How To Navigate the Murky Waters of Cannabis Marketing
This article is part of Entrepreneur’s series on How to Start a Cannabis Business. We seek to promote financial inclusion through cannabis. In previous articles, we’ve looked into numerous aspects of getting into the marijuana industry, including how to convince investors to give you money, and how to brand your cannabis business and craft your story.
Cannabis is more popular than ever. However, marketing your brand can still be difficult due to the extensive legal limitations on advertising. At least for the time being, your best bets for exposure pretty much boil down to press coverage, strong alternative marketing campaigns, and robust community building through social media and physical presence.
Understanding public relations
Public relations or PR most often involve writing press releases, coming up with story angles, and placing those stories with media outlets. Entrepreneurs who don’t know much about PR can hire a firm to take care of these tasks for them. But be prepared to spend typically between $1,500 and $10,000 per month, depending on the firm and the services you need.
When you use a PR firm, you're not only paying for their services, you're enlisting their expertise and connections. Reputable firms know which media outlets and journalists cover which topics, and how to reach and pitch them effectively. This can take a lot of time—time that may be better spent managing your business.
“Make sure to find a public relations and marketing firm that has experience in navigating the terrain of a federally illegal commodity market, like cannabis is,” says Cynthia Salarizadeh, managing partner at public relations firm KCSA Communications and CEO of PR tech suite AxisWire. “This is like no other industry because you basically cannot pay for exposure. So a good PR agent needs to understand who to call at different publications (both cannabis-focused and mainstream) to reach certain audiences, and what services can help you circumvent all of these limitations.”
John Sidline, principal at PR agency The Cannabis Story Lab, says you should plan to spend between 7 and 10 percent of your gross receipts on marketing and PR.
Related: Is Hiring a PR Firm Worth It?
Reaching the media
If you decide to manage your initial public relations yourself, I recommend you start by pitching the more than 150 relatively well-known cannabis-focused publications for media coverage. Sites like HERB, High Times, Leafly, Civilized, The Cannabist, or Green Market Report are more likely than mainstream media outlets to pick up your story and approach it from the right angle.
"These publications let people know what’s going on from state to state, city to city, person to person,” says podcast host and filmmaker Mehka King.
Here are some things you should take into account when trying to get the right kind of coverage:
- Understand which media outlet you should pitch each story to. Not all publications cover the same topics.
- Identify which reporters cover topics related to your brand and figure out the best angle to pitch them.
- Frame your stories in the context of larger ones, or at least craft a compelling story for your brand.
- Pitch broad stories about industry trends, embedding your own story in this larger trend. For example, if you’re manufacturing vaporizers, don’t send an email talking about the benefits of your product; instead, share some statistics about the surge in popularity of cannabis concentrates, then show how your brand is benefiting from this trend. Similarly, if you can link your story to a relevant news event, try to get ahead of it and pitch reporters a few days before it occurs.
Related: 5 Tips on Pitching to the Media
Navigating social media
Presenting a strong story and image on social media can lead to a very successful brand, while a weak social media strategy can doom it to oblivion. Almost every cannabis brand (with a few exceptions) should have a Facebook page, an Instagram account, and a Twitter handle.
According to Emily Cegielski, a news editor at Observer.com, Twitter is the most lenient of the three social networks mentioned above in terms of the type of cannabis content it allows. However, Instagram can be more useful when trying to build a community and convert users into customers. “You’ll be fine posting pictures of weed on Instagram; just stay away from photos of trashy girls wearing skimpy clothes and things like that,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of Instagram accounts get closed for that.” In fact, Facebook and Instagram are notorious for shutting down cannabis-related accounts.
J. J. Kaye, co-founder of design consulting firm High Pressure Zone, says, “Building out a channel on social media that clearly tells your story is as important as building a community and cultivating a sense of interest and ownership.” It’s all about posting and generating engagement, he adds, pointing out that the best communities are built organically—meaning you shouldn’t worry about not being able to pay Facebook or Instagram to promote your posts.
“For someone who is looking to do social marketing/promotion organically, finding the most popular hashtags on Instagram and Twitter could be a relevant starting spot,” Brent Slava, head of newsdesk at financial media company Benzinga, says. “From there, they’d want to find a way to create interesting posts that could pique the interest of those social users browsing through popular hashtags.”
“Think of it as building relationships with potential customers and also with influencers who can help you spread your message,” adds Christine Young, social media manager and owner of one of the most popular cannabis newsfeeds on Twitter, WeedFeed. “Your content needs to be as good as possible so people will want to share it.”
Building a full ecosystem
Beyond establishing a presence on social media, consider building an ecosystem that includes real-life activation through presence on the ground and then amplifying this reach via social media.
“You can’t just have a social media-only company or a digital-only company; you need to have that physical presence to create visibility and content for your social networks,” Kaye says. “There is a synchronicity between engaging people in real life and re-engaging them online.”
At the same time, you cannot just promote yourself 24-7. “There is a human and humanitarian aspect to the cannabis industry,” warns Celeste Miranda, founder and CEO of The Cannabis Marketing Lab. “To hold your audience’s attention, you need to remain involved, share news, give back to the industry.”
“Don’t use your social media platforms just to sell your product, but also to provide interesting things that make people want to come back,” Cegielski says.