“The reality is that you can’t verify that an audience is of age,” said Eric Layland, founder and senior strategist at Canna Ventures, a cannabis industry marketing services firm. “You can make some accommodations and target publications that have a splash page to verify that users are over 21. But there’s no way to police that.”
Because marijuana marketing must be so data-driven, Olivia Mannix, co-founder of marijuana marketing agency Cannabrand, says digital and PR are the best ways to promote cannabis brands. “You don’t have the same restrictions as in print or on TV,” she said.
Cannabrand works with Brightfield Group Cannabis Market Research, a research firm that mines cannabis consumption data, to inform its digital campaigns.
“We can hone in to different markets to figure out consumer profiles and what type of products they’re interested in,” Mannix said.
As with more traditional verticals, this data can help product development.
Producers can use CanX data to build customer segments, based on purchase history trends that reveal, for instance, that consumers buying edibles also tend to buy a certain type of cannabis oil or beverage.
“There’s a huge swing in Washington [state] where growers are growing strains that aren’t being produced, and are forced to lower prices when supply outpaces demand,” Pimentel explained. “Some firms are jumping straight into marketing cannabis before they’re getting the data that they need to make those decisions. They’re not reacting in real time.”
But even with clear marketing objectives and data-driven targeting, publishers often ax marijuana ads.
Google, Bing, Facebook and LinkedIn have all declined ads that Canna Ventures has attempted to run, said Layland.
And cannabis marketers looking to run banners through an ad server will find there’s a good chance publishers won’t accept it. That means advertisers are subject to the restrictions of various publishers, and willing publishers may not even have a large enough audience to target against.
Those hurdles have driven cannabis advertisers to digital marijuana-focused publications like High Times or marijuana-finding apps like CanX or Leafly, or through marijuana-specific platforms or exchanges, like Mantis Ad Network.
Marijuana stakeholders are hopeful, however, that consumer demand eventually creates support for marijuana marketing.
Following legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska – as well as degrees of decriminalization and legalization from other states – the legal cannabis industry in the US hit $2.7 billion by the end of 2014, according to investment firm ArcView Group. Advisory firm GreenWave Advisors anticipates marijuana retail sales in the US will hit $35 billion a year by 2020 (assuming all states legalize marijuana).
“Once some of the major platforms realize there’s so much demand they’ll change their ways because the technology is there to geotarget,” Layland said. “If you want to restrict certain ads to Colorado, Washington or Alaska, where it’s legal, that’s doable.”
Even alcohol suffered through prohibition – and today you can’t turn on a football game without getting hit by alcohol advertisements.
“Brands will always follow the market,” said Pimentel. “If you look at audiences’ interest, it’s growing. We’re going to have more and more advertisers partnering not only from a brand perspective, but also advertising on these platforms.”