Differentiating through Dev+Design: How to Stand Out in the Saturated Cannabis Industry

by | Dec 12, 2018

Written by Nitesh Agrawal

Differentiate, or die. It’s a dire warning from us here at Indiez, but it’s accurate for the cannabis industry. But how?

By all measures, the state of the recreational cannabis industry is still in an early stage of growth, with key players staking big claims in local markets, and smaller, newer companies filling in the gaps.

In Colorado, the number of recreational dispensaries rose from 147 in 2014 to 509 by the beginning of 2018. Put a dollar sign to this, and you get a 120% increase in total marijuana sales between 2014 and 2017, from about $684M to just over $1.5B. In 2018, the industry recorded sales of more than $1B by August — the earliest the state had ever reached that milestone.

So we’re still on the upward trajectory, especially considering ten states and the District of Columbia have all passed recreational weed laws. But very soon dispensaries and the growth and distribution operations that support them won’t be able to rely on this consumer fervor and novel new products (The “cannabis-infused-anything” trend can only last so long). Product quality and consistency will be the new norm. Even more, states will get in on the green rush. The inevitable shakeout that comes with industry maturation will set in. So who will survive?

Those in the vanguard of design and digital presence, and who invest in tomorrow’s tech developments today, will be the leaders of the industry.

Poor Digital Presence

I first realized how dated the industry was when I was researching the state of cannabis digital design. I looked at nearly 50 cannabis websites, and after all that, I’m sorry to say there wasn’t a single one that impressed me.

Most of them were built on either WordPress or Magento, which is already unacceptable in a world that’s moving almost entirely to javascript. If this doesn’t make any sense to you, picture it like this: Most of the cannabis sites out there are clunky beaters when they could be Teslas. This led to pathetically slow loading times and outdated designs from the 2000s, which have disastrous knock-on effects of bad user engagement and ultimately weak SEO. I saw very few that had a fresh, modern look that reeled me in.

Know Your Target Audience

Millennials dominate the buyer landscape. In one study conducted by Headset, a cannabis retail data company, the group estimated millennials hogged 49% of the total market share in 2016 and 51% in 2017.

That’s half of your customers who are either digital natives or close to it. Again, the industry will get by for a while on buyers of all ages excited about the novelty of the product, but that trend will wane.

And these digital natives are tech-savvy folk. While things like poor load times and lackluster design may not bother an older generation, these are incredibly off-putting to millennials.

How to Create an Amazing Digital Cannabis Brand

Invest in Design

They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Your website should reflect the kind of company you want to be in the future, not just what you are now. It’s an opportunity to be any kind of company you imagine, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the great equalizer of today. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small garage-based operation or a global company — both groups have the opportunity to create a mind-blowing web presence.

Two examples to study are Airbnb and Postmates, especially if you’re considering e-commerce solutions. Both of these are excellent examples of updated, beautiful designs built with modern development techniques that offer a stellar user experience. There’s no reason your cannabis website shouldn’t be as fluid and attractive as these.

Invest in SEO

No, this doesn’t mean keyword stuffing. SEO has come a long way, and through a combination of technical SEO and organic marketing, you can find an audience for the awesome digital brand you create.

Let’s look at the technical side first. The internet is unfathomably big, and search engines like Google use automated bots to “crawl” the endless links and websites out there. To make this task more manageable, search engine developers use an open-source language called Structured Data Markup. To cut a long, boring story short, your website can “communicate” better with these bots with the right markup on your website. Or as tech SEO firm Huckabuy puts it, your website can learn how to “speak Google.”

This can help you qualify for “rich results.” Rich results include:

  • Snippets: These are the text and photos that sometimes appear below a search result, and may include star ratings, excerpts from your blog, and eye-catching images.
  • Featured snippets: This is that answer Google supplies at the very top of the search results page, emboldened and surrounded by a box. This is SEO gold.
  • Rich cards: These are rich snippets on steroids. Often it will include featured snippet-esque answer, your company logo, contact information, and more, right there on the front page of Google.

This tool from Google can show you if your page qualifies for rich results. Note: This is still in beta, so if it says you don’t qualify, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t. But if you do, kudos. You’re in good shape.

Pairing this with organic search efforts is important. After all, you have to have the content for it to appear in search results in the first place. There are endless blogs, eBooks, and YouTube videos on organic content marketing, but it all boils down to this. Know your searcher’s intent, answer their question, and give them a valuable takeaway.

Know when customers are ready to buy and engage them!

In a traditional brick and mortar store, employees hone their skills to know exactly how to recognize a buy-ready customer. The time they’ve spent in the store, their body language, how many items they’ve handled or looked at a product — all of it prompts a salesperson to approach the customer and say “Can I help you with anything?”

Your website is no different. When a customer is ready for you, you need to be there to help them make the best decision. Do this with a live chat function, such as those offered by Drift or Intercom. Here are a few ways to turn site visitors into customers through live chat:

  • Automate. You can set parameters, write scripts, include keywords, and offer pre-written answer buttons that speak to web users at precisely the right time.
  • Provide incentives. Perhaps you’ve noticed higher traffic, longer session durations, and more page views, but users still aren’t converting. Set the appropriate condition, and you can automatically send a promotion, such as “10% off if you purchase in the next 10 minutes,” to a customer teetering on the edge of converting. This is a hugely influential method.
  • Nurture them. You can collect emails by offering newsletter signup, asking them to send in any questions via email, or asking if they’d like more information. From there, you can provide them with valuable content through email to keep them coming back to your site.

Get engaged in the community

Ok, so you’ve got a beautiful web presence, and you’re primed for people to find you. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

You’ll need to show you’re invested in the cannabis community, and not just surface-level. These days, millennials (your target market, remember?) are burning for authenticity. If your digital brand seems too corporate or stale, you won’t stand a chance. You’ll need to use your digital presence to show you’re a real, active member of the community. You can do this through:

  • Blogs: Use your knowledge to write killer stuff that helps people learn.
  • Emails: Put together weekly emails that offer transparency and value. Let people know what you’re working on, show them new strains or products, and offer some exciting statistics on things like top sales, buyer trends, etc.
  • Forums: Including a forum on your site can be a huge draw, and it’s super easy. Check out Discourse.org, which offers a simple plug-and-play forum solution. Or, you can get involved in existing forums on cannabis subreddits and other industry pages. Again, you must be authentic. Don’t just peddle your latest blog in places like this. You’ll be harangued or worse. Instead, share your experiences so you can help others. This is what people want.

Analyze your Data

A phrase like “data analysis” seems way more complicated than it is. Sure, the first time you see a Google Analytics dashboard, it’ll be overwhelming. But I’m here to say you can learn the basics of your website’s user data, and doing so will give you a huge competitive advantage.

And that’s where I’d start. Use this guide from Moz to get started with GA. Once you’re set up, just explore. Seriously, click on stuff, study stuff, compare date ranges. Once you get a toe in, you’ll find it’s addicting and extremely valuable.

From there, you can use other tools to monitor user engagement. Fullstory and Hotjar are two incredible tools that let you watch how your users interact with your website. You’ll see where they click, what they hover over, what they highlight, and way more.

Once these tools are in place, you can then make decisions based on that data. Is a particular page getting tons of traffic, and people are hanging out there longer than other pages? Use the previously mentioned chat feature to target them with a specific message. If a historically popular blog starts to slide in traffic, update it with more relevant information and re-share it.

Data opens doors, and when used correctly, could propel your cannabis business to a level of sophistication, professionalism, and efficiency severely lacking in the industry today.

A few parting tips on cannabis website design:

  • When designing your site, make sure all calls-to-action are clear, and there’s a visible search bar on the page.
  • If you’re selling products, put the product that sells on the main landing page, and not the product you want to sell. Listen to your customers. They know what they want.
  • Help users make the right decisions by providing clear, concise information. Give them the option to compare products, and avoid overly technical descriptions. Features are boring, but benefits are exciting. What’s more tantalizing: To have 1G of data storage on a mobile device, or to hold 10,000 of your favorite songs in your pocket?
  • Don’t overlook site navigation. Always include the most relevant links in the header and footer, and be sure to set up an internal link structure that helps users move from top-of-funnel landing pages to product check-out pages and everything in between.

And lastly, keep it human. It sounds paradoxical, but the best digital presences will feel warm, exciting, and welcoming.

At Indiez, we’ve helped hundreds of companies improve their development standards, web designs, and user experiences, and I’ve seen how much room there is to grow in the cannabis industry. Use this guide as a jump-off point, then keep learning. Tomorrow’s leaders in the cannabis industry are the ones who today are experimenting, prodding, taking risks, failing, addressing issues, finding solutions, and future-proofing their businesses. Will you be one of them?