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Five Key Tips for Becoming a Cannabis Thought Leader

Published on
April 20, 2020
Ricardo Baca talking about becoming a thought leader.

Ricardo Baca is a 20-year veteran journalist and cannabis futurist, widely respected in both modern media and drug-policy circles. He was appointed The Denver Post’s first-ever cannabis editor in 2013 and founded news vertical The Cannabist, where he extensively covered the advent of the U.S. adult-use cannabis market and related issues around the world, as seen in the feature documentary Rolling Papers

Ricardo launched Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency in 2016 to work directly with business leaders in highly regulated industries, from cannabis and psychedelics to spirits and healthcare. In 2023, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed Ricardo to the state’s first-ever Natural Medicine Advisory Board to contribute to policy development around the state’s eventual psychedelics framework.

Named one of Fortune’s 7 Most Powerful People in America’s Marijuana Industry in 2016 and Marketer of the Year by AdCann in 2019, has received numerous accolades for his trailblazing work. In addition to his previous journalistic coverage of drug policy, cannabis business and culture, Ricardo continues to host panel discussions at events nationwide and contribute columns for a number of top publications including Rolling Stone. He is also a sought-after thought leader in media, cultural events and podcasts, and has spoken on The Colbert Report, NPR’s All Things Considered, TEDxBoulder, TEDxMarin and multiple years at SXSW.

Three media outlets I check every single day: The Denver Post, Vox, The New York Times

Super inspired by: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My monthly #GrasslandsGives donation: The Marshall Project

When I’m off the clock (in five words): Travel. Design. Writing. Feminist. ENFP.

Ricardo Baca sits at the 2021 Meadowlands panel on a comfortable couch holding a microphone and turning to smile and speak with a fellow cannabis thought leadership panelist.

It can feel like everyone is getting into thought leadership these days, from columns in newspapers, magazines and digital media, to speeches at industry conferences and trade shows—not to mention household-name events like TEDx Talks, South by Southwest and the Aspen Ideas Festival. And while there’s certainly strong ROI when a cannabis marketing strategy includes thought leadership, there’s a lot to be gained from these efforts and it goes far beyond simple brand recognition.

Thought leadership is a chance to connect with audiences in a powerful, authentic way, and to shape the discourse around important topics. That can be a valuable thing for cannabis brands. After all, this is a relatively new industry still saddled with stigma from decades of a War on Drugs, not to mention generations of racial injustice.

Thought leadership is a potent opportunity to not only change the conversation about cannabis business, policy and culture, but shape how the industry will move forward.

How Do You Define Cannabis Thought Leadership?

There are a lot of ways to define what makes an effective thought leader (not to be confused with an influencer). That said, at Grasslands we have two types of services that are helpful for understanding what thought leadership is as a whole: speaking opportunities and published commentary.

Speaking engagements come in various forms, whether they’re virtual presentations like podcasts, vlogs or digital conferences, or live events like MJBizCon and NCIA.

The second category is thought leadership columns, which feature a business leader’s authorship (aka byline) in a variety of outlets, from mainstream news sites and magazines like International Business Times, Fortune, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and more, to national industry publications such as MJBizDaily, High Times or Ganjapreneur, to top publications in a client’s key local market.

With both services, a business leader might share their singular perspective and expertise earned from their time in the industry or through the process of building their business. But the end goal isn’t to toot your proverbial horn. Instead, these opportunities are about providing educational value for the target audiences.

A strong speech, panel discussion or published commentary will certainly leave the audience with a positive impression of your brand for lead generation and customer awareness. But you’ll also have accomplished some tough, bigger-picture work of moving the industry forward through education and understanding, propelling new standards and innovations.

How Cannabis Thought Leadership Has Evolved

Grasslands Founder and CEO Ricardo Baca believes in the power of connection through persuasive storytelling: “Thought leadership is a way to display your knowledge, your expertise and your specialty with a community that really needs it.”

Ricardo has had more than a little experience in shaping conversations around cannabis. In 2013, he became the first cannabis news and culture editor-in-chief for a mainstream news publication: The Denver Post, where he oversaw its online vertical The Cannabist and coverage of historic legalization and the rollout of regulated cannabis marketplaces.

Since then, Ricardo has spoken at TEDxBoulder in 2018, on the role of cannabis in fighting the national opioid epidemic; at TEDxMarin in 2019 on the consequences of marijuana legalization; and is scheduled to speak at SxSW 2022 on the role of cannabis and psychedelic therapies in pain management. Additionally, Ricardo has remained a frequent voice in national cannabis discourse in publications such as Rolling Stone’s Culture Council, CannabisNow, mg Magazine and The Daily Beast, among others.

Taking that first step into cannabis thought leadership, however, can be daunting even for established journalists and business leaders. Linking your reputation and expertise to the cannabis industry can give some potential thought leaders pause.

“I knew if I took that job, forever the SEO of my name and my visage and my personality would always be tied to this plant,” Ricardo said of that early opportunity with The Denver Post. “Truth is, I told them I needed 24 hours to think about it.” Granted, cannabis was viewed quite differently a decade ago, and the industry was much smaller. In 2013, medical cannabis sales were worth about $1.5 billion. With the addition of adult-use cannabis, these days the industry is worth about 30 times that amount. And as more and more Americans dip their toes into cannabis consumption, or at least support legalization even if they don’t partake, acceptance is growing across generations.

How To Become a Cannabis Thought Leader

The change in public perception not only reduces barriers for aspiring thought leaders to stake their reputations on the future of cannabis, it means there are increasing opportunities to share industry expertise.

Dedicated cannabis journalists and established news coverage have become the norm, and trade shows and conferences focused on cannabis and psychedelics are riding serious momentum. For example, between 2018 and 2019, MJBizCon grew by almost 10,000 attendees and saw a 38% growth in the number of exhibitors on the floor. And the number of panel proposals submitted for SxSW’s Cannabis Track doubled between 2019 and 2020.

So how can you throw your hat into the ring and establish yourself as a cannabis thought leader? Here are five steps you can take to get in on the conversation:

  1. Audit your public persona. The best place to begin is understanding what you’ve already accomplished. Ask yourself some questions: Where does your reputation in the industry stand? On which topics have you already established expertise? How can your background help your proposal stand out in a stack of conference applications or column pitches? In which geographic locations is your name easily recognized? Performing an audit of your public persona can help focus your thought leadership aspirations.
  2. Get ready to network. Event marketing and high-level networking opportunities can be excellent ways to get the most out of industry conferences and trade shows—especially post-pandemic after two years of reduced opportunities to mix, mingle and learn. Attending industry mixers can help you meet fellow thought leaders and event organizers, build relationships with media, and get a better sense of what’s missing from the conversation—and where you could best contribute. Networking is also an excellent way to get your name out there and raise your public profile.
  3. Study up on publications and speaking opportunities. Like any aspect of cannabis marketing and PR, thought leadership is best approached strategically. Doing your homework on which conferences, events and publications might be the best fit for your expertise can help you be more efficient in your pitches and applications. Keep in mind that smaller-market events can serve a dual purpose for productive B2B networking as well as building confidence in speaking to an audience.
  4. Create a content plan. Not only should you strategize about which events and media outlets are likely to accept your submissions, you should also plan the topics on which you’d like to focus. Spend some time following other thought leaders’ work to see what subjects have already been covered or are overly saturated. Then you can map out the topics you’d like to cover and which earned media opportunities might be the best fit for your goals.
  5. Monitor results and ROI. Keep track of each thought leadership submission so you can assess and learn from the rejections (they’re inevitable). Sometimes a revision is all that’s needed; sometimes a full pivot might be necessary to get a winning pitch. Approaching thought leadership in an organized way will also help you visualize ROI over time, and tweak your thought leadership strategy to build on your wins and minimize those rejections.

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