How to Advertise Cannabis on Premium Channels

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Illustration: Mix-and-Match-Studio / Shutterstock

Effective professional marketers know if you want to reach to a target audience, you need to meet them where they are. For cannabis marketers, relying on industry-specific platforms to advertise cannabis to consumers has been one of the only options available.

However, with the advancement of programmatic advertising solutions in the cannabis category, marketers can extend their reach to align with target audiences in the places audience members already frequent: mainstream publications, apps, and other premium channels. Programmatic tools are giving marketers a more efficient way to advertise on upmarket channels that aren’t solely focused on cannabis topics.


The problem with endemic platforms

Conventionally, cannabis marketers have been restricted to advertising on endemic platforms to try and reach consumers. These platforms are hyper-focused on cannabis themes exclusively. While these platforms might be useful for reaching a subset of the cannabis consumer market (industry professionals, thought leaders, industry writers, and others) the truth is that the vast majority of cannabis users are not frequenting these publications. 

Publications like these target audiences that already have an overt interest in the cannabis industry. The fact is most cannabis consumers are successful, motivated, and health-conscious, consuming cannabis as somewhat of an afterthought to their other recreational or medical interests. If your target audience is, for example, millennials who consume cannabis at night to relieve stress and aid sleep, attend sporting events and concerts, go to the movies and the gym, and have jobs in finance, you’ll want to target them in publications like Rolling Stone, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Forbes, meditation apps, and The Wall Street Journal.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, the millennial demographic prefers digital content to print by a margin of 81 percent. Content consumption analysis further demonstrates as much as 80 percent of the digital content millennials engage with is accessed through mobile devices, with the majority of traffic being direct referrals found through search-engine inquiries. Indirect referrals through social media platforms are also a significant indicator of target audience content interaction, linking millennials to the online subject matter they are most interested in at a rate of approximately 22.66 percent of all traffic referrals. Taken together, this data demonstrates the best place to reach a target audience composed primarily of millennials isn’t on niche platforms; it’s on the platforms covering the content they are interested in already.

Who is really consuming cannabis?

The demographics of the cannabis market have changed dramatically over the past ten years, with trends indicating continued mainstream adoption as archaic negative stigmas lose their hold. While millennials still compose the majority of the cannabis consumer market, Gen Z is expanding its share rapidly. Millennials account for more than 51 percent of the market, with Gen X coming in at 25 percent, baby boomers a little less than 16 percent, and Gen Z accounting for around 6 percent. However, Gen Z has proven to be the fastest-growing demographic, skyrocketing by 127 percent in 2020 alone, according to analysts at Headset. 

In addition to the data provided by market research firms, marketers should incorporate their own first-party data to identify their target audiences’ attributes. If marketers know a large portion of their audience is between thirty-five and fifty years old, enjoys contemporary music and films, works white-collar jobs, and shops at Whole Foods, they should be targeting them on premium channels like A&E, Business Insider, and Food and Wine.

Buying an audience

Programmatic advertising solutions offer more to marketers than just buying premium digital media space to advertise cannabis. In addition to being a more cost-effective and efficient option than going directly to premium publishers (programmatic platforms often offer inventory for $7 to $9 versus $15 to $40), marketers can leverage tools to make their efforts as targeted as possible, reaching the exact audiences they hope to convert into measurable interactions like clicks, conversions, and sales.

One of the biggest misconceptions about programmatic advertising in the cannabis category is that marketers are unable to leverage the technology while maintaining regulatory compliance. This is not true. As long as advertisers abide by state regulations, programmatic solutions are available to them. Guidelines about what can be featured in ad creative vary dramatically between states, but marketers can utilize geolocation resources to deploy tailored assets that successfully reach targets in specific areas without risking regulatory conflicts.

Furthermore, by combining the capabilities of geolocation tools with their own audience insights, marketers can advertise cannabis to a wider audience by identifying local news and entertainment outlets available programmatically, including premium publications like the New York Post, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. This means instead of simply buying premium digital space on high-end platforms that may or may not convert to ad interest, cannabis marketers are buying an audience they already know makes up the majority of the cannabis consumer market.

Transparency, reporting, and intelligence

Cannabis marketers frequently complain that conventional ad packages lack transparency and enhanced reporting on the assets they have purchased. These capabilities are fundamental to effective marketing campaigns; without them, marketers are restricted from performing even the most basic analytics at the heart of their profession. This is not acceptable, and marketers deserve better from their partners.

Increased scrutiny, industry thought leaders, and superior ad technology solutions address the issue, providing marketers with the transparency and enhanced reporting they need to gain valuable insights into ad performance. With advanced visibility, marketers can track ecommerce sales, retail foot traffic, ad engagement, audience insights, and more through detailed reports accurately delineating the impact of various media assets. With increased transparency and comprehensive reporting, marketers finally are able to leverage the effectiveness of their digital media assets into real intelligence, which they can use to optimize top performers like premium publishing and app domains.

The intelligence power of programmatic advertising lies in real-time data results. Working with trusted, transparent partners who deliver daily or weekly performance metrics should highlight the best-performing domains (publishers, apps, and other channels). By looking at engagement (click-through rate, or CTR), marketers can identify top-performing outlets and consistently optimize to align target audiences with interests based on consumption patterns. Leveraging the right partners and level of granular data can unveil new audience interests and allow marketers to unlock untapped audiences that resonate with their brand.

To drive higher engagement, marketers should consider leveraging these insights and working with partners to activate private marketplace deals (PMPs) directly with publishers. PMPs are customizable, invitation-only, real-time bidding environments in which publishers make their inventories available to a select group of advertisers. At an auction level above the open market and only available through programmatic buying, PMPs provide advertisers with increased buying efficiency, more control over ad placement, and greater access to publisher data.

PMPs — even with well-known publishing houses like Condé Nast, Hearst, Gannett,  Meredith, Time Inc., and Rodale — are available to cannabis marketers. This is an important advantage that enhanced transparency brings to digital advertisers. For example, if a cannabis marketer utilizes a digital media channel with Condé Nast Traveler and the creative asset is performing at an above-average CTR (the average CTR in the cannabis category is approximately 0.15 percent), that marketer can work with their programmatic partners to establish a private marketplace where they gain access to the benefits noted above. Additionally, marketers can use these tools to gain access to other travel-focused premium inventories, such as Hopper, Waze, Expedia, or Travelocity — all at a discounted price.

Completing your marketing toolkit

Marketers need to activate across multiple channels in order to drive sales. In conjunction with programmatic purchasing, advertisers can leverage the insights provided by enhanced transparency and improved reporting to make their marketing toolkits more effective. For example, if marketers discover the travel niche is truly resonating with their target audience, they might consider other innovative tactics as well. With the geolocation retargeting abilities provided by programmatic solutions, marketers can advertise cannabis to verified consumers on mobile apps when they are in airports, rental car establishments, and other travel-related locations.

By coupling programmatic with other efforts like experiential marketing and digital out-of-home (DOOH), cannabis marketers will achieve a well-rounded strategy that drives awareness, increases audience engagement, generates sales, and provides key intelligence on which the marketer can build.

With all the benefits provided by programmatic advertising solutions, it’s difficult to see how traditional buying processes involving requests for proposal, negotiations, and manual ordering can effectively compare. If you are a cannabis marketer looking to optimize your digital strategies, there’s only one question left to ask: What are you waiting for? 

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Sam Hollander is an accomplished sales, business development, and project management executive with expertise in digital marketing and advertising solutions. With nearly fifteen years of progressive experience in roles with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Showtime, PHD Media Group, and National Geographic, he works to develop Enlighten’s cannabis and CBD programmatic advertising platform.