What Cannabis Businesses Can Learn from the Sex-Toy Industry

Social media won't accept advertising from either industry. Here's the work-around.
What Cannabis Businesses Can Learn from the Sex-Toy Industry
Image credit: Sarah Grady
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4 min read

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Any green entrepreneur knows the problem well: Major social media platforms won’t run cannabis ads. They’re shut out of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and even spammy services like Taboola and Outbrain -- the places most startups rely upon to drive sales. In response, cannabis companies often throw money at influencers, hoping to at least gain some presence on the sites. And at conferences, people in the industry ask each other, “How are you growing in a Facebook-less world?”

But the best answers may not come from other people working in cannabis. They may come from someone like Polly Rodriguez, whose company, Unbound, sells sexual health products -- another industry shut out of social media advertising, but one that’s been around longer than most cannabis companies. That means she’s had more time to work on a solution. “We all face the same barriers,” said Rodriguez, which is why she’s often invited to speak on panels with people in the cannabis business.

Related: She Broke Barriers in Tech and Now Runs the Largest International Cannabis Women's Network

She launched in 2013, has grown Unbound to a $4 million company, and has a message for her mutually suffering colleagues: “It’s been painful,” she said, but being shut out of social media is ultimately a good thing. “Facebook and Instagram paid acquisition continues to climb, and brands that have become dependent on it are increasingly struggling to scale.” But not hers, she said. She figured out a better way to grow -- and her peers in cannabis can, too.

Back when Rodriguez first launched, she said, she actually bought a few Facebook ads -- until the platform caught on. That’s what forced her to ask herself some important questions: How do I have a message that is compelling and that will get people to care about this brand, about these products, and about this category? And especially, how do I get people to tell their friends about it?

The answer, she decided, was original content.

She wanted to engage women in a conversation about sex that felt genuine and fun, so she developed a witty newsletter and spread the word through micro-­influencers. “I used to think about a person’s inbox as a doorstep,” Rodriguez saod, “and every time you knock on that person’s door, you’d better have something to offer them, because otherwise they’re not going to open the door anymore.” 

Related: Who Knew There Is a Market for a $15,000 Vibrator?

After a lot of late nights and trial and error, people started sharing the emails with friends. Customers came to her, rather than the other way around. And once that happened, Rodriguez felt comfortable taking her brand’s voice beyond newsletters and influencers. She started experimenting with PR stunts, the most successful of which was called Vibes for Congress. Customers could buy and send a vibrator to any congressional member, and 75 percent of the proceeds would go to Planned Parenthood. Media picked up the story nationwide, more than 2,000 vibrators were purchased, and new customers became fans: They were more likely than the average buyer to sign up for Unbound’s newsletter, which meant they were more likely to make purchases in the future.

Rodriguez knew she couldn’t pull off a successful PR stunt every month, which is why she decided to double down on engaging her audience. She hired a director of content, who created an online magazine that publishes, say, interviews with sex therapists and dominatrices. The team also looked at Unbound’s Google data, saw what people searched for, and ran content related to those searches. As a result, Unbound’s traffic spiked. “We’re, like, the number one Google search result for feminist porn,” Rodriguez said, “but we don’t post any pornography on our site.”

With all this, Rodriguez thinks Unbound is well-­positioned for the future -- and she said the same can be true for any cannabis brand that smartly embraces content. After all, she said, the social media bans can’t last forever. “I can feel more and more taboos just falling away day by day,” she said. “When the Facebooks of the world decide to change their policies, we’ll really see crazy growth.”

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