Guest Column: How the Cannabis Industry Can Close the Digital Marketing Divide

By Joe Hodas

Tripp Keber, CEO of Dixie Brands, is fond of saying that cannabis isn’t digital, meaning it can’t be reproduced in any way other than going through the grow cycle.

During my short six months in this industry, I’ve noticed that this expression can be applied to the cannabis business community, too. In other words, most companies in the space aren’t digital, and they’ve fallen woefully behind in areas like web development, SEO and social media.

The difference is that while the plant can never go digital, the industry can – it just hasn’t.

Behind the Times

Before joining Dixie as its chief marketing officer back in January, I had spent the prior five years as a partner with an integrated advertising agency.

Digital was part of our DNA, and we had to think that way for our clients.

Suffice to say, it was a bit of a shock to me when I joined my new company and realized that the cannabis industry’s way of forward thinking on the digital front is the QR code – the butt of jokes in non-cannabis marketing. Is a two-dimensional bar code the best we can come up with?

Why aren’t more cannabis-friendly media platforms capable of handling rich media (those really fancy digital ads)? Where are we all with hosted video content? How are we driving real-time, hyperlocal connections with customers? Why aren’t we more prominently integrating our own cannabis-specific social networks?

External Challenges

Now before everyone gets bent out of shape, there are many in the space who are doing a great job with digital marketing. There are dispensaries with robust in-store digital platforms; brands that really understand the digital design ethic; and many businesses with strong social networks on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

So I don’t mean to imply that that everyone is five years behind.

And, to be sure, one of the main drivers of this digital divide is the unreasonable level of cannabiggotry out there.

The companies that provide the very format that could offer us advertising salvation via targeted marketing want nothing to do with us.

Just prior to writing this, I tried to pay $75 to Facebook – again – and they turned our money down because the ad is linked to a “pharmaceutical company.” Many of us have tried to market via Google by using creative words to describe our businesses and products. But they always seem to eventually figure out you’re a cannabis business and then pull the ads.

All of this is that much more painful given the other marketing and advertising restrictions placed on us for non-digital formats like print, billboards and TV.

Absolving Marketing Sins

We can of course complain about what we can’t do, but it doesn’t change the fact that our consumers are digital. We are committing one of the greatest marketing sins possible – we aren’t meeting our consumer where they live.

So what should we do other than proliferate QR codes and shake our fists at the cannabiggots?

Well, for a first step we should all embrace the platforms that are finally being developed specific to our industry.

Just this past week I met with two companies that put technology first, but with a focus on cannabis. One, EyeChronic, is developing a digital in-store platform that will coordinate with your website and offers access to additional digital tools such as rich media digital development. Another, Karmi, is creating emoticons (those little smiley faces) that have deeper data attached to them, like locations and deals.

I have seen some resistance in this business to working with companies that aren’t “from” the industry. However, I see it this way: There are companies with deep vertical expertise that can not only assist us in our growth, but can also help us further validate what we do and how we do it. Why wouldn’t we want to utilize their expertise?

Baby Steps

, Guest Column: How the Cannabis Industry Can Close the Digital Marketing DivideIn order for us to develop deeper relationships with consumers, we have to encourage the digital industry to embrace us. Build networks for us. Convince Google to take our-hard earned money. Design back-end platforms that allow us to drive real-time, inventory-based sales.

But until that happens more widely, here are some quick and easy tips for taking baby steps if you haven’t done so already:

  • Make sure you have a brand/logo that works well in digital platforms. The few hundred dollars you may invest in some graphic design work will go a long way towards establishing a better digital foot print.
  • Consider your social media “strategy.” It’s not just about popping up a Facebook presence and duplicating your content via Twitter. Make sure you know who/where your audience is, how to build it, and that you pay attention to what is going on out there. That extends to those platforms you don’t directly own, like Yelp, Weedmaps, Leafly and MassRoots. You want to be sure you know what people are saying and that you are addressing any negative, or positive, feedback as close to real time as possible.
  • Make digital a foundational element of your marketing rather than an add-on. Try to create an ecosystem that allows you to attract, retain and communicate with interested customers. It used to be called a sales funnel, but now its more a customer journey map – if they are in store, grab their data and send them offers, add them to your newsletter list, provide easy access to your other platforms (like a one-click Facebook like button). The goal here is to cast a wide net and drive traffic across your platforms.

None of it this is simple. It takes time, money and some patience. It’s also an ongoing process – there is no point at which you should be “done.”

But developing a digital strategy is critical to the industry’s long-term health, and the companies that execute effectively in this area will have a huge leg up on their competitors.

This leads me to a closing question: What digital tools, ideas and best practices can you share with the industry?

Joe Hodas is the chief marketing officer of Dixie Brands, which makes infused cannabis products. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoeHodas