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The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations: Climate, Cultivation & Genetics – Part 1

By Chris Wrenn, Phil Gibson
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Ideal cannabis profits come from high demand/high selling prices and low production costs. The spread between those two, or margin, can determine the life or death of your business. We want to share this series of articles so that your next investment can be highly successful and high margin out-of-the-box.

Regardless of the grow method (soil, coco, rockwool, hydro or aero), every plant performs best in its own ideal environmental conditions. Experienced growers gained success through hard work, and just that, experience. Many have tried more advanced grow technologies, but shied away due to early trial failures or the complexity of maintaining chemistry across a grow facility. The wonderful thing now is that precision sensors and software controls eliminate the risk to robust healthy plants and harvest success. Growers are now able to both manage production while performing research in line with their operations.

We have learned a great deal working with our grow partners over the last 6 years. Every grow facility and location are different due to local weather, business environment and scale. This series of articles and guide, authored by our expert, Christopher Wrenn, will include recommendations of the most successful approaches we have seen here in North America and all over the world.

A 4-Layer fully aeroponic flower room using movable racking systems

Building top-quality cultivation facilities is no simple task. Cultivators are also looking for new help as they shift from older soil or media approaches to more efficient grow methods. One powerful method is aeroponics, which is very good at growing any type of plant in air in a sterile environment, with labor, nutrient and water savings.

Where possible, we will share key vendors that support healthy grow operations and (since it is World Series Time), customer examples that are knocking it out of the park. In today’s competitive business environment, it is critical to do what we can to increase profitability and survival in the face of steep headwinds. We want you to crush it and be “the last man standing.”

So, let’s get to it.

Climate: Environmental Control

We begin with a critical leg in your environment. The process of photosynthesis is more than just light, plant and moisture. We want to do more than just grow plants. We want to grow highly profitable plants. That means we have to accelerate photosynthesis so we are growing faster, bigger and more potent than our competitors.

The Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) is the amount of “drying power” available in the air surrounding your plants. This is a useful way to understand the amount of moisture your atmosphere can remove from your plants as they digest carbon dioxide and aspirate water and oxygen into the air around your plants. A higher vapor deficit is a good thing for growth; It is also a measurement of how much nutrient you can uptake into the plant roots and convert into size and potency in the canopy. We recommend that you have resources in your grow rooms to maintain your environment to within 5% of both your humidity and temperature targets for ideal results.

Onyx Agronomics is a Tier 3 indoor cultivator in the State of Washington. This is the canopy in one of their 8 flower rooms.

In our Top Quality Cultivation Facility white paper, we review environmental settings for temperature and humidity for mother, clone/veg and flower rooms for day and night light cycles from early cuttings through to end of harvest flush. Day temperatures can be up to 20% higher than night temperatures for example.

Cooling

Managing temperature may seem straight-forward but the heat generated by LED lights, HPS lights or the sun will vary across rooms, time exposure and with the distance of the light source from the plants. Measurement sensors should be distributed across rooms to monitor and trigger temperature resources.

Humidification/Dehumidification

This is a topic that can be underappreciated by cultivators. It is important to slowly transition humidity as you move plants from cuttings to clones, to veg and to flower. Beginning in a very humid stage to motivate root start, humidity will be stepped down from an opening near 90% down to an arid 50% in your end of flush flower rooms. We detail the transitions in 5% increments in the white paper.

The 4-Layer aeroponic flower room with movable racking systems from the side with a tall human for scale. One can do a lot with 30′ ceilings.

Relative Humidity (RH) and the related VPD are the key metrics to accelerating growth throughout the stages. Not sizing dehumidifiers correctly is one of the most common mistakes our grow partners learn about as they move to full production. In the first phase of turning cuttings from healthy mothers into rooted clones, hitting your target VPD to motivate root growth is the number one success factor. This will require the addition of humidity into your clone room. It is also typical to require raise the humidity of your flower rooms when you transition clone/veg plants from the high humidity clone/veg room into an initially dry flower room, otherwise the plants may go into shock as a result of the dramatic change.

As flowering begins, if humidity remains high, and the VPD is below target, the plants will not be moving nutrients and transpiring moisture. We have seen lowering the humidity from 70% in a flower room down to 50%, results in a yield increase from 50 grams to 90 grams of dry trim bud per plant, so a smooth transition can both accelerate growth and have a big impact on your margins and profitability.

Plants in aeroponics can truly have explosive growth. This means that they will also transpire moisture at an accelerated rate. Fast automated growth in aeroponics means increased humidity output. Sizing these critical systems for humidification/dehumidification are a critical part of the design process.

Airflow

Fans combined with your cooling/heating/humidity/dehu systems need to mix the air in a room to break the boundary layer at the leaf surface for transpiration. As we covered, VPD is critical to growth success. A dry surface motivates the plants to transpire moisture. We recommend flow rates across the canopy in a 0.5-1.5 meter/second rate to align to your genetics and where you are in the flowering process.

A raw facility before it gets outfitted.

Airflow and flowering means rich beautiful aromas are generated. Every facility has to consider odor control. If you are in a populated area, you will have ordinances and neighbors to satisfy. The best way to do this is to minimize the amount of air that exits a facility. This is also the cheapest approach.

Sterile HEPA filters and scrubbing systems clean air of pathogens and odor but they also need to circulate and “condition” air to the correct temperature and humidity levels before it can be recirculated into a room. Oftentimes, this is a good place to also recapture humidity and reinject it into your pure water cleaning systems.

Key vendors to talk to about sizing air treatment systems are SURNA, Quest, Desert Aire and AGS. Each of these vendors have specialties and tend to be superior partners in different regions of the world. We would be happy to introduce you to excellent support resources for air management systems.

To download the complete guide and get to the beef quickly, please request the complete white paper Top Quality Cultivation Facilities here.

Click here to see Part 2 where we discuss water quality and management.

Your Cultivation Plan is the Most Important Factor to Increase Your Yield

By David Perkins
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Having a well-built grow room with adequate lighting, the ability to properly control the environment, proper nutrient feedings, a good pest management plan, well trained employees and an experienced cultivation manager are very important to the overall output of cannabis plants. However, even if you have all those measures in place, there’s no guarantee of success. One factor that is often overlooked is how many harvests you can get per year, as clearly the more harvests you can get in a given time period, the more likely your chances of success are in this competitive industry. This is why having a good cultivation plan in place, with proper foresight and planning, is so essential to success.

Increasing yield or production output in a cannabis cultivation facility can often be as simple as having the right cultivation plan in place to ensure that you are harvesting the maximum number of times per year. All it requires is a well thought out plan, and best of all, that does not cost any money if you have someone with enough cultivation experience assisting you and will earn back more than the cost of paying a consultant to get such a plan in place.

In this article I will explain why changing nutrients, grow media or even a cultivation manager may not necessarily increase yield, quality or your chance of success. What you should be focusing on is your cultivation plan and the scheduling of your cultivation cycles.

  1. Why changing nutrient companies may not necessarily increase your yield
Nutrient dosers are used to inject fertilizer directly into irrigation lines

For the most part, nutrient companies use the same ingredients in their product lines and often buy them from the same source, but they combine them in different forms and ratios to create their “unique” product. You can go to a grow store, pick five different nutrient products, read the labels and compare the different nutrients in each one. You will find for the most part that they are very similar. Generally speaking, you could pick any one of those five nutrient companies and have great results. Mixing nutrients into a nutrient tank needs to be done precisely and if your employees are not doing it properly this can lead to plant health issues. In larger cultivation facilities, often nutrient dosers are used to inject fertilizer into the irrigation lines without having to mix nutrients. However, if the dosers are not set to the proper ratios, this can also lead to plant health issues.

There are a few companies that I really like that have a different approach to plant nutrition, which saves time and can prevent human error associated with mixing and applying liquid nutrients. Soilscape solutions, Organics Alive and Beanstock Agriculture all have nutrient lines that are intended to be used with soil or soilless media that can be amended into the soil which provide a slow steady release of nutrients that the plants can uptake as needed. This avoids the risk of human error in repeatedly applying liquid nutrients to the plants.

  1. Why changing grow medium and nutrients will not necessarily improve your yield but may increase yourquality

Whether it is rock wool, coco fiber, a soilless mix or living soil, everything has a limit. Giving your plants the proper amount of water and the frequency at which you water, along with having sufficient room for the roots to grow are key factors to ensuring plant health. If your plants aren’t getting watered properly, no matter what media you are growing in, you will be having problems. Changing things like grow media won’t result in instant success, as there will always be a learning curve when making changes to your cultivation. If you cannot adapt quickly enough, you can quickly create major problems.

plebanisoil
Changing things like grow media won’t result in instant success, as there will always be a learning curve when making changes to your cultivation.

You would be better off to master the grow media you are currently working; you will have more chance of success making slight alterations to your current media than you will if you switch your grow media altogether. There are so many different nutrient lines, soil companies, coco coir companies and the truth is any of them can lead to success.

Changing grow media and nutrients do play a large role in quality though. With cannabis being legalized in many states, the overall quality of cultivation inputs have increased, especially nutrients. However, in general, with some exceptions, the quality of cannabis has not necessarily increased along with the increase in quality of nutrients. One exception: I would argue that switching from salt nutrients and rock wool, to organic living soil will result in an improvement to the flavor, quality and terpenes of the cannabis.

A lot of people use rock wool with salts because it’s easier to scale up than if you are growing in soil, but some quality is also sacrificed. Soil is heavy and messy and most people throw their soil away which takes a lot of money and labor to do. Reusing your soil is one of the best ways to save time, money and increase quality. I had a friend that grew the same variety, same lights, same ventilation but grew hydroponically with salt-based nutrients and he would always say the cannabis I grew, organically, tasted better. The same was true when we grew the same variety outdoors. He used salt-based fertilizer, I used amended soil with water. There wasn’t really a comparison in flavor and the yield was not compromised either! This was his opinion not mine.

I think the vast majority of consumers have not seen the type of quality that someone in Northern California who has been smoking and growing for 20 plus years has seen. Quality is relative to what you have been able to acquire. Most people especially nowadays will never see the quality that used to be common when we didn’t treat the sacred herb like a commodity. When you do it for the love of the plant it shows. Remember, quality is relative to your experience and if salty weed is all you know, you are probably missing out.

  1. Why changing your Cultivation manager may not necessarily increase your yield

Every cultivation facility should have an experienced cultivation manager who is knowledgeable in the areas of nutrient requirements, pest management, environmental requirements, managing employees and overall facilities operations. If a grow room cannot sustain the proper environmental set points, blaming the problems and issues that arise on the cultivation manager is not fair. It is a common problem in the cannabis industry – the owners of a company are not seeing the results that they want and think that by replacing the cultivation manager it will solve all their problems. In reality, often the problem results from upper management or owners of the company not providing the cultivation manager the tools necessary to perform their job at the highest level. Another common problem is when owners fire the cultivation manager and replace them with lower-level employees to manage the facility. The problem with this is those employees do not have enough experience nor the attention to detail to successfully run a cultivation facility. The result is that yield and quality suffer tremendously.

  1. You should be harvesting every 60-70 days
If you are cultivating strains that finish flowering in 60 to 70 days you should be getting five harvests per year.

The reality is there is no one specific thing you can try or buy that will result in success. It is everything combined, the HVAC system, lights, genetics being grown, water quality, air quality, root zone temperature, ability to control environment, having a clean facility, disease free plants, knowledgeable cultivation manager etc. that are required to operate a successful cultivation.

But all of that is less important to yield than a good cultivation plan. Cultivation methods directly tie into the overall production of a facility. But, regardless of whether you’re growing in soil, hydroponics, using LED or HPS, have low or high plant counts, if you don’t have the ability to harvest a grow room, clean and replant within a very short amount of time (ideally one or two days) then you’re going to be losing out on profit.

If you’re cultivating strains that finish flowering in under 60 days you should be getting six harvests per year. If you are cultivating strains that finish flowering in 60 to 70 days you should be getting five harvests per year. To do this, you will need to have the appropriate amount of plants that are ready to be flowered to refill your grow room or greenhouse ready to flower. With a little bit of planning and foresight you will be able to do this, and you will be on your way to producing your highest yield potential.

If you are struggling to have enough plants that are ready to flower once you are done harvesting and cleaning your grow room, having trouble planning your cultivation schedule to maximize production, or struggling to maintain a mother and clone room to supply your own plants or planning for the appropriate amount of labor, contact Floresco Consulting and talk with one of our cultivation advisors to get you back on track. We can guide you to ensure you are harvesting, cleaning and replanting every 60 days. Contact us today to get your facility producing at its maximum potential.

Emerald Holding Acquires MJBiz for $120 Million

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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In a press release sent out today, Emerald Holding, Inc. announced they have completed their acquisition of MJBiz for $120 million.

Emerald Holding, Inc. is a large, publicly traded business-to-business events producer and content conglomerate with a number of publications and events in industries like design, equipment, retail, safety & security and technology. Founded in 2013, the company has become a leading operator of B2B trade shows in the US, with their largest shareholder being the Toronto-based investment group called Onex Corporation.

MJBiz, founded in 2011, is known in the cannabis industry for their content platform, MJBizDaily, as well as the world’s largest cannabis trade show, MJBizCon.

As part of the agreement to acquire MJBiz, Emerald Holding will retain senior management in the company for day-to-day operations. The agreement also includes the potential for future payments, depending on the company’s performance through the end of this year.

Hervé Sedky, President and CEO of Emerald Holding, says they have been big fans of the MJBiz brand for a long time. “We have long admired MJBiz’s sterling reputation for being the most trusted event and content producer serving the business side of the cannabis and hemp industries and their respective participants,” says Sedky. “This is a transformational acquisition for Emerald as it represents an important next step in the implementation of our strategic initiatives and underscores our commitment to evolve and grow our customers’ businesses 365 days a year.”

The two founders of MJBiz, Cassandra Farrington and Anne Holland, will stay on with the company in a consulting capacity. According to Farrington, who is also chair of the MJBiz Board, says they went with Emerald because they value the company’s uniqueness. “Our organization has experienced massive growth since its inception, initially as a how-to resource to help dispensary owners run their businesses better, into our position today as the leading commercial resource for the cannabis sector,” says Farrington. “Integrating with a larger organization provides the additional resources and channels to unlock the next phase of MJBiz’s growth and is the right next step in our evolution as a business.”

Reducing Cross Contamination in Your Lab

By Nathan Libbey
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Cross Contamination

Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:

Wash (and dry) your hands properly

Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).

Design Your Lab for Separation

Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:

  • Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
  • Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
  • Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
  • Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.

Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs

Design SOPs that include everything- from hygiene to test procedures and sanitation.

High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Quality requirements
  • Media
  • Cultures
  • Equipment
  • Training
  • Sample handling
  • Lab operations
  • Testing methodology
  • Data handling/reporting/archiving
  • Investigations

Establish Controls and Monitor Results

Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr
Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr

It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.

Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.

Continuous Improvement is the Key

Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.


References

Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.

Mariam Webster (2021. Cross contamination. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cross%20contamination

Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/

Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342

Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.

World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf

Can Cannabis Get Even More Social?

By Mark Goldwell
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Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.

PlugPlay, a California cannabis brand, stays relevant with creative posts like these on Instagram

And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.

That leaves budtenders  point of sale experts  that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis  or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.

But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.

Going Native

There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.

These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.

Listening and Learning

Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.

A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing  a place where audio platforms can shine.

Old is New

In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.

That’s why time-based content platforms  Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others  that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.

Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.

In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.

Digital Marketing Tips to Help Grow Your Cannabis Business

By Steven Clayton
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The cannabis industry is quickly growing with the chance of sales tripling to $30 billion by 2023. With many rules and regulations that business owners must follow, marketing your cannabis business can be a challenge. While many may not know where to start with marketing, there are organic and simple tactics that owners can implement that can help drive more traffic to your website, resulting in more leads and sales.

Digital marketing is the most effective way to improve your brand’s online presence, reach your target audiences, rank higher on Google searches and ultimately drive more sales. Today, 81% of people turn to the internet before making a purchasing decision, but determining what digital marketing efforts are most valuable can be a daunting task for business owners. When looking to implement digital marketing strategies, businesses should leverage the 80/20 rule—focusing efforts on the 20% of the digital marketing tactics that yield 80% of the most impactful results. With this in mind, some of the key digital marketing tactics to implement today include:

Keep up with Reputation Management

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

Having positive reviews for your company is key to having customers come back, and for new customers to try your business out. With 72% of customers not making a buying decision until they’ve read reviews, companies should prioritize soliciting for reviews from customers and stay up to date on the reviews that are coming in. Businesses should respond to all reviews, whether good or bad, as this shows to customers that the brand cares and values the customers opinion and feedback and wants to continue creating a positive experience for everyone. Reviews should be shown prominently on the business’s website for customers to clearly read and can also be used in emails or social media posts.

Make Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Top of Mind

Focusing on developing a solid SEO strategy ensures that customers can find your company on Google when they are searching. In оrdеr to rank well in search engine results, websites need search engine optimization (SEO), which is a powerful tool and a must if your company wants to be found online by customers. With Google processing 12.18 billion search queries in July 2020 alone and 93% of all online experiences beginning with a search engine, making sure your business can be clearly found and seen online is imperative for your cannabis business’ success. Keeping your website and basic information—such as hours, contact information and prices—up to date will keep your SEO high. 

Incorporate Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

PlugPlay, a California cannabis brand, stays relevant with creative posts like these.

Gathering customer emails is KEY and your business should have a solid plan on how to capture them, whether that’s an incentive for providing an email when they enter the site or one at checkout in the retail shop. Businesses should have the customer’s name, phone and email as a baseline to use to email or text blast out the latest promotions. From there, companies can also create a loyalty program for customers in order to give them an incentive to keep purchasing from your business. By creating targeted and personal messaging to customers with the help of CRM tools, loyalty is created to the brand, which can increase purchasing power and the amount spent.

Embrace Social Media

Social media is a part of almost everyone’s life and it’s the perfect opportunity to give customers an inside view into your company, the products you sell and any promotions or specials going on. Utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is essential for directly reaching your customer base with visually appealing and timely content. Social media is an opportunity to get personal with your brand and build relationships with your customers for them to see what kind of brand you are. Social pages should remain up to date and should be keeping up with the comments that followers are saying.

As more dispensaries and cannabis businesses pop up across the country, marketing your business may seem like a challenge for business owners, but simple and useful digital marketing tools can be incorporated into the business plan to create more quality leads and sales. Ensuring you have a strong digital presence for customers to find you and learn about your business online is the key to success.

Social Responsibility and Supporting BIPOC in Cannabis: A Q&A with Ernest Toney, Founder of BIPOCANN

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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The drug war has harmed communities of color since its inception. For decades and decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have been nearly six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than White Americans, despite similar rates of use.

Over the years that legalized cannabis has proliferated across the country, the same trends of market consolidation have emerged in every state that has legalized the plant. BIPOC communities already impacted by the drug war have less access to capital and therefore less access to the cannabis industry. Cannabis market consolidation has always led to white people taking a greater market share while BIPOC communities are left behind.

The legal cannabis industry currently lacks representation of BIPOC executives, business owners, and professionals. Ernest Toney, former global marketing and partnerships manager at Marijuana Business Daily, wants to change that. He founded the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network – a membership community that is working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners.

BIPOCANN is a place to meet cannabis industry leaders, a place to exchange goods, services and ideas that promote BIPOC economic growth in cannabis, an innovation hub for unique voices and perspectives, and it’s all BIPOC-owned and managed.

In this interview, we sit down with Ernest Toney to hear about BIPOCANN and ask him some questions about what the future of the cannabis industry could look like.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me about your background- how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Ernest Toney: I grew up in Virginia and went to James Madison University where I studied kinesiology, and sports management in graduate school. That led me to pursue a career in sports administration, beginning as a sales and marketing director for a large YMCA in the southwest, followed by a stint as a sales consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. Immediately prior to joining the cannabis industry, I worked at USA Ultimate – the national governing body for the niche sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. During that time, I managed and scaled adult programs and events across the country. A big part of my job required collaborating with national stakeholders and creating and enforcing policies to grow the sport by making it more accessible to diverse demographics. We also worked hard to increase the commercial visibility of the sport through mainstream media, including ESPN, with gender equity being a major focus area. It was cool because looking back, I learned a lot of things during that five-year period that is directly applicable to the work I’m doing to support the cannabis industry.

Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN

But my interest in the cannabis industry became strong when I moved to Denver in 2011, a year before Amendment 64 passed. When Colorado became the first adult use cannabis market in the USA, it was an exciting time. I have always been curious about economics and how policies can impact people’s lives. I was interested in what was going to happen when the new market opened.

Early on, I followed the industry trends very closely. Living in downtown Denver, I saw firsthand the effects the cannabis industry was having on day-to-day life, like increased tourism, a housing market boom, a lot of new start-ups, dispensaries opening everywhere. It was just something I knew I wanted to learn more about.

Around 2016, I started making industry connections, but didn’t pursue opportunities until a few years later. Eventually, I was hired in 2018 by MJBizDaily to focus on new business initiatives. Some of my past successes with scaling programs, national and international event management, and community-building aligned with what they were looking for.

I started as the company’s first international marketing manager. In that role, I was responsible for driving marketing campaigns to increase the company’s global readership, event registrations, and business conference presence in foreign markets. After the first year, I transitioned to identify and manage marketing partnerships for the company – which included international and domestic media, event, and affiliate partnerships within and outside of cannabis.

I felt compelled to make a change amidst the social unrest this summer. I was doing my own protesting and volunteer advocacy in Denver, but started to see more broadly, in the cannabis industry, that cannabis executives and companies were bringing attention to the fact that the War On Drugs has been problematic for minorities and communities of color. There was greater talk about social equity programs and how they are not as effective as they should be. There was greater attention to the fact that over 40,000 people are still incarcerated for the plant that others are profiting from – and that the people behind bars are predominantly coming from communities of color. I was in a position that afforded me the opportunity to see what the composition of the global cannabis industry looked like, and I  could see minority representation was lacking in business ownership, leadership positions, and more.

I thought – what is the best way for me to use my talents, insights, and knowledge to affect and change this narrative? Ultimately, I decided to start my own business. Not only was this an opportunity for me to “walk the walk,” being a black man starting a business in this industry where there is a lack of black ownership, but more importantly I was uniquely positioned to be able to educate and let people know about the opportunities to be a part of the booming industry. So, I did some brainstorming and came up with a company, which is called BIPOCANN and it stands for connecting BIPOC communities to the cannabis industry.

The work I have been doing for the last quarter includes directly recruiting people into the industry. If you are curious and want to learn more about the industry, then BIPOCANN can be the entry point. We figure out what your goals are and use the network and our resources to get you connected and figure out where you want to go. Likewise, if you are a service provider, like a graphic designer, accountant, marketer or business owner for example, that sees opportunities for your business to play a role and support it from an ancillary standpoint, BIPOCANN can be an entry point for you too.

The other component to it is working with existing businesses who are trying to make the industry more accessible. I work with existing companies and brands to create platforms that amplify voices and make BIPOC folks more visible, seen and heard within the cannabis industry. We are also helping businesses increase their profitability through diversification tactics and marketing tactics that contribute to their bottom line.

CIJ: Tell me about BIPOCANN- what is it, what are your goals with this project and how has it been received so far?

Ernest: The prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the Americas. I alluded to this earlier, but there are more than 40,000 people behind bars in the U.S. for cannabis possession and use. There’s evidence suggesting that Black Americans are up to six times more likely to get arrested for cannabis use than White Americans despite use rates being the same. And when you look at the makeup of the professional industry, there is poor representation of business ownership by people of color. The Cannabis Impact Fund references that only 4.3% of dispensaries are Black or Latinx-owned. These problems intersect in a lot of ways.

BIPOCANN is a small business working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners. Now, I know that one company cannot change 100 years of cannabis prohibition and how policy works. But if you want to make this industry more accessible, inclusive, and profitable for those who do not have the access then there are a lot of levers to pull. Policy is one. But BIPOCANN is using more direct strategies. We actively recruit people to come in and be a part of this industry, through employment, entrepreneurship, consulting, and collaborations.

We have also created the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network, a community where members can exchange services, network, and collaborate. It’s all about creating more opportunities for BIPOC professionals and business owners, and it’s a safe space to share your experiences and to ideate. Similar to your Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, where there was a dedicated space for BIPOC folks to be seen and heard and tell their story through your virtual panels, we use our resources and network to help advocates for equity and access be seen, heard, and find opportunities to thrive as a business owner or professional.

CIJ: How do you hope BIPOCANN will be embraced by the cannabis community?

Ernest: I think it has been received well in its first quarter of business. We have had opportunities to share our story across a lot of platforms, including multiple cannabis industry conferences, podcasts, and interviews with varied media outlets. We are in startup mode, so currently we are about building a brand, being seen, and helping people understand what we are trying to achieve. We are working towards that right now. We have had some success and folks are supporting our vision and goals.

I am hoping the cannabis industry will look at BIPOCANN as another important resource within the social equity, business development, and networking landscape. I don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the organizations and individuals who have been doing similar work in this space, for much longer, but as an ally. Some of our approaches to bring new people into the industry will include strategically aligning communities and markets where we have strong ties – such as state governments, national nonprofits, and global cannabis networks.

CIJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry making progress with respect to diversity and including people of color?

Ernest: When I look at the types of conversations  and coverage the industry is having, even compared to last year, it seems like more conferences, media entities, brands, and individual leaders are tuned in and trying to figure out how they can contribute to making this industry better, more equitable and more accessible. I am seeing a lot of more attention, attempts to understand where the gaps are and what to do about it.

When I take a step back to think of all the virtual conferences that have made dedicated conference tracks or even entire programs – like the National Association of Cannabis Business’ Social Equity Conference, the Emerge Canna Conference, the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, and the Cannabis Industry Journal’s post-election social justice panel – or weekly segments from Black leaders like Dasheeda Dawson (She Blaze) and Tahir Johnson (The Cannabis Diversity Report) — those are good signs. They are creating opportunities for voices representing underserved communities in cannabis to share their perspectives and be advocates for change.

But there is still much to do and that includes greater education about the realities, histories, and challenges BIPOC and other minority communities are facing. Going back to the NACB, they recently drafted a social equity standard for state legislatures to use as a baseline for crafting policies and provisions for social equity programs. That and resources from organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, Supernova Women, Cannaclusive, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, for example are some useful resources for the industry.

Wana Brands is also continuing to do good work, and it was exciting to see them become the first sponsor of the inaugural Black CannaConference by the Black CannaBusiness Magazine. That was a great example of an industry leader using their dollars, marketing resources, and company values to support an event specifically dedicated to creating, developing, and enhancing Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry.

“It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.”On the policy front, we just saw on election day cannabis having a ton of success at the polls, passing in every single state where there was a ballot measure.

Arizona did a good job with having social equity provisions directly included in the language on their ballot measure. I think for the states that have yet to draft a social equity program, they can look at what has worked well in some other states and also look at what has not worked well, like loopholes that invite predatory behaviors.

I’m excited to see that Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Working Group are already identifying the best ways to make a recreational market a beneficial and sustainable one, and tackling how to incorporate social equity, racial equity, and economic equity into a future legalization bill. I am looking forward to learning more after an upcoming meeting with a Working Group member. Eventually, I hope to contribute towards any social equity efforts that will benefit my home state and hometown (a high poverty community that has been at the crossroads of America’s major civil rights movements, with a correctional facility that houses an inmate population equivalent to nearly 10% of the town population).

CIJ: Where do you see the industry moving in the next five years?

Ernest: Ha-ha! It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.

Just this week the United Nations rescheduled cannabis, which is a big deal! We also saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass the MORE Act. We are inching closer towards federal legalization in the US and I think it will happen within that five-year timeframe, and it will be contentious. There will be compromises on things some folks don’t want compromises on, there will be more big money influencing the outcomes of the industry, and there will be unforeseen or unintended consequences to whatever the federal legislation looks like. I recently moderated a panel of social equity license holders, who felt that federal legalization would harm the disproportionately impacted areas (by the War on Drugs) even more! Their preference was to see cannabis de-scheduled and remain under state control.

I think federal legalization will bring another wave of major mergers and acquisitions, similar to what the Canadian market experienced in 2019, benefiting big business over small business. “We need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance.”

CIJ: Do you think we can change that?

Ernest: There are so many things at play. The legislators need to have diverse perspectives and representation from the folks in the industry, especially people of color who can speak to the impact that a century of prohibition policies have had on their communities. Those voices and stories need to be heard, but that type of representation is grossly lacking on Capitol Hill…which is all the more reason we need leaders from the aforementioned communities to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.

I say that because a lot of time there are unforeseen consequences when policies are created, so decision makers at the federal level can learn from those of us already doing the work on the local level. I recently had a conversation with a former journalist and colleague who is currently in a cannabis regulatory role. We were talking about how policy and operations intersect with social equity. He made the points that “many markets implement license caps, which are intended to prevent oversaturation of cannabis business (the idea being that density of outlets impacts use rates, and particularly youth use rates); in theory, that’s a good policy – but it comes with very real consequences for social equity applicants (because those licenses often go to the wealthiest applicants).  License caps also artificially inflate the cost of those licenses (for a transfer of ownership), which also harms social equity applicants. Lotteries are also generally the result of policy and usually have disastrous results for the social equity applicant.”

So yeah – the rare opportunity to define a new industry that doesn’t just do business as usual, that can right its historical wrongs, and that will reward the communities that have been most harmed by cannabis enforcement, is now. And we need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance. The optimist in me says “we can do it!” The pessimist in me reminds me that it is 2020 and people still believe the Earth is flat. I’ll keep pushing for change, but I also won’t be surprised if this perfect opportunity to get it right goes wrong.

CIJ: How can people get involved in BIPOCANN?

Ernest: The best way to get involved is to visit www.bipocann.com and support our efforts by becoming an individual member or business member. Not only does that give you the opportunity to connect directly with other members in our business network, but it gives you the chance to be the first to be notified about the latest projects, events, and opportunities we’re working on to change the industry, how we can. By joining, you also directly support BIPOCANN’s goals, contribute to the operating budget of a black-owned business in cannabis, and support the nonprofit partners who we allocate a percentage of monthly sales towards.

You can also get involved by subscribing to our monthly newsletter through the website or by following our social media accounts @bipocann. We are also available for speaking, media, or consulting projects that support social equity, diversity, and inclusion in cannabis. For those types of inquiries, please contact ernest@bipocann.com.

The Brand Marketing Byte

Spotlight on Aster Farms

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.

Here is a data-led, shallow dive on Aster Farms:

Aster Farms is based in Lake County, California and operates with an ethos of environmental sustainability. They call themselves the “cleanest, meanest and greenest around” and produce sungrown cannabis with “good genetics, clean cultivation and the power of nature.”

According to Pioneer Intelligence, Aster Farms is showing increased strength in each of the pillars they track: social media, earned media and web-related activities. The reason for such an improvement in performance? It starts with a number of earned media placements driving greater awareness for the brand, like this piece in SFWeekly or this one on Benzinga.

Engagement rates for Aster’s Instagram account have been growing for about two months and received a recent boost in the form of a sweepstakes giveaway. Their web activity performance improved as a result of keyword growth on their site.

All of these factors helped Aster Farms get on Pioneer’s list of Top 100 hottest U.S. cannabis brands for October, coming in at Number 60.

Advertising a Cannabis Business Through the Pandemic

By Brett Konen
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For a long time, cannabis marketing didn’t exist. Then suddenly, it did. Fast forward a few years, and this nascent vertical within the modern marketing sphere remains a unique tangle of federal restrictions, state regulations, platform-specific policies and gray-area confusion, complicated by the sudden classification of businesses within it as “essential.”

So, how do today’s cannabis business owners create a marketing strategy that works in 2020? Below, we take a look at how cannabis marketing has evolved over the last few months before diving into one example of a Seattle-area cannabis retailer that’s risen to the challenge, evolving their marketing strategy quickly and successfully to capture an influx of new customers during COVID-19.

Welcome to the Cannabis Industry’s New Normal

The fact that COVID-19 has fully dominated marketing news, along with every other form of coverage, since its inception goes to show just how much it’s changed things. Multinational corporations have paused their entire ad spends; contracts have been backed out of; multi-year marketing plans have been torn up and rewritten, sometimes more than once. Those who were hoping to get back to their previous initiatives within a month or two have seen the error of their ways—and we’re still (though it doesn’t feel like it) less than half a year in.

The biggest change brought on by COVID has been a shift en masse to all things digital. Whereas before most companies met in person, they now meet over Zoom. Thousand-person conferences have become webinars and virtual networking events, while brand activations are now free trial promo codes. Along the way, traditional marketing methods have increasingly been replaced by their digital counterparts. Today, marketers need to meet consumers where they are, and where they are is at home and online.

In most industries, this shift to digital has been happening for many years already. Digital marketing and advertising methods are highly measurable, instantly adjustable and capable of reaching target audiences more directly and efficiently than traditional media. Even before the pandemic hit, cannabis was already playing marketing catchup: For example, while most industries have been using billboards since closer to their inception in the 1830s, the first cannabis billboards post-legalization only cropped up in 2014.

The shift to digital advertising in the cannabis industry has long been stalled by Facebook and Google, both of which reject all cannabis ads and even most CBD ads regardless of the location and legality of the products. Therefore, cannabis brands have evolved their own unique non-digital marketing playbooks. In addition to the prevalence of print ads, physical billboards, sponsored events and in-person pop-ups, many cannabis brands have come to rely heavily on a tactic unique to the industry: budtender education. In the meantime, most cannabis marketers haven’t been leveraging their digital options in full (or, frequently, at all).

Due in large part to COVID-19, the need for this to change has come into sharp relief. In addition to decreased reach for print publications and out-of-home ad space with fewer people spending time in public, events are no longer feasible, and customers are no longer having leisurely chats with their budtenders as they weigh the benefits and drawbacks of different products for sale. Most cannabis stores are minimizing their in-store visitors as well as offering online ordering, curbside pickup services or cannabis delivery. In April Margaret Jackson, a journalist at Marijuana Business Daily, reported on this trend:

“Many marijuana brands have relied on in-store pop-ups and educating budtenders about their products to reach consumers. But as cannabis customers increasingly order products online for delivery or pickup—and with the expectation that these habits will persist after the coronavirus pandemic is under control—marijuana brands should consider more direct ways to reach their audience to ensure sales stay strong, according to industry officials.”

Marketing Isn’t the Budtender’s Job

We don’t know how long COVID-19 may continue unchecked, but as Jackson notes, these shifts in behavior are likely to outlive the circumstances that first necessitated them. Since online shopping, pickup and delivery have quickly become standard in 2020 cannabis sales, a huge marketing gap has been left between consumers—including an influx of new ones—and the brands they’d probably be buying if those brands had been marketing to them before the pandemic.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that the brands we work with need to start marketing themselves directly to consumers,” says Anna Shreeve, managing partner at The Bakeréé. “It’s not the budtender’s job to do that legwork.”

The Bakeréé operates two retail locations in Seattle, one on the north end of the city and the other on the south. Since opening their first store, the team has focused on sourcing products of the highest possible quality at every price point, as well as emphasizing a wide variety of high-CBD options. Shreeve says the store has worked hard over the years to build a knowledgeable clientele that comes in specifically to find new and interesting products. Still, she notes that many customers go directly to the budtenders for suggestions.

Steve Schechterle, director of marketing at Washington’s Fairwinds, which sells both cannabis and CBD products, recently noted the company’s focus on budtender outreach and training in a webinar hosted by the Cannabis Marketing Association. “It’s where we’ve seen the biggest payoff by far,” said Schechterle. “Since we first noticed this, we’ve created an entire program around training Fairwinds-certified budtenders.”

Fairwinds isn’t alone: Many companies come in to meet dispensary employees, offer swag, answer questionsand show off their newest products. That way, when a customer comes in looking for a recommendation, those products are top of mind. For now, that option is largely gone, and Fairwinds (along with a few other early adopters of digital advertising in the industry) has begun advertising online to drive increased consumer demand and avoid having to rely primarily on budtenders in the long term.

Pivoting a Dispensary to Digital Ads

In the past, The Bakeréé—like many retailers in adult-use states—leaned heavily on event-based marketing, including New Years parties, in-store artist showcases, festival sponsorships and more. While they have used digital advertising for their own business, ad campaigns have primarily supported in-person events, such as through ticket sales for the New Years parties. This year, Shreeve had planned to go big on marketing for 4/20, putting together her own concert lineup that included up-and-coming hip-hop names from across the US. She was about to start promoting that concert with digital ads when the pandemic hit.

This ad for The Bakeréé appeared in The New York Times.

By early April, it had become clear that the 4/20 concert was not happening. Shreeve had already lost $20,000 in deposits on artists and the venue, which reduced the budget available for alternate marketing ideas. She decided to run a digital advertising campaign with a single display ad: The goal was to promote online ordering for curbside pickup.

While display ads are not generally known for their conversion rates, they’re a common place to start advertising cannabis due to their price point (impressions generally cost fractions of a cent) and ease of creation. Display ads can be run using programmatic ad tech, the current standard in digital advertising, which accounts for 70% of ads bought and sold in 2020. In most other industries, search and social ads through Google and Facebook are the go-to methods for digital advertising, but since both are closed to cannabis brands, programmatic is the best way for cannabis businesses to advertise digitally.

Starting with one display ad concept, and then adding a second, The Bakeréé ran their ads on a wide variety of mainstream websites, using demographic and geographic targeting to reach potential customers within a specific radius of each store. They also advertised to customers living near the closest competing dispensaries. The ads themselves focused primarily on promoting the ease of curbside pickup as well as offering a 10% discount on all online orders. Sales began to rise almost immediately.

Though April’s increase may have been due in part to 4/20’s impact on sales and a widespread stock-up mindset in the first month of the pandemic, The Bakeréé saw back-to-back-to-back months of YOY revenue growth at both their locations in April, May and June. From display ads on desktop they added mobile to the campaign, and in June added two 30-second video ads to build on the momentum generated by display.

Overall, The Bakeréé has seen a 13-fold return on ad spend, driving $153,000 in revenue from digital ads in the campaign’s first 90 days. The display ads have generated widespread use of the online ordering system, increased basket size to an average of $95.47, and grown online ordering revenue by 389%.

In the second half of the year, Shreeve says she hopes to expand the campaign to include connected TV and digital audio ads, particularly to support the launch of a new website with updated online ordering capabilities in Q3. And she still hopes to see more of the cannabis brands sold by The Bakeréé start advertising on their own, too: To that end, Shreeve is considering working with vendors to run co-branded advertisements that may help them adopt their own digital marketing initiatives sooner and drive more sales for everyone involved.


Suggested Readings

Case Study: The Bakeréé (PrograMetrix)

Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)

White Paper: Digital Ads for Cannabis & CBD (PrograMetrix

Communications in Cannabis: The Playbook for Branding Success

By Trisha Larocchia
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Public relations has a role to play in every industry, providing value for companies looking to promote their services, announce a recent fund raise or want to plant a flag in their domain as a leader or subject matter expert. Some industries, however, are writing a new playbook for the way PR is done. The cannabis space is a prime example of how PR can – and has – evolved in such a short amount of time. This industry has been a part of N6A’s DNA since 2017 when we created a cannabis-specific client service group. Since then we’ve seen the ups and downs, rapid changes and overall growth in an industry that, at the time, very few took seriously. We knew the potential was there, but we couldn’t be prepared for how foreign this would be compared to our other specialties like tech, cybersecurity and professional services.

We had to forget what we knew as media professionals and develop new plays and strategies for an industry in its infancy – all while bearing in mind the plant’s polarizing past and ambiguous future. With so many lessons learned about the way the cannabis and communications industries operate together, here are just a few key takeaways that have shaped our approach and operations in the marketplace.

Build Relationships Across the Board 

It’s often said “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and in cannabis this couldn’t be more true. While the industry is growing rapidly, it’s still considered a tight-knit community where everyone talks to each other, and leaders lean on one another for expertise and guidance. A competitive nature is inherent in any business environment, but what I’ve noticed about those working in cannabis is that everyone is striving for the same goal: to further legitimize an industry plagued with stigma. Whether it’s developing media contacts or a new business prospect, the foundation lies in building relationships with the key players in the space.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

From a PR perspective, this includes working closely with the reporters dedicated to the cannabis beat, whether they write for a trade or mainstream publication. Journalists are shifting between jobs faster than ever before, and this beat favors industry veterans. One day your “friendly” at an obscure cannabis outlet will suddenly be spearheading coverage at The New York Times, Rolling Stone or other iconic publications. For the sake of clients and their desired business outcomes, communications professionals should foster ongoing conversations with any reporter interested in covering cannabis; you never know where it could lead.

Understand the Limitations 

Both public relations and advertising have proven to be instrumental in normalizing cannabis businesses within the mainstream media. However, communication in the space can be a compliance minefield due to strict state and federal regulations. While the industry’s growth is nothing short of explosive, opportunities for advertising are extremely limited as the largest digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned cannabis ads, forcing companies to look for other options.

Paid media has its time and place in every industry, but with so much red tape in cannabis advertising, it provides an opportunity for earned media to take the stage. Aside from a few key trades we all know well, journalists across business, lifestyle, finance and retail verticals are covering the space. Depending on what a business is looking to gain from PR, these initiatives are a great way to get directly in front of the audiences they want to reach without the risk of violating certain advertising guidelines. Companies that are ancillary, and therefore not selling a particular cannabis product, also have a bit more flexibility when it comes to advertising, especially on social media channels. As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well.

Evolve with the Industry 

The cannabis marketplace as it stands today is vastly different than when we began to service clients years ago. For decades, this industry operated in the shadows and outside of the law, but as legalization spreads across the globe, the way that businesses position and talk about their brand has had to change.

Gone are the days of reefer madness as consumers begin to see cannabis as medicine or a wellness supplement. With this comes a significant reduction in the use of words such as “weed,” “stoner,” and even “marijuana,” while words like “cannabis,” “medicinal” and “patients” step into the forefront. Both communications professionals and businesses must be hyper-aware of the verbiage we use if we want to professionalize the industry and fuel worldwide adoption.

As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well. What was once reserved for a younger, male population has now been growing in popularity amongst women, baby boomers, and the elderly. Cannabis businesses are now forced to diversify their messaging to appeal to the masses which often includes taking a minimalistic approach to branding and packaging.

Consumers are no longer looking for the lowest prices, but a brand that they know and trust. Recognition, whether it be locally or nationally, can be gained through a strong communication plan and will become increasingly imperative for long-term success.