The cannabis industry is one of the fastest-growing in the US, with a diverse and exciting startup landscape. And yet, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) and marketing.
There are no AdWords or Facebook advertising programs available and no current opportunities to advertise a cannabis company among any of the larger advertising platforms.
This seems unlikely to change until these products are legal at the federal level.
You can understand how Facebook wouldn’t want the attention that may come from allowing dispensaries or cannabis brands to advertise, even on a limited basis, in states that legalized it. That probably would not go over well in today’s political climate.
So, how are cannabis brands winning online, and what is different about digital marketing in the cannabis industry?
Sorry, advertisers — cannabis isn’t ready yet
I spoke with Public Relations Manager Jordon Rahmil and Director of Digital Marketing Kevin Keeland at Cura Cannabis Solutions about their experiences in digital marketing and confirmed what their brands are going through.
Cura has two product lines, Select Oil and Select CBD, that seem to be very well regarded by purchasers and reviewers. I found the Cura marketing team has tried on several occasions to get advertising approved on Facebook to no avail; initial ads are approved and then promptly rejected later.
Keeland explained they have worked with industry influencers to help with some marketing, but this is also regulated, and their ability to reach out to these influencers is very limited.
On the bright side, public relations and other content marketing strategies are helping them rank organically and get recognition.
It’s not an entirely advertising-averse industry at the moment; there are some serious traditional marketing opportunities available in the right locations, such as California. Out-of-home (OOH) and print media buyers are loving this current digital advertising drought the cannabis industry faces and are benefiting greatly.
(Note: Search Engine Land has previously covered the challenges as well as the opportunities for the industry in areas such as local listings.)
Building your cannabis marketing team
The interesting difference between a company like Cura and a similarly sized startup in another industry comes down to team construction.
If you’re building a cannabis brand, it doesn’t make sense to hire media planners, buyers and advertising agencies, even though it would be the fastest way for a startup to spark growth.
Instead, you’ll be hiring the best SEO strategists, content marketers, email specialists and public relations (PR) managers available.
SelectCBD, the website for Cura’s non-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) product line is an e-commerce site with a referral program using MailChimp for managing their email campaigns.
Kevin mentioned that Cura is growing rapidly, and publishing partners like Leafly and other websites offering marketing partnerships are very important until larger advertising opportunities begin to be available. The world of cannabis review websites is alive and well, with Leafly offering reviews of dispensaries and even particular strains.
Having staff that can maintain and fully utilize partnerships with sites like these will be absolutely critical to any budding cannabis company trying to gain a wider audience.
What’s interesting about this? Building a brand in a multibillion-dollar industry when you can’t pour money into advertising as a stopgap means you must nail SEO, content and influencer marketing, partnership and affiliate marketing. Finding traditional advertising opportunities that may not be as heavily regulated means when advertising opportunities open up, these brands will already be sustainable, well-oiled machines.
It’s the sort of long-term approach that only comes from a legal lack of advertising ability.
Are there agencies? How should we use them?
There are a number of marketing agencies that work in the cannabis industry. Most are listed in Ganjapreneur, a cannabis directory.
Although the agencies I found in my search are new and may lack experience, the continued growth of legal cannabis in the US means more agencies will be popping up to help guide cannabis companies.
Cannabis agencies with a clean, well-designed website offering branding and creative services are going to be incredibly important to cannabis marketers. Going forward, their SEO and marketing efforts will serve to not only further their brand but also to erase the stigma associated with the cannabis industry.
What’s next for cannabis marketing?
Gaining an understanding of digital advertising on Facebook, AdWords and other channels will be important in order to take advantage of opportunities when they come about. Finding trusted consultants and partners should be done sooner rather than later.
Some testing opportunities may be available that you haven’t considered yet. For example, you might think about creating sponsored content for native advertising placements on respected third-party websites.
What about pursuing podcast sponsorships? The brands that crack what marketing efforts can be done currently and prepare for the eventual tsunami of advertising will find themselves in a wonderful position. This industry is not going away and will likely become bigger than marketers expect.
Personally, I expect we will see federal legalization in the next two years. The jobs and tax revenue that will come from continued medical and recreational expansion will not be ignored much longer.
If you’re a startup in the cannabis space or a digital marketer looking for a niche, it’s time to get ready.