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Marketing for Cannabis Brands

Published on
December 13, 2021
A grasslands employing helping a client learn the importance of cannabis marketing
Contributors
MEGHAN O’DEA

Meghan O’Dea is writer and editor with over 10 years experience, focused primarily on travel and cannabis journalism as well as digital and content marketing. Prior to joining the Grasslands team, Meghan was on staff at publications including Fortune magazine, Uproxx and Lonely Planet. She has earned freelance bylines in The Washington Post, Playboy, Bitch magazine, Nylon and Civilized, amongst others.

Meghan holds a master’s in creative nonfiction from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was a visiting participant in the international MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. She has also taught writing at the college level and guest lectured on topics such as literary citizenship, urban history and professional development for writers.

Three media outlets I check every single day: The Cut, The Atlantic, The Washington Post

Super inspired by: Women like Isabella Bird, Uschi Obermaier and my maternal grandmother, who dared to travel the world even in eras when global adventures went against the grain.

My monthly #GrasslandsGives donation: PEN America’s Prison Writing Program

When I’m off the clock (in five words): Books. Long walks. Architecture. Mixtapes.

Marketing is important for any industry—at a fundamental level, marketing is how you communicate the value your business offers to your customers. But it’s especially important for the cannabis industry, as well as the burgeoning field of legal psychedelics. For one, the cannabis industry is growing rapidly, and the competition gets more fierce every day. For another, there is a greater variety of cannabis products to choose from than ever, from flower to concentrates to edibles and beyond. But the real reason cannabis marketing is so crucial is education.

Marketing doesn’t just mean educating potential customers about the products and services you offer, or your company’s brand values and mission. Those are hugely important pieces of information to communicate, for sure. But marketing also means educating the public about cannabis itself, how it fits into different lifestyles and why this industry is growing so fast despite decades of prohibition and anti-drug rhetoric.

Think about the numbers. In the years since Colorado and Washington State first opened the door to legal recreational cannabis sales in 2014, over a dozen other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. However, a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 18% of U.S. adults said they had used marijuana during the previous year. That means there’s a huge untapped market in the United States—not to mention other countries that have made moves toward medical or recreational legalization. The potential global customer market is huge.

Smart marketing is how cannabis companies can best communicate with potential customers about what products they might want to try. It’s also how cannabis companies can position themselves as trusted authorities who can help new and existing customers sift through the wealth of technical information about different cannabis products, industry regulations and fast-changing legal and legislative policies.

TYPES OF CANNABIS MARKETING: OWNED MEDIA, EARNED MEDIA AND PAID MEDIA

In a nutshell, marketing is how your company can help potential customers and partners solve a problem. That problem may be hesitancy to try cannabis, uncertainty over where to begin choosing a product or confusion over which cannabis companies could become powerful business partners. Whatever the actual pain points might be, marketing is how you can communicate the solutions you have to offer. Your marketing strategy is a series of chances to educate people not just about your company and products, but about the industry as a whole and further break down cannabis stigmas. And there are several ways to accomplish that very important work.  

Cannabis marketing, like any other industry, comes in three major forms: owned media, earned media and paid media. They all have their advantages and limitations, and a strong marketing strategy will likely include a blend of all three tailored to your budget, goals and your company’s strengths. But because the cannabis industry is so unique in its legal landscape, growth stage and regulatory environment, it’s important for cannabis brands to be aware of the unique considerations for each type of marketing.

If you’re curious how to use each of the three pillars of marketing for your cannabis brand, use the table of contents below or just read on.

OWNED MEDIA FOR CANNABIS BRANDS

Owned media—such as a company’s website and campaigns conducted on its social media, blogs and newsletters—is one of the most reliable types of marketing any company can undertake, but that is especially true for cannabis brands. Unlike earned or paid media, owned media is completely under your control.

You decide when and how your content is published, what the message is, the format, the design aesthetic and where your intellectual property is hosted online.

With earned media, the coverage and brand awareness you get is ultimately told through the lens of journalists and reporters. Meanwhile, paid media is limited by advertising regulations that restrict how brands in cannabis and the emerging psychedelics space reach their audiences. So out of the three media pillars, owned media offers your brand the most opportunity to craft the narrative and engage with customers.

It’s not that earned media and paid media aren’t valuable and important parts of any cannabis marketing plan. But owned media is the foundation from which to build your earned and paid media strategies. Ultimately, earned and paid media efforts are more successful when they stem from a strong base of owned media.

So what does success with owned media look like? It starts with developing a compelling brand identity and creating a content marketing strategy on the platforms you control, all carefully tailored to your business goals and priorities.

Types of Owned Media: Websites, Blogs, Newsletters, Social Media and Gated Content

Three marketers sit working

Websites and Web Copy

The information on your website, aka web copy, is one important component of any content marketing or digital marketing strategy. After all, it’s the foundation of your owned media.

There are a few essentials any good web page should include: You want to explain what your brand is about, what you’re selling and where customers can purchase your products or services. You want to provide contact information, play up your social media channels, create a space for the media mentions you earn, and illuminate your company’s strengths with information about your key staff members and their qualifications, talents and passions as they relate to your cannabusiness.

Why SEO Matters for Cannabusinesses

Quality web copy not only introduces potential customers to your cannabis brand, its values and the products and services you offer, it helps those customers find you in the first place. It’s important for cannabrands to have strong web copy created with search engine optimization (SEO) as the backbone.

For one, it’s how you can make sure your brand is front and center on SERPs, aka search engine results pages. The goal of SEO for cannabis companies, any any type of business, is to rank on the first page of results that a search engine delivers—after all, think about your own behavior when you’re searching for something online. You don’t often click to the second, third, or even fourth page of results (not many people do). Ideally, you want your brand to be one of the top five results served up by search engines like Google. However, your web copy needs more than just carefully selected keywords to rank well.

Structure, Snippets, SERPs

Every aspect of your content marketing strategy should provide quality information that answers the kinds of questions your customers are searching for. The web copy should be written in a tone and voice that aligns with your brand values, and the website structured in a way that’s intuitive and easy to navigate for both human beings and the bots search engines use to “crawl” your site and gather data.

It’s even better if your web copy does this in such a way that Google will create what’s called a snippet, or a short preview of your web copy that appears on the SERP for a given keyword. That’s a highly competitive level of exposure which signals that search engines think your domain has some serious authority on a subject people are wanting to learn about. Chances are, your target audience will agree.

How blogs boost cannabis marketing

In addition to basic web copy, blogs can be a powerful content marketing tool in many ways.

Each blog post gives you an opportunity to rank for secondary and long-tail keywords that wouldn’t necessarily align with the intent of the main pages on your site.

Blogs create opportunities to share news and updates with your loyal followers on social media—and drive them to your site. Every blog also gives you a regular source of new content to share on other content marketing channels like your newsletter.

Blogs further showcase your industry expertise and demonstrate to Google that your content is fresh. They work to enhance your SEO rankings in other ways too. Here’s how: They can increase the amount of time that your audience spends on your website, which also suggests to search engines that there is a lot of valuable information available that’s helping people answer their questions about a given topic. Blogs are an additional place to showcase other elements of your content marketing strategy like white papers, videos, infographics and more.

The Power of Backlinks

Your brand’s blog creates avenues to partner with other industry experts and allies on guest posts, interviews and cross-promotions, all of which can be a valuable source of backlinks—the network of links that lead from another domain or web address back to your website.

Backlinks hold hidden power: They increase your search engine rankings and lead more potential customers back to your website, because having a lot of quality backlinks can indicate to search engines that your site is a trusted resource with valuable information and lots of authority. That’s an important ingredient of your content marketing strategy that shouldn’t be overlooked—after all, it’s not just keywords that search engines pay attention to these days.

The Benefits of an Editorial Calendar

It’s well worth taking the time to plan out your blog posts months in advance using what journalists and media veterans call an editorial calendar. That way you can make sure big events for your company like product releases, trade shows, marketing events, earned media and thought leadership pieces bylined by company leaders are promoted on your blog at the right time.

Partnering with a marketing and PR agency that’s fluent in both cannabis and content marketing development and scheduling can help you streamline this process too.

5 Blogging Tips for Cannabis Brands

  1. Do your SEO research. A blog won’t do much for the overall SEO value of your site if you aren’t targeting both keywords that are relevant to your business and keywords and keyword phrases that match the intent of people searching for information that may be related to your brand.
  2. Don’t make it all about marketing. It might sound counterintuitive to suggest you should use an important marketing tool like a blog to not make a case for your products and services whenever possible. But if your blog is one giant sales pitch, readers won’t stay for long. Instead, think of your blog as an opportunity to answer your potential customers’ questions, help readers learn more about your corner of the cannabis industry, and find solutions they didn’t realize they needed.
  3. Do make sure your blog fits into your site architecture. If Google or Bing can’t figure out how all your blog posts relate to the other pages on your site, it might hurt your rankings. And if readers can’t easily navigate through your blog posts, they’ll be missing out on valuable information you worked hard to prepare.
  4. Know your voice. Just like with any other marketing effort, a blog should sound like your brand. Whether your tone is formal or casual, playful or authoritative, consistency goes a long way to convey authenticity.
  5. Include internal links. Backlinks aren’t the only kind of links that help boost a blog post’s value. Internal links to related posts on your site, when used correctly, can strengthen the overall SEO value of your blog and keep customers engaged on your site for longer.
A laptop sits balanced on the arm of a leather sofa with a round velvet pillow in the background. On the screen of the laptop is the Grasslands Newsletter

Newsletters

Newsletters are having a moment right now. While they’ve been around since long before the internet and the advent of digital marketing, newsletters are going through a bit of renaissance because they feel intimate and personal in a way other types of content marketing do not.

They don’t require a lot of SEO legwork to get clicks. And newsletters don’t have the same restrictions many social media platforms do concerning content about substances like legalized cannabis and psychedelics. In a newsletter, cannabis companies can say what they want about their products and services without worrying about it negatively impacting their performance through the platform’s algorithm.

Why Newsletters Are Hot Right Now

Readers like being able to curate the information that hits their inboxes and directly support the content creators whose work they enjoy. These days, many journalists and thought leaders are turning to newsletters, too, as a way to directly profit from their work without going through traditional third-party publishers like magazines, websites and op-ed sections.

Services like Mailchimp and Substack make it easy to put together good-looking newsletters that blend written copy with on-brand visual elements. That’s definitely important in making sure your newsletter gets read by recipients, and that your audience clicks through to your website, social media, or promotional information. But these types of newsletter services also simplify adherence to marketing regulations so your email list can grow instead of getting flagged as spam.

Marketing Regulations for Newsletters

Laws concerning electronic marketing are strict about only allowing companies to email people who have actively consented to contact via email. Companies need to not only store a record of that consent, they need to keep track of other details, such as which kinds of information the consumer consented to receive.

For example, a customer might agree to receive emails with shipping updates from an online order, but refuse an offer of a newsletter subscription or promotional emails. Newsletter management platforms make it easy to track and organize that data as you grow your email list, and tailor certain types of newsletter content to different segments of your audience.

In other words, newsletters give publishers control over their message and how it’s conveyed, while also giving readers control over who has access to their inbox. Because everyone gets what they want, it reduces the barrier between brands and their audiences. That adds up to greater trust and more marketing clout. That can make a big difference as more Americans consider cannabis—after all, industry sales grew by 67% nationwide in 2020 alone, according to data from Flowhub.

White Papers, Ebooks and Gated Media

Another important tool in any cannabis content marketing strategy is gated content like white papers, ebooks, video courses and other resources you can make available in exchange for a reader’s email address.

While blogs and social media posts both help to build authority and reach new audiences, gated owned media can move potential customers further down the marketing funnel toward a purchase or becoming a client.

Think of your website or social media profiles as an introduction between two strangers or casual acquaintances. Getting someone to sign up for more in-depth content is like those strangers meeting up again for a cup of coffee and a longer conversation. That means you need to offer greater value in exchange for a greater ask.  If a reader is willing to give you access to their inbox, download a long ebook or subscribe to a video series or webinar learning course, you need to be ready to deliver well-researched, original content.

This is your chance to share expertise on a deeper level and help readers solve a problem. So be sure to cite your sources and include up-to-date statistics, helpful visual elements like graphs, charts and illustrations—and make that content available through a thoughtful distribution plan.

Gated media will only be as successful as the value you provide, but the rewards can be huge. In fact, the Content Marketing Institute found that 63% of B2B companies found white papers to be one of the most effective pieces of owned media they used to find new clients and retain existing ones.

Gated Media for Cannabis Marketing

There are a few considerations to figure out before you dive headlong into gated media, however.

Digging down into the substance of what you do and what your company offers is a great opportunity to stand out from your competitors when you’re trying to make an impression on B2B clients. But it doesn’t always make sense for B2C marketing strategies, when your potential customer typically doesn’t need such high-level information to make a purchasing decision.

Another factor is how robust your sales department might be. Gated content is often favored by sales teams because it gives them access to the contact information they need to build relationships and close deals. But if sales aren’t a major component of your cannabis business or you’re primarily looking to build up your email list to promote other aspects of your content marketing strategy through newsletters, it might not be worth the extra time and attention that quality gated content can take to develop.

How Gated Media Helps Build Trust

Last but not least, this is the cannabis industry. And that means content marketing strategy needs to be calibrated a little bit differently than you might in other business sectors. Because cannabis is so highly regulated, so fast-changing, and still pushing back against stigma from decades of prohibition, it’s a field where trust matters even more than in more traditional business dealings.

Gated media is a great opportunity to earn your audience’s trust by making small commitments and exchanges as customers warm up to the possibility of a bigger financial or business commitment. It’s also a chance to cut through a lot of spin and slick web copy from your competitors and offer more substantive proof of your authority and ability to meet your clients’ needs.

Social Media and Cannabis

Social media has completely changed the way the world works, from the personal to the political, from the recreational to the commercial. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, SnapChat and TikTok have given brands unprecedented access to different audiences. They’ve also inspired those audiences to interact with brands in more personal and creative ways.

According to data from social media scheduling platform SproutSocial, 91% of consumers who follow a brand on social media will also visit the brand’s website, 89% will make a purchase and 85% will make a coveted word-of-mouth recommendation.

Social media provides numerous channels through which you can share your blogs and newsletters, benefit from word of mouth, get exposure to new markets and dip a toe in hot trends and national conversations. Some marketing experts, however, don’t think social platforms technically qualify as a type of owned media because you are subject to the terms of agreement and content guidelines issued by those third-party companies.

Advertising Regulations for Cannabusinesses

Because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, many social media platforms ban cannabis-related content, even if the intent isn’t illicit-market sales. While some platforms like Twitter allow ads from cannabis companies that are targeted to legal markets (within Canada, for example) most of the other major social companies have complex blockers that complicate posting cannabis content, even within legal states or without paid promotions behind posts.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok don’t allow photos or video of products like vaporizers or bongs in action, for example—much to the chagrin of manufacturers and dispensaries. Run afoul of the capricious content guidelines and it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve invested in a particular social media platform. The AI algorithms behind the scenes could choose to quietly “shadowban” your account, which means you might not appear in your followers’ feeds or among the hashtags you’ve used.

That doesn’t mean social media isn’t worth investing in, of course—but it does make a case for how social media qualifies less as owned media than other types of content marketing. It also makes a case for how important it is for cannabis companies to approach social media a little differently than brands in other industries might, and to stay up to date on the latest tweaks to social platforms’ algorithms and policies.

Cannabis Influencer Marketing

If you want evidence that cannabis companies still have a lot to gain on social media, look no further than a new generation of cannabis influencers touting a green lifestyle on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and other platforms. There are hundreds of successful cannabis influencers who have cultivated large followings with product reviews and posts that show how cannabis can be integrated into a fun, aesthetic and aspirational lifestyle.

These cannabis influencers are busting old stoner stereotypes and whittling away at stigma in real time, and they’re doing it despite social media algorithms. These content producers wouldn’t be on social media if there weren’t thousands of cannabis consumers who want to connect with the weed community all across the country and are clicking the follow and like buttons on influencers’ accounts. Your brand can benefit from those good vibes, too, if you’re smart about your strategy.

Here are a few key social media tips for cannabis brands to keep top of mind:

5 Social Media Tips for Cannabis Businesses

  1. Different social media platforms require different strategies. What performs well on Facebook might flop on Twitter. Ideal posting times vary from algorithm to algorithm. Different demographics prefer different platforms. Don’t try a one-size-fits-all approach to cannabis social media.
  2. Play to your strengths. If your brand doesn’t have a lot of visual assets, for example, you may not want to invest a lot of time and effort into an ultra-aesthetic platform like Instagram.
  3. Create a social media calendar. Planning what you’ll post ahead of time and coordinating your social media content with the rest of your content marketing editorial calendar will give you a sense of when it’s most effective to schedule a guest post or try a new product promotion to fill a gap.
  4. Have clear goals and values. Know why you’re getting on a particular social media platform and what you hope to accomplish there before you invest in getting a profile set up and growing your audience. Companies focused on B2B marketing may get a lot more mileage out of networking on LinkedIn, for example, while a dispensary has better luck going viral with a video of their budtenders trying a trendy new dance on TikTok.
  5. Take social media seriously. It used to be the case that social media was an afterthought handed off to entry-level employees and interns. But people of every age are on social media, and using it smartly requires more than just being “very online.” Take the time to polish your social media copy, to build relationships and promote your other digital marketing content with finesse.

EARNED MEDIA AND THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY

Earned media is everywhere you look, you just might not know that’s what it’s called.

When journalists report on a company’s IPO going public, quote a CEO on the latest industry trends, review a hot new vaporizer or cover local news like a neighborhood dispensary expanding, that’s media coverage earned by a cannabis company through its quality of service, PR and marketing efforts, and word of mouth.

You can think of earned media as the center of a Venn diagram where marketing and public relations overlap. A company might get coverage in their hometown paper because there’s a journalist on the business beat who reported on the founder’s latest accomplishment. Or a cannabusiness might find themselves in a national business journal because an editor received a compelling news release penned by the company’s publicist.

Earned Media and Word of Mouth

Another name for earned media is “word of mouth,” that elusive but extra-potent buzz that is one of the best things that can happen to a brand. With this type of earned media, a customer might review your product or service on a site like Yelp or YouTube. They might write a post about your services to a friend on Twitter, or tag a photo of themselves at your storefront or office on Instagram. Another business might quote a post from your blog and reference it on their own website with a backlink to yours.

You can’t pay for this kind of publicity, but earned media is some of the most effective coverage you can get. According to HubSpot Research, 57% of people in the U.S. trust what they hear from friends and family the most when they discover a new product. That’s great news in an industry where cannabis sales data platform BDSA found that 30% of existing cannabis customers nationwide shopped for products more frequently in 2020, and market penetration is up to nearly 50% in well-established state markets.

So how do you tap into this powerful communication vein? There are plenty of ways to earn media placements, but here are a few tips to streamline the process:

5 Ways Cannabis Brands Can Earn More Media Placements

  1. Utilize public relations. PR is a great way to position your brand so you’re more likely to earn media exposure. A good publicist will help get your brand in front of journalists, editors, lifestyle and cannabis influencers and social media followers who might be interested in sharing what your business is all about. Some examples of what that might look like including sending out news releases about a dispensary opening, placing products in gift guides throughout the year, or making sure a thought leader’s book is reviewed on widely read sites.
  2. Network online and off. The more you invest in your local cannabis community, the more you’ll earn the trust of prospective customers and start generating word-of-mouth referrals. From building relationships with the media to connecting with allies in your local cannabis industry, you can never have too many friends.
  3. Develop thought leadership. One byproduct of success in thought leadership is more opportunities for earned media placements. Speaking at B2B conferences, networking luncheons and community gatherings is a natural way to be included in press coverage about such events. Well-crafted thought leadership pieces lend themselves to being cited by a reporter, and also opens opportunities for the author to be the subject of an interview, profile or feature, or invited to pen an op-ed or commentary piece.
  4. Demonstrate expertise. Thought leadership isn’t the only way to gain potential clients’ trust or become regarded as an authority. Your brand can demonstrate expertise through concisely written web copy, content marketing like blogs and podcasts, and even more technical white papers and ebooks. Those may be shared by other brands on their websites or social platforms, jumpstart online conversations in forums and comment sections, or be quoted in articles by the media.
  5. Tell a great story. It doesn’t matter what you accomplish or how great your products are if you can’t turn those wins into compelling stories people want to share. Every brand has the potential to inspire all sorts of narratives. Knowing what makes a powerful cannabis brand, celebrating the team that drives your success, and seeing where you fit into the larger cannabis industry are all ways to start discovering the stories just waiting to be told about your business.
Best Content Marketing Practices 2021

PAID MEDIA FOR CANNABIS BUSINESSES

Paid media may have a smaller role to play in your overall marketing strategy than owned and earned media, but it’s still important to approach these opportunities strategically. That’s due to the fact that paid media, already fraught with marketing regulations for any business, has extra compliance challenges and restrictions for cannabis businesses.

Because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there are limitations on any kind of electronic ad or sponsored post that might be seen by minors. Many social media sites ban content that seems to be promoting the sale of cannabis products directly to the consumer. And social media algorithms are often calibrated against cannabrands’ favor.

One of the many benefits of paid media, however, is the ability to target ads to different segments of your audience and different demographics of potential customers. That level of granularity means you really need to know your brand values and have conducted strong market research. It also means, however, that you need to be very familiar with the guidelines for cannabis advertising and CBD advertising in the particular states or localities where you do business.

Why Cannabis Businesses Should Invest in Paid Media Marketing

That doesn’t mean cannabis brands can’t reap the many advantages of paid media, however. It just means you need to know the right way to go about it. Finding a creative solution to the paid media problem can be a huge boon for cannabis brands, particularly because many cannabusinesses eschew paid media because of its complexities for the industry. The ones that do pursue paid advertising stand out considerably, with less competition from other cannabis companies.

One way to reap the benefits of paid advertising with fewer regulatory hangups is to go straight to publications and forums dedicated to covering the cannabis industry. Placing an ad in venues like Leafly, High Times and NW Leaf, Leafwire or Eaze doesn’t guarantee return on investment, but it does mean you go in knowing their audiences are receptive and that cannabis brands are welcome.

But that doesn’t mean you should discount more traditional forms of paid advertising, particularly those free from FCC regulations. Billboards and other types of signage, for example, are one possibility. Or you can get creative about newer possibilities like advertising on podcasts—a method that skirts restrictions for similar ads on broadcast radio networks. Event marketing is another tool which overlaps with some types of paid advertising and has the added bonus of contributing to a sense of community.

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