Search Engine Land, THE online magazine for digital marketers, reported that “SEO rated the ‘least popular digital marketing channel’ Only 44 percent of businesses said SEO was a part of their digital strategy”. According to a survey by Clutch, marketers preferred the following top six options:
Source: Clutch 2018 Digital Marketing Survey
This surprises me since search engine optimization is the bedrock of online marketing. That’s why this article was written, to help cannabis businesses of all kinds to get a handle on what they need to know about digital marketing.
Google’s job is to help people searching online to find what they are looking for. Google’s algorithm doesn’t care if your website shows a beautiful picture or that your buttons look nice. Google ranks your website on over 200 search ranking factors, like mobile-friendliness, relevant keywords, and error-free coding for its index crawlers.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or think nothing could be easier than setting up SEO and walking away, you’re in for a surprise. Competing in the cannabis industry is going to get a lot harder. You need to get up to speed on SEO.
Search engine optimization is about preparing your website for search engines so you appear higher on search results. I often say, “If you can’t be seen, you don’t exist”. Where you rank will depend on fixing the crawler error messages and building solid links to your website that drive traffic. Keep in mind that everyone else in your cannabis niche is thinking of doing that exact same thing: figuring out ways to improve web traffic (sales). Well, not exactly everyone since SEO is a mystery to many.
In the past five years, Google has made major updates like Panda and Penguin (yeah, funny names) that changed the way people found what they were looking for. Gone are the days of keyword density stuffing and link sharing schemes that tricked the earlier algorithms – and hence, gave searchers crap results.
Our industry has also changed in leaps and bounds. Almost every day now there’s a story of a cannabis company gobbling up or partnering with another cannabis company, becoming bigger and bigger. There are also new players coming into stir things up too. And new laws and regulations making things harder and easier. Old-timer cannabis consumers are feeling just like newcomers when it comes to learning about products to enjoy and places to explore online, asking questions and making new connections on social media.
Whether you’re a big or small, a testing lab, retailer or manufacturer, it’s time to realize things are going to get tougher over the next couple of years when it comes to attracting and holding onto loyal customers. Sure, sales looked good now. Most people still don’t know the difference between a Sativa and an Indica, or CBC and THC. But that novelty is going to wear off. Cannabis consumers are going to want to look around for more choice, and they are going to start to wonder what makes you so special.
This is a good time to get a jump into SEO, no matter your size. The one good thing about so many people failing to see SEO as relevant to their success is that most of your competitors are thinking the same thing. Not everyone knows the power of SEO (or at least is dedicated to spending their time and money on it), but if you do something now to get started, you’ll jump way ahead of them.
Always think of SEO as part of your marketing plan. Your social media marketing, content marketing, email marketing, and real-world promotions can all work together. Our goal with SEO is to ask, “How can I get more traffic and better ranking for my website?” As you know, more traffic can lead to high sales.
Here are a couple of things that you can do right now to get you started:
1. Fix the Technical Errors for Google’s Crawlers to See You
Hubspot research found 39 percent people left websites where images didn’t load and a further 39 percent left if the page loading time took longer than 3 seconds to load. That’s a lot of lost traffic and potential customers that few businesses can afford to lose.
If you want Google to reward you with a higher ranking, then improving on page loading speed is the way to go. It’s a mobile world, right? If people can’t load your website, you don’t exist. One of the easiest ways to resolve this is to reduce any image file sizes. There’s more you can do, but this is a good start.
You’ll need the help of a developer to fix the mechanics of the other things that decrease your loading time. When Google’s crawlers find small errors, this becomes a signal for their algorithm that mobile users experience is a problem, and gives you a hit against your ranking.
Fixing these technical errors is a good first step.
2. Choose Targeted Keywords
Ever since the beginning of search engines, picking keywords to add to your website has been synonymous SEO. The problem is that it has also built up a big myth of the mightiness of keywords as the single most important factor in Google search results.
Okay, it matters for Google Adwords, the paid advertising arm where each keyword is bid on and draws in money for Google. If you want to be on the top of the paid ads section, Google Adwords is the place to be. Except, of course, that Google doesn’t allow cannabis-related business or keywords to be advertised. (We’ll talk about this later, down below).
Okay, keywords also matter for your website’s top-level headings, meta tag descriptions, and blog content. Although less powerful than you’ll find through Google’s Adwords, keywords on your website do help people find you on search engines. But don’t be fooled, keywords are a much smaller factor and what’s more important is how you get the keywords in the eyes of your audience.
Let me show you what I mean. Hubspot coined the idea of a Buyer’s Journey. There are three stages that most people go through to search online: Awareness, Consideration, and Decision. In the Awareness stage, a person first starts with a vague idea of what he or she wants to look for. Perhaps out of curiosity, they type in random, general keywords. In the Consideration stage, they learn, dig deeper, read reviews and testimonials to consider their options. The final Decision stage they look at fewer options. In the end, they decide which one to pick. Is it you?
Take me, for example. As an adult-user, I enjoy learning about the medical and health benefits of a particular strain. For example, Poison Durban is a strain known as the ‘expresso of weed’ for its ability to give an immediate burst of energy. Hindu Kush, on the other hand, is known of delivering an immediate couchlock, a sedative that is good for inducing sleep. Helpful to know, right.
Well, recently learned that when I smoke cannabis, tiny chards of ash get dragged into my throat and lungs. This can lead to bronchitis and in serious cases the risk of throat cancer. Not good.
So what are my alternatives? Hmmm, looks like vaping and edibles are a healthier choice. Now I have to decide, where can I buy it and how much will it cost, as well as what do the reviews say?
The point: most people have questions. It’s up to you to decide how you want to help them answer their questions. The keywords and the content you choose to write about are signals to Google’s algorithm that you are the place that people want to check out. It’s time to think about the keywords and the different questions that people will ask.
3. Quality Backlinks is the Biggest Challenge
Fine, you’ve picked the perfect keywords. Sorry, but having the right keywords on your website isn’t going to be enough. You still need to make sure your content stands out, which is where backlinks come in. Backlinks – literally, “links that go back to your website from another website” – are a critical part of building your SEO strategy.
Backlinks are like your cheerleaders, working on the sidelines to excite the crowd. You’ll need backlinks to point back to you for Google to notice and reward you with a higher ranking.
Yet not all backlinks are created equal. You need connections from high authority websites. The authority of the referring page is an extremely important ranking factor. To make your life a little easier here are 20 backlinks to increase your domain authority. You’ll need to see what works for you, but at least you know where to start.
Establishing an effective backlink strategy that targets your cannabis niche and customers is what gives you the edge over competitors. Sometimes the best backlinks are found after doing a bit of competition research and seeing where they link. For example, let’s look at High Times. If you are an online publisher, perhaps copying their backlink sources could help you.
You might be starting to notice that SEO isn’t all that easy. It’s a lot of work to find quality backlinks. You’ll need to look for business listings, places to post your unique content, and read reviews. Yup, but this only the beginning.
4. If You’re Not Tracking, You’ll Never Succeed
Whatever SEO or digital marketing steps you take, if you’re not tracking your progress, you’re not going to succeed in the long run.
Google Analytics is the most widely used, freely available tracking tool around. Google Analytics tells you more about how long visitors stay, where they go, and how many visitors come. Once you understand these figures, it’s a lot easier to talk about how to improve and to know what’s working.
SEO vs Social Media Marketing
Social media marketing is the one that most digital marketers go to first. It looks like it gives you immediate results and engagement. But does it really? The question that gets asked is which one is better for driving traffic: search engine optimization or social media marketing? Perhaps you’re a busy business owner, and you need to choose one that will deliver that bang for the buck. Let’s dive in.
How SEO is Better than Social
Think about what I said earlier. When I’m interested in learning about cannabis strains, I search on a search engine. Many cannabis consumers have questions, which leads them to Google, Yahoo, or Bing.
Let’s face it, you use search engines to find things. Pymt.co report explains Google’s “near me” searches on mobile has grown by more than three times in the past two years. Nearly 80 percent of these shoppers were willing to go to the store afterward when they want to buy. This means that if you want to have people discover you, you need to think about the keywords you use.
When it comes to finding keywords, Google’s Keyword Planner tool is the most widely recommended tool. However, since Google’s Adwords prohibits terms related to cannabis (including next to “medical”, “dispensary” and “weed”), I recommend using this alternative keyword tool: https://keywordtool.io/google.
It’s free to see the most popular keywords by ranking, but you’ll need to pay to see how many people searched each month. You may notice, for instance, that more people are searching for “cannabis oil” than “cannabis seeds”. Keywords matter.
If there’s one thing to learn, it’s that you can’t buy your way to the top. Organic search is what most cannabis businesses depend on. Facebook and Google Adwords won’t let you advertise cannabis-related topics. You can pay cannabis-friendly websites like Leafly and Weedmaps to advertise for you, but you can’t pay the big name search engines to do this for you.
Because organic SEO is what most cannabis businesses have to work with, organic SEO has to be done right. When 4/20 rolls around, you can feel proud that all of your SEO efforts brought you a higher ranking than your competitors who didn’t do a thing.
How Social is Better than SEO
We all know that most people trust the recommendations of their friends and family than they do watch an ad. This is true when it comes to choosing a strain or deciding to buy a vaporizer or other cannabis-related accessory.
Social media offers cannabis consumers more than one platform to use. In the example below, High Times drives close to 10 percent of its traffic from social media. Although this chart below shows that more than 70 percent of social traffic comes from Facebook, it might be worthwhile to pay attention to Twitter and the other platforms, if you plan to expand your social reach.
One of the nice things about social media is the ‘social’. Whenever people Like, comment, or tag, others see this and it helps them discover things when someone they know approves a message.
Cannabis consumers love images and videos, and they also read comments. One advantage that social media has over search is it gives businesses the opportunity to engage with their customers. Online reputation management is a thriving service, thanks to negative online reviews, rip-off reports, and damaging articles. But unlike search engines, social media gives businesses a chance to turn a complaint into a ‘thank you’ in real time.
I said before that Facebook and other mainstream social media won’t let you advertise. Well, this depends on the message. It’s perfectly fine to promote your cannabis business if you are offering a non-cannabis related message. For instance, Viridian Sciences, a seed-to-sale software company. It ran an ad in August 2018 that offered a webinar. No mention of “cannabis” or “marijuana” anywhere.
Like it or not, most of our customers are on Facebook. Even if you are selling B2B, Facebook is a good place to show your brand image. Facebook gave Viridian Sciences the opportunity to generate traffic to its website, boost its Facebook business page with Likes and comments, and have people learn about them. If they can do it, you could too.
Why Both Search and Social are Better Together
So which is better? There is one good reason why you’d want to do both: You don’t want all of your eggs in one basket. In the example below, High Times traffic comes from three main sources: search, direct (e.g. bookmarked), and social play major role.
Can you completely lose one source of traffic? You laugh, but yes! Google algorithm changes can hit some businesses harder than others. Back in 2017 and 2018, the Panda updates hit some top companies with a 34 to 86 percent drop in traffic because of how they used keywords. In 2018, Youtube and Facebook purged cannabis pages. Leafly reported that in 2016, Facebook shut down industry recognized brands like Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, edibles maker Dixie Elixirs, Boulder dispensary The Farm, and media company MassRoots.
When it comes to growing a business, traffic is everything. Our question is, “How can you get the most from every one of these sources?” Both search and social traffic help. Without incoming traffic from other sources, most businesses couldn’t survive – lights out.
Search Helps Social, Social Helps Search
It’s no surprise that the same keywords found in your SEO activities can help your social media campaigns. It also doesn’t hurt your brand if you have Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn profiles that add to your online presence.
So which is better? Let’s look at this from the customer’s point of view. Savvy customers will want to compare you to your competitors – both on search and social media. If your status updates and replies are more engaging on social and your search results appear in more places through backlinks and good content, you up your chances of gaining more traffic and customers.
In the end, what people want to know most is: are you trustworthy?
Optimize Your Website for Voice Search
Getting ahead of the competition is also critical for succeeding online. Let me share a secret. Preparing your website for voice search could become your greatest weapons going forward.
The future is (nearly) here. The predictions are staggering:
- 50 percent of all searches will be voice searches by 2020 (comScore)
- 13 percent of all US households owned a smart speaker in 2017, which is predicted to rise to 55 percent by 2022 (OC&C Strategy Consultants)
- 1 in 4 shoppers used voice assistants in their 2017 holiday shopping (CTA)
- Mobile voice searches are 3X more likely to be local-based than text-related searches (Search Engine Watch)
- 65 percent who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine going back to the days before they had a smart speaker (GeoMarketing).
- 41percent who own a voice-activated speaker say it feels like talking to a friend or another person (Google).
Voice search is changing the game for cannabis SEO. Here are four things that you can do to get started:
1. Claim Your Google My Business Listing
What does Google My Business have to do with voice search? Plenty. By listing your cannabis business on Google, you make yourself easier to find. Google’s algorithm gives priority to its own products, so it makes sense to take advantage of My Business listing to give you an edge. What’s more, it’s free.
2. Turn Keywords into Conversations
Cannabis consumers have questions, right. Today’s voice search keywords sound more like conversations. Human speech usually sounds like a long-tailed keyword. Not short, choppy keywords strung together. Old-time SEO keywords told you to write short words like “Pain Relief Cannabis” in the headlines. Whereas today’s voice SEO requires longer sentences to sound like, “Where to Find Cannabis for Pain Relief”. The key ingredient is to write keywords as though you were talking to someone.
What’s more is that Google’s algorithm loves indexing for quality content. It’s a good time to start blogging. If you need a little help figuring out what kinds of questions people are asking, check out Answer the Public.
3. Content Should be Scannable
Since we’re talking about how people speak, let’s talk about how people listen. People don’t like long sentences. In speaking, just as in reading, people prefer simpler words to replace complicated ones. And shorter sentences and paragraphs over long ones. Get to the point, yet make it sound interesting.
Create a High-Converting E-Newsletter
Email marketing is the easiest tool to implement in your marijuana marketing toolkit. Yet most cannabis businesses still don’t know that email newsletters can do more to drive sales. That’s a shame. The truth is that for every dollar spent, email delivers a higher ROI than any other digital marketing option. If you write blog posts or have announcements to make, then a regularly delivered newsletter is a great way to go.
What makes newsletters successful? Here are six key elements that every newsletter should include:
1. Use a Familiar ‘From’ Name
The ‘From’ name (along with the subject line) holds a lot of power over whether people decide to open their email. To get the most out of making a good first impression, be sure to use a ‘From’ name that is familiar to your subscribers.
For instance, if someone signed up for your email newsletter through your website, they will be expecting to see your business name. On the other hand, if they signed up through a personal invite, then they’re likely to prefer your personal name in their inbox.
2. Break Your Newsletter into Chunks
Don’t be surprised that most people won’t read your newsletter from left to right like a book, but instead scan top to bottom looking for what interests them. This means writing a long, text-heavy newsletter won’t help your cause. Instead, break the newsletter into short, easy to scan, digestible information.
3. Segment Your Audiences
Your content could be Shakespeare of cannabis, but not every subscriber will want to read the same thing. If some in your audience prefer something else, then consider creating another newsletter specifically for them.
Geographic location and consumer behavior are good reasons to segment audiences. For example, a California cannabis audience is different than one from Ontario. If you’re starting a newsletter, don’t be afraid include one or two more fields in the sign-up form to ask where subscriber lives or about their interests.
This means more work, separating subscribers into a new list and tailing news for them that is different from the other group, but the uptick in click-through might earn you more open-rates and sales.
4. Add Compelling Visuals to Each Post
Most people won’t spend longer than a minute reading your newsletter. People are busy and maybe even be commuting to work when they read to open it. Given this short attention span, make your first contact count.
The brain can understand images hundreds of times faster than text. By adding images, you help your key messages to come across when people don’t have the time to read all the text. To improve your click-through rates, make sure every story in your newsletter has a high-quality visual.
5. Include Benefit-focused Headings and Introductions
To read things quickly, people prefer to read a short message. The heading and introductory sentences are ways to help with that. The best thing you can do to motivate more click-through rates is to show benefit-focused headings and short introductory text, which is especially true if you are promoting products.
6. Add a prominent call to action button for each article
Nothing stands out more prominently in a message than a call to action button or text link. If you ever have a choice between adding a button or a link, choose a button. Buttons stand out more than links because they are larger, designed with colors to grab your eyes.
Setting up an email newsletter is a quick and easy way for a cannabis business to connect with audiences. These emails do help customers to keep your business in mind. Email marketing works.
Cannabis Advertising Rules
Let’s face it, cannabis is still illegal at the federal level in the United States. Under the U.S. Controlled Substance Act, the federal penalty for trafficking a Schedule 1 drug (like cannabis) is up to 5 years in a federal prison and as much as $250,000 for the first offense. This is the nut that most advertisers don’t want to crack. Few industries face this sort of criminal charge for advertising. The Act makes it clear that no mail, phone, radio, or television can be used to promote cannabis sales. Google and Facebook got the message. So here we are.
But wait, cannabis laws – particularly Canada’s Cannabis Act – will allow educational message ads. Cannabis consumers can voluntarily give their names and address to receive email and direct mail. Although the new rules feel like gray areas, if you are careful, there’s still a lot you can do.
Restrictions on Cannabis Promotion
Under the constitution, federal criminal law trumps local state or provincial law. Canada’s cannabis laws, like legalized U.S. states, makes a few major requirements clear:
- No marketing to or near children.
- No false, misleading or deceptive claims that are likely to create an impression about its quality, safety, health effects or health risks.
- No endorsements displayed or communicated.
- No depiction of a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional.
- No brand elements or image that evokes a positive or negative emotion about a way of life (e.g. glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, etc.).
If you are a brick and mortar dispensary, your local government might also restrict advertising on signs while other jurisdictions might allow billboards.
It’s Safe to Advertise Non-Cannabis Goods
Tokyo Smokes in Toronto was a shop that sold branded merchandise (like T-shirts and hats) before opening a dispensary in Manitoba. They wanted to promote a brand identity first before legalization happened. People didn’t know who they were before, but when they opened up, people began to recognize their name. They were playing the long game, now becoming one of Canada’s first recognizable dispensary brands.
Print and Online Advertising is Available
This might be a good time to look at local newspapers and magazines to advertise. You might be restricted in some ways, depending on your jurisdiction, but the worst that could happen is they say “no”.
It’s also a good idea to advertise on cannabis-related trade magazines and other publications that fit the audience you are looking for. Both online and off-line publications are accepting ads. Here are a couple of places to check out:
Promoting on Podcasts
Podcasts can be another option. Over the past few years, cannabis-related podcasts have been popping up. There are all kinds of podcasts from comedy to business news to informative. There’s no guarantee any of them will advertise for you, but this list below gives you an idea of the podcasts out there:
Your Message on Television
This more a guerrilla marketing idea. You won’t be able to advertise on television, but you can always do an interview. Look for local television stations that connect to audiences near you.
A video is probably one of the most underrated channels for communicating your message. A video is a highly shareable way to promote your business. I’d recommend creating your own video and display it on your website or posting it on YouTube and share your video across your social media platforms.
You Need to Become a Thought Leader
There was a time that all you need to say online was the word ‘cannabis’ or ‘marijuana’ and slowly people would trickle to your website, and over time, establish you as the go-to place. Those days are gone. You’re competing now. Other cannabis businesses are looking and sounding a lot more like you. That’s the problem.
There’s another problem. Most cannabis consumers don’t know what they’re looking for. In the SEO world, there’s a saying, “If you can’t be found, you don’t exist.” So how do you stand above the crowd? Drumrolls, please: content marketing. To grow in this industry, you need to become a thought leader. People are searching for information right now. There is no better time than now to become a thought-provoking content publisher.
Here are seven tips on how to get started.
1. Find Your Niche
What do you do well? What would your audience want you to share? Even if you are an expert at everything to do with cannabis, try to narrow down on one area of your passion and interest. Maybe you have an interest in cooking. How about writing a CBD e-cookbook?
Of course, be careful not to write every piece as a self-promotion since it could tarnish your brand if it looks like you are selling something and leading readers.
2. Offer a Unique Perspective
It’s not enough to just write anything. You need to offer a unique perspective. For example, did you know that Baby Boomers are the fastest growing cannabis market? Knowing this, are there any videos or posts that you can offer tailored to them?
3. Figure Out Where Your Audience Is
Each social platform has a different audience. It’s no secret that LinkedIn is not as popular as Instagram. LinkedIn is the fourth largest active network (after Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). The demographics of LinkedIn users are often in their 40s and more likely men than women. Instagram, on the other hand, has more people in their 30s and is slightly more women. The key is to know your audience. You’ll have to figure out which platform is better for one audience than another.
4. Develop Compelling Content
Think about the questions your audience has. Perhaps it’s a question that you have. If you’re asking, maybe others are too. Try to offer in-depth insights to offer. Search Engine Journal reported that audiences were engaged with posts that had on average around 1,900 words. Longer posts did better than the usual 500 to 600 words. You want to become the place people go to find things.
5. Connect with Other Influencers
Connecting with influencers to promote your message is a good way to jump forward. Go to cannabis industry events and conferences and meet others who share your interest. Find those who might be interested in cross-promoting and collaborating with you.
Instagram has become a good source for engaging audiences. Twitter is another great place to find influencers. Most influencers also have blogs. Try to find influencers who can share your content and who create their own.
6. Stay Current, Yet Selective to Your Niche
Try to stay current on what’s happening in the cannabis industry. It’s important for you to stay tuned into what is happening so that when things happen, you can help to explain them in your own words. For instance, if you are a graphic designer, you could help others to understand what the new packaging rules will mean for cannabis products.
7. Grow Your Followers
Whatever marketing you do, it’s important to know who your audience is. As a thought leader, you’ll need to build your social media following and create a brand with a consistent message. As your audience engages with your content, you begin to build your identity as an authority on the subject.
So there you have it, our best advice on how to get you started with marijuana marketing. Becoming a thought leader is not going to be easy. It takes time. The hard part is staying consistent and on track in producing content. Yet as hard as this is, sharing your voices through your content is your way of being found and to stand out from the crowd. Thought leaders started somewhere, and so must you.
You know what they say: adapt or die! Cannabis digital marketing is taking on a life of its own these days. There’s no doubt about it, every cannabis business is different. To succeed with an online presence, you need to get up to speed on SEO. It all starts with knowing your customers, meeting the challenges of Google’s algorithm, and making your content more prominent to help you stand out and get noticed.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.