Third-party marketplaces with millions invested in educational content and search engine optimization (SEO) are often the first touchpoints for cannabis consumers. When shopping online for a particular product or brand, you’ll often find influential sites like Leafly, Weedmaps, or Jane atop the results—sometimes ranking higher in the search results than the brand you wanted to see.
For newer businesses without a website capable of ranking for highly competitive search terms like “marijuana dispensary” or “weed near me,” getting placement on a top-ranked page like Weedmaps—the first result you’ll see on Google for both of those search terms—could be the difference between meeting a new customer or missing out on a sale to a direct competitor. This is especially evident when you realize 28.5 percent of people click on the first search result, falling to 15.7 percent with the second result, and only 2.5 percent with the 10th result way down at the bottom of the first page. In fact, many consumers have begun to go straight to these platforms when seeking products, cementing their existence as crucial in the cannabis shopping cycle.
According to a recent report from Edge by Ascential, third-party marketplaces will account for 59 percent of all global e-commerce (not just cannabis) by 2027. The rise in online dispensaries, one of the lasting responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased the number of new cannabis customers by 142 percent since February 2020.
“If this industry truly wants to reach the mainstream masses, then we have to build digital platforms that really look and feel like platforms the same consumers we intend to invite into this community are shopping on,” said Socrates Rosenfeld, co-founder and CEO of Jane.
“If we make it very difficult, cumbersome, or inefficient for new consumers in this space, then that’s ultimately a hindrance to the growth of this market,” he said.
With so many consumers shopping online for cannabis, and brands desperate for ways to reach them, third-party marketplaces serve as a necessary part of a comprehensive marketing strategy. However, getting the right placement on these platforms can be expensive. During a time when operating budgets are tighter than ever, many brands wonder how they can compete with their well-funded competition.
How third-party marketplaces work
Third-party marketplaces connect brands and retailers with customers. In cannabis, this may include facilitating online ordering through partner retailers or delivery services. Customers can search for products, learn about brands, and find retailers in their area with the products they want to buy in stock.
The platforms typically charge a fee to the brands or retailers for this transaction, offering myriad bonus advertising options for an additional cost. This may include targeted ads, higher placement on a site, or banner ads across the platform.
There are multiple benefits to engaging with third-party platforms, including backlinks to improve your site’s SEO, but the main selling point is visibility. Consumers have come to rely on these marketplaces for both information and shopping, making them an essential resource. In 2022, Leafly had an average of eight million monthly active users, with 177 million total online sessions and three million online orders delivered. At the end of December, the website had more than 200,000 search terms ranked on the first page of Google—the only page that truly matters in search results.
This captive audience is something Uri Bogler, Founder of Jerry’s Deals, a California-based cannabis deals aggregator, believes is a key perk to engaging with these platforms.
“In cannabis, with few marketing channels available to brands and retailers, targeted marketplaces with an established and engaged audience of consumers are a great place for brands and retailers to promote their existing deals and connect with consumers who have already expressed interest in their exact, or a similar, brand or retailer,” Bogler said.
Additionally, websites like Leafly and Weedmaps have earned their website or domain authority on Google, which regularly puts their content at the top of search results. Cannabis companies may have the potential to “ride the coattails” of a platform’s authority, with backlinks to a brand or retailer’s site offering immense SEO value. The same can be said for many business-focused industry publications that own valuable B2B terms like “cannabis extraction machine.”
Another benefit of third-party platforms is their ability to act as one-stop shops for marketing, particularly with location-based efforts. Letting these marketplaces take the reins ensures a more effective and efficient strategy that allows brands to focus on other aspects of their business.
“Federal prohibition makes running a cannabis business a complex task. With Leafly, retailers can simplify that complexity with a comprehensive suite of tools and advertising products designed to target, understand, and convert local customers,” said Josh deBerge, vice president of brand and communications at Leafly.
“Our platform helps retailers streamline day-to-day operations, empowering businesses to effectively market their products, gain a competitive advantage, and drive sales while simultaneously benefiting from the incredible visibility, reach, and trust that comes with Leafly.”
Ways to get the most from a third-party platform
With marketing budgets razor-thin, cannabis companies must take advantage of every resource a third-party marketplace has to offer. Many platforms provide their customers with a number of assets to help them succeed in their engagement.
According to deBerge, Leafly provides retail clients with “SMART” best practices to maximize the value they drive with the platform. This guidance covers fundamental topics, including SEO best practices, how to get the most traffic from the widely used Leafly strain database, and how to optimize marketing promotions.
Tips include interlinking, developing a compelling brand story, and being thorough in product descriptions. If this is your brand’s introduction to the market, you want to make it count.
In that same vein, companies should also be sure their websites and social media accounts are well-developed and thorough. While many consumers’ engagement will start and stop on the third-party platform, others will want to visit brand properties outside of the marketplace. Put thought and effort into your channels so that customers have a consistent experience across platforms after they’ve discovered you on a third-party platform or publication.
Bogler encourages clients to take advantage of the wealth of information collected by platforms like his, as they can help operators better understand their customers, see what’s working, and identify areas for improvement.
“Our first-party data and native targeting capabilities, both on our website and in our email campaigns, enable us to target the right deal to the right user based on their location and preferences,” he said. “Retailers and brands will receive deal analytics for promoted deals, including clicks and other metrics.”
Business owners would be wise to copy these “best practice” marketing efforts with the help of an internal customer relationship management (CRM) tool.
Third-party marketplaces: a fundamental component of cannabis commerce
While some may laud the necessity of third-party platforms in cannabis due to their cost, the fact is they’ve become one of the top ways consumers engage with the industry online. This, along with restrictions on other marketing avenues, has led third-party marketplaces to become a staple of the space.
Criticisms aside, brands and retailers must do what they can to succeed in these arenas, starting with solid brand storytelling and a plan for how to make good use of the valuable insights third-party platforms provide. This, in turn, may help brands achieve new heights as they better understand what their audience seeks and which tactics work best to engage with new customers and develop strong loyalty for repeat purchases.
According to Rosenfeld, third-party marketplaces also grow the industry as a whole by bridging the gap between operators and the general public.
“We can take it a step further and provide real validation on products and real consumer education—we can build a real community around this product,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s how this industry is going to grow to its optimal potential.”