How can you build a successful cannabis advertising strategy on a constantly shifting legal landscape? It takes some creativity, but lots of cannabusinesses are doing it — and so can you. Here are 6 strategies that really work.
Even in states where cannabis has been legalized for both medical and recreational use, advertising can be a challenge. It’s certainly still possible to achieve success...but to get there, you’ll have to overcome some obstacles. As of January 2020, some of the most common obstacles you’ll encounter include:
- The federal government still bans cannabis as a “Schedule 1” drug
- National media outlets reject cannabis ads to avoid messes with federal regulators
- Each legal market has unique guidelines for cannabis ads — there’s no consistent set of rules
- Social media platforms ban content that sells cannabis or promotes cannabis use
- Google ads reject any cannabis-related keywords or attempts to sell cannabis products
Many how-to guides will tell you that if you stick to educational messages rather than pushing purchase or consumption, you’ll be fine. However, the NFL famously rejected an educational medical marijuana advertising spot for Super Bowl LIII, even though medical marijuana is legal in 33 states — including the home states of both teams (though it wouldn’t become legal in Georgia, where the game was played, until two months later). So even with purely scientific content, you’re still likely to face scrutiny from the gatekeepers.
Beat the Gatekeepers: 6 Ways to Succeed at Cannabis Advertising
1. Promote Your Business, Not Cannabis
Not every business in the cannabis space is tied exclusively to the plant. For instance, if you sell hydroponic equipment or fertilizer, you can advertise your broadly-applicable product without ever mentioning cannabis (even if that’s the market you’re primarily targeting). You can bet that young cannabusinesses who need resources for their grow houses will be searching with relevant keywords.
Here’s a snapshot of a January of 2020 search for “hydroponics equipment” on Google:
All of the promoted ads at the top of the search are from companies that could provide B2B assistance in the cannabis industry — but it isn’t stated. And folks are looking for this, as you can see from the 1,300 monthly search volume my Keywords Everywhere plugin is showing beneath the search bar.
New England Hydroponics (the third option) even sells “CANNA Coco,” a substrate optimized for cannabis hydroponics, above the fold right on the page where their ad lands you post-click:
Again, this isn’t an option for every company. A dispensary that mainly sells cannabis buds and consumables would be misleading — and ultimately unsuccessful — if they tried to promote business through ads for innocuous snacks also sold in-store. However, such a business could still list themselves on Yelp, Google Maps, and other directories that appear at the top of keyword-relevant search results (just like sponsored ads).
They could also create branded merchandise or wearables and advertise those items rather than their core product (as long as the items are platform-compliant). Dispensary advertising and marketing are about creating brand awareness, after all — not just generating sales.
2. Go After CBD to Get Folks in the Door
The federal government passed a bill in 2018 that legalized cannabidiol (CBD) with less than .3% concentration of the psychoactive compound in marijuana (THC) nationwide. CBD is also now legal at some level (either at or above those federal baselines) in each of the 50 U.S. States. To top it off, consumer interest in CBD products — oils, beverages, topicals, and more — is at an all-time high. All bombs away, right? Well, sort of.
The disclaimer is that CBD is still entangled in plenty of regulatory gray area at present, and still has considerable limitations. For instance, the FDA has issued warnings about selling CBD with unproven curative claims. Google, Reddit, Amazon, Pinterest, Twitter, Twitch, and other large digital platforms also still prohibit CBD ads in any form.
Facebook now allows ads for topical CBD (no ingestibles yet) if they’re related to medical assistance, but the ads themselves can’t feature the product. This advertisement, for example, was approved and run on Facebook in late 2019:
So check to make sure you’re square with your local market’s regulations and the policies of your advertising platform, but rest assured that CBD is at least legal to sell, at both the state and federal level. If you can advertise CBD products to raise awareness of your brand, customers who engage with you can discover the rest of your cannabis-related products on their own.
3. Use Cannabis-Friendly Digital Ad Networks
There are dozens of cannabis-specific ad networks that can connect you with your target audience through compliant digital advertisements. These platforms do the homework for you, in terms of finding legal, valuable space for cannabis advertising. Then, they enable you to distribute strategic display, native, video, and retargeting ad campaigns through their network.
Mantis is easily the best-known, but there are other excellent options, like:
Even some non-cannabis-focused ad networks and publishers are starting to make headway into the industry. Vana, for example, has recently partnered up with mainstream publications like USA Today, Buzzfeed, and Thrillist to offer legal, certified, compliant cannabis advertising space on their properties.
News publications like Pitchfork, Complex, Slate, and Thrasher have also become more cannabis and CBD friendly, so give them a look as well. While you’re checking out online magazine publications, there’s a wide selection of cannabis-focused ones (both online and in print) that are ideal purveyors of cannabis advertising space. Check out:
4. Capture Leads, Then Advertise Through Email
Email is an invaluable tool for cannabis advertising. As a private channel, you have the freedom to talk directly to your target audience about your brand, offer promotions, and link them back to your website (as long as you’re CAN-SPAM compliant). Many canna-brands devote a considerable portion of their advertising workflow to email ad campaigns because they’re cheap, easy to automate, and tightly targeted.
To gather opt-in email addresses for your ads, you’ve got to do some lead capture. This can be handled a variety of ways:
- During Checkout: Collect email addresses in-store, in the checkout line, to encourage repeat patronage with email promotions.
- Live Events: Keep a tablet or clipboard handy for contact info collection right at your booth during industry trade shows and conventions. Or host your own in-person seminars and workshops on a subject that will interest your target audience, advertise the event, and collect emails from attendees for perks sent through product/service advertising emails.
- Gated Content: Gather contact info on a landing page in exchange for a downloadable asset or access to something like a webinar. Digital content marketing is a natural pair for both cannabis advertising and email campaigns.
- Blog/Newsletter Subscriptions: If you keep up an active content marketing strategy, newsletters with recent cannabis-related articles, industry updates, and company news are a great way to get visitors to sign up for regular emails. Here’s an example of this style of lead capture on the website of Kiva Confections, a popular edibles cannabusiness:
Email does have its own cans of worms to navigate, however. Email service providers all have their own acceptable use policies that regulate the sorts of messages that are allowed or prohibited through their platform. Companies like MailChimp have shut down the accounts of certain businesses in the past simply for operating in the cannabis industry (even if they don’t sell cannabis).
Cannabiz Media put together a detailed rundown of these issues here (and they actually run their own email marketing platform specifically for cannabusinesses, if you’d rather not grapple with the compliance policies of platforms for more general use).
Don’t be discouraged, though—many cannabusinesses are seeing incredible results with email.
5. Target Internet Radio!
While national radio stations (or even local ones) could be picked up by folks outside the legal borders of a cannabis-friendly state, the internet is much easier to geo-fence and filter. Some of the major streaming radio services — which can and do accept cannabis advertisements at their discretion — include:
With the help of these internet-only platforms, you can reach your audience between tunes from their favorite albums, genres, playlists, and more. Another digital option is CannabisRadio, who bill themselves as “the premier online/podcast radio destination for all things cannabis.” One advantage of a tightly focused platform like CannabisRadio is that a huge slice of the audience is predisposed towards an interest in your brand.
Even more intriguing is that CannabisRadio content can also be accessed through syndicated distribution on iHeartRadio, iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, TuneIn, and all the other large podcast platforms. You can inquire about advertising opportunities with this form on the CannabisRadio website.
In order to be compliant on a mass media channel like a radio station, just about any legal market will require that you:
- Do not geographically target audiences outside the state where cannabis is legal
- Target audiences that are over 21 (some states require proof that the percentage of legal-age impressions exceeds a certain threshold)
- Refrain from making any false, potentially misleading, or unsupported claims about cannabis
As a side note, the FCC also doesn’t consider subscription-based satellite radio (like Sirius XM) to be a “broadcast service” like national TV and radio networks. This means satellite stations aren’t subject to the same regulations as traditional radio stations and can choose to offer cannabis advertising opportunities. It couldn’t hurt to ask! MedMen launched a cannabis ad campaign in 2018 on SiriusXM that reached 18 million unique listeners per month in between segments of flagship channels like The Howard Stern Show.
6. Billboards are Back
Speaking of MedMen (who operate in both the medical and recreational cannabis spaces), they’ve also found success with an old medium that’s found new life with legal cannabis: billboards.
The San Diego Tribune captured this billboard over the San Diego Pacific Highway.
MedMen noted in their XM radio press release that they’ve got billboards up at “more than 30 high-traffic locations in California and Nevada” in addition to mobile billboards on “a fleet of 60 branded trucks across Southern California.”
It’s ironic that such an innovative new industry has turned to such a traditional format, but it makes sense. Billboards are one of the few forms of cannabis advertising that are legal since they’re physically grounded in legal markets.
CNBC reported on this billboard advertisement close to LAX airport.
Nonetheless, any foray into cannabis advertising will face heavy regulation. California, where MedMen operates, requires proof that 71.6% of the audience in the environment that will be exposed to the billboard are over the age of 21. Other markets, like Colorado, are less strict (they set the minimum at 30% over 21). Illinois took California’s lead when they became the latest state to legalize cannabis and adopted the same 71.6% rule. Some states are considering banning cannabis billboards altogether, though, but it’s still up in the air.
You’ll have to check with your local government and the company that owns the billboard slot for clarification on their requirements and compliance policies, but it’s worth it. Billboards in areas with a high concentration of adults over 21 offer invaluable exposure to raise awareness of your brand.
Break Out of the Box: Invent New Space for Cannabis Ads
It’s the wild west out there. Cannabis is a lucrative new frontier, but flurries of oft-contradictory laws, vague cannabis regulations, and inconsistent enforcement keep drawing (and re-drawing) lines in the sand. There’s no reason you need to butt heads with regulators in traditional marketing or advertising channels, though. You could invent a new one.
Weedmaps is really thinking outside the box with their new museum dedicated to cannabis education and history. This daring brick-and-mortar venture will serve vast numbers of curious daily visitors, completely legally, while also raising awareness of the Weedmaps brand.
With a little creativity, there are bound to be many more clever ways to leverage brand awareness without running afoul of the law. The most successful cannabis advertising strategy might just be the next one.