What I’ve Learned About Media Landscapes in Evolving Industries
The best way I can describe the current state of public relations in the cannabis market is an amalgam of excitement, motivation, a little fear and a fair share of head scratching. In other words, it’s déjà vu all over again. Observing the cannabis market in its infancy is like taking a step back in time… to my first job in tech PR, when email and the internet were so new, no one was really using them.
I remember during that job interview, the lady asked if I had an interest in technology. I told her I used to take apart old phones and random stuff in my dad’s workshop because I liked figuring out how they worked. That was all it took.
I went on to work in three emerging technology markets in my 20s and 30s – video games, the internet and mobile. I sought out the smartest and most successful people around me and made sure I learned from them. I’d meet newly appointed technology beat reporters, and when asked, most of them said they got that title because they had an interest in how things worked. Sound familiar? When there is enough interest in something new, you band together and either you find an existing platform for storytelling, or you create one.
In the early days of tech, there were a dozen or so trade publications with broad coverage areas, each one sharing relatively the same readership, making it hard to establish a loyal following of subscribers. There was a need for more specialized publications where interests and niches could be explored so that people could more easily find the news that mattered most to them.
I was probably too busy learning back then to notice, but looking back today I can see a definitive pattern. Imagine my surprise when I entered the cannabis market to learn there are over 100 media outlets already! Most are online, but a lot of the trades are in print. I started thumbing through the magazines in anticipation of learning something new and figuring out who the best writers are, and I had to get through a lot of ads to find some editorial. In fact, Story Lab reviewed the most popular cannabis industry trade print publications and found between 50% to 80% of their pages to be ads with a sprinkling of stories throughout.
In young markets, advertising is the easiest way to get your brand out there fast and to know exactly what you are getting and whom you are reaching. In fact, magazines are often formed because specific brands need a specific place to advertise.
Terpenes and Testing is an example of a magazine that was born out of this market need. It was the first niche cannabis trade magazine with content focused outside of the business realm, and is dedicated solely to the science and culture of cannabis testing and extractions. The publication is gaining popularity and is distributed specifically to laboratories and extraction facilities around the world. A sister publication, Extraction Magazine, will launch in January as a bi-monthly print magazine focused on the crucial issues and key trends that influence cannabis extractors and extraction equipment manufacturers. These magazines exist because the companies who are doing testing and extractions needed a platform for their voices. We expect to see more niche outlets emerge as the market reaches its peak, just as it did in the heydays of technology.
As the internet grew, the dominant media platform changed from print to online. The trade magazines, which were now broken down into niche segments and totaled in the hundreds, grew their staff and broadened editorial coverage – not just in print, but in new online versions of the magazine, followed by digital-only publications, or blogs.
24/7 news reporting caused a major need for content, a need that still exists today and is particularly relevant to the cannabis market. In addition to print, now we also have social media, livestreams, vlogs and podcasts to consider as we look at media opportunities, and all of this news content can be consumed on our phones, tablets, or computers. The media landscape is massive, and not only are the platforms evolving, but the tools we use to exchange information is also evolving.
Digital publishing combined with e-mail completely changed the way we PR practitioners did our job in the mid-to-late 90’s. With the internet, we no longer had to mail or fax press materials to reporters (are you kidding me?). Suddenly we were emailing news and story content journalists could copy and paste into their stories. In video games, we used instant messengers to pitch reporters, and FTP sites to store and share the graphic-intensive art files. In mobile, we used apps like Test Flight to share early builds of games and apps with reporters so they could write about our products before they went public. The advent of social media forced us to apply brevity and keep our messages to 140 characters or less. Journalists assembled on Twitter and we could find out where they were, what they were covering and which topics were of most interest to them simply by following their feed. Next, video streaming capabilities ushered in a whole new way of marketing video games as “let’s play” videos on channels like YouTube and Twitch, which completely transformed the way kids consume game content – they actually prefer to watch other people play games!
As technology evolved, PR tactics and the media evolved with it. But strip away the tech and one thing that remains consistent: the impact of in-person meetings. It’s all about the people, and the best and most economical place to make that happen is at industry trade shows where you are assured a large pool of like-minded people all in one place. Historically, industry gatherings are not only the foundation of deal-making, they are news-generating machines! But few reporters attend cannabis industry conferences today, and few attending companies are using trade events as platforms for making news. That’s something the Story Lab intends to change.
The Cannabis Story Lab isn’t just a PR agency; we are change agents and educators. People want change; they just don’t always know how to make it happen. We have the luxury of evolving with the market, learning from the best and brightest, applying what we’ve learned, making (only a few) mistakes and developing an understanding of how things need to be done.
When John Sidline, my Story Lab business partner, reached out to me about forming a new agency, he asked (although he already knew) if I had an interest in cannabis. I did. I had experience working in medical marijuana and a strong belief in its wellness and potentially lifesaving benefits. That was all it took.
At the Story Lab we are fortunate to have as a partner one of the smartest and most successful people in cannabis marketing, Celeste Miranda, who nearly a decade ago founded The Cannabis Marketing Lab, the oldest and largest cannabis-focused marketing agency. John and I make sure we learn from her every day. We’re also seeking out all the many new (and new to us) cannabis beat reporters to learn from them. And they are learning from us too – asking us for advice about how they can best grow their audiences and make their content stand out. We all have a common goal, share a passion for this industry, and interest in what cannabis can do. Sound familiar? Now in this quickly growing market, we are banding together to create, yet again, a new platform for storytelling.