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Think it’s a terrible time to scale your startup? Think again.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically transformed society. Elderly and immunocompromised people are at risk of death or severe complications. Travel restrictions have been put forth at the global, national, and municipal level. Many forms of entertainment have been shuttered, from professional sports to Broadway to local bars and restaurants.
Clearly, with all this disorder, now is not the time to start a new business.
But what if you launched a new cannabis or cannabis-adjacent business in the last few months? Is it even possible to penetrate the market and become a sustainable enterprise in these uncertain times?
The short answer is yes. But turning your business into a successful operation requires that you adapt to the present conditions. As entrepreneurs in the cannabis space, we’re used to doing just that.
Unlike brands in less controversial spheres, we’re already familiar with restrictions on online advertising. Large media spends to generate sales are absent from our playbook because of content restrictions from most popular search engines and social media.
Now, coronavirus has taken the place of in-person networking through trade shows, conferences, meet-ups, and events like cannabis dinners, cannabis yoga, and pop-ups off the table, too.
In this challenging landscape, what are the best tactics to carve out your business’ space in the world of cannabis?
One quick caveat
The tips suggested, while helpful for dispensaries and other organizations that provide cannabis for medical or recreational reasons, are primarily directed at canna-businesses that provide “non-essential” items. This is because the COVID-19 outbreak will not eliminate patients’ need for medical cannabis. However, if your business is predicated on crafting high-end pipes, humidors, or other “luxury” items, consumers might be far less likely to purchase these items throughout the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
But don’t get discouraged. There are solutions.
Tip #1: Stick with what you already have
Let’s start with what not to do. Until the coronavirus pandemic subsides, do not try launching any new products, especially if they are wildly different from your already existing products. Pumping time and money into unproven ideas is always a risk—but given the current challenges that all canna-businesses must face during this outbreak, it is an unjustifiable risk for a relatively new endeavor. Instead of spreading your resources too thin, go for what’s attainable by doubling down on your existing product line and following the other tips in this post.
Tip #2: Embrace content marketing
With people urged to practice social distancing and some localities enforcing quarantines, customers have little recourse but to go online for information on cannabis-related products. Although content marketing is rarely a quick fix, over time it can produce immense gains in traffic, authority, and sales for businesses looking to carve out their place in the crowded cannabis space. Your content marketing should be executed with the long-term goals you have for your business in mind, rather than in a scattershot approach. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic might necessitate a lengthy social shutdown, a fine-tuned content marketing strategy can be especially helpful to reach new audiences over the next few months.
Some approaches to content marketing worth your consideration include:
- Blogging. Writing blog posts is an excellent method to connect with new customers and build authority in the cannabis space. Make sure that your posts offer value to readers, rather than focus too narrowly on promoting your business. Helpful content is often shared on social media, especially when calls to action are integrated into your posts. Additionally, highly informative content has a much greater likelihood of being linked to from credible websites, a practice called backlinking, which greatly improves your search engine ranking. As with all other outreach, when you receive responses from people interested in what you’re putting out, make sure to write back. That extra layer of personalization can be an effective equalizer against more established brands because modern consumers prize authenticity and transparency.
- SEO. Search engine optimization, or SEO, not only applies to your blog posts, but also to the copy on your website. You’ll want to optimize your website and content with a mix of short-tail keywords, which are search queries that consist of one or two words, and long-tail keywords, which are search queries that are three words or longer. Short-tail keywords tend to be extremely competitive, so as a new business you’ll want to focus primarily on driving traffic and sales through long-tail keywords. You can use Google Ads Keyword Planner or a simple Google search of a long-tail keyword to determine its viability. One key point is to ensure that your copy doesn’t read in a stiff fashion; over-optimization is likely to turn off potential customers because of poor readability and can also backfire in Google’s search algorithm.
- Facebook. With 2.45 billion monthly active users, Facebook is still social media royalty. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to create a Facebook page for your business. Since your business’ page can be controlled through your existing personal account, it’s easy to invite all your Facebook friends to like the page. One potential avenue to increase reach is to write a personal post asking your friends to invite at least three other people to like your business’ page. If that doesn’t garner an appropriate response, take the time to reach out individually to your Facebook friends and make the asks.
- Instagram. Most cannabis and cannabis-adjacent brands lend themselves perfectly to social media that emphasizes the visual component. Instagram allows you to post your products and connect to potential customers via a hashtag system. With 65% of Instagram users between the ages of 18 and 34, this is a great tool to capture the attention of a youthful demographic– just be sure you are targeting to users who are of legal age.
- Pinterest. Much like Instagram, Pinterest is also ideal for brands that are looking to emphasize their products’ visuals. Pinterest can be especially useful if you’re targeting high-income individuals and/or women. Approximately half of Pinterest users earn $50k or more per year, 10% live in households that earn more than $125k per year, and 93% of total pins on the site come from women.
- Twitter. Twitter can be an excellent way to zero in on potential customers in your local area. Unlike other social media channels, messaging can be posted at a higher volume on Twitter without alienating prospects, affording you more chances to connect.
Tip #3: Enhance your email marketing
Email marketing is one of the best methods to connect not only with existing customers and prospects but also with others who could help your brand increase traffic and sales. Recent statistics indicate that more than half of the world’s population uses email; within the United States, 92 percent of adults use email and 61 percent check their email at least once per day. With in-person meetings off the table for the near future, email marketing can be prioritized as an excellent way to ramp up your business.
Two major email marketing strategies worth your consideration are:
- Email Established Brands. Now is a perfect time to integrate piggyback marketing strategies. Many businesses in the cannabis-adjacent space are likely to see sales drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnering with other brands is a great way to counter that trend by introducing your products to new audiences, either through collaborating directly on a new product or through other means of assistance. As a new business, you are unlikely to have the same level of reach as the business you’re contacting, so it is essential that when emailing key industry players you focus on the value you and your business can provide them and their customers. If you prioritize their needs over your own, you have a good chance of winning the support of others in the industry and helping your business in the process. Even if you have little to give, honestly sharing the reasons why you entered the cannabis space may be enough to win the support and promotion of the owners of some larger non-competing brands, who will resonate with your passion.
- Mailing Lists. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to begin collecting email addresses from your customers and prospects. Integrating a pop-up onto your website with a free offer can be an excellent way to build your mailing list. Marketing software like Mailchimp, AWeber, or Constant Contact make it easy to keep track of your subscribers and send out emails to your list. Providing non-automated responses to customer emails is a great way to level up on personalization and encourage sales and evangelism. Once you have a base of customers and prospects on your mailing list, you can even try hosting webinars or videoconference calls to educate people about your products and build greater trust and brand loyalty.
Tip #4: Hire influencers
Hiring an influencer to promote your products usually produces a great ROI, but it’s important to choose wisely. While hiring a celebrity influencer may appear to be the best way to go, that’s not the case. Conversion rates and trust are low, while price points are high, sometimes reaching six figures. Instead, engaging with micro-influencers is a better avenue to explore for new cannabis brands.
Micro-influencers, or influencers with under 10,000 followers, have an average cost per hire of only $180. Additionally, conversion rates tend to be much higher because micro-influencers operate in specific niches. If targeted effectively, you can easily find micro-influencers whose followers are relevant to your brand. On average, cannabis companies that hire a micro-influencer should expect around $5.20 worth of earned media value for every dollar spent.
If the influencers you are targeting have a price point that’s outside of your budget, you may want to attempt to barter. Some influencers will stay firm on their price point, but others will choose to reduce their fees in exchange for your products or other ways that you can provide value.
Tip #5: Experiment with affiliate marketing
Customers will evangelize for their favorite products. However, a little extra boost to incentivize them to spread the word as widely as possible can be a win-win, particularly in these challenging times. With the disruptive influence of large numbers of layoffs and reductions in hours commonplace, many people are looking for new ways to earn extra money. New businesses in the cannabis space may find it wise to email customers after each purchase to offer them the opportunity to earn a commission on each referral they provide. Not only can this increase traffic and sales, but it can also spur customer loyalty. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can even try reaching out to your friends and other contacts with the same deal to help your business gain traction.
Tip #6: Incentivize gift cards
This COVID-19 pandemic might appear to be especially difficult to navigate if a large portion (or all) of your business’ sales come from a brick and mortar location. Aside from migrating your products to an online storefront, you may want to consider a strategy revolving around gift cards. Even if you have to temporarily shutter your shop, you can still continue to build a buzz. One of the best ways to do so is to begin selling gift cards that can be used either online or at your storefront once it reopens. Leaning heavily on a call to shop small and shop local tends to resonate with the many consumers who prefer to support local small businesses rather than larger national or global corporate entities.
Tip #7: Link up with LinkedIn
The one exception to the social media blackout for cannabis and cannabis-adjacent brands is LinkedIn. Unlike other social media avenues, LinkedIn appears to be allowing certain online ads to be placed. Naturally, you’ll want to carefully phrase your copy to avoid any overt references to cannabis if you choose to run ads on LinkedIn. You should never show the flower or plant in the ad’s image and your landing page should be extremely vanilla as well. Additionally, LinkedIn ads tend to make the most sense for B2B products in the cannabis space, rather than more low-ticket B2C items. However, because LinkedIn still officially bans online ads from cannabis ancillary businesses, proceed with caution.
Aside from running online ads, there is another opportunity to leverage LinkedIn. You can build and optimize your own profile and encourage all your employees to do the same. Doing so, especially when coupled with outreach to others in the cannabis space on LinkedIn, can be a valuable way to build strong connections and raise your profile in the industry. If you feel that you could benefit from a little extra help making your LinkedIn profile stand out, there are plenty of affordable options to get your LinkedIn profile up to par.
While the human cost of the spread of coronavirus is a tragedy, this pandemic doesn’t have to spell the end of your business. Now is an excellent time to make sure your website and social media are perfect and many of your blog posts going forward are relevant to the current climate. More people are online than ever, and traffic is certainly not down. If you can boost that traffic through these steps or others, you can keep your business on an upward trajectory even in these challenging times. Good luck and stay safe!
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