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5 Cannabis Brands That Are Crushing It On Instagram

Here's what they're doing right and how you can follow their lead.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For a cannabis brand, life on Instagram is urban warfare. Algorithms don't like you, competition plays dirty and selling is the third rail. Touch that rail—even go near it—and your account, with all its hard-earned followers, can be toast.

Plug Play

And yet the platform is a kick-ass marketing tool and despite its limitations, has always been more weed-friendly than other social media. "In such a fragmented and regulated industry," says consultant Ben Walters, "Instagram is the lifeblood of brand bonding with customers."

Walters knows what he's talking about. The guy practically lives on a spreadsheet, where every waking minute he takes the digital pulse of more than 500 cannabis brands. The company he founded, Pioneer Intelligence, publishes a weekly Index ranking companies in terms of marketing performance on social media along with earned media and other web-related activities. "Our scoring prioritizes heat over strength," Walters says, explaining that it's based on nearly 150 factors—from audience growth and quality of engagement to buying fake followers. "We're not just interested in saying who has the biggest account. We want to know who's hot."

Green Entrepreneur, ever curious, wanted to know too and asked Walters to slice his data for us. He agreed to analyze which brands are specifically crushing it on Instagram.

Related: The Hottest Cannabis Brands Of The Week (4/11 - 4/17)

The top five

After much back and forth discussing the various nuances of hotness, Walters selected five brands: PlugPlay, Alien Labs, Melting Point Extracts, Old Pal, and Clout King. All but the last were among the 20 top Index brands for the previous 26-weeks, and each stands out on Instagram for a different reason. Old Pal uses the grid to create eye-grabbing posters. Alien Labs has an otherworldly engagement with its followers. PlugPlay keeps its young fans plugged in with a fast-changing mix of reality TV and news bits. And Melting Points Extracts (MPX), pops endorphins with closeups of its terpene-dripping concentrates—budders, shatter, diamonds and sauce.

The fifth brand, Clout King, has made its account private so Walters can't pull as much data on it by way of comparison, but it has caught his attention as a brand on fire. Offbeat and irreverent, its page is filled with satirical memes that poke at competitors and skewer the modern legalized industry at large. "They predated legal status," says Walters. "And if you look at their feed, there are some intense conversations about the industry as a whole and what OG guys think about the new school and the quality of product. They've got engagement for sure."

So what are all these brands doing right? Here are some rules they follow.

1. Sell by not selling

This is the sentence on Instagram's policy every pot brand knows by heart: "Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms, alcohol, and tobacco products between private individuals, and buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs (even if legal in your region) are also not allowed."

In other words, because cannabis is federally illegal, you can't sell it on the platform. That means no mention of prices, discounts, store locations, or links to any of them. As to photos of weed? That is a grayer area and it may depend on your approach. Many brands post them and are fine; and many of those brands have also been shut down. "Let's put it this way," says Courtney Wu, founder of Amnesia, an influencer marketing platform focused on regulated industries, "Instagram creates a hostile environment for cannabis companies."

Despite that, MPX made a conscious decision to feature its scoops of batter, terp sugar, and diamonds on its page. "Back in September of 2019, we took a look at our engagement rate for each of our posts, and the most successful ones were the behind-the-scenes photos of our products," says digital marketing manager, Jason Fimbrez. "Those did a lot better than the lifestyle photos, where you see people holding different products."

But rather than "coming across salesy," Fimbrez explains, the presentation is more like a backstage pass to their lab. He calls the approach "farm to inhalation"—a la the farm to table movement where people got passionate about where their food was sourced: "Our audience wants to know: How are our products being made? Where are they coming from? What do they look like before they're packaged and sold in dispensaries? It's all about making them feel part of this exclusive community." The message is educational versus commercial.

Fimbrez admits they've had posts and stories flagged for violating guidelines, but in the first five months of shifting strategy, their audience increased 21% and their engagement rate (likes and comments divided by number of followers) grew from less than 2% to 9.97%. "When we have super tight close ups of our diamonds, people see the different colors coming through and start tagging friends like, "Oh my God, you gotta check out this photo. Where can I get that?'" he says. "We only put those posts out there every once in a while so they keep having that effect. But yeah, people just go bananas for this stuf

2. Cultivate comments like your best plants

If you want to see a master at working the comments, go to Alien Labs' Instagram: While MPX might have 20 per post and 2,000 views for a video, Ted Lidie, founder of Alien Labs, gets more like 200 comments and 5,000 views—sometimes way more. "He moderates and facilitates discussion around an innate understanding of cultivation and genetics, which doesn't translate into a display at point of sale," says Walters.

A second-generation farmer from Northern California, Lidie launched his company in 2014 and curates its page with glowing images of his boutique-grow premium flower. Or, as he calls it, pot porn. (So what if his account has been deleted six times.)

Lindie spends two hours a day personally answering the comments and pushing the conversation. For one video that got more than 44,000 views and 466 comments, he wrote, "Cosmic Crisp is on its x files shit for sure. Never smelled anything like this apple vanilla gas goodness. Ever. ...AND taste that lingers on your palate. Fucking lingerers man." That's how he talks. He's been around.

People would much rather connect with a cool guy than a brand. And although the engagement doesn't directly translate into higher sales, says Lidie, it provides live feedback on the product. It also builds loyalty. "This can be the key differentiator between you and your competition," he suggests. "Most of these accounts are run by a social media manager, but when you run your own, you can create a bond that's unbreakable. If somebody comes in on our page, and talks shit, there'll be 20 people in the comments like defending us. I don't even have to say anything. We have an army."

3. Get the influencer thing right

Big celebrities are expensive and cannabis-centric influencers seem to rep every weed brand and its cousin. Alien Labs, MPX and Clout King don't use any of them.

PlugPlay on the other hand, liberally engages influencers. "We only work with those who genuinely use our product," says Duc Le, director of marketing. "Today's generation is smart, they can tell if someone is being paid to market something they don't even use. Nothing wrong with a Kia but no one believes Blake Griffin really drives one." Beyond inserting its vape products into, say, a hip hop artist's video, "what's really interesting is their reality TV approach," notes Amnesia's Wu. (She has not worked with any of these brands but agreed to weigh in on their influencer marketing for us.) She compares PlugPlay's content strategy to the way Hasbro and other companies in the 80s and 90s created TV shows for kids, based on their toys. "It's like they're creating influencers with their own miniseries."

Walters agrees that PlugPlay is particularly Instagram savvy. "They put out a high volume of very digestible digital content. They experiment. They've got speed. They have very high engagement rates and their fan base is growing fast." Le Duc is well aware of how fast his audience is evolving. "The most important thing we've learned," he says, "is to stay fluid. What works today might not work tomorrow."

Old Pal, which sells affordable weed, clothes, and paraphernalia, is similarly shaking up their influencer marketing after going the traditional route. "It may have been the agency we used but there was just something a little too fake and plasticky about it," says CMO Allison Pankow. "Like you can tell when somebody's trying to juice Instagram for money. We were going after five people with 100,000 followers or more and a handful within 50 to 100 [K] and just trying to hit the numbers and make sure that we were getting our money's worth. And for us, we really didn't see the metrics shift much in terms of growth."

Old Pal's new plan is to take it all inhouse and curate a few edgier types with a true connection to the brand—artists, adventurers, "people living on the fringe, no holds barred, like no f$%s given," says Pankow. "Honestly it will be far more economical for us than going through an agency. What people often fail to remember is that while, yes, there is a lot of cash flowing through cannabis, everyone is still functioning as a startup. Even spending $10K on an influencer campaign is a stretch for a lot of brands."

Related: Inside the World of Cannabis Influencer Trippy Treez

4. Work the Visuals

Where Old Pal succeeds, says Walters, is in the artistry of its page. Instantly recognizable, the feed looks like 60s-groovy wallpaper rather than a photo gallery. Each photo-illustrated post is designed like a puzzle piece that fits into a larger grid of nine squares that create a poster. And then the posters—which often contain Old Pal products and promote causes like getting out the vote or women's equality—somehow roll seamlessly from one to the next. "It's a fun little creative playground for us," says Pankow. "We're trying to sell people on the fact that this is a lifestyle brand that they want to get behind."

Thanks to being able to run ads for its clothes and paraphenalia on Instagram and Facebook, nearly 50 percent of those sales came from paid and organic social traffic in 2019. "Old Pal is doing a very good job in terms of overall digital strategy," says Wu. "They act as a brand first, and then as a cannabis product."

5. Have the last laugh

Isaiah Dawid goes by Z. A grower with half a million square feet of canopy in Santa Cruz, he's been in weed since the outlaw days of 2005. Arrested "multiple times" as he puts it, he has a lot to say about the new clean-cut crop of green-rushers. In September of 2017, he started a personal account on Instagram to share satirical memes "just to get my frustration out," he says. "But everyone started asking me, "What do you smoke? What do you like?' I said I smoked my weed." And so in April 2018, he decided to turn it into a brand called Clout King. "The whole idea of Clout King is a joke, like do you think I care about clout?"

He has kept up the memerie since then, posting a new one just about every day. "It's a lot of work being relevantly clever all the time and if you're not super funny, people will say you suck," Z admits. He also ruffles feathers. "I'll make fun of other brands and I get threatened with lawsuits. I'll be like, "Hey it's just a joke, it's like the Saturday Night Live of cannabis. But, yeah, I'll take it down if you really want me to.'"

Z made his page private to control some of that friction, and to keep competitors from reporting him—a common problem by all accounts. After being shut down several times, always has a backup page ready.

For all the hassle, though, he agrees that Instagram is critical to his business. He'll get 200 comments, easy per post. "Every major brand and influencer is following my page," he says. "The cool kids are following me and the general population of cannabis smokers follow what the cool kids are doing." In a funny way, whatever Z says, by rolling with Instagram and finding a strategy to stand out, Clout King has gained—and this is no joke—clout.

Related: 4 Tactics for Discretely Marketing Your Cannabis Brand on Instagram