By Jeff Klingman, theBluntness Feature Writer
Though pot legalization is changing the way we live our lives, the revolution will not be shared via Facebook feed.
Recent policy tweaks across multiple content and social platforms point to a harsh crackdown on marijuana-related businesses, with a business environment more hostile to cannabis than it’s been in years.
Facebook has cast a stringent eye on weed content for years but earlier this summer, industry observers noticed the tech giant moving one step further, quietly blocking marijuana-related pages from appearing in search results (a practice known as “shadow banning”). The blocks were broad enough to include pages created by government agencies with a stated mission to regulate legal marijuana.
And though Facebook has since eased up on that practice, they’re not the only social media platform making it hard to come by visibility in the weed space. YouTube was fairly lenient for years, before panic from big advertisers led them to abruptly cut cannabis-related channels that had previously been left alone to grow organic subscriber bases into the hundreds of thousands.
Twitter is better -- but while it’s been fair game for purveyors of industry news and views, paid promotion for anything related to cannabis sales efforts remains verboten. Instagram offers some leeway to show off dank buds, but doing overt business is tricky, and they’ve been inconsistent on a policy level too, going so far as to ban the accounts of large Canadian firms over mentions of legal medical marijuana.
In sum, Cannabis brands eager to differentiate in a crowded space find themselves unable to rely on some of the most effective tools in modern media and marketing. And content producers looking to cover (and make some ancillary cash from) the steady march of legal weed, are at risk of shutting down with every tweak in company policy. So what’s the alternative? One California company thinks they’ve got a long-term answer.
Welcome to CCTV
Danny Keith left a job handling corporate sponsorships for the Golden State Warriors’ G-League squad in Santa Cruz to found Cannabis Club TV, an over-the-top (OTT) content network that beams customized programming and weed-related ads to flat screens hanging in cannabis dispensaries across the country.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s your competition?’, and it feels irresponsible to say, ‘We don’t have any.’” says Keith. “But with regards to an OTT [content platform that feeds] into dispensaries, on a hyper-local level? I’ve not found anybody else doing that.”
Cannabis Club TV provides a wide swath of weed-themed content aimed directly the modern marijuana consumer. Assorted channels feature short, structured programming featuring well-known figures like dope icon Tommy Chong, or L.A. cannabis cuisine fixture, Jeff The 420 Chef, along with educational vids for growers. Then there are the short, plaintive clips to zone out to—think dudes slowly making elaborate sand castles while calm music twinkles.
CCTV monetizes these feeds by selling ad time between reels to local weed businesses, building those spots themselves if need be. Features built in the the company’s hardware allow for customization from state to state, custom catering content to meet each market’s specific regulations, as well as the tastes of dispensary staff.
Fewer Rules, More Opportunities
As a last refuge for orphaned producers making weed-related content, Cannabis Club TV gets to dictate terms.
“A lot of these content providers who are doing product-placement style advertising, with monetization,” says Keith. “They are doing a product review, the product is being used in the transaction. Some people are just making content to be able to get people to pay them just to make content. We license the content from these providers, but we don’t have to pay them for it. Where else are they going to put it?”
But Keith notes that they also aren’t standing in the way of monetization, or asking for a cut in the way that the big players would. “Get sponsors for it, put bumpers on it, we don’t care.”
Eventually, the company envisions offering a parallel, pay-walled service on home-entertainment boxes -- something like a CCTV Roku channel stuffed with counter-culture classics like Pineapple Express or Up in Smoke, alongside original programming that would represent the absolute cream of the self-submitted crop. Until then, the dispensary market provides a low bar to entry, and a solid testing ground.
With huge entertainment industry players constantly looking for new programs to plug into vast streaming catalogs, you never know what those reps might bring. “Eventually, maybe we’re a lily pad for a Netflix opportunity for some of these people?” says Keith. “The way shows are sold and packaged these days, you never know.”
The company’s focus for 2019 is less about high-end content and more about physical expansion and the increased as sales that might come with it.
They’ve got screens in a hundred and fourteen dispensaries across seven states, with more to come, and many many hours to fill. It’s a start. And for cannabis brands looking for fast differentiation in an industry that’s still forming, it’s a chance to bring their marketing practice up to a modern standard, quickly. “We live in an era where if you are not producing content for yourself about yourself and your brand, you are stacking the chips against yourself,” says Keith.
Marijuana Marketing's New Frontier
CCTV’s team gives those weed brands guidance when the ad content they crosses regulatory red lines, but also promises them the greatest leeway for expression currently available in the market.
“In California, you can’t do billboards within 700 feet of a school. You can’t do video advertising to less than a 72% age-qualified market, and within that you have to be sealed and behind a counter as a 21 plus product,” Keith says. “But you know what? We’re unregulated. We’re already in an age-qualified environment. We’re already in an opt-in environment, and we’re actually on private property. If no one sees you from the outside, you’re free to go on the inside.”
The closed-loop system holds one marketing advantage that mainstream content platforms never did. Namely, a captive audience of industry professionals—retail owners, budtenders, security staff, visiting vendors—watching content on loop all day.
Far more than the casual dispensary shopper, or even the monthly patient, this B2B, cannabis professional demo is currently untapped.
To Keith, the ability to target the people who stock the shelves, who make suggestions to customers, is a professional advantage that brands aren’t fully considering. “Let’s say there’s ten budtenders at every location. We [already] have access to over a thousand budtenders in our eco-sphere,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you try to advertise to them?”
Keith and his team will continue to make the case that in-store, direct to customer content is the next great opportunity in the industry. “We still have cousins, brothers, sisters, running the marketing departments. Until we get guys and gals with MBAs in there [to do marketing], it’s gonna be a little bit of a challenge,” says Keith. “But we’re here to help.”
For now, a young market still lacking for best practices and clear industry leaders is an exciting space to play.
“Imagine if you could have been around when Budweiser started up?” Keith mused. “Imaging being given the opportunity. You don’t know who the kings and queens are going to be yet. They haven’t been born.”