As cannabis laws change, so does the conversation on social media. We talk to KINDLAND’s founder Mike France on the evolving scene for cannabis publishers.
What’s one the hottest growing niches for publishers right now? One might even say it’s so hot, it’s blazing.
We’re talking, of course, about cannabis. Content around cannabis is having a renaissance, allowing publishers to reach audiences passionate about a subject that was previously considered taboo.
Even mainstream publishers are seeing engagements for reporting around marijuana. Some are creating distinct verticals just for cannabis, like VICE and NowThis.
(growth of social engagements around cannabis content, from March 2016 to March 2017, from NewsWhip Analytics)
So what does this space look like, especially for the cannabis-focused publishers?
To find out, we spoke to Mike France, founder and CEO of KINDLAND on this evolving space and what’s to come.
He filled us in on cannabis’s untapped motley of varied audiences, how it’s intersecting with mainstream news, the difficulties still within, and monetization.
Cannabis seems to be less of a taboo subject these days, with even general news publishers covering it. Is cannabis now in the mainstream, and what are your views on this?
Mike: Well I think there’s a big difference right upfront whether you are a niche publisher in the space vs. a mainstream publisher.
I think those lines get drawn around how a media company is trying to make money. We’re not pursuing monetization with mainstream advertisers yet. For cannabis publishers that can cross over to complementary mainstream topics and audiences – like arts and entertainment – some mainstream brands will follow for sure. For example, Comedy Central has advertised with High Times with particular focus on their social media audience. But with a fast growing consumer industry around legal cannabis, a small number of focused publishers can compete for marketing dollars that most mainstream platforms and publishers are still very wary of. This difference significantly shapes editorial strategy and coverage, positioning, and voice. One small, funny example of that is we make far fewer weed puns.
Cannabis in the publishing space is interesting. It is a pretty unique topic in that it has numerous sections and audiences within it that are independent and highly engaged.
Within cannabis, there’s a health and wellness audience, a science audience, a policy audience that cares about things including legislation, social justice and civil liberties, and cannabis culture and lifestyle audiences that are very different from each other.
Herb (herb.co) for instance, very much addresses that culture audience, through memes and pop culture that is really engagement oriented. Then you have a (cannabis) products and accessories audience as well.
Those are pretty independent audiences and they’re actually turned off by the other facets of cannabis, such as the policy audience toward the lifestyle audience.
When you step back and compare cannabis to other topics, there are not a lot of topics or domains that have such a range of subtopics within them that are so highly engaged and defined.
The other thing that is really unique is that there are deep societal narratives around cannabis that are ingrained in popular culture, public policy, and our institutions. There’s the war on drugs for example, and at the other extreme, cannabis has always been a mainstay in music.
There’s mainstream reach but niche engagement. And it’s all happening right now at local to global levels. Everywhere around the U.S., there’s a local marijuana narrative, especially on the legislation front, but then you have the international aspects of legalization in Canada and Sweden.
All of these aspects are happening together. Cannabis is firing on all cylinders, which I think is very unique.
How has this shift happened? Has social media changed the playing field?
Social has played a very significant role. It’s hard to ignore, particularly for the younger demographic, where social dominates how most people get their content.
Using Spike and looking at how the internet trades in cannabis content right now, two things happen.
There are the mainstream narratives that apply in some way to everyone. There’s the bigger legalization news, but the day-to-day, the majority of it is local or esoteric, and the typical person doesn’t care about that stuff. But then Colorado went recreational, and that goes beyond Colorado, and there was the whole 2016 election season with nine states having recreational (cannabis) use initiatives on their ballots (and legalization winning in eight of them).
Those stories hit social but are driven by mainstream publishers. This week with 4/20, what Vice has done with their #weedweek campaign to blanket social feeds with cannabis content has been incredible to see, taking advantage of all of their editorial brands and channels, from Broadly to Vice to Munchies to Noisey and Motherboard.
Second, we see a lot of action on fan-pages, social communities built around cannabis, that have been built over the past ten years in particular and have gotten reasonably large. A lot of evergreen content gets pushed around on those. Cannabis usage, memes, video content — the cultural part comes in there.
Social is a great distribution mechanism, for mainstream type of news. That’s what Facebook will open its network to and that cannabis content can reach a lot of people.
For more specific cannabis stuff, even if you’re sharing the content, Facebook’s algorithm might have a suppressive effect. There’s a lot of email, I.M. action instead. Cannabis is still a little taboo, people don’t want to share it with entire friend base.
Overall there’s a lot of platform, media, and audience sensitivity to the topic, it’s a pervasive internal struggle.
So how is KINDLAND fitting into the space?
We’ve been focused on creating marketing solutions for consumer cannabis brands.
We’re focused on trying to figure out sponsored content, content that is highly correlated with specific cannabis companies and marketers to reach the right audiences with topical stories, and developing those custom audiences to drive awareness and sales conversions.
We do a lot with link traffic at the moment, we get to test a lot of approaches to covering and positioning a topic or story at very low risk (compared to the high cost and production time for video). Native content is something we’re going to be getting into in the next few months though to build engagement and scale our audiences.
What’s something distinctive about KINDLAND’s approach to cannabis content?
The audience of women is really, really important to us. We’ve put a lot of time and focus into it. We view cannabis coverage by and for women as an essential need in order to mainstream and normalize cannabis.
Women are a really underserved and important group who are interested in the topic. Men are typically seen as more interested in weed, and that’s reflected in a lot of survey data but doesn’t seem like it’s reflected in reality. Traditionally, the content has been geared toward men and turned off women.
We’ve seen a lot of success with women, so it’s really been a media divide, not an audience divide.
Eighty percent of audiences within the cannabis space are male. At one point, a month ago, we were 50/50 with our audience, we’re now 60/40 men to women. We’re really focusing on building these audiences deliberately.
It makes a lot of sense for us tactically from a brand and publishing perspective to have dedicated social pages for these audiences — women-oriented content, products and accessories content, culture content.
We’re currently taking the single-page, wide approach to social publishing, but wide isn’t a great answer. We want to focus on these key audiences and maximize them.
What are the most important social media networks? With so many audiences, are there more possibilities?
Facebook is so attractive because it is huge, and if you’re data-inclined, it’s one of the most data rich platforms out there. There’s huge engagement around the more cultural content on Twitter and Instagram. On the business side, LinkedIn; there’s absolutely mainstream business interest from all angles in this space — science, tech, investment.
Reddit is also super interesting. We’re trying to dive more into Reddit now; there are so many niche communities there that will be valuable for us and which would otherwise be hard for us to identify or reach effectively via social platforms like Facebook.
What’s a challenge for cannabis-focused publishers that other publishers don’t face?
As a cannabis focused publisher, it was very hard for us to find high quality writers, editors, and freelancers who were willing to cover this space. That has changed for us now that we’ve been around longer.
It was hard to find talent, because people didn’t want to be associated or use pen names. Great writers and editors are becoming their own brands on social, and that can become really important in the overall distribution scheme, so it hurts to not be able to use that to our advantage the same way.
It has helped that there’s been this increase in mainstream interest and coverage. That’s made a big difference more recently.
We also have to be much, much more selective and thoughtful around paid content and paid distribution. The starting place is that the majority of content we publish would not be promotable on Facebook or any other channel. Same for any other programmatic approach.
(Foodbeast, far from a traditional publisher, is one of the scant few posting branded cannabis content on Facebook)
We have to really kind of construct thoughtfully what will be high intent for people interested in cannabis, that will also be engaging, but maybe a little more safe, universal, or “bright and shiny” for the average Facebook user to share with their friend base.
There are very few topics and ways we can position coverage that we can promote on a paid basis. It is also very risky to do so, so we’re constantly concerned. You never know when you might fall out of favor with a platform or get shut down in a distribution channel, so it’s a constant risk.
The two most successful cannabis sites out there are Weedmaps and Leafly, which show dispensaries and information on cannabis strains. They have among the biggest audiences in the space, but make all the money today. If you take all of the cannabis digital media business, throw them together, Weedmaps and Leafly make $90 million out of about $100 million all together.
So all of the editorial content players only make $10 million right now from advertising. So that’s an interesting thing for us to say, where do we go here — what are the money making investments, what are the valuable engagement opportunities?
What are you most proud of, as a publisher in this space?
We’re particularly proud of the originality and quality of the content we put out. We typically put out seven pieces of content a day, three or four of those will come from Spike, looking for evergreen content that makes sense or looking for trending content. There’s low social and news velocity in this space on a daily level, so we have to focus on evergreen approaches and finding original stories in the wild.
We’re proud we have some of the highest production quality in our space. We’re speaking to a set of readers in this space that we find really valuable.
We’re solving the content marketing approach for cannabis companies. It is an incredibly challenging thing for cannabis companies to market themselves. They can’t use Google other than organically, which takes time and is hard.
Facebook sometimes does sweeps for cannabis brands and advertisers and shuts down their Pages. We’re an intermediary helping brands participate more across social and reach more consumers.
Even with print, the USPS has warned that cannabis-related ads in print publications delivered by their employees are illegal.
There are really few marketing options for our industry and we’re stoked to be at the forefront of solving that problem in ways that are highly effective, done the right way, and in a manner that works within the context of the wider social sphere and digital media ecosystem.
What’s next for KINDLAND?
We’re really looking forward to native content to build social engagement. We’ve been very solution oriented, and that’s been developing our content marketing approach, building custom audiences.
We actually want to somewhat deemphasize trending content and focus on developing more original, impactful, and evergreen stories from trending news and subject matter. Originality, impact, and voice will be crucial to develop audience loyalty. Spike has been really valuable to help us find recurring focal points, narratives, and interests to delve deeper into.
We’re also thinking about platform and marketplace opportunities within digital, for example structured and semi-structured content and functionality for users and consumers to discover new cannabis products and accessories. You’ll see something from us along those lines middle of this year.
Thanks to Mike for his great insights! We’ll be watching the space to see how it evolves on social. Do you have any experience with cannabis-focused content? Reach out to us on Twitter and let us know. To explore the trending stories in any vertical right now, take a demo of NewsWhip Spike.