Cannabis Brands Can Now Advertise on Twitter — But Should They Just Say No?
My LinkedIn blew up last month with news about Twitter (for once, not about its most recent owner). “BREAKING,” MJBiz posted breathlessly. “Twitter to allow ‘approved’ and state-legal cannabis companies and other advertisers to post ads in the United States….a major win for marketers!”
I mean… kind of?
Widespread bans on digital advertising are one of the thousand cuts that have condemned many cannabis businesses to untimely deaths. Google does not allow ads that promote cannabis consumption, sales or purchases — you can’t even provide informational content about cannabis. Facebook has a similar policy. Cannabis business owners are effectively shut out of marketing on the world’s largest search engine and the world’s largest social media network.
So it’s not meaningless that Twitter is now allowing cannabis ads. If nothing else, it will hopefully prompt a conversation about how thousands of legal businesses paying billions in state and federal taxes in more than 40 states remain stifled by archaic bans and regressive tax policies. But for several reasons, Twitter’s new policy is unlikely to have a huge impact in the cannabis space unless bigger, more stable social media networks decide to follow suit.
Here are three risks with Twitter’s new policy that cannabis companies should consider before spending:
1. Twitter is a relatively small platform that’s never been ideal for ad campaigns.
Setting aside Twitter’s operational, financial and public relations problems for a moment, the platform is small potatoes in the social media firmament. Twitter’s popularity with political and media leaders and utility as a real-time communications system means it often dominates news cycles out of all proportion to its actual size. Compared to behemoths like Facebook, Tiktok, Instagram or even Snapchat, Twitter isn’t in the social media varsity — it’s barely JV. When you compare Facebook’s nearly 3 billion users, YouTube’s 2.5 billion or Instagram’s 2 billion to Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users, the difference is clear. It just doesn’t have anywhere close to the eyeballs that the giant networks do — and even pre-Musk, Twitter’s advertising services and ROI were often considered subpar by experts in the space.
2. Twitter has been losing advertisers since the Musk takeover.
For ad-starved cannabis brands, an estimated 60 million American Twitter users are nothing to sneeze at — but advertising on Twitter has become, shall we say, unpredictable. More than half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers have departed in recent months, largely because of the problem of brand safety. One report shows that since Musk purchased it and changed the content moderation policy, extremists, including white supremacists, have flocked to Twitter . “No advertiser wants to be near this drama or controversy, let alone the next N-word explosion,” noted Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. Cannabis brands may have different brand safety concerns than, say, Eli Lilly, but antisemitism or other negative content in their replies is a concern for any brand.
For the Super Bowl, which is typically Twitter’s biggest day of the year for ad revenue, the company attempted to lure advertisers back with a “fire sale” of half-price ads with an additional $250,000 in matching ad spend to advertisers willing to risk budgets on the increasingly unreliable platform (the site experienced a partial outage during the Super Bowl).
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3. Twitter continues to have technical problems.
Twitter’s workforce has been cut from 7,500 to under 2,000 in the last four months. Just in the last 24 hours of this writing, Twitter’s CEO laid off several hundred more workers, and the site went down for two hours, Many of the engineers who worked on advertising have been laid off, leading to technical problems. This can potentially impact reaching support when tracking analytics and does risk ad spend if there are widespread outages during your campaign. How will you target your hyperlocal audience? Even Elon has apologized on the platform itself for its sloppy targeting: “Sorry for showing you so many irrelevant & annoying ads on Twitter!”
Cannabis ad campaigns on Twitter will be complicated, to say the least. Among other requirements, the new policy states that advertisers must be pre-approved by Twitter, cannot promote or offer the sale of cannabis, and cannot depict cannabis product consumption. Perhaps most daunting, the policy states that the ad services will be self-managed by cannabis advertisers themselves, making them responsible for ensuring compliance with state-level regulation. (That sound you just heard was the screaming of cannabis compliance department heads nationwide.)
So yeah, advertising on Twitter comes with a lot of unknown unknowns. But cannabis may be willing to take these risks. Top advertisers like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Jeep, Wells Fargo and Merck have many other places to take their digital ad dollars, but cannabis businesses do not. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine cannabis brands jumping in unless they have money to burn — and what cannabis company has money to burn these days? When belts are tight, people are risk-averse, even those who run federally illegal businesses.
If it turns out that my skepticism about Twitter and weed ads was unfounded, I’d be thrilled. Few industries could use a break more than cannabis. But I’d consult a programmatic ads pro before putting any dollars toward Twitter campaigns.
If you decide you want to give Twitter ads a try, keep in mind that digital advertising is sophisticated. Any campaign you invest in needs to be targeted toward audiences in your state (if you’re a brand) or your ZIP code (if you’re a retailer). Showing an ad to 10,000 people sounds impressive but means little if they’re outside your demographic and unlikely to purchase.
Start with a small budget to test the waters. Understand the risks with the platform and set your spend accordingly.
Lastly, once your ad campaign is running, you’ll need to track it carefully. Cannabis is controversial (even on Twitter) and you need to monitor your interaction. Twitter’s content moderation team has been limited, and some brands have had to pull Twitter campaigns because of racist or violent replies. Finally, please report back to the community about your experience, good or bad! Many cannabis businesses are suffering right now, so the more we can crowdsource ways to stay afloat (or avoid burning cash) the better.
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