6 tips for marketing cannabis on TikTok and Instagram

By Nadir Pearson

Social media is the double-edged sword of cannabis marketing. Here are six ways to slice through the noise.

Social media isn’t the only option for cannabis marketing, but it’s by far one of the most effective.

The competition: The FCC forbids radio and television ads for weed (for the time being), and those channels don’t reach younger demographics anymore, anyway. Then, you have Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a long-term grind that changes with every Google algorithm update. Email marketing is a powerful tool as well, but it requires community outreach, careful curation, and the deployment of dedicated writers, which many businesses simply aren’t ready to execute.

All of those barriers make social media the best gateway for many cannabis brands to reach niche fans and mass audiences. Instagram and TikTok are the undisputed marketing channels for future generations:60% and 70% of each respective platform’s audience is made up of 18-to-34-year-olds, according to HootSuite.

Interestingly, the audience demos on social media sometimes parallel the age distributions we see across the cannabis community. For instance, Millennials currently make up 60% of all cannabis consumers, and although Gen Z only makes up 12%, they constitute the fastest growing age group with more members reaching the legal age to purchase every day.

As social platforms continue to set the rules for modern marketing, it’s essential for cannabis brands to navigate these spaces with grace. Here are six tips for lighting up the world’s hottest social media platforms as a cannabis marketer or influencer.

Understand the algorithm

The name of the game on Instagram and TikTok is discovery. The ability to discover new people, products, music, and information is what’s made both platforms ubiquitous over the past decade. The folks behind these apps create algorithms that spit out new bits of content tailored to viewers’ interests. That means your endless scrolling of cute cat videos is by design. And that you can use the same algorithm to help people discover your content about cannabis (or catnip).

Over the past five years, Instagram’s algorithm has become pay-to-play, thanks to the platform’s robust advertising services. It’s now difficult to get your Instagram content seen without sponsoring it. But if you’re willing to pay, it’s one of the most efficient ways to spend your ad budget. Sadly, that’s only an option if your brand or products can pass META’s strict ban on cannabis-themed accounts and content. Another issue: Content formats like Instagram photos don’t gain the traction they once did since Instagram Reels is being pushed to compete with TikTok’s short form video style. Instagram’s shift to reels and paid ads has allowed TikTok’s algorithm to pick up steam. On the video editing app, users are able to achieve exponential growth in a matter of months or even weeks by posting and tagging videos strategically.

David Hawkesworth (@CampCanna on TikTok), a leading cannabis influencer, who grew his TikTok following to 850,000 people after starting his page in January 2021. The feat is impressive when you take into account TikTok’s harsh censorship of cannabis. But shortly after we spoke to Hawkesworth, his account was zapped by the platform, forcing him to start back at zero.

“Essentially you’re playing a game without knowing all of the rules. Now, TikTok has a growing influx of older users which has been making it harder for the platform to juggle content restrictions for niches like cannabis.” David Hawkesworth (@CampCanna on TikTok)

Use algo-speak

Algo-speak is a new-ish term for the specific language creators use to avoid the algorithm’s detection. Through trial and error, cannabis community members have learned the best practices for circumventing restrictions, including clever abbreviations and slang that can elude censors.

Hawkesworth stressed the danger of posting on his @CampCanna account without intense self-censorship.

“Hashtags like ‘cannabis’ ‘weed’ ‘420’ ‘stoner’ are the equivalent of putting a target on your back that gets you grouped under illegal activity. TikTok forces creators to use slang and urban euphemisms to create their content which builds a ‘You know if you know’ clique of fans.” David Hawkesworth, @Campcanna on TikTok

And your comments aren’t safe, either. You’ll light up the algorithm if you comment anything like “DM me” or “Msg me,” because it’s been programmed to identify spammers and solicitors. This practice is restrictive, but it protects the user experience and keeps things feeling organic. So don’t let the algorithm of either platform think you are one of the many fake accounts claiming to have Cookies or Runtz for the low.

Slowly, you’ll notice certain hashtags or words that slip past the censors. So while you can’t search the word ‘weed’ on TikTok, you can browse budtender videos (for now). Over time, the algorithms are updated with new censored terms. But the community will adapt, and so will you.

Get creative (without weed)

You shouldn’t even type the word “weed’ on these platforms, so picturesque nug shots are also off of the table, for the most part. Instagram has traditionally been more accepting of flower shots in content but Sarah ElSayed, Content & Influencer Manager at Ardent Cannabis, has learned that people can fill in the gaps if you provide symbolic replacements for the word or flower itself.

ElSayed is best known for DIY recipes, but she has also found success creating viral content for Ardent’s TikTok. ElSayed mixes her cannabis content into more mainstream niches like astrology, food, and music without explicitly referencing the plant. Her advice: “Replace any cannabis visuals with mullein or broccoli to avoid any bans while still trying to educate.”

For NotPot, a U.S. CBD brand, it made sense to team up with Venice-based branding agency, GRTR, to launch the @NotPotDealer TikTok account. The first @NotPotDealer video alone generated over 2.3M views and 560k likes without a single picture of a nug, joint, or bong.

“We equipped a few mysterious figures with $5,000 dollars to create insane stunts like DIY painted skateboard decks and blowing up cars. The result was an intriguing, viral hit.” – Charlie DePew, Head of Production at GRTR.


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