It’s a unique dilemma: how does an industry worth US$ 17.5 billion survive – and even thrive – without online advertising?
This is the situation faced by the cannabis segment in the USA, where the stigma of pot still casts a long shadow. Some companies are surviving but spinning their wheels, as they wait for public opinion to shift towards acceptance, hoping that popular platforms will slacken their cannabis publicity policies.
This maze of digital barriers includes cautious agencies unwilling to risk losing clients by signing up a cannabis brand, while some publishers are equally reluctant to host ads for weed-related products – despite a global weed market tagged to top US$ 166 billion by 2025!
Legal Leashes And Social Shackles
Still illegal at the federal level, with laws that vary from state to state, growing, selling and marketing cannabis can sometimes feel like running an obstacle race in a thunderstorm. While jumping through regulatory hoops, posts and ads can be zapped by thunderbolt bans, while cannabis businesses might even be de-platformed.
The highest hurdles are undoubtedly the Google and Facebook bans. With these major platforms off-limits, small businesses (often family-run) with tight marketing budgets (like most start-ups) are cut off from major channels of communication with their target publics.
Internet Giants Lower the Boom
Together, the world’s largest search engine and leading social media network account for more than half the digital advertising market. They also offer the most affordable and accessible marketing tools. For the moment at least, both of them (and many other popular platforms) are red-flagging the entire cannabis sector:
- Google forbids advertisements for “substances that alter mental states: […] marijuana […] pipes, bongs, cannabis coffee shops […] Instructional content about producing, purchasing or using recreational drugs”
- Facebook considered easing these constraints, but then decided to maintain the status quo, banning advertisements that “promote the sale or use of illicit or recreational drugs, or other unsafe substances, products or supplements”;
- Instagram prohibits “any marijuana seller, including dispensaries, from promoting their business by providing contact information”, although allowing website links in bio information;
- LinkedIn (A little less strict than the others), YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and TikTok all have similar policies in place, cold-shouldering marijuana-related content.
Challenges Spur Creativity
However, these constraints have simply triggered more creative marketing approaches for the entire cannabis industry. Smart marketers are constantly seeking organic and paid channels to get their weed messages out. Persistent, patient, and persuasive, they are constantly finding new channels to showcase their products. Here are some inventive ways in which the hash segment is weaving through this tangled web of restrictions:
- Social media: because US federal laws have not yet caught up with this brand-new industry, traditional platforms (like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) still block paid cannabis-related advertisements. These bans may even encompass legal CBD products and ancillary businesses within the legal pot ecosystem. However, cannabis brands can still maintain a social media presence, opening up opportunities to source user data and encouraging user-generated content – perfect for sharing, building up third-party validation, and enhancing awareness of their products.
- Editorial content often manages to slip by these constraints, through news-based storytelling and even tips on how to smoke or ingest cannabis, but without links on where to buy it. This is where humor and originality attract followers and burnish brand images, particularly when newsy content is featured in blogs, videos, and posts.
- Paid digital ads can still be placed on some channels, depending on their specific terms of service. This is particularly valuable at the local level, as many stores operate only within their states, through cleverly designed marketing strategies that attract a steady stream of geo-targeted traffic from within their geographical area. Bridging this gap, several cannabis-friendly platforms have opened up for advertising during the past few years, including Leafly, KushClicks, TrafficRoots, Mantis, and HighTimes.
- Billboards and other out-of-home ads are often the backbones of cannabis marketing campaigns in many legal states, providing a direct channel driving local foot traffic to retail cannabis stores and dispensaries. However, it’s important to comply with local regulations: for example, cannabis billboards must be at least 1,000 feet away from schools and daycare centers in California, while they are completely banned in Maryland.
- Trade shows and conventions are prime showcases for on-the-spot target audiences. Industry events are eagerly attended by cannabis manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, all eager to close deals and expand their businesses. In parallel, event websites are on the air for months before any event, usually with great opportunities for sponsorships and ad placements, as well as creative branding opportunities that range from banners, signage, and shuttle buses to sponsored speakers at hosted lunches for high-priority targets.
- Community outreach is an easy way of establishing a name as an expert in this field, appearing regularly at local events as an authority on all things cannabis. In parallel, highly visible support of local teams and other good causes is a great way of putting a friendly face on a product that is still controversial, while personalizing a pot business as a desirable neighbor. Partnering with reputable initiatives (like food kitchens), signing up for civic initiatives (like beautification projects), and hosting blood donation drives (with a local hospital) all foster goodwill, while presenting a brand in a favorable light, breaking away from the lingering stigma that still surrounds cannabis.
- Brand ambassadors are a subtle strategy for reaching out to influential customers and underpinning word-of-mouth marketing initiatives. Ranging from local celebrities to Internet influencers, it’s important to choose names whose followers slot into typical customer profiles. Once selected, they must be provided with a steady stream of interesting and informative data on the business, its brand, and product range, making sure they always have plenty of exciting angles that they are proud to talk about and recommend.
- Loyalty programs are a sure-fire way of building up a loyal clientele. A time-tested way of retaining customers, rewards programs are specifically designed to build relationships with faithful customers, expressing appreciation by offering them VIP treatment that’s not available to regular consumers. Remember: just 20% of customers provide 80% of revenue, and attracting new purchasers can be seven times more expensive than keeping an existing buyer.
- Cross-promotion with other brands and vendors opens up unexpected opportunities (and lower costs) through joint advertising campaigns and product launches, hosting demo days, sharing booths at trade shows, and releasing two-way emails and social media posts. Since the cannabis market tends to be local, it makes sense to team up with local merchants in reciprocal rewards programs: patrons spending a certain amount at a nearby bar present receipts for discounts on their next pot purchases – and vice versa.
Building up a robust search presence is a tricky job for cannabis businesses, as Google does not provide keyword data. Rated as ‘prohibited content’, the Google Keyword Planner shows no data at all for pot-related keywords, although search bots still accept articles in major publications.
In the cannabis industry, strong SEO means thinking outside the box, rather than simply relying on keyword-rich organic content. Nevertheless, building a solid digital image is vital, ensuring that a store or dispensary can be located easily by potential customers. Subtlety is a key factor, particularly for white papers and articles that add value for target audiences.
Here are some smart ways of making sure the target audience can find a pot business easily:
- create content that is original, useful, and relevant for the community and consumers in general through appealing blogs and fact-filled newsletters, sharing updates by SMS or email for higher readership;
- highlight unique products, special offers, coupons, and reward programs constantly, pursuing long-term customer relationships through inviting Sign Up Now CTAs;
- keep the website mobile-friendly and easy to navigate, with phone numbers, street addresses, and opening hours displayed on every page for instant contacts;
- educate the community through offering unique insights into pot products, store operations, and the industry as a whole, posted across multiple channels;
- explore end-to-end influencer marketing through intuitive audio and video streaming platforms (like Tagger) to reach new audiences, using location data to stay legal;
- encourage customer reviews, particularly on popular platforms, responding promptly and appropriately to both positive and negative comments;
- register with directories, which are vital for upping business profiles, ranging from local options (like Yelp and Google My Business) to specialized weed listings (like Jane and WeedMaps).
National and Local Compliance Is Vital
Although constituting a major challenge for legal cannabis marketers, compliance with national and local laws is a must. Differing from one state to the next, some markets are stricter than others. This means that campaigns must tread very lightly, with carefully designed visuals and wording, as even an inadvertent slip can draw fines heavy enough to threaten the survival of a small business.
Forbidden across the board by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), cannabis commercials cannot be placed on radio stations or television channels nationwide. These strict federal regulations are prompting many pot companies to seek out local advertising niches. Pinpointing paid and organic opportunities for reaching out to target audiences while complying with all these restrictions is a tough but necessary task for professional marketers.
Cannabis Marketing In 2022 And Beyond
There is little doubt that the ongoing expansion of the cannabis market will encourage publishers to accept marijuana ads. As more states decriminalize, the pot stigma will continue to fade.
Geo-fencing will remain a major marketing tool, limiting cannabis campaigns to legal states and consumers over 21 years old through programmatic advertising. There are plenty of qualified people searching for cannabis-related content, with Google Trends confirming that interest is rising steadily.
Reviews remain important for steering decisions: a recent survey showed that 97% of consumers read local business reviews before closing a deal. This is why it’s important to comply with community standards on social media sites, no matter how loosely they are enforced. A page that is temporarily jailed or removed permanently means the overnight loss of months (or even years) of reviews and carefully curated brand awareness.
For the foreseeable future, it seems likely that cannabis brands will continue to build audiences through channels that circumvent major social media platforms. On the upside, these constrictive community guidelines are forcing weed sellers to develop innovative (and often low-cost) links with their customers. Cut off from mainstream advertising options for the foreseeable future, the cannabis industry is crafting its own inventive solution: guerilla marketing – and it rocks!
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