I was fortunate to begin my marketing research career in 1996 when the World Wide Web was in the early days of becoming a consumer medium. Before then, my research experience was academic in nature working on some original research attempting to link child abuse and trauma to acceptance of aggression in adulthood—important stuff, but very hard to swallow at times.

In the mid 1990’s, I worked for a company called Modem Media, which billed itself as the world’s first interactive agency. Our client’s included big brands such as Delta Air Lines, Citibank, AT&T, & JCPenney, and we Modem Medians were tasked to build or re-build their early websites as well as design compelling online advertising driving web users to these sites. Yes, we were partially to blame for the banner ads that you all know and love.

Here’s the thing, though, since the Web was so new, no one knew what consumers wanted in a site for Citibank or in an online booking experience for Delta. That’s where research came in. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Liz Moore (then Vandenberg) who was a real pioneer in online research, and by that I don’t mean online tools (though we did pioneer the use of those), I mean research in the online space. To do that, we turned to “tried and true” research methods including traditional focus groups and surveys to uncover consumer needs and evaluate concepts as well as usability testing to work out any user experience kinks in what we built as well as identify areas of improvement.

A key project highlighting our capabilities is something we did for Citibank starting in 1997. We had this idea to build a digital wallet for Citibank cardholders—a place where all of their payment information could be stored and used for easy (and more secure) checkout at online stores. We started by testing the idea in focus groups to understand if there was any interest in it as well as identifying what users would want in such a tool. From there, the agency designed multiple 2D renderings bringing to life how it could look, which we also tested in focus groups to give our designers and developers more direction on how to proceed forward with an optimal design. Lastly, we evaluated a prototype in usability testing to assess the user experience and identify areas of optimization.

While the tools I use to uncover consumer needs, review designs, and test prototypes have changed over the years, the process I follow in UX testing remains rooted in what we were pioneering two decades ago. To this day, just about every project I do has a six-degree connection back to my Modem Media days. I’d go back and relive them if I could because it was a time period that was truly like no other in my professional career. But that may be about to change.

Just as all those clients mentioned earlier benefitted greatly from the foundational research we were commissioning to identify needs, preferences, etc. amongst those early Web users, another, growing, industry is demonstrating the need for similar insights—it just doesn’t know it yet. That industry is legal cannabis.

Cannabis is legal for recreational purposes in nine States and legal for medicinal-only purposes in thirty states. With Canada having legalized marijuana across the country, and more States considering legalizing the plant for recreational purposes, investors and entrepreneurs are eager to plant their money in the ground and watch it flower. Many are so focused on all the red tape involved in setting up a cannabis business that their eyes aren’t on the marketing ball, and while we understand this, we know it’s a missed opportunity. Consumer’s will be overwhelmed with choice and will have a hard time navigating through all of the options available—to make a compelling case why your product (or dispensary) deserves their dollars requires the same amount of marketing rigor that our CPG, Financial Services, Tech sector clients put into research.

It all starts with the consumer

Today’s cannabis consumer is not the stereotypical stoner dude immortalized by Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times and Ridgemont High nor is it the aging hippie looking to relive his or her Woodstock days. They are executives, parents, and teachers. Grandparents, scientists, and athletes can also be found shopping in dispensaries. They all have different reasons for partaking and professionals in this space need to not only make decisions around who they want to target but they must keenly understand why they use in order to craft messages that will resonate. Marketing research firms such as mine can help through tools such as customer segmentation to cluster partakers into groups as well as quantify how big those groups are (and the fiscal opportunity each group represents). We can also help with target illumination to uncover the motivations and need states each group has.

Documenting needs is important because it is these different need states that lead to new methods of ingestion which lead to opportunities for innovation. Partakers aren’t only buying good old-fashioned flower, they by edibles, tinctures, lotions/balms, waxes, and juices and with new and emerging methods of ingestion come new devices. The marketing research industry can help innovators identify whitespace opportunity areas for product development. Just like Delta needed to know what passengers wanted in a website back in the mid 90s, innovators in this space would be well served to root their product development initiatives in the existing and emerging needs of their target segments as well as test their concepts to reduce the likelihood of failure. We know how to do this, and we are eager to help.

Packaging

And then there’s packaging—with so many competing products on in the cannabis space, informative and “user-friendly” packaging can help brands stand out and drive choice at shelf. Just as our CPG clients invest heavily in packaging research to optimize ease of use, communications, and shelf-pop, cannabis brands can tap into the marketing research industry’s packaging research capabilities  to do the same. Importantly, packaging has to be on-brand both visually and structurally to communicate what you want consumers to know about you (i.e. what effect can someone expect after using this product? If applicable, what will it taste like? Is there an odor? etc.). With a number of different packaging research methods available, the marketing research industry is ready to help cannabis brands optimize packaging.

Retail

When I started working for Unilever after my dot com days, I got into the field of shopper insights. We knew how important it was to understand how shoppers made decisions at shelf and our insights inspired in store communications including education as well as promotions that led to incremental sales for our brands. With a few exceptions, most dispensary experiences are overwhelming and not optimal for the shopper—particularly those new to the cannabis space (and make no mistake, growth will come from new users who often feel like a deer-in- headlights when visiting a dispensary for the first time). Shopper insights can help optimize the retail experience so that your customers leave satisfied (and therefore want to come back). In a space where competition will increase rapidly, you need to give shoppers a reason to visit your dispensary over another, and we are ready to help.

So, cannabis industry, we recognize that much of your time and headspace has to be spent on getting your operation up and running, but the value of marketing cannot be overstated. When you are ready, and we believe that time is now, the marketing research industry is here to consult with you on how the rigor and discipline we bring to other industries can be applied to your space. Here’s a video showcasing my firm’s capabilities in this area. At the end you will see a link to some video clips we’ve prepared to bring some target consumers to life. If you are ready to chat, please reach out. We look forward to partnering with you as you blaze new trails in this exciting industry.