Marketing a cannabis business is a difficult task.
Because the industry is still new and not yet legal under federal law, many traditional platforms don’t allow cannabis-related advertisements.
So where do you go? How do you get the word out about your store or products? That’s a central issue for any new business, but poses a particular challenge for new entrants in the cannabis industry.
With the global cannabis market set to hit $166 billion by 2025, many companies are stuck waiting for public opinion to continue its creep toward acceptance and for more ad platforms to change their policies on cannabis advertising.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google all have tight restrictions or outright bar the promotion of cannabis-related products. Often those restrictions also include legal CBD products and ancillary companies that don’t actually sell or touch the plant — they just happen to exist within the legal cannabis ecosystem. Reports have shown that Facebook had internally considered loosening restrictions on cannabis advertising but ultimately decided against it.
Not only are cannabis companies limited in advertising options, most are primarily concerned with their ability to advertise locally. They operate within their state and want to appeal to locals. That means that despite restrictions, they still need a well-developed marketing strategy with enough traffic to help them reach a wide audience within their geo-targeted area.
These limitations have been the driving force behind a lot of creative marketing in the cannabis industry. Companies must be crafty and persistent in seeking new opportunities to get their product in front of customers. Finding organic and paid channels to reach your target audience that are within state restrictions presents an opportunity for growth, but can be difficult to identify.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the biggest concerns and ideas for advertising your legal cannabis business. Feel free to jump ahead:
- Local & National Compliance
- Strong SEO
- Social Media
- Cross-Promotion with Vendors & Brands
- Digital Ad Buying
- Conventions & Cannabis Industry Events
- Brand Ambassadors & Word-of-Mouth Marketing
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Local & National Compliance
Local compliance presents a considerable marketing challenge in legal cannabis markets.
State regulations differ from one market to the next. Some are more strict than others. In Maryland, most cannabis ads of any kind are banned. That includes billboards, which have become a staple marketing channel in other legal states where billboard advertising is still allowed.
Knowing how you are allowed to promote your business and how you are not is critical because non-compliance fines can be quite steep and can put your business at risk.
Additionally, airing cannabis advertisements is outlawed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) due to federal regulations. That means that no cannabis company is allowed to advertise themselves on radio or TV commercials nationwide. That severely limits the potential audience that cannabis companies can reach, leading many companies to search for niche local opportunities to get the word out.
That hasn’t stopped companies from trying to push the envelope and change the national conversation, though. Many savvy marketers have turned to owned channels like YouTube, websites and organic social media to spread their message among their communities instead of relying on paid channels with restrictive advertising rules.
Acreage Holdings, a cannabis investment firm, submitted a cannabis commercial for Super Bowl LIII on the benefits of medical marijanana as a natural prescription drug alternative for pain management, however it was rejected by broadcast network CBS. The commercial was republished online across multiple channels by third party outlets and on YouTube, which did gain national exposure, but never made it to the big screen.
Similarly, a cannabis delivery service in Oregon, Briteside, that has since been acquired and absorbed into what has become TILT Holdings, launched a tongue-in-cheek cannabis commercial for its customized cannabis Delivery Box. Although it didn’t play on any major networks, it was published online on video hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo and generated a lot of media buzz and coverage in outlets like Forbes, Slate, Civilized, GeekWire, AdWeek and many others.
Cannabis businesses are finding a way to still get their messages out to the masses as they turn to creative and guerilla advertising tactics, but it’s not without its challenges. In time, we may see public perception and federal regulations shift enough to allow for more mainstream advertising opportunities to cannabis companies.
A strong digital presence should be a priority for any cannabis business. You want to make sure that your business can be found by your target audience. Most consumers will use Google to find retail cannabis stores in their local area.
It's important to rank highly for the name of your business and relevant search queries. Create a website, then build authority by driving traffic from credible sites and creating pages with helpful content that provides answers to questions your audience is already searching for.
Keyword research can be tricky for cannabis companies since it’s considered “prohibited content”. When you search in the Google Keyword Planner, you see that they provide no data for any keywords that are related to cannabis:
The problem isn’t that people lack interest and aren’t searching for cannabis-related things. They are. In fact, Google Trends show that the term actually has a lot of interest that has grown over time.
But Google opts not to provide keyword data. Likely, this is another choice that comes down to public perception. It’s still federally illegal. Many merchants won’t accept businesses that earn their money through state-legal cannabis sales. The federal banking system doesn’t accept deposits from cannabis businesses. Google has likely chosen to wash their hands of the situation.
That doesn’t mean that you still can’t optimize your website and pages for cannabis-related keywords, though. If you search “cannabis” in Google right now, you’ll find articles from major publications and directory listings for local cannabis businesses. These companies are still ranking and seeing significant traffic from their search presence.
A few steps that any retail cannabis company can take to improve their search presence include:
- Invest in your website. If you’re a cannabis retailer, your website should be mobile-friendly and include your live menu, current specials, locations, contact information, and store hours at minimum. Bonus if you run a blog, newsletter, loyalty or community programs! If you do, you can create an opt-in and share updates via email or SMS to keep them coming back for more.
- Create genuinely helpful, relevant content. Help customers understand your company, industry, and products. Target specific keywords, but focus on providing useful, educational information for your community.
- Get listed in directories. You want to make yourself as easy to find as possible. These directories include local directories like Google My Business and Yelp, but also cannabis-specific directories like Leafly, Weedmaps, or Jane.
- Encourage customer reviews on popular platforms. Reviews matter. 97% of people read local business reviews and use them to guide their purchasing decisions. Part of having a strong search presence is having enough reviews and a high enough total score to not give customers second thoughts. Encourage your customers to leave reviews about your business if they’ve had a good experience and publicly (and professionally) respond to negative reviews.
A strong presence in search is a good first step for making sure that your target customers can reliably find your business.
Just because you can’t pay for advertisements on social media, doesn’t mean that you can’t maintain a social media presence as a cannabis brand. In fact, when it comes to digital marketing, social media may give you the most effective and direct way to speak to your audience.
No matter what you post on your social accounts, make sure that you are following the terms of service for whatever platform that you post on. Each social network may have different rules regarding the types of materials that you can share.
Social media also gives you the opportunity to source and collect user-generated content. When fans share pictures of your products, you can reshare them on your own pages to grow awareness and create third-party validation.
Let’s look at one of our dispensary customers — Cookies. On their official Instagram account, they share a lot of high-quality photos of their product, customers, team, and upcoming deals. They do a really great job of giving followers a sneak peek into what it is like to work for the company while showing off their products with high-quality professional photos.
In many legal states, billboards are the bread and butter of cannabis marketing initiatives. They provide a simple and direct way to get your store in front of people in your local area. In many legal states, billboards are the primary driver of foot traffic to retail cannabis businesses.
Take a drive around one of the states where retail cannabis is legal and billboard advertising is allowed, and you’re likely to see many different cannabis billboards on a single trip down the interstate.
Here’s an example billboard from Dosist:
Here’s a billboard from one of our customers, Green Cross Dispensary in Oklahoma:
Billboards can be a great way to grab people’s attention and make them aware of your business. It was particularly effective in the early days of legalization when these kinds of billboards were still surprising to see.
However, billboard advertising is not allowed in all legal-cannabis states and those that do, have specific requirements. Maryland, for instance, does not allow billboard advertising. In California, a cannabis billboard must be at least 1,000 feet away from a daycare center or K-12 school. It’s important that you understand the regulations within your home state.
Cross-Promotion with Vendors & Brands
One way to leverage your audience and grow your reach is to team up with other brands in your industry for cross-promotional opportunities. This could be as simple as a chain of retail stores co-marketing an exclusive product launch with a vendor, working together at a trade show, hosting a demo day, or cross-promoting one another through social media or email.
Splitting the marketing costs by launching a joint advertising campaign can be another great way to save money while growing your reach.
Here’s a great example of cross-promotion between one of our customers, Oregrown, and vape powerhouse, Pax. As one of Bend Oregon's leading producers, Oregrown teamed up with Pax to create custom pens and cartridges, growing awareness for both companies in the process.
Get inspired by more cannabis business collaborations in this Forbes article.
Digital Ad Buying
Since none of the major digital advertising platforms allow for cannabis ads, it may be a better idea to reach out to publications directly about securing ad space. Many publications (and particularly those within the cannabis industry) will allow for companies to approach them and negotiate advertising rates on a CPM (cost per thousand views) or CPC (cost per click) basis.
To fill the void, a number of cannabis-friendly advertising platforms have become available over the course of the last five years. Some of the platforms that allow cannabis advertisements include:
Negotiating advertising deals, working with individual publishers, or using one of these cannabis-friendly advertising platforms can be a great alternative to the larger networks.
Conventions & Cannabis Industry Events
For vendors, retailers, and cannabis manufacturing companies, cannabis conventions, trade shows, and other industry events are prime time for getting your products in front of your target audience. These events are frequented by store owners and other companies that may present opportunities to secure new sales or cross-promote your products.
Some of the most common ways that companies use cannabis conventions to advertise and promote their products include:
- Booth. Exhibiting a booth can be a great way to attract new customers, create conversations with your target audience, and let people physically interact with your products. Of course, the price of sponsoring a booth can vary depending on the event.
- Speaking. If you have enough clout within your industry, pushing for speaking engagements at cannabis industry events can be a great way to get your brand in front of your target audience and establish yourself as a subject matter expert. Often speaking at an event will help to drum up more business than simply having a booth.
- Ad placements. Large conventions are home to hundreds of potential ad placement opportunities. Most event websites will have an advertising page that details some of the available placements and allow you to inquire about pricing. You can also get creative by getting your branding on hotel room key cards, public transportation, signage and other conference banners for additional exposure. These can be a reliable way to get your brand firmly in front of the people who are most interested in it.
If you’d like to see a list of upcoming cannabis conventions and events, the Cannabis Business Times’ Events Page keeps a running list of upcoming cannabis events, worldwide.
Brand Ambassadors & Word-of-Mouth Marketing
To bridge the gap left by limited advertising opportunities, cannabis companies should invest more time in developing brand ambassadors and a robust word-of-mouth marketing program.
Nurturing brand ambassadors requires a consistent strategy for engaging with your most influential customers. Additionally, cannabis brands can benefit from cultivating relationships with social media accounts that have existing followers that match your typical customer profile.
But a true word-of-mouth marketing program encompasses much more than just trying to spread the word on social media. It’s about making people excited about your brand and products, so they want to talk about it even when you’re not in the room. It’s about providing an environment that they want to be a part of. You have to make your company and products something that they are proud to recommend and back.
One great way to start getting your most loyal customers excited about your brand and products is by installing a loyalty program. Flowhub comes complete with a loyalty program feature that you can use to reward returning customers.
The Future of Cannabis Marketing
When it comes to marketing, the choices that cannabis companies have are limited by federal regulations, state regulations, and the policies of the largest advertising networks in the world. However, with a little ingenuity and creativity, cannabis brands can work around those roadblocks to find reliable ways to reach their target audience.
While cannabis businesses have an extra hurdle that companies in other industries don’t experience, there are still many opportunities for companies that are able to seize them. I predict two things we’ll see more of in the future are hyper-local tactics and humanizing storytelling — both focused on mainstreaming cannabis.
Check out more tips from cannabis marketing leaders here, and best of luck!