As states around the country started shutting down businesses in March to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, both mainstream and cannabis businesses pivoted from in-person to virtual events.
In some cases, such as 4/20, the unofficial marijuana holiday, the switch had to be made in a matter of weeks.
In the cannabis industry, companies including Marijuana Business Daily are turning to virtual platforms for everything from trade conferences and product launches to consumer and client education as well as staff training.
Whether it’s Instagram, Zoom or a platform specifically designed for conferences, the industry still wants to gather to exchange ideas, conduct business and engage customers and clients as the world navigates tumultuous conditions resulting from the pandemic.
While most companies report that virtual events have been successful and attendees say they’re getting value out of them, there are challenges.
“There is a distraction issue,” said Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer for Wana Brands, a Boulder, Colorado-based manufacturer of infused products, who has participated in a number of virtual conferences both as an attendee and a panelist. “The challenge is you’re on your desktop and you catch up on emails.”
Even so, it appears that virtual events are the reality for the time being. What follows are lessons learned from three cannabis-related businesses that have hosted virtual events.
Company: Drew Martin
Headquarters: Los Angeles
Line of business: Pre-rolls
What Happened: Drew Martin was planning to launch its line of high-end pre-rolls with a series of dinners and cocktail parties. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to shift to a virtual Zoom event and subsequent parties.
Drew Martin teamed up with San Vicente Bungalows, an exclusive club in Hollywood, California, that caters to A-list celebrities and power brokers.
“We knew we’d have to do this all virtually and digitally to keep our team safe and to keep our guests safe,” said Andrew Freeman, Drew Martin’s chief brand officer. “Being a part of what’s happening in Los Angeles was important to us. We worked with San Vicente Bungalows to create a program for their members who could get the word out about what we were doing as well.”
Participants in the Zoom event—most of them from the L.A. area—were treated to a master cocktail-making class by company founder Drew Martin, a former mixologist who has worked in several James Beard Award-winning bars. Participants received a list of alcohol and other ingredients they would need for the event. Packages that included a box of pre-rolls, a lime, a lemon, a measuring cup and a few mixers and elixirs were delivered to participants.
“Our founder who created the product is a mixologist and herbalist by training,” Freeman said. “He’s always talked about these joints as if they’re cocktails.”
What Worked: The partnership with San Vicente Bungalows enabled Drew Martin to engage with an audience that is aligned with what it has to offer.
“Because our participants had to gather their own supplies, they were more invested in it,” Freeman said, referring to people having to purchase alcohol and other ingredients. “There was a payoff there to making it an engaging piece. There was a little more buildup and a little more seriousness around it.”
What Didn’t Work: It’s difficult to account for everything that can go wrong, so it’s good to do a test run before the actual event, which Drew Martin did. But because the test run did not happen at precisely the time the event was scheduled, event producers didn’t realize the angle of the video equipment would be problematic when the sun set.
“It’s really important to dedicate someone to manage that tech side of it,” Freeman said. “If you’re leading the event, you can’t be managing the community or the waiting room. If you’ve dedicated someone to managing that tech side, it can save a lot of heartache and trouble.”
Best Piece of Advice: “To create an experience that will leave people excited about your brand, you have to create an engaging experience for them,” Freeman said. “For us, the key has been to make something that’s interactive. You’re not talking about your brand for 60 minutes; you’re showing who your brand is.”
Company: Papa & Barkley
Headquarters: Eureka, California
Line of Business: Tincture and topical manufacturer
What Happened: As COVID-19 started spreading across the United States, Papa & Barkley pivoted from in-store customer education about its medical cannabis products to virtual training sessions for budtenders as well as brand promotion—all done via Zoom.
“It’s more challenging than setting an appointment and going into the dispensary,” said Adam Grossman, Papa & Barkley’s CEO. “It’s an ongoing necessity of the business to make sure we’re good partners and communicators and training their people.”
What Worked: There isn’t any extra cost associated with training budtenders via Zoom because the number of hours invested in virtual training is the same as it would be if Papa & Barkley employees were doing the training in person, Grossman said.
Because some cannabis retailers are working with a skeleton crew, it’s often difficult to schedule the Zoom training. So Papa & Barkley is creating a five-module video series on the ExpertVoice platform. The training series also gives Papa & Barkley the opportunity to standardize the information it provides budtenders.
Budtenders watch a video and then must pass a quiz before moving to the next module. The first video module provides information about Papa & Barkley’s story, brand and core values. Other modules are more product specific.
“It’s the medicinal attributes of our product mix that require a higher degree of education,” Grossman said. “Because we have multiple ratios, it requires a lot of education.”
What Didn’t Work: Replicating the patient-education days that were primarily conducted in stores has been difficult.
“Our demographic is generally utilizing the products in ways that require more education,” Grossman said. “There’s just less human touch, which is such a core part of the experience as a cannabis company. I wouldn’t say it hasn’t been working well, but it’s hard to articulate our value proposition online.”
Best Piece of Advice: Understanding and using the different functions available on your selected virtual platform is key.
“We like to use the notes features, and with using the chat feature, we’ve found positive engagement both to field questions and to capture emails of people who want to be on our mailing list,” Grossman said.
Line of business: Cannabis staffing
What Happened: When states started shuttering their economies in March to stop the spread of COVID-19, Vangst began hosting webinars on the video platform Vimeo to help cannabis companies navigate the challenging business environment.
What Worked: Vangst, which has hosted 10 virtual events, surveyed its clients to determine the type of information they thought would be helpful and developed panels that brought industry experts together to discuss topics
- Motivating and managing remote workers through adaptability, empathy and communication.
- New safety norms for cannabis businesses, including social distancing and workplace safety.
- Operational excellence and leadership during a crisis.
“The purpose of our webinars was to bring the community together in a non-salesy way and answer the question, ‘How can we be the best employer possible?’” Vangst founder and CEO Karson Humiston said.
What Didn’t Work: As happens with the career fairs Vangst hosts, people who sign up for a webinar don’t necessarily show up.
“At career fairs, we get a 50% show-up rate,” Humiston said. With virtual, attendance is “less than half (of people who sign up).”
Humiston also has had issues with people using the chat feature to promote their businesses. In the most recent case, she privately messaged the person and asked him to stop. Humiston said Vangst hasn’t experienced any problems with inappropriate comments, but she has had to deal with off-topic questions.
“In a session about wellness, someone kept asking about social equity. And it would take the panel down such a rabbit hole if we’re talking about self-care,”
Best Piece of Advice: Create an outline and an agenda for participants after seeking their input on the topics they want to discuss.
“It’s annoying for me as a consumer when the vendors are jamming their own agendas our way,” Humiston said. “This is a chance to bring industry leaders together and ask them questions.”