As much as media outlets love to evangelize the booming legal cannabis industry the opacity with federal law has kept some of the biggest fish away from the action. We’re talking advertisers.
While this is positive in that small companies are thriving in a very level-playing field, still relatively void of massive monopolies, it does make it hard for marijuana brands to market their products and services and grow their businesses.
The inability to start and run a business in a traditional way can not only be hugely frustrating but also be a real damper on company growth. From inability to secure business loans to business insurance and legal liabilities starting a cannabis brand in 2019 can be difficult to say the least.
Even for those lucky enough to etch out a marketplace for themselves they often feel left with one-hand behind their back in terms of methods to grow their businesses, marijuana-friendly promotional channels and just the ability to connect with their demographic.
Anti-Cannabis Publishers & Platforms
Most advertising channels that help businesses in other industries rapidly scale growth are simply not available to marijuana and marijuana-ancillary businesses. Platforms that currently prohibit the promotion of anything marijuana related include:
- Facebook (including Instagram)
- Google (including Youtube)
- Retargeting platforms (AdRoll)
On top of that even more traditional media outlets like radio, newspapers and television have strict rules regarding the promotion of cannabis related products and services.
Some companies skirt this by never mentioning their product, instead hoping to simply grow brand name awareness.
Still, in terms of direct ROI measurable ad spend, it is difficult for small and medium sized businesses to promote product lines and services.
Mainstream outdoor advertising at the state level, such as billboards, pamphlets, flyers, four-sheets and other physical marketing materials is a possible avenue, however many big companies shy away from this type of marketing strategy.
Aversion to physical mediums is in part that it is a dying channel (with digital the obvious dominant winner of the future) and because companies don’t want to get on the radar of federal authorities, who still have legal issues with cannabis businesses.
Until big name publishers and social networks open their advertising doors to cannabis brands, or at least clarify/refine to the state level their ban of all cannabis related products outside of pure hemp, building a brand and growing online web traffic can be a real chore.
Luckily though, where there is a will there is a way for marketers and many companies are absolutely crushing it without any assistance from the mainstream silicon valley unicorns.
Viable Alternative “Guerrilla” Strategies
Luckily there is a time-tested and proven medium-long term marketing avenue for young and ambitious marijuana brands not afraid to get their hands dirty with some good old fashioned guerrilla marketing tactics.
Guerrilla marketing is great because it can be done on a tight budget and with many sub-optimal constraints. It may require a bit more in-house elbow grease to pull off, meaning it is more labor intensive than letting a PPC software automate bidding or outsourcing to a traditional marketing agency, but in terms of sheer ROI it can be an addicting challenge for small and large businesses alike.
The tactics most cannabis businesses are utilizing in today’s uncertain regulatory environment include SEO, KOL/KIM, SMM, and Event Marketing. We break down each of these avenues and how young weed brands can grab the bull by the horns to utilize them in growing their businesses.
Cannabis Search Engine Optimization
Search Engine Optimization or just “SEO” for short is the act of following best practice policies as prescribed by popular search engines like Google and Yahoo to make your web property as attractive as possible to said search engines.
There are a lot of grey lines when it comes to what companies like Google say you should and should not do vs. what actually happens in reality. All business owners considering SEO for their brands should take a couple hours to dig into the industry a bit to get a full understanding of the different philosophies and levels of risk associated with each.
Simply put, SEO is often broken down into “white hat” and “grey hat” tactics. White hat indicates things that are explicitly stated by search engines to help improve rankings and visibility. These usually revolve around simply creating a good user experience, something your design and dev teams should already be on top of.
Grey hat tactics involve things that are not explicitly endorsed by search engines and range in their risk/reward ratios. As eluded to above there is a big grey line that is fiercely debated in the online community in terms of what constitutes grey and white strategies.
Risk aside, SEO is further broken down into on-site optimization and off-site optimization. Onsite includes things like page load speed, solid UX/UI, great content, internal linking, title tags, meta descriptions and other things that can be directly modified by web administrators.
Offsite includes content marketing, paid marketing, email marketing, PR, branding, social media and other promotional efforts that can be done without web administrators.
Pros & Cons
The pros of undertaking SEO are numerous. More and more time is being spent on mobile. If users aren’t discovering or shopping your brand via mobile they are doing it via desktop. SEO makes sure when they search something you aren’t buried in the results, on page 10 of Google, where nobody ever goes.
The nice thing about SEO is that it can be undertaken at your own pace, and can be had at relatively flexible price points. It takes a few months for updates and hard work to start paying off, as search engines are a bit slow to update these days, but once momentum starts building and organic traffic starts increasing as a result of better rankings the increase in users, subscriptions and conversions is exciting.
The cons mostly revolve around the cost and time. The cheapest you’d want to spend on a quality contractor or agency would be $2-3,000/month for national brands and around $1,000 /month for local businesses.
This is about the least you can pay and expect safe, reliable results from. More features, more work and faster results are simply a matter of scaling, so you could easily grow to 5, 8, or $10,000/month in SEO spend depending on your market size and business goals.
SEO also takes time. It is not like paid ads where you can immediately see a return. For this reason it requires a bit of patience and trust in your marketers. Give SEOs about 3 months before measuring their work to see if the needle is moving and then evaluate progress again at 6 months before passing judgement on the campaign.
How Much Does It Cost?
Rates vary wildly. There are people selling services for $300/month and there are people selling enterprise level digital marketing services for $30,000/month. Search can be scaled enormously in terms of content and pages on your website, not to mention off-site campaigns. Starting small to test the waters is a good idea and once you gain some traction doubling down on your budget would be a smart option.
How Long Does It Take?
Search engines purposefully delay results of SEO work in effort to confuse marketers and keep them from running precise tests to reverse engineer their ranking algorithms. Thus it is prudent to give a campaign a solid 3 months before measuring movement and 6 months before passing judgement on effectiveness of the campaign.
Influencer Marketing & Sponsorships
Influencer marketing has blown up in recent years with the popularity of Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Snapchat enjoys a lion’s share of the attention because it is such a visually heavy medium which works well for product promotion.
While platforms like Instagram do not allow paid advertising for the promotion of cannabis related services and products you are still able to create a brand page and organically promote your products or service. There is not outright ban on cannabis on Instagram, they just won’t promote it for you.
The way to get around this is to reach out to influencers directly and work with them outside of Instagram. This usually involves a sponsorship or asking for a paid mention or feature of your product in one or more of their photos or videos. Payments can be made directly from company to company if they are large or done via Paypal if they are smaller.
The hardest part of influencer marketing is selecting individuals whose content and public persona align the most with your brand and products/services. This isn’t something to be done in hast. New and young companies would do well to have a brain storm session to identify brand identity, culture and positioning within the cannabis industry.
Once a companies own culture is defined then the process for finding influencers who align with this can begin. This is largely an organic process that requires quite a bit of exploration. Tap into your staff as they may be more active on some platforms than management and could recommend potential KOL (key opinion leader) targets for collaborating with.
Pros & Cons
The pros are speed and scope that is only rivaled by direct paid advertisements, which are not an option for weed brands. With an active outreach campaign and healthy budget you can cut deals with influencers who have combined follower lists of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.
If you do your vetting correctly a high percentage of these people will also be your target demographic. The potential for viral-ness and solid conversions is real.
The cons are it’s a lot of manual work, as every influencer will have their own collaboration process, set of requirements and prices. Furthermore, while they may mention other brands success it is hard to project with much certainty the exact outcome of any given influencer collaboration.
A lot of the work comes down to the quality of that influencers content, their audience and how much creativity and effort they put into promoting your brand.
Thus, the cons include unmotivated partners or inconsistent promotion or lack of measurable ROI.
How Much Does It Cost?
The cost of influencer marketing varies even more than SEO with small influencers, those with a few thousand followers for example may promote your service for the price of a free sample product while big names will charge tens of thousands of dollars to grant access to their fan base.
It would be wise to test influencer marketing for your brand with 2-3 small to medium sized targets initially so that you can measure the results of each campaign before deciding whether to approach bigger names.
How Long Does It Take?
The nice thing about influencer marketing is it can be almost instantaneous. Once payments are completed influencers can begin promoting your cannabis product or service almost immediately which can lead to an equally rapid uptick in web traffic, subscriptions, readers, and hopefully conversions.
Brand-Heavy Social Media
Social media growth is the most organic way of building a quality brand that is long lasting and verifiably authentic. This is a matter of sharing content, whether it’s pictures, videos or text, that people naturally like, share and comment on.
This was the original design of mega-platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to allow individuals to share, interact and promote things they liked in a free-flowing and organic manner.
With IPOs and billion dollar evaluations things change and the organic reach of brands on social media is not nearly what it used to be as platforms push users to pay for increased exposure.
Since paying is out of the question it would do young cannabis brands well to have solid interaction between design and marketing departments to develop content that is interesting, unique, and authentic to your brand’s identity. Anything even remotely inauthentic, overly promotional or “cookie cutter” will not generate voluntary shares, likes and comments.
In this sense design is a huge part of the social media branding puzzle as it may take a designers eye to create content that really connects with the end user/consumers perspective. Marketers like to force things but social media branding is one of those things that can’t be forced.
Pros & Cons
The biggest “pro” of social media marketing is the prospect of achieving the “holy grail” of SMM, which is to go legitimately viral. When things go viral brands can blow up (in a good way) overnight. Websites can be crashed and warehouses emptied with the right kind of organic exposure that comes with social media users legitimately loving what you are sharing.
Very few things go viral all on their own these days, with most popular pieces growing partially with the assistance of paid promotions (such as Facebook boosted posts for example) so the downsides include unreliable results and difficult to track ROI.
Whether going viral or not is your primary objective doesn’t matter in terms of solid branding strategy. In today’s world all brands need social media accounts, even if they aren’t the most active, people will still be searching them out. Not having profiles won’t cut it as someone else could claim your brand or you could miss potential visitors by not having a presence on the most popular networks.
How Much Does It Cost?
Social media marketing can be outsourced, however we would recommend against it. Unlike SEO, social media requires a very deep understanding of your brands ethos and your user base. This isn’t something that can be communicated in a brief email, it takes time and first hand exposure.
Furthermore, because organic social media success hinges so much on authenticity and design, the sheer communication obstacles between an external agency and in-house designers and marketers can be just too much.
Thus the best way to approach social media growth would to be in-house assignments. You can have a collaborative environment where all employees are invited to contribute, or you can hire a dedicated social media manager (make sure they have good design skills!) to help keep your brand active and searchable.
So ultimately at the most the cost of a basic social media marketing strategy would be the addition of one full-time salary. Even this though can be worked around with part-time help or interns, granted they are properly vetted, interviewed and on-boarded so they have a firm understanding of your brand identity.
How Long Does It Take?
Social media is a big part of branding, which means it is a never ending process as long as you are in business. Also, “how long does it take” requires more information as with branding the desired outcomes can vary greatly.
If you just want to claim your brand, have uniformity and also an outlet to provide complimentary content to your customer base then the timeline is quite short as setting up profiles can be done quite quickly.
Interacting with users, updating profiles as the business grows and using platforms to pro-actively increase brand image can take months or even years.
Event marketing is currently one of the most popular avenues for cannabis related businesses to connect directly with their users. From street promotions to user testing to parties and trade shows the varying types of event marketing opportunities for cannabis brands are numerous and diverse in application.
The ability to meet face to face with customers or target customers on a regular basis is an enormously beneficial opportunity for cannabis brands to better understand their market and adapt their products and services to best solve problems/satisfy demands.
Furthermore, because many brand are located in states where weed is legal they don’t have to worry about blocked ads or federal heat as much because while in-state they enjoy in-state protections.
Event marketing ties in PR, branding and social media marketing as well making it a “marketing Medusa” of sorts in terms of complexity but also in terms of breadth of reach and potential large-scale growth impact.
Promotional events can either be done by your in-house marketing staff or they can be outsourced to an external agency. While social media is best done in-house by people who know customers best, event marketing can easily be outsourced as event companies often have better connections in terms of potential venues, rates, and prospective partnerships.
Pros & Cons
The pros of event marketing are they can be done regularly, they put you in direct contact with your customers and they should at the end of the day just be a fun time! Nobody wants to attend a boring event or an event that doesn’t connect with them, so by definition successful event marketing are positive “events” people want to attend.
Concerts, exhibits and parties can all be a lot of work to set up, which is definitely a con, but they can be an absolute blast when they kick off to receptive and happy crowd.
Events are one of the purist ways of promoting your brand directly to the people that matter most without a middle man (like social media platforms, influencers or search engines) so you can retain a pure experience that can really resound with customers.
People like it when companies have human faces and so being able to be in close physical proximity with a company, it’s founder, or it’s products and services can create lasting bonds that result in increased user loyalty and lifetime spending in the long run.
How Much Does It Cost?
Throwing a big party isn’t cheap and don’t be expecting to be the talk of the town throwing a sub-$1,000 party. Total spending will depend on the city, the potential venues and the main form of interaction (live music, product demos, presentations, food/beverage) and other factors like time of year, day, number of total event hours etc.
Still, for companies on a budget going to exhibitions can be done relatively cheaply with travel costs and booth/table registration fees being your own real costs. What is presented/displayed at said exhibitions is up to you and can take a wide variety of formats/mediums.
How Long Does It Take?
Event marketing is a short-medium term initiative that usually sees a spike in response during and immediately after the event before slowly tailing off in the coming weeks/months as people forget or replace memories with more recent events.
That said, with a big enough event, renting out a theme park for a day for example, or offering lifetime subscriptions for free to your service (contest events), the impact can be more lasting, stretching into years.
Even the smallest exhibitions though have the potential to create relationships and personal impressions that can last a lifetime, so while event marketing doesn’t get the spotlight it should definitely be at the top of the list for cannabis brands small and large when it comes to branding, PR and marketing.
In conclusion we advise brands not get overly fixated on just one marketing channel. Trying everything out and putting your best foot forward in each region will allow you to measure the results and adapt your mix later on down the road.
If you find events and social media are working best for you then allocate more budget. Likewise, things like SEO can take a while to take effect so project duration needs to be kept in mind when allocating budget as well.
If legalization trends continue it is inevitable that marijuana will one day be legal across America which means traditional advertising channels will open all new growth avenues for cannabis brands. Until then it is prudent to focus on brand building and customer engagement so that you are organically suited to scale your companies growth well into the future.