There’s an uneasy tension between advertising dollars and many of the normal advertising avenues a business might pursue. For example, Facebook has a litany of rules about cannabis merchandise, obviously prohibiting outright sales of flowers and concentrates, but also prohibiting the advertising of products involving partaking. Bongs, pipes, dab rigs, screens, and just about anything else associated with smoking pot is routinely removed from the platform. It’s not the only platform to do so, and that’s mostly because of Federal prohibition around marijuana. Yet, it seems that with legal weed at the state level, advertisers could at least ply their wares to a more local audience, right? Not on Yelp, it seems.
A rule from Yelp is keeping dispensaries from expanding their listings, which some report is having a huge impact on pageviews. Yelp is the hyper-local review platform by default for many, as its reviews of restaurants and other businesses are the default on platforms like Apple’s iOS for iPhone. If you use Apple Maps to find food, the reviews are powered by Yelp. And that’s why dispensary owners are crying foul: Yelp is effectively de-platforming some of them — and when the country is mired in a pandemic.
In fact, in statements to the press, Yelp said that even businesses that are verified can’t purchase “Business Highlights” services, which allows a business to show up to six indicators about what makes that business unique. These could be “family owned” or “years in business” or even “free wifi.” Obviously, these can be a draw. Cannabis businesses also are blocked from using Portfolio on Yelp, which is basically a gallery of cool stuff that a business might have done — like an art installation.
This “deplatforming” of businesses who are legal in the states in which they operate is an unfortunate business decision by Yelp, as many of these had no other way to advertise. TV, radio, even print ads are either prohibited by law or by local businesses quite often, so online advertising is really the key way customers know where to find dispensaries. If you consider the use case of someone using their iPhone to search for directions to the nearest dispensary, and a Yelp review comes up, you can see just how big a problem this is for established, legal smoke shops all over.
Luckily there are online solutions that don’t require buying into a censor-prone solution tied into apps. Cannabis-specific directories like Heady Pages for smoke shops or Marijuana Referral for cannabis professionals are good examples of niche solutions. These won’t restrict access to their ad features, as they’re already addressing an audience interested in cannabis culture.