COVID-19 makes in-person meetings and events dangerous and impossible, but that hasn’t kept the cannabis industry from innovating.
- COVID-19 forced the cannabis industry to rethink its approach to events.
- Virtual events are now taking the place of in-person events, but not all virtual cannabis events are created equal.
- Cannabis virtual event organizers must think outside-the-box and prioritize personalization, authenticity, and engagement to realize ROI.
- The pivot to virtual events is positive for the cannabis industry, and virtual events will continue even after the pandemic ends.
The cannabis industry is agile. We have to be. After all, our industry faces strict regulations and restrictions unheard of in nearly every other space.
When lockdown orders confined millions of people to their homes, virtually overnight, one of the cannabis industry’s primary outlets for professional networking, marketing, education, and fun, vanished. Events like MJBizCon, Lift, Hall of Flowers, the High Times Cannabis Cup, and others, are crucial for our industry and consumers, and the pandemic initially cleared the calendar.
Cannabis fans gearing up for the annual 4/20 holiday were left high and dry (pun intended), and industry professionals raced back to the drawing board to revise their 2020 event strategies.
Unfortunately, at the first sign of recession, marketing efforts are often scaled-back. Businesses slash event and advertising budgets, and, eventually, staff reductions send faithful employees looking for new work opportunities. Despite countless Harvard Business Review studies showing high success rates for companies that maintain or increase their marketing budgets during an economic downturn, budget and employee downsizing is the instinctual reaction for many cannabis marketing departments.
Fortunately, the ability to pivot and adapt in the face of hardship is ingrained in our industry. Despite labor and budget reductions, we persevere and innovate.
Cannabis businesses are pivoting to virtual events to address both budget cuts and labor reductions, and because virtual is the only option since in-person events put people at risk. Virtual events keep people safe, and they fill the gap left by the disappearance of live events that provide opportunities for professional networking, marketing, sales, and fun.
Early in the pandemic, the Hybrid Marketing team put our heads together to devise creative virtual solutions. To give our cannabis community an outlet, we adopted a virtual party format for our client, Lightshade. The first event took place on April 20th and featured music, art, comedy, and cannabis cooking alongside ads from sponsoring vendors and partners. The parties continue each month until the fun runs out or interest wanes.
And we’re not alone.
The cannabis event space was oversaturated before the pandemic, and virtual events are proving no different. I’ve seen a growing number of webcasts and live streams that provide valuable thought leadership, but don’t inspire engagement; there are either too few or too many speakers. Unfortunately, low viewer engagement results in high attrition rates (between 60-80%). Also, driven by paid content and distinct sales objectives, too many virtual events lack authenticity. And authenticity is everything.
There are, however, cannabis virtual events that get things right.
Many are devising engaging and creative virtual event solutions that provide a space for brand exposure, networking, and educational content.
For example, MJ Unpacked opted for a 3D trade show experience, focused on three core live event deliverables provided through a virtual platform: ROI, objectives, and experience. According to George Jage, CEO of Jage Media, the organizer of MJ Unpacked, "The event delivers ROI through virtual exhibit booths with product information, live booth representative chat (video and text-based), show specials, new product spotlights, and calls to action that direct virtual attendees to order products directly through the event environment."
Cannabis virtual event organizers must take an attendee-focused approach that prioritizes experience over dollars. ROI is essential - but the path to financial outcomes isn’t linear. Dollars arrive when you give people a reason to attend and genuine value. Because if your event isn’t engaging and packed with valuable content, attendance drops (often in real-time), and ROI becomes impossible.
Attending a large-scale pan-industry event, you’ll discover only five to ten percent of the delivered content pertains to your individual needs or your business’s needs. And like everything in marketing today, personalization is a significant success factor. Virtual events need to provide relevant and actionable information. MJ Unpacked and others do what in-person events often can’t: deliver content explicitly curated for their vetted and qualified audience. Organizers can vet attendees before the event through analytics from signups and questionnaires to help them curate content.
Networking is essential to the cannabis industry (or any industry). The best virtual events allow organizers and attendees to see who is present so people can connect in a group or private chat. Networking in this style is more relaxed than wandering event halls and rooms, hoping to bump into someone you want to meet. The virtual event experience is personalized, comfortable, and customizable.
The need for events hasn’t changed, but we can evaluate what, how, and where events happen. Virtual events are far more efficient than live events for three primary reasons:
- Virtual cannabis events significantly reduce exhibition costs. The typical event booth costs $5,000, but that represents only 20% of your actual expenses. In contrast, virtual event “booths” are often 60-80% less expensive because they eliminate travel and the need for food and entertainment on the road.
- Virtual events are better for lead generation. 80% of tradeshow leads aren’t contacted after the fact. Connections are made, but the opportunity is lost once you return to the office and catch up on missed work. Virtual events allow you to collect data on who visited your booth, their contact information, how long they were there, what they downloaded or viewed, and if they chatted with your booth representative.
- Virtual events are better for the planet. Attendee travel accounts for 90% of an events’ carbon footprint. And the other 10% comes from moving freight on the show floor and producing displays, brochures, visitor trash, and other items that end up in the garbage. Here’s a point for you to consider: in 2019, an average of twenty pounds of waste was generated per attendee, per event.
What does the future hold for cannabis events?
It’s clear that in-person events, when they happen, won’t be anything like cannabis events before 2020. Companies are likely to attend fewer events than before the pandemic, and they’ll send one or two team members instead of six. Instead of attending eight to ten in-person events, cannabis businesses will select two that align with their goals and provide the most significant return on their objectives.
Virtual events aren’t going anywhere, either. In all likelihood, virtual events will continue to grow in popularity. As technologies improve, and innovators create new and exciting ways to engage a virtual audience, you might see virtual events eclipse the popularity of in-person events.
It’s cannabis innovation at its finest, and, considering the challenges of 2020, that’s a distinct silver lining.
About the author: Aaron is Hybrid Marketing Co's Content Director, and he loves to write blogs. He's written so many blogs that he's lost count. And beyond his skills as a copywriter and storyteller, he's an obsessive reader and researcher. Aaron writes on subjects ranging from cannabis to collaboration, social equity to HR software, interior design to cybersecurity. His words attract, engage, educate, and convert. Btw, Aaron hates the phrase "content is king" (even though content is king - and queen).