Cannabis businesses find it hard to advertise their businesses on Google or Facebook, since tech companies still treat them as illegal operations.
I glance down at the glass case, encircled by a marble countertop. Large flat-screen displays hang above, showing off the merchandise, but I want a closer look.
As I edge forward, the soft white glow of the undercabinet lights by the gray-tiled floors shines on my Nike sneakers. The mix of marble, stone, glass and wood accents gives the space a serene, almost sterile look.
No, I’m not at an Apple Store eyeing an Apple Watch or iPhone X. I’m actually two and a half miles east of the Las Vegas Convention Center, spending my second day at CES at the Jardin Premium Cannabis Dispensary.
And I’m here for work. I swear.
Jardin and other local marijuana dispensaries were expecting a surge in traffic last week as the more than 180,000 attendees of CES flooded into Las Vegas, where recreational weed is now legal. I wanted to check out where convention goers who smoke marijuana might be getting their pot during the week.
In the midst of my tour, my attention falls to a flat screen mounted on a silver stand. It’s part of a video booth that records a short animation of a given customer and sends it to that person’s email address as a GIF file. There’s even a Jardin background to pose in front of, like the backdrops you find during parties at Vegas nightclubs.
But the video booth is more than a chance for a silly memento — it’s a way for Jardin to win over a potential new regular customer.
“Now it’s logged their emails and we can use that for our marketing campaign,” said John Kent, Jardin’s inventory curator, as he types in his own info as an example.
Jardin goes to such lengths in part because it, like others in the legal marijuana business, often gets short shrift in Google’s search results or listings on social networks like Facebook or Twitter.
It underscores the fine line that tech companies have to navigate with these businesses, since marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government even as it’s gone legit in a number of states. That forces weed businesses like Jardin and neighboring Essence and Reef to take more creative approaches to gain consumer attention.
The online challenge is well documented. Canna Ventures, a marketing firm for marijuana companies, wrote in a blog post last May that marijuana and Google were “a match made in Hell.” Nevada laws make it impossible for marijuana companies to use services like Google’s AdWords and tracking on social media, which have helped startups in other industries boom.
“Google does not allow marijuana ads on either the display or search side [via our AdWords policies] because the product is illegal on the federal level,” said Google spokesman Alex Krasov. “This policy is the same on the publisher side [AdSense].”
Jardin, for its part, gets most of its online traffic from text message blasts and it has a healthy database of numbers. First-time customers at Jardin register a profile with the dispensary, with a name and phone number, similar to signing up for certain website services.
“We just wanted our information to be more available,” Kent said. “We allow ourselves to be exposed and found, and hopefully, like the Steve Jobs’ philosophy, we want to offer the best product and the best service the marketplace has to offer.”
Banned on Instagram, again and again
Essence, the only cannabis dispensary on the Las Vegas strip, similarly features a minimalist design, with white walls and shiny floors. People buy their marijuana while sitting behind a window. It reminds me of how I’d get medicine from my pharmacist, but cleaner.
That appearance offers no hint of one of Essence’s greatest challenges: publicity. The shop has had to rebuild its Instagram account of 20,000 followers six different times. That’s because about every three to six months, it’s banned from the Facebook-owned social network without any warning.
The first time was in 2015, Armen Yemenidjian, the store’s owner, said he was distraught. He pulled together all his store’s licenses, scanned them and sent them over to Instagram’s support team. He wanted to show the social network that the store was operating within the law and that Instagram’s ban was hurting its business.
He never received a response. He created new accounts instead, and each got banned in turn. He never knows if his store’s accounts will be safe and worries each time he looks at Instagram that it could be taken away from him.