Dartmouth Researchers High on Facebook Ads for Marijuana Study

Hopefully, Facebook and other social networks will get over their FOCC (fear of cannabis content) and allow more marijuana discussion to take place within their walled gardens.

With the goal of learning more about people’s cannabis-consumption patterns, professors and students from Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire surveyed nearly 3,000 people on a wide range of marijuana-consumption-related topics.

In order to have a statistically relevant study, the researchers needed a representative pool of cannabis users from across the country—not an easy challenge, especially considering the fact that marijuana is still against the law in the majority of the nation.

The researchers looked no further than Facebook’s unique ad platform, where creating an ad and targeting a niche audience, like pot smokers, is just a click away. With some basic prior experience with Facebook ads, the team was able to quickly set-up a campaign, choose an audience, select a budget and create a set of ads, which linked to an online survey they created using Qualtrics.

At a time when marijuana is gaining acceptance as both a medical and legally controlled substance across more and more states, there is a greater need than ever for both quantitative and qualitative research into the changing attitudes and usage patterns among consumers. However, Facebook and other popular social networks are still grappling with their user and advertising policies promoting content related to the controversial herb.

For the researchers, it wasn’t exactly easy rolling from the outset. The ads were initially rejected by Facebook due to their cannabis-related content. After establishing their credentials and explaining the study, the campaign was quickly approved by Facebook and began appearing on both desktop and mobile devices.


Figure 1: One of the better-performing Facebook ads that were used to recruit participants in the Dartmouth study.

It didn’t take the researchers long to see results. In fact, Dustin Lee—a postdoctoral fellow who oversaw the study, along with Ben Crosier and Alan Budney—explained that using Facebook as a recruiting channel took a fraction of the time and money it typically takes to acquire a statistically relevant panel using other acquisition methods.

Lee discussed the motivation for operating this study on Facebook:

We chose Facebook because it is a massive online database with access to people worldwide, which allowed us to reach a wide variety of cannabis users for the survey. In addition, using Facebook can facilitate rapid, repeated assessments of developing trends in cannabis use, which is a key strength for our research.

The Qualtrics survey included more than 70 questions, both multiple-choice and free-form. No incentives were offered to the survey takers in return for their participation—yet, none was needed.

Lee’s team originally budgeted $2,000 for advertising, but it ended up spending only $800, while far surpassing its goal of 2,000 completed surveys. For market-research geeks, actual cost per completed survey was just 27-cents.

Facebook has come a long way as a research platform. Companies are constantly testing concepts through the use of Facebook ads, largely because of the way in which they’re able to micro-target consumers based on any combination of demo/psychographics, interests, behaviors, past purchases and a whole lot more. The system pre-defines many of these personas, transforming advertising into data science. For example, it’s relatively easy to enter “marijuana” within Facebook’s ad-targeting query and find a cannabis-friendly U.S.-based audience of nearly 4-million people aged 18 and up.


Figure 2: Facebook’s ad platform makes it easy to target people who want to legalize marijuana.

Lee discussed the findings:

What surprised me the most about our campaign was how much individuals like to answer questions about cannabis online. Our survey was 72 questions in length—a mix of multiple-choice-type questions and open-ended responses—and it took about 10 minutes to complete. This is not an insignificant amount of time for people to spend on an anonymous survey for no compensation.

Hopefully, Facebook and other social networks will get over their FOCC (fear of cannabis content) and allow more marijuana discussion to take place within their walled gardens. For research alone, Facebook can be a very fertile garden for sure.

Richard Krueger has written four books on Facebook, including Facebook Marketing for Dummies (Editions I, II, III) and Facebook Advertising for Dummies, published by Wiley & Sons. He advised agencies and brands on Facebook marketing. His web site is www.richardkrueger.com.

Image of woman smoking joint courtesy of Shutterstock.

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