November 14, 2020 8 min read

Cannabis marketing is tricky. 

While the herb has become not only increasingly popular, but increasingly legal, there are still many hurdles, both legal and attitudinal. 

Cannabis businesses still need to operate on the razor’s edge that all innovative and forward thinking industries are resorted to. Therefore, cannabis marketers need to be agile and creative. Legalization has been increasing, but it’s still not federally legal in the states.  

Simultaneously, however, because the cannabis market is relatively new (at least on a legal, public level), there are many channels and tactics that seem “old” to experienced marketers that not only work in the cannabis space, but are extra effective. 

This article is written by a marketer who is new to the cannabis space. I’ve been helping growEBTP for the last year or so, and I’ve applied many things from my past to these efforts, but have also learned some new things. 

At the end of this article, you’ll have a great idea as to how to build your own digital marketing plan to take over the cannabis industry. 

Which Channels Work Best for Cannabis Marketing Strategy?

In reality, you’ve only got a few truly ‘scalable’ acquisition channels. Depending on who you ask,these channels are typically: 

  • Paid ads
  • SEO
  • Virality
  • Sales
  • Partnerships

However, there is a lot of wiggle room within each of these broad buckets to get creative. Additionally, not every channel needs to scale to the moon or to Silicon Valley’s definition of success. Sometimes, you just need a channel to get you to lift off and get your first few customers. 

I’ll cover some of my favorite channels here. 

1. Social Media 

Social media is great for cannabis brands and marijuana marketing for a few reasons. 

First, it’s direct-to-consumer. As I’ll cover in a minute, paid advertising includes a cornucopia of challenges for cannabis companies, and you largely avoid these with organic social media channels. 

Second, cannabis brands, by their nature, can afford to be more informal and irreverent than many legacy brands. This type of voice does well on social media. Look at media brands like MorningBrew, or even legacy CPG companies like MoonPie and fast-food brands like Wendy’s. 

People are on social media to be entertained, and a cannabis brand has a great opportunity to be entertaining, funny, and edgy. 

Finally, social media is, apart from the time you spend on it, free to use. You don’t need a large budget to start building up a Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram following. You just need to be good at those platforms. 

Social media is also excellent if you’ve already got a great network of influencers with big audiences, or you’re confident you can build those relationships. 

Organic social media marketing, however, will likely never be sufficient alone for growth. The reach you can get will be limited, and the targeting non-existent. Whether you’re a local dispensary or an ancillary products business like Everything But The Plant, social media can be a great supplemental channel (especially for customer support and brand building), but it likely won’t pay the bills. 

And that brings me to my favorite bill paying channel, SEO (and content marketing) 

2. SEO & Content Marketing

SEO is the primary channel we’ve invested in for Everything But The Plant.

Why?

Several reasons:

First, there is a ton of search volume that already exists in the cannabis space.

Both high intent and commercial terms (like“best grow lights”) and informational queries (like“how to start a cannabis business”). The overall search landscape is huge, which means the demand is already there; you just need to capture it. 

Second, it’s “free” to start.

I put free in quotes, because creating great content is actually expensive. Still, you don’t have to buy ads or pay for a sales team, so the resource cost is low and, if you’ve got the time to spare, you yourself can write the first several articles before you hire anyone externally. 

Third, it’s an owned channel.

You can build an email list and collect emails from your content, which is great because Google or Facebook or whatever social media platform can never take that away from you. Sure, Google’s algorithm can change, but it’s not typically as rapid as a social algorithm, and there are more ways than one to distribute good content. 

To invest in SEO, you need a few things: 

  1. A good SEO tool likeAhrefs
  2. The ability or hired resources to write
  3. The ability to build links and build up your website authority

Once you have those in place, then you can construct a marjiuana marketing strategy via content and blogging and start executing. That, in a nutshell, is what I’m doing with this very blog post :) 

3. Cannabis Advertising

Ahh paid ads.

Many a great startup has died due to addiction to paid ads. You can get fast feedback and if you get your unit economics right from the beginning, it can be a great way to grow. But it can also lead to you avoiding building moats in terms of longer term, owned channels. 

Still, paid ads can be a great gateway to customers. 

Big problem in the cannabis space though: many ad platforms don’t allow drug related advertising. There are some loopholes, though. 

Paid search/PPC

Google, Bing, and other search engines tend to have restrictions on marijuana-related keywords in their advertisements. However, if you sell CBD or hemp-based products, you can typically get around this with some creativity. Similarly, the ancillary products market can usually find quite lucrative ROI in ad channels, as things like “grow tents,” “plant nutrients,” and “grow lights” are easy enough to mask as only ambiguously connected to illegal drugs. 

Paid social

Facebook has strong restrictions against drug advertising, both in terms of imagery and copywriting. 

Again, there are workarounds, though even CBD products have to be incredibly creative to get around them. Paid social is a very tough channel for cannabis brands. 

Programmatic advertising

Programmatic is another option. Google still runs the biggest programmatic ad exchanges, so you’re still SOL on that, but there are options among privately brokered networks. 

With all of these advertising channels, unless you’re a tenured expert yourself, I highly recommend working with a specialized cannabis marketing agency

You won’t need a cannabis marketing agency for any other channel, but for paid, you’ll find them invaluable for finding creative workarounds with copywriting and imagery and finding you the right ad exchanges for programmatic. 

4. Messaging

Messaging is not solely an “acquisition” channel, but it’s highly effective. 

When I say “messaging,” I mean it broadly as the ability to connect with your audience one-to-one or one-to-many on your own terms. This could include email marketing, but also SMS or push notifications.

If you run a cannabis app like Eaze, for example, your best channel is likely the most direct one: push notifications and localized and personalized suggestions for your users. 

If you’re a cannabis dispensary, medical or recreational, simply texting your customers may be the most cost effective and best way to bring people back in.

There are tons of software tools nowadays that can help you with this, but it all starts with a good CRM.HubSpot CRM is free, and Pipedrive is another great option. 

If you’re interested in email marketing, MailchimpConvertkit, and Sendfox are great options. For SMS and one-to-one communications for retailers, you might get value from something like Endear

Whatever the case, messaging shouldn’t even be a consideration; you should definitely have at least one channel where you can message your customers. This is table stakes. Your current customers are almost always your best chance at business, and since you’ve already got their information and data, you’ll likely have much greater luck driving repeat purchases and even virality or word of mouth through these channels. 

5. Podcasts

Podcasts are an emerging channel, but for the cannabis space, shouldn’t be overlooked. 

It’s pirate radio, where you can connect directly with your most passionate members of your audience. 

Those listening to a podcast about a given topic, particularly a niche one, are highly likely to be serious consumers or advocates/evangelists. 

Whether you start your own podcast (highly recommend), or just appear on other popular ones, this channel is still underrated. 

You can also run sponsored spots on existing podcasts, something many, many CBD brands likeCharlotte’s Webdo. 

How to Build a Cannabis Brand

One thing that is not often talked about is how few iconic and cohesive cannabis brands there are. 

Sure, there are a few names you could rattle off if you’re already in the industry. But because of the lack of mainstream advertising exposure as well as the nascent status of the industry as a whole, recognizable brand awareness has been tough to build.

Now, to the opportunist, this is great. Especially the digitally savvy marketer who can operate outside of mainstream advertising channels. 

While I think it will still be difficult to build recognizable brands in some portions of the market (for example, cannabis itself), here are some paths I could imagine taking in various areas of the cannabis industry to build a powerful brand. 

CBD

CBD products are legal basically everywhere in the states and are widely available. Whether it’s a salve, lotion, CBD soda, or even CBD flowers you can smoke, the product is increasingly popular, and one might even say trendy. 

If I were running a CBD brand, I’d certainly be looking to flood as much ROI positive cash as I can in advertising channels, especially since it’s not available for cannabis products/THC. You’d still need to get creative on Facebook, but companies like Dram Apothecary and Charlotte’s Web have made huge progress on channels like podcasts and Facebook ads. 

Additionally, if you’re selling CBD, you can also operate on a traditional model, selling in stores, gas stations, retail outlets, etc. Dram and other CBD drinks, for example, can be found in convenience stores and Whole Foods. 

Channels like SEO and content, however, may be quite crowded with CBD. If you have a powerful website and lots of money for quality writers, it could work. But otherwise, big websites like healthline and WebMD will be hard to beat for “CBD” keywords. 

Ancillary products

The ancillary products market is perfect for SEO and sales, and potentially paid advertising as well (depending what products you sell). 

By ancillary products, I mean “everything but the plant.” ;) 

Because the ticket price tends to be higher and the audience is more B2B, the value of a sale is worth the spend on SEO and also a sales team. This isn’t true with lower sales price products like CBD oils or even cannabis leafs. 

Paid advertising can also work here, but only if you’re selling products that can appear only ambiguously related to cannabis (such as grow tents and grow lights). For bongs, pipes, etc., it won’t work as easily. 

Local Business Marketing for your Dispensary 

If you have a dispensary, go as local as possible. 

There will be an SEO play in terms of ranking for terms like “dispensary near me,” but a lot of that lies in getting good reviews and some basic directory listings on products like Google Local and Yelp. 

Additionally, invest in a CRM, a solid website, and in-person branded materials like brochures and word-of-mouth appeals. Your in store experience and current customers will be your biggest assets.

Most cannabis websites and web design in general tends to be outdated, especially with local businesses. If you can appear more professional in those areas, you’ll stand out from the competition and trigger more brand recognition. 

Conclusion

Cannabis companies need to get creative with their marketing, especially on certain channels like paid advertising. But the opportunity to build a huge and recognizable brand via channels like podcasts, SEO, sales, and even local and personal messaging is there. 

Whether you’re selling CBD on an e-commerce website or legal cannabis in Colorado, there’s space to build your cannabis brand. Cannabis consumers are ready and willing to support new companies, and the industry is only growing. 

Especially with the covid pandemic, things have sped up and cannabis entrepreneurs and marketers have a great opportunity to strike it big.


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