Recreational marijuana use is legal in eight states and Washington, D.C.
Sales of legal pot grew to $6.6 billion in 2016, according to New Frontier, a research company that analyzes the marijuana industry. That includes $4.7 billion for medical marijuana and $1.9 billion for recreational. The industry as a whole is projected to exceed $24 billion by 2025.
The growing legalization and increased positive public perception of marijuana translate to opportunities for PR and marketing pros.
Given all that activity, Matthew Karnes, founder of the marijuana financial consultancy GreenWave Advisors, predicts that the legalized U.S. industry will grow from $6.5 billion in sales during 2016 to $30 billion in 2021. He estimates that by 2021, marijuana marketing will total $75 million.
Here are a few lessons communicators can glean from marijuana marketing:
1. Perception is everything.
In October 2016, Gallup reported that 60 percent of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana—the highest percentage of support recorded in a 47-year time span:
When Gallup first asked this question in 1969, 12% of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana use. In the late 1970s, support rose to 28% but began to retreat in the 1980s during the era of the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign. Support stayed in the 25% range through 1995, but increased to 31% in 2000 and has continued climbing since then.
Consumption of marijuana has also increased steadily over the past decade, with more than 22 million Americans reporting they had used it in the previous month, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Effective PR and marketing have made a huge difference in this perception change.
Matt Rizzetta, founder and president of communications agency N6A, told Observer that PR efforts are changing people’s feelings toward the cannabis industry, and as more news outlets are covering industry developments, the call for subject-matter experts is increasing:
“Business Insider and CNBC both have dedicated cannabis beat reporters now, and our clients are positioned as thought leaders,” he said. “PR is helping erase stigma around the category. Reporters began to trust the cannabis companies and see that they were in it, not for commercial gain but for the greater good.”
Whether you work for an organization or client that offers products and services for which consumers have negative feelings, or you’re fixing a reputational weak spot with a public awareness campaign, perception is everything.
Understanding consumers’ beliefs and self-interests, combined with effective education tactics and savvy messaging, can make all the difference.
2. Persistence pays off.
For most PR and marketing pros, social platforms are a crucial part of successful campaigns.
As more and more consumers use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and more to learn about organizations and make purchasing decisions, it’s essential for brand managers to stay current on best practices and know their advertising options for social media sites.
For PR and marketing pros representing cannabis organizations, online strategies face another hurdle.
Adam Steinberg, Flow Kana’s co-founder, told Adweek that a “fair share” of Facebook ads—especially those with “typical stoner language” —were denied. Google’s advertising policies, which include Adwords and YouTube, explicitly state that the promotion of recreational drugs and products that facilitate their use are not allowed.
Though Steinberg said he still has success using Facebook for his cannabis clients, PR and marketing pros representing the industry will continue to walk a tightrope with social media efforts for the foreseeable future.
Let this motivate your efforts on behalf of your organizations and clients. Just as public perception of marijuana has changed, so will social media policies adapt to the growing tide of consumer desires (along with lucrative marketing opportunities).
3. Go niche.
Though support for marijuana legalization is growing, why face marketing regulations and uninterested reporters from mainstream online platforms and news organizations when you can target interested and passionate consumers?
Most traditional media companies have spurned the industry's ads. But Joe Hodas, CMO of Dixie Brands, which sells edible and topical products in four states, reported that new cannabis-focused companies with print and online opportunities are constantly contacting him. "The No. 1 fastest media platform in this industry is print," he said.
There’s a plethora of cannabis-related publications, websites and social media opportunities, too.
In July 2015, Entrepreneur reported:
… Mantis [Network] reaches 6 million unique visitors each month, while WeedMaps has 2.1 million. “Every single month, we’re growing 25 percent in reach with no advertising, no funding, just natural growth,” Price says, adding that Mantis is on track for $1 million in revenue for 2015, its first year in business.
Along with sites such as free sites such as MedicalJane.com and WeedMaps, a quick Google search for “cannabis marketing” yields seven agencies that provide communications—and that’s just on the first page of results.
Other agencies and cannabis database sites, including NSFW, offer “influencer” opportunities and advice for successful partnerships with influential social media users.
Savvy communicators are fine-tuning their messages and campaigns for local audiences, as well.
The skyrocketing figures signal that cannabis businesses are only going to proliferate. From there, with the market becoming more specialized, leading PR firms like Nison’s will likely need to tailor their messages to local audiences.
“I see it maturing to a more local level,” he says. “As more states legalize marijuana, there’s going to be more need for local press for things like dispensary openings and local license applications and those sorts of things. Like for instance in Colorado, obviously, there’s more local reporting going on, so I think eventually there will be more local cannabis PR offices.”
You don’t have to promote marijuana products and services to go niche, however.
Discover where your passionate consumers seek information and share recommendations, and start building relationships that can yield more success than pitches to major news outlets would.