t sell their products or services through their pages.
What Cannabis License Holders Can Do with Facebook Marketing Today
With caution, cannabis license holders can publish content on their Facebook Pages. On the other hand, advertising is much more challenging, so be very careful that your ad image and text, as well as the landing page where the ad leads people, are about advocacy.
Remember, even non-profits and educational companies have had their Facebook ad accounts shut down, so tread extremely carefully.
When posting content on your Facebook Page, follow the do’s and don’ts listed below that are based on what we currently know about Facebook’s rules for businesses operating in or with the marijuana industry:
Facebook Marketing Don’ts for Cannabis Businesses and Cannabis-Related Businesses
- Don’t say that a product is for sale, trade, or delivery.
- Don’t ask people to buy a product.
- Don’t list prices.
- Don’t encourage people to inquire or contact your business about a product.
- Don’t show images that depict the sale of cannabis products.
- Don’t post anything that gives instructions on how to grow, sell, or use cannabis.
- Don’t provide any contact information for people to buy cannabis products.
- Don’t make any medical claims.
Facebook Marketing Do’s for Cannabis Businesses and Cannabis-Related Businesses
- Do post educational, informative content.
- Do post advocacy content including data, statistics, quotes, legislative updates, health reports, research results, and so on.
- Do post images of products – just don’t post anything that implies the products are for sale, trade, or delivery.
- Do keep an eye on Facebook’s updates to its guidelines so you’re always adhering to the current rules.
- Do closely monitor the activities on your page, particularly if you outsource content creation, sharing, and communications on your business page to a marketing agency, freelancer, or other third party. It’s equally important to monitor your employees’ activities on your page as well to ensure they comply with Facebook’s rules.
Your Next Steps
If Facebook changed its rules and allowed cannabis businesses to use the platform as businesses in other industries do, it would be far more valuable to the cannabis industry overall. Until then, the above rules still apply, so your first steps should be to start publishing educational, non-self-promotional posts to your business’ Facebook Page.
Publishing content to a Facebook Page is a great way to build a community for your cannabis business that can grow over time. When Facebook eventually (hopefully) allows licensed cannabis businesses to advertise, you’ll already have a presence on the platform and an active page where people can learn more about your business.
For now (and in the future), having an active Facebook Page provides social proof and adds a level of brand trust that helps turn prospects into buying customers.
In terms of the content you publish on your page and whether or not you try Facebook advertising, only you can decide the level of risk you’re willing to accept. Learn the guidelines and understand that Facebook has a tendency to leave them open to interpretation – Facebook’s interpretation. Tread carefully.
If you decide to give Facebook advertising a try, make sure your ad copy, image, and landing page (where people end up when they click on your ad) don’t mention or show cannabis. Remember, Facebook’s rules for the cannabis industry aren’t entirely clear, but by making sure your ad visuals, copy, and landing page are cannabis-free, you might have a small chance of getting your ads approved.
Again, it’s up to you to continually weigh the risks (including having your Facebook ads account or your Facebook Page shut down) versus the rewards and act accordingly based on your risk tolerance.
Want to connect with cannabis license holders across the United States, Canada, and international markets without relying on Facebook marketing and ads? Schedule a demo and see how the Cannabiz Media License Database can help your business grow.
Originally published 4/16/19. Updated 3/26/21.