Why Text Messaging is Challenging for Cannabis Brands

a smartphone showing numerous messaging apps

If you’re in the cannabis industry, you have probably seen complaints and horror stories about the challenges of sending promotional text (SMS) messages. And if you’ve ever shared your phone number with a local dispensary, you’ve likely received a promotional text yourself.

The issue is this: several of the big, mainstream telecommunications service providers – AT&T, T-Mobile, and Twilio, to name a few – have blocked cannabis companies from using their SMS services, saying they don’t want to work with them given the ongoing illegality of cannabis at the federal level.

If you work for or run a cannabis company, and you’re reading this, we bet you have some questions already.  We understand your concerns, and we’re going to address them in this blog post.

Heady is determined to help our clients make sense of text messaging/SMS as an opportunity for their brand, and navigate these challenges.  If there’s anything on your mind that isn’t covered in this article, please give us a shout!

So, let’s dive into this issue and find out what exactly is going on.

What Is the Problem with Text Messages for Dispensaries, Growers, and Other Company Types?

a person reading texts on a smartphone

The problem in question is twofold.

On one hand, you’ve got the matter of cannabis still being illegal at the federal level. That remains the case despite cannabis being legal for medical and recreational use in some states.

That’s why, in 2021, we saw both large and small telecommunications providers such as AT&T, Avochato, T-Mobile, and Twilio update their SMS texting rules and drop cannabis dispensaries altogether.

The problem, according to those providers, is that they support SMS texting on the national level, and cannabis is not legal nationally. In fact, sending SMS messages across state lines and marketing to someone in a state where cannabis is not legal is prohibited.

Think of it as a crackdown. And, by the way, the federal prohibition of cannabis is the reason why you also don’t see cannabis products advertised on today’s major digital platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads.

On the other hand, when cannabis companies do find alternate providers for text messages (and they are out there, for example: AlpineIQ, Springbig), they still have to self-monitor their messages for a variety of tell-tale trigger words and federal anti-spam compliance.

Yes, the issues continue to grow, so let’s look into the rules regarding cannabis terms and texting spam.

What Do Cannabis Growers and Dispensaries Have to Monitor in Their SMS Marketing Campaigns?

Cannabis businesses that take the SMS route have to do a lot of legwork to ensure their compliance with federal regulations regarding cannabis-related text messaging and texting spam.

First, since mass-texting customers about cannabis products will always have its issues as long as cannabis remains federally illegal, companies have to take care to avoid explicitly using cannabis-industry terms such as “THC” or “dispensary” for fear of automated technology picking them up.

Other common trigger words include:

  • dabbing
  • shatturday, shaturday, shattered
  • vaporizing
  • stzy, stizy, stiizy, stiiizy
  • bomb, bombs
  • smoked
  • seaweed
  • cinco de mayo
  • 8th, 8ths
  • hour
  • wine
  • mpx
  • dixie
  • pax
  • cookies, cookie
  • eddies
  • gummies, gummyz, gummie, gummy
  • Herbal
  • trimming

The other risk for cannabis companies that want to do SMS texting is the TCPA, or the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which is overseen by the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission.

a person using a smartphone

In regard to cannabis SMS marketing, and really any kind of SMS marketing, the TCPA works to filter out illegal spam messages that come from automated senders or are unwanted by recipients.

Cannabis companies that rely on SMS can stay compliant with the TCPA by ensuring they have a clear opt-in process with customers, that allows the customer to opt in to receive SMS messages. Important to note that you should not preselect an opt-in checkbox or radio button; users should check it on their own. 

Then, those companies should also include an option to unsubscribe from marketing texts, as well as a brief note that text messaging rates apply for all customers.

Now, some of the SMS texting providers that cannabis companies work with (AlpineIQ is a great example) take steps to guide their clients and users away from violating any laws or guidelines. 

They often provide cannabis companies with a restrictive framework for composing texts, such that the texts don’t contain elements such as:

  • Cannabis related trigger words
  • Salesy language such as “buy now”
  • Direct links back to cannabis websites or products

In many cases, cannabis companies are encouraged to only use SMS for notifications during the order process, and avoid using SMS at all for messages that require TCPA/CASL compliance (for example: promotional messages and mass campaigns that require opt-ins, etc.).

So, that’s the overview of where we are right now in the United States with regards to text message marketing for cannabis dispensaries, growers, and others. It’s a messy situation.

Cannabis companies like the SMS approach to marketing and general customer communication because text messages consistently have open rates above 90%. In the businesses’ perfect world, it would be the most reliable way to market everything.

But very few cannabis companies feel that SMS is a reliable channel for them to grow their brands and relationships with the end consumer. While many feel obligated to continue using SMS, they are embracing other ways to grow their digital presence.

What are some other options? That is our specialty at Heady: all flavors of cannabis digital marketing.

In-App Notifications Are a Superior Alternative to Cannabis SMS Marketing

If you’ve been struggling with figuring out SMS texting for your cannabis company, we do have an alternative idea for you: in-app notifications.

The Apple App Store and Google Play Store both allow consumers to order cannabis via smartphone apps. That means that push notifications are a superior tool that is now available to cannabis brands. Instead of trying to wrap your head around cannabis SMS and all the regulations that go along with it, you can streamline your direct marketing by simply using notifications right from your brand’s app.

Heady Can Handle It

At Heady, we understand why cannabis businesses, especially small startups with limited resources, do not want to “bet the farm” on a channel or a tool (such as SMS marketing) that could be removed from their marketing quiver at any moment thanks to federal regulations.

They also don’t like to “pay to play” every time they want to send an SMS message to their customers.

That’s why at Heady, in addition to paid channels like SMS, we handle all kinds of other cannabis marketing services, including organic search and paid media.

Our clients enjoy having a one-stop shop flexible enough to handle website builds and optimization, SEO, paid media, email, and more plus an excellent sounding board to help develop their digital strategy. Our clients save a fortune versus having multiple full-time employees or separate digital agencies to cover these areas.

Within our cannabis marketing process, we design for the long-term, working to make cannabis companies future-proof in their infrastructure, and to have them operating with maximum efficiency.

Give us a call at Heady today to start talking strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why are mainstream telecommunications service providers blocking cannabis companies from using their SMS services?

Mainstream telecommunications service providers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Twilio have blocked cannabis companies from using their SMS services due to the ongoing federal illegality of cannabis. These providers support SMS texting on the national level, and since cannabis is not legal nationally, they have dropped cannabis dispensaries from their services.

  1. What do cannabis growers and dispensaries need to monitor in their SMS marketing campaigns?

Cannabis businesses using SMS marketing need to ensure compliance with federal regulations regarding cannabis-related text messaging and texting spam. They must avoid using explicit cannabis-industry terms or trigger words and adhere to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) guidelines. This includes having a clear opt-in process for customers, providing an option to unsubscribe, and informing customers about applicable text messaging rates.

  1. What are some alternatives to SMS marketing for cannabis businesses?

One alternative to SMS marketing for cannabis businesses is using in-app notifications. Both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store allow consumers to order cannabis via smartphone apps, making push notifications a viable option for direct marketing. Cannabis companies can use notifications from their brand’s app to communicate with customers, bypassing the regulatory challenges associated with SMS marketing.

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