Marijuana marketing tips in the age of federal prohibition and COVID-19 

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Alex Milligan, Nugg cannabis(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Alex Milligan is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of California-based subscription cannabis service Nugg Club.)

Federal prohibition continues to shudder on-ramps for marijuana companies to use traditional means to reach consumers and strengthen brand identity.

For example, there’s relatively little paid online advertising available aside from banners and interstitials on select sites.

Additionally, the biggest social media groups – Facebook, Instagram, Google, TikTok – have banned marijuana advertising in order to honor federal prohibition.

Advertising obstacles

Online censorship has forced many businesses to go outdoors for out-of-home (OOH) ads, which utilize billboards, park benches and the like to market.

But even these means of building brand ID are restrained for marijuana businesses.

Outdoor ads can’t be placed within a certain proximity to schools, parks, churches and any number of civic landmarks.

In fact, a November ruling in California banned local billboards along federal interstate highways or state highways that cross borders, neutering major travel veins in California such as Interstate 5 and I-80.

Beyond that, marijuana regulations prevent businesses from even reaching new audiences through roundabout methods of paid advertising, such as giveaways or competitions on social platforms, because companies aren’t allowed to give away productsor engage in sweepstakes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of this even worse.

Limited options

With fewer people commuting, the OOH reach is severely limited, causing brands to rethink expensive billboards that receive limited impressions.

Compounding that pain, vendors who host these billboards are acutely aware of the limits on legal marijuana advertising and, consequently, charge a premium for billboard space.

Beyond that, everything from low-key mixers to wildly popular events  such as the High Times Cannabis Cup, where enthusiasts and brands mingle, have temporarily evaporated.

Meanwhile, local dispensaries held to limiting customer interaction aren’t able to sponsor in-store promotions that would match customers to brands.

It would be naïve to cross our fingers and wait for what’s sure to be a longer process for full national decriminalization.

Instead, marijuana businesses will need to take decisive action with their marketing approaches amid the ongoing pandemic unknowns.

Coronavirus-proof marketing strategies

With stay-at-home orders and depressed social activity, consumers are spending more time online, especially on social media platforms.

Brands need to reach and connect with their target audience while still avoiding regulatory hurdles.

This isn’t direct sales activations but, instead, the development of a brand’s visual and cultural identity through content that will generate earned media through shares and engagement.

That means more videos and trendy content that ties back to the product and service, less-generic photos and experimenting with emerging platforms such as TikTok and Clubhouse.

Closely related is the work that can be done with influencers who can skirt many of the regulations social media platforms apply to companies but not consumers.

More cannabis companies are perking up to the fact that influencers are ready and willing to work with them, but that means the signal-to-noise ratio is getting weaker every day.

Experiment with personalized outreach messages, custom packaging and leveraging the authority you’ve built elsewhere to be the signal that influencers are looking for.

Alternative events

Many of us miss getting together in person, but that doesn’t mean events have to cease all together.

Virtual events can provide much-needed entertainment and introduce new consumer segments to a brand.

High-effort events include drive-in movies and drive-thru experiences, while lower-effort experiences can be virtual cannabis and yoga sessions, marijuana and cooking or other activities paired with MJ.

Get other brands to co-sponsor the event to increase impact.

For instance, collaborations with yoga instructors with large followings creates opportunities to showcase your brand and connect with a specific behavioral demographic.

Stick with what works

Of course, this is no time to throw out the tried and tested methods.

Email is still the highest return-on-investment channel in any marketer’s toolkit.

A 2019 study from McKinsey & Co. showed that email marketing is up to 40 times more effective than social media.

Having complete control over even a single line of communication with the customer is critical.

That can happen through content marketing and offering a regular email newsletter, creating co-marketing opportunities with other brands and sharing email leads or offering a discount in exchange for someone’s email when they land on a brand’s site.

As we enter spring, there are plenty of opportunities to leverage consumer-focused holidays to offer promotions in the vein of “buy-one, get-one” or special discounts.

But companies must take advantage of every one of these dates in the public consciousness to boost direct outreach to consumers.

Niches get clicks

Good old-fashioned search engine optimization (SEO) will be paramount to get through the unique challenges of marketing during COVID-19 times.

Companies should ensure that attention is paid to increasing site traffic however possible.

Research demonstrates that emphasis on niche-product offerings not only generates clicks but amplifies brand identity to consumers.

Any skilled team of content marketers should be hard at work honing potential keyword goldmines.

A strong ability to exploit niche-content topics around specific products and categories will allow companies to mold their SEO approach for maximum results.

While COVID-19 has provided a gauntlet of hurdles to getting ads where they need to be, this is no reason to move with trepidation.

Though the brawn of many marketing tactics might be quelled in part, savvy efforts to reach targeted consumers by pounding the pavement of the internet will serve to keep brands afloat as we navigate this most tricky time.

Alex is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of California-based subscription cannabis service Nugg Club. He can be reached at

The previous installment of this series is available here.

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