Marijuana Marketing: Q&A with Todd Ellison

Advertising is one of the most frustrating areas of operation for marijuana business owners due to costs, marketing regulations embedded in state laws and tight restrictions from some of the largest marketing resources.

But as the industry becomes more crowded, advertising is going to become increasingly important.

Todd Ellison operates two boutique marketing firms for marijuana businesses, Weed Media and Colorado Marijuana Marketing.

He helps businesses master the fundamentals of advertising in an ever-changing market. He’s built more than 200 websites for recreational and medical businesses.

We spoke with him to get advice for business owners looking to get the most from their marketing spend.

Q: What are the most important features of a marijuana business website?

A: Make sure it is functional on a mobile phone. A huge percentage of your business got your address from an email, a text message or something else on their phone. After that, just keep it simple. Make sure your phone number is clickable from a phone, and that your address is prominent and linked to Google Maps. That is going to bring in a quarter of your total business, and you could completely miss it.

Q: What is the best strategy for medical marijuana businesses and smaller rec shops hoping to advertise in markets that are getting crowded?

A: Emphasize the quality of your product. In Colorado there are still 120,000 medical patients, and 80,000 of them know exactly what strains they want. The rest of them, they’re learning. Rec customers aren’t that far along.

The best way for medical [owners] to advertise is still the direct email approach.

Q: What no-no’s do you see businesses do with direct email?

A: Too many updates can be a real problem. One email or text update a day is plenty; once or twice a week is better. Your strategy for updates should come down to your customer demographics. If it’s the 21 to 45 year old crowd, then more updates are OK. If it’s older, they might not use their email or phones enough.

Q: Are there any marketing campaigns you would warn against for medical businesses?

A: I’ve worked on coupon campaigns in the past that were horrible. They brought in the discount hunters, and it turned out to be the wrong client base for some of these [medical] shops. The clients complained about the product because it wasn’t the top quality strains that were on discount.

Q: Consumer-oriented marijuana festivals are becoming an important venue for advertising in the industry. What is your advice for an event marketing strategy?

A: Focus on your best strains or best edibles. I’d say just focus on [bringing] your top three strains. If people don’t like the smell and taste of one of your strains, all of a sudden, the rest are useless to them. And if you’re an edible company, just bring one or two edibles. But make sure it’s your best.

Q: There is a long tradition in the marijuana industry of featuring hyper-sexual images in marketing materials. Why do businesses continue this, and do you believe it will change?

A: I avoid it myself, and the things I hear from people in the industry is that it’s gotten to be too much.

But we all know that sex sells in every market. It’s a quick way to get attention, especially for new businesses. Some cute budtender posts a photos of a joint on Facebook, and the next thing you know you get a bump in business. Remember, the overwhelming majority of customers are still men.

Again, I don’t advise it. But if your customer base is mostly guys in their 20’s, then by all means, throw in some cute girls.

Q: What are the pros and cons that you hear from businesses that use network websites such as Weedmaps and Leafly?

A: The mobile app usage is a huge benefit for businesses. Customers are driving around looking for a shop and [the app] brings them to the closest location.

Weedmaps is great for the customers who don’t want to do tons of research; they just want the first place that is off the highway. Leafly’s icon-based strain library is great. And both companies have such strong data, they are probably the best information base.

The complaint I hear is from companies that say their inventory data isn’t updated fast enough. You get customers from the online menu saying I went on [Weedmaps or Leafly] five minutes ago and now I show up and you’re sold out of that strain. They can get irritated, and they might not come back.

Q: As marijuana becomes more mainstream, what type of branding messaging will the industry promote?

A: I don’t see any Spuds Mckenzie’s of the weed world popping up just yet. A few stoner-like characters will be featured in mainstream marketing, because it’s already been effective with the younger age range. You can get their attention with silly stuff.

Some companies will really try to distance themselves from the stoner image. They’re going to promote themselves with professional icons and more abstract messages. Their messaging will be about the qualities of the plant itself, and less about wellness.