Last month ResponsiTech published the first of a series of articles on the cannabis industry and online youth safety entitled Online Youth Access to Cannabis – Imminent Danger Ahead.
This month, Scott Rabinowitz delves deeper into online advertising and youth safety.
So, what exactly are the hot topics, whether it’s an opportunity, best practices, new media vendors or otherwise that are impactful for the cannabis industry right now?
Did you know that if you engage in any form of online advertising from any vendor for your cannabis brand, that the legal burden falls to you? As the licensed cannabis brand, it’s your responsibility to ensure that every channel where you advertise on the internet or elsewhere serves your ads to an audience that is at least 60-70 percent adults (or more based on state regulations) age 21+ to view the ads. Are you asking advertising vendors for documented validation of the audience age range they want to sell you?
Let’s take things a step further. If you contract with a diverse army of social media influencers, affiliates such as bloggers, and run large scale “programmatic” banner advertising campaigns on thousands of web sites, the burden falls to you, the licensed cannabis brand, to ensure that every single post, link, banner, video, images and copy is devoid of youth safety violations. At scale, this can represent literally millions of instances of content being propagated in support of your brand, and thus equally as much legal as marketing exposure.
As a brand operating anywhere within the cannabis industry supply chain, have you done a recent audit of where you stand today and where your digital footprint is, in terms of adhering to commercial and youth safety best practices? An annual digital audit should be performed by qualified personnel who can independently and objectively assess your entire social media and internet marketing presence. This includes identifying the strengths and weaknesses (both marketing and compliance-related) that a cannabis brand’s stakeholders or prospective investors can rely upon as a personalized guideline for mitigating risk and maximizing opportunities across all digital marketing channels. From social media to search engines, apps, blogs, email, SMS and everything else that enables your digital footprint, you must ensure youth safety compliance across the board.
Here are some key focus activities to keep you actively and ahead of the curve with the full book of responsible digital marketing for a cannabis or other age restricted brand.
- Conduct an audit of all direct and 3rd party created advertising materials, artwork, keywords and hashtags that are already published online for your brand. The audit should be done at least 2x annually if not quarterly and should provide an unbiased view of marketing efforts that were spotless, versus those with questionable imagery, text or keyword references, invoking depictions of plant consumption, making unintentional health claims or in any way not specifically indicating products being for adult use only.
- Be sure that the rule sets that your brand follows to market online factors in regulations from all possible jurisdictions that apply. It’s not just about complying with the laws and regulations for the states or provinces where your cannabis brand operates. Internet and marketing-related rules for cannabis brands can also include the input and oversight from other government organizations. A good example is the FDA, which looks closely at protecting the public from unsubstantiated health claims and protecting the national food supply from unregulated interstate products. Even the FTC, which regulates false and deceptive marketing practices may launch an inquiry if you use dubious marketing.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) which is a trade association for more than 650 of the top media companies, brands, and the technology firms globally responsible for selling, delivering, and optimizing digital ad marketing campaigns compiled a thorough state by state list of advertising regulations (through 2017) for the cannabis industry –
https://www.iab.com/marijuana-legalization-advertising-restrictions-united-states/ (***note that this list only covers state regulations that are advertising-specific through 2017). The full list of agencies and regulations that your cannabis brand should be thinking about to be ahead of the curve can include the Controlled Substances Act, the FTC’s Truth in Advertising requirements, the Federal Drug & Cosmetics Act, the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act, the full scope of the FDA.
- Go deep and wide with vetting which keywords and hashtags get associated with your brand. Every piece of content that gets published online carries intentional and/or unintentional context signals designed to bring interest and business your way. Using free analytics tools from Google, Bing and most social networking platforms, you can easily and regularly review the search and topic terms that are drawing people to your digital presence (web, app, social or otherwise). Even the unintentional use of keywords which are not content appropriate to protect youth safety, to boost search engine rankings, where the keywords do not meet a regulator’s guidelines, can evoke the same consequences as making an overt health or false product claim.
- ResponsiTech and Buoyancy Digital both recommend that advertisers, marketers and agencies only create and publish digital advertising materials that contain a “parental filtering label” so that youth under the age limit for viewing this content are blocked from accessing it. However, there is a caveat; parental filtering is only effective when parents implement content filtering settings that are already available on their children’s computers and mobile devices.
- Brands must embrace a closed-loop mindset and a set of business practices related to all external online marketing initiatives. By this, we mean implementing and maintaining firm vetting and documentation processes for every 3rd party digital marketing initiative so that you’re never caught off guard by the actions of advertising vendors or marketing partners. As a cannabis brand, you don’t want unknown traffic sources and partners or even well-intended promoters and influencers posting content or making product efficacy claims on behalf of your brand as they may bring added liability.
The industry is wisely embracing the fact that the safety of your digital footprint (not just the financial outcomes) is now a requirement for partners, investors, if you plan to sell your company or work towards an IPO. Your banks, insurance providers and an ever-increasing list of cannabis industry support vendors may (and should) require this information to validate your brand.
In summary, marketing and specifically digital marketing compliance for cannabis brands is not a one-time consideration to merely stay ahead of the curve. It is a mindset and a continuous process for all brands in the industry using the digital universe to generate brand awareness and drive new business. As entrepreneurs, you must take some risk in an emerging industry in order to stand out. Be sure that you embrace the unknowns and scope of work involved in ensuring that all of your marketing efforts receive proper stewardship.
From the view of advertising specialists and organizations such as ResponsiTech, digital marketing compliance is not only mandatory it’s also a means by which your brand affirms to the broader world that you care deeply and consistently about fair business practices and youth safety, beyond just growing as a company.