A gradual shift in social perception, a handful of ballot referendums, and a $6.7 billion industry is born. And like any emerging market, the legal marijuana business needs trade publications to serve it.
Enter Darren Roberts, CEO of CANN Media Group. After spending 17 years at the helm of AVN — the Variety of the adult entertainment industry — Roberts now brings his expertise to an industry that similarly tests the limits of both legality and cultural acceptance with mg, a two-year-old monthly magazine aimed at cannabis dispensaries and retailers across North America.
"I seem to, for some reason, be attracted to industries that face political and legal challenges," Roberts tells Folio:. "Maybe it’s a kind of self-abuse thing; I don’t know."
Roberts says one obstacle inherent to running a successful trade magazine in such an industry is simply attracting top-tier talent — marketing and media professionals that flow steadily into less-controversial sectors, such as automotive or luxury.
"It really makes running a business that much more difficult," he adds. "I was attracted to the cannabis industry because it faces so many of the similar challenges I was already dealing with. You had a public perception of the product and the industry, and that perception didn’t necessarily match up with the actual business."
That perception issue extends even to mg's advertisers: a growing collection of consultants, marketing agencies, security firms, and, primarily, vendors of products as diverse as vaporizers, seeds, humidors, body lotions, cultivation equipment, and every type of edible imaginable. Part of serving a nascent industry, Roberts says, means encouraging vendors to look outside "the bubble" and think about building their brands, not just selling products.
As a result, mg had to quickly adapt to a reality publishers in most other industries have now embraced for years: that media-company sales teams need to act not just as vehicles for advertising, but as full-service marketing partners. Roberts' team presents case studies on products in other industries as lessons in brand building and promotion, even going as far as developing marketing plans on behalf of advertisers.
"I give them templates," says Roberts. "I try to get them to start thinking about how their businesses are perceived. With some companies, it becomes second nature and it’s easy for them to do that. With others, it’s a process. It’s all about education. It’s not a transactional sale for us. It’s much more than that with these companies, because you’re often starting from nothing."
With ad sales that often rest heavily on the power of face-to-face interaction with prospective clients, Roberts says he's found particular success recruiting salespeople from the liquor and pharmaceutical sectors, due to their respective similarities to the cannabis industry.
But a sales staff is only as strong as the audience and editorial product against which it sells, and Roberts says refining mg's content by interacting with readers is just as important as the work mg does on behalf of clients.
"We have to cater our editorial content to what is happening in that market. Information in the marketplace is not something you can just research online to learn what’s going on. Nothing takes the place of sending people into the dispensaries, into the retail shops, to know what’s happening there."
The result is a highly produced trade magazine, often approaching 100 pages, with matte covers and sprawling, artfully designed features. Regular sections include Harvest (news and updates), Corner Office, Biz Dev, and Products, while features cover innovators, industry activists, and deep dives into legal and social issues impacting the industry. Roberts admits that the book's look and feel might be the manifestation of a personal predisposition toward artistic design, but that mg's readership is heavy with creative-types, and the magazine's aesthetic reflects that.
"My peers in the publishing industry have always told me that I over-produce," continues Roberts. "But to me, if you’re the face of a market, I think you have a responsibility to the market. When people say, 'It doesn’t look like a B2B magazine,' I always ask, 'Well, what’s a B2B magazine supposed to look like?'"
To stay on top of the latest developments that matter to mg's readers, the brand has developed a network of sources in states where medicinal or recreational marijuana has been legalized — or will be, in the foreseeable future. The magazine's qualified monthly circulation of over 25,000 consists mostly of retailers and legal grow operations, but mg also maintains a limited and carefully monitored newsstand strategy at a cover price of $7.95.
Intriguingly, the markets in which mg sells the best are, by and large, markets in which marijuana remains mostly illegal. Roberts chalks this up to informed consumers or forward-looking entrepreneurs looking to break into the business. To ensure compliance with legal standards, Roberts brought on consultants and met with the U.S. Postal Service.
"It’s really a non-issue, at least today. We do a really thorough job with our qualification process, and we have a very good relationship with the local postmaster and the postmaster in Washington."
With the U.S. cannabis industry expected to balloon to $50 billion by 2026, the high may be fleeting, but the opportunity appears limitless.