The American cannabis industry is experiencing an unprecedented boom. The legal cannabis market as of April 2021 is made up of over 10,000 businesses and spans 28 medical and 16 medical/recreational states plus the District of Columbia—ironically, given its uncertain federal status. Only 6 states remain where cannabis is totally illegal.
As the trend toward legalization continues, the space is experiencing rapid growth, with the marijuana industry itself worth $61 billion as of 2021. In 2020, several leading cannabis states—California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—broke cannabis sales records.
About This Guide
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Overview of the Cannabis Industry
Legal cannabis has generated cottage industries nationwide, including both ancillary and plant-touching businesses. Ancillary operations include delivery apps, PoS systems, armored cars, and IoT soil regulators. Plant-touching businesses include dispensaries, consumer-packaged goods, and multi-state operations.
Even though they traditionally rely heavily on tactics such as email marketing, it is these plant-touching cannabis businesses that most require specialized marijuana marketing and SEO for a variety of reasons.
Dispensaries are the local small and medium businesses (SMB) of the cannabis industry. Often, dispensaries are smaller, local businesses with marketing budgets to match—like any other brick-and-mortar companies—who need to drive sales and foot traffic.
The biggest marketing challenges for dispensaries are usually cost related to limited budgets, raising awareness, and local SEO. Email marketing and SMS lists are critical to dispensaries and help drive repeat business, cross-sell, and improve customer lifetime value, but case studies show they are less effective at gaining new customers. And hiring actual SEO agencies can be cost-prohibitive for SMBs.
Consumer-packaged goods (CPG) are the cannabis brands we all know and love—at least locally. Real CPG businesses and brand names mostly exist in mature recreational markets, but they are gaining ground as they expand to new states. Experts also think interstate commerce will eventually become possible for the cannabis industry.
The biggest marketing challenges for CPG brand businesses are building brand awareness digitally, omni-channel marketing, and assessing the success of their campaigns. Thanks to ongoing clashes between federal, state, and local laws, ethically and legally targeting your brand’s audience safely across digital properties and various marketing channels is a tremendous challenge, as is finding reliable metrics to determine campaign efficacy.
Cannabis and CBD brands share these challenges with one major difference. Because CBD brands can sell their products online, they can connect impressions and clicks to revenue. This means a CBD brand can choose to use more traditional e-commerce marketing tactics or newer strategies like influencer marketing—as long as they meet FDA guidelines.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are the face of big business in the cannabis industry—the large companies, sometimes publicly traded, that operate dispensaries in multiple states and often have their own in-house CPG brands as well. These businesses demand complex cross-channel media strategies that are legally compliant. MSOs typically face market penetration during expansion, compliance across multiple states, and finding the best ways to spend marketing dollars as their biggest marketing challenges. Whether working with a marketing agency or creating a professional in-house team, the MSO faces huge challenges in how to shape an online marketing strategy.
As more states move to decriminalize and legalize cannabis, hemp, marijuana seeds, and more, demand will continue to grow. It’s no surprise that the industry is now the site of fierce competition, particularly since paid advertising is often off-limits to cannabis-related brands. Still, these businesses can deploy classic public relations tactics, organic social media where possible—and marijuana SEO to gain more exposure.
Why Cannabis Businesses Need Cannabis SEO
There are over 25,000 brick-and-mortar medical and recreational dispensaries across the United States. This is great news, but it also means that consumers have lots of choice when it comes to purchasing cannabis products.
For a cannabis business, brand recognition or creating an online presence that stands out from many possible choices can be a struggle, especially with most marijuana companies barred from traditional forms of media such as radio, television, and billboards in most states. And you cannot, as a cannabis brand, make use of Google Ads to reach the first page of SERPs like other businesses can. As brands get creative to reach their target audience, a strong marijuana SEO strategy is critical.
SEO is a reliable way to fuel brand awareness and drive customers to your website to ultimately buy—in any industry. But for the cannabis industry, SEO is even more central, as various laws at the federal and state levels limit the kinds of outreach that are possible.
Add to this equation the fact that the cannabis industry is growing so quickly. This means changes at top speed, and the need to adapt and compete both locally and across the country. It also means that everyone working in cannabis is working in a competitive industry—without the typical marketing tools at hand.
The expanding recreational cannabis universe demands an outreach plan that is flexible yet sophisticated, and clearly makes your brand voice heard above the noise.
For example, typically businesses will consider paid media options such as social media platforms and AdWords while developing a digital marketing strategy. In a world where that was possible, your brand might purchase several relevant Google Adwords PPC terms such as “Gelato Flower” or “GG4 Concentrate” so potential customers searching those terms in your area would see your search ad near the top of the SERP when they ran those searches.
However, under federal law, marijuana remains illegal. To avoid federal trouble, digital ad platforms, much like their traditional media counterparts, mostly ban cannabis and related product businesses from using their services.
The bottom line is that customers can only find your cannabis website through organic search, and that is why increasing organic traffic via search engine optimization is so important. A thoughtful, well-conceived approach to SEO that includes better web design and optimization, content marketing, backlink acquisition, and other SEO strategies can help any marijuana website climb in the search engine results pages.
Both traditional marijuana dispensaries and e-commerce brands face serious competition, and not just locally. Particularly as bigger cannabis brands gain traction, smaller businesses may feel the struggle even more.
With limited marketing options out there, and restrictions on paid media, marijuana SEO has developed into a speciality, just like enterprise SEO or local SEO. The best way to improve results in SERPs is through a strategic blend of link building, of targeted keywords, and optimized website content.
Protect Your Cannabis SEO
Remember to check the terms of service for your web hosting and platform before developing an SEO strategy. Cannabis content can be—and is—considered “edgy” or unusual by many. Protect your business by selecting providers, including payment providers, that allow this kind of business content. In some cases, you may need to…