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With every new legal market that comes online and every new dispensary that opens in your vicinity, you face increased competition for customers. So, how do you stand out from your regional and national competitors?

One way many small businesses gain an edge is by building a robust brand and promoting it heavily on social media through ads and posts. But navigating cannabis-related social media is tricky and filled with roadblocks and confusion. Social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram and Twitter specifically—don’t hesitate to block ads or deactivate accounts whose posts violate their terms and conditions. For example, Facebook’s Advertising Policies state, “Ads must not constitute, facilitate or promote illegal products, services or activities,” and, “Ads must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” These platforms don’t care whether cannabis is legal in your state or not; they view it through a lens of federal prohibition, meaning they can flag anything relating to marijuana as a violation of their policies.

Despite this, cannabis companies can still effectively advertise and promote themselves on social media. All it takes is a well-thought-out plan and some common sense. And if your ad is removed or account deactivated for reasons you feel are unjust, there are ways to (successfully) appeal.

Here, four cannabis social media experts provide insight into how to build your brand online, sidestep common legal pitfalls, increase your chances of avoiding account deactivation and appeal removed posts or blocked ads.

3 Tips on Professionalism

By Amy Donohue

1. Act the Part

Thirty years ago, people were buying phone-book ads for their businesses. Companies utilized radio ads, TV ads and banners at baseball games—and many still do. But cannabis is different. When it comes to advertising, our industry is primarily built on three things: networking/trade shows, cannabis magazines/publications and social media.

How many of you know of or have experienced a Facebook or Instagram account being taken down for cannabis-related content? Why and how does it happen? Many reasons exist, but one of the most obvious is lack of social media experience and expertise by the cannabis business or employee(s) handling the social media posts. For starters, many people hire a nephew, next-door neighbor or friend with no social media experience, nor knowledge of the cannabis industry, to handle social media for them. And guess what? These accounts often get shut down.

Hiring an amateur to do your social media is equivalent to having an apprentice run the business. Especially if you have and work with investors, like many in the cannabis industry do, shouldn’t your online brand look like it is worth every dime those investors committed to your business? If you’ve taken in $3 million to launch your company, it had better look like $3 million online. If not, your investors will not only be let down, but they will lose their trust in you.

2. Focus on the ‘Social’ Aspects

I often hear: “But, Amy, it’s just posting on social media.” Go to the dictionary and look up the word “social.” Does it mention posting? Does it indicate you should only discuss yourself? Does it say to repeatedly blast people with spam? No, no and no. Social means companionship, relations, interacting. It’s social media, not “me! me! me!” media.

Why do I harp on that? Because cannabis brands interacting on social is crucial to brand building. It’s how an edibles line can interact with dispensaries online, and maybe that interaction will lead to the dispensary stocking the product. It’s a patient consultant (budtender) branding himself with his product knowledge. It’s an LED lighting company building relationships with cultivators online and supplying them with information and new technology for growing. As we know, this industry is all about relationships, and social media is a place to harvest them.

3. A Cool Logo Won’t Cut It

Many think “branding” refers only to the logo or even related collateral materials. Rather, branding is how your company is perceived online and offline. It’s your “voice,” the feel your company conveys. It’s the $3 million your investors paid you to look like $3 million online.

It’s not using someone else’s grainy memes on Instagram, which is actually against the Community Standards. (More on this later.)

You’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into your cannabis business. Isn’t it worthwhile to make sure your business looks professional online?

Amy Donohue co-founded Hybrid Social, Arizona’s first all-cannabis marketing and social media agency, and is a member of the Phoenix Women Grow chapter. She has her own CBD skin care line and co-coordinates Cannafriends, an Arizona cannabis networking group.

4 Legal Strategy Tips

By Alexa Halloran

1. Get Serious

Dispensary operators should be aware of the many legal implications of their social media posts. Social media content is monitored by private platforms (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Social media platforms generally reserve the right to remove content that they deem violates their terms and conditions, and the FTC is empowered to bring enforcement actions to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive or anticompetitive advertisements. Further, private parties can bring copyright infringement actions against offending advertisers, and there is a risk of federal criminal prosecution associated with cannabis-related marketing.

2. Identify Copyright Owners and Obtain Permission

Photographs and videos are often the subject of copyright infringement claims. Before posting photos and videos online, operators need to understand who owns the copyright to such works. A copyright vests initially in the author of the work, according to federal copyright laws. For photographs and videos, the initial copyright owner is the person who took the photograph or video. Copyrights can be transferred to another person or entity, or licensed to a user by the initial owner. Dispensary operators should verify and obtain permission from the copyright owner before using an image or video. Certain platforms, like Google Images, have filters to enable searches for images that are authorized for reuse.

3. Know the FTC Disclosures Required for Social Media ‘Influencer’ Endorsements

The FTC has recently been cracking down on the use of “influencers”—typically those with large social followings and credibility in specific industries or on certain topics—for endorsing goods. The FTC’s Endorsement Guides (bit.ly/FTC-Endorsement-Guides) provide that if there is a “material connection” between an endorser and an advertiser—in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement—that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless it is already clear from the context of the communication. Cannabis businesses should be mindful of the disclosure requirements and ensure that any agreement with an influencer mandates that the influencer adhere to such guidelines and indemnify the operator for any claims resulting from failure to do so.

4. Understand Federal Criminal Penalties

Although multiple states have legalized cannabis, it still remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). “It is unlawful for any person to place in any publication a written advertisement knowing that it has the purpose of seeking or offering illegally to receive, buy, or distribute a Schedule I controlled substance,” per U.S. Code, title 21, section 843. Because of this, any dispensary operator who uses social media to publish any advertisements for cannabis and cannabis products could be federally liable for criminal penalties as stated in the CSA.

Alexa Halloran is an attorney at Harris Bricken’s Los Angeles office, where her practice is aimed at corporate and regulatory issues in the California cannabis industry.

4 Tips on Advertising, Posting and Appealing Rejected Ads

By Jamie Cooper

1. Don’t Panic

Often cannabis companies assume that Facebook advertising is not an option, but they’re wrong. Cannabis companies can, indeed, advertise on Facebook. It specifically states in Facebook’s policies that you are not allowed to promote a product or service that is illegal. If your intention is to promote the product or sale of a cannabis product (even CBD), chances are your ad won’t get approved. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t promote your business.

2. Become an Advocate

As part of Facebook’s rejection message, it states that advocacy and awareness ads are allowed. When you look up the definition of “advocacy,” you find that it means public support or recommendation of a cause or policy. One thing I have learned working in the cannabis industry, the moment you start a marijuana business, you must become an advocate. I recommend using the same strategy to conquer this challenge.

Use Facebook as a branding tool or an educational tool. However, if you are using Facebook to drive traffic to your site where you sell product, your ad probably won’t get approved. This is why it’s so important to talk to someone who understands the do’s and don’ts of Facebook advertising. If you do it right, Facebook can be a very powerful and affordable tool.

Read more: 6 Ways to Use Facebook to Your Dispensary's Advantage

3. Experiment With Different Images

You should also be careful about which imagery you choose to promote your post. Avoid using imagery of people consuming marijuana, and instead use imagery of it growing or in a form that doesn’t appear to be intended for consumption. If that doesn’t work, then try using an image that relates to the topic, but doesn’t feature actual cannabis product. Sometimes it seems like it may depend on the representative that is assigned to review your account.

4. Be A Fighter

No matter what kind of service or product you offer in the cannabis industry, Facebook won’t make it easy for you to advertise. A large majority of the time, Facebook will deny your ad, even though it adheres to the company’s policy. That’s when it’s important to know the policy, so you can appeal and explain to them when you are right. Stand your ground and feel free to quote the policy where it states that advocacy and awareness campaigns are accepted and that you are clearly not promoting the sale of product. That strategy has worked extremely well for me.

Jamie Cooper founded Canna Media Works and Cannabiz Connection, and launched the West Michigan Women Grow chapter. She was selected by the Grand Rapids Business Journal as among the “Top 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan.”