Before the coronavirus pandemic, brick-and-mortar retail reigned supreme for cannabis dispensaries across the country. That's all changing now.

Regulatory restrictions on cannabis e-commerce rendered brands’ digital footprints marginally important until the spring of 2020. But a new paradigm of social distancing and shopping for almost everything from the comfort of home has changed that dynamic overnight—and as a result, the cannabis industry’s digital transition has rapidly accelerated.

By and large, people have simply stopped going outside. So how is a new consumer supposed to discover and experience—and purchase—your brand right now?

Through the digital multiverse. Your digital brand, digital story and digital marketplaces are more important than ever.

In this time of uncertainty, when we don’t know when or if physical retail experiences will ever return to pre-pandemic status, creating a streamlined and progressive digital experience for consumers is critical for cannabis brands. And with federal legalization an eventual inevitability, now is a prime time to grow your brand’s digital presence for long-term success.

What Esports and the Cannabis Industry’s Digital Transition Have in Common
What does it mean to cultivate the online presence of a business? We can take some lessons from a 100% online industry that is experiencing enormous growth: esports (that’s competitive video gaming, for the uninitiated).

Esports revenue increased nearly 40% in 2018 over the previous year. The Twitch platform racks up billions of hours in viewing time. And Riot Games, a major player in the esports space, recently signed a streaming deal with ESPN, another testament to widespread interest. This growth happened through massive development of online communities on mobile-friendly platforms.

Cannabis has seen similarly explosive growth, and esports is a market with which the cannabis world can have a highly fruitful connection. To make that happen, cannabis brands need to establish their digital presence in a similar, ubiquitous manner. Just having Facebook and Instagram pages (while obviously needed) won’t cut it in the new post-Covid world.

New Consumer Habits Evolve Quickly

While adult consumers can currently reserve or buy cannabis online in many places across the U.S., it’s often a confusing, messy process with mismatched photos and product descriptions all too common. In the California market, there are still big open pastures of untapped digital space to establish your brand.

What about the browsing experience? One of the pleasures of visiting a dispensary is perusing the wares. We can look to China to see how the U.S. cannabis industry digital transition could play out. The expansion of virtual stores was catalyzed by the 2003 SARS outbreak, and these digital stores now make up 40% of total commerce. In just three years, it’s expected that number will grow to 65% or more.

And now it’s happening here. Columbia Care, one of the largest multi-state operators in the cannabis space just launched the first virtual dispensary experience - allowing customers to book a time to shop 1-on-1 with a sales associate online. They’ve initially launched this service in four states, but expect it to expand very quickly. And expect other brands to follow suit. It’s not only the inevitable reaction to social distancing, but a move the industry will be glad they made as it looks to the future.

Once these new formats become the norm, things won’t go back to the way they were.

When consumers are forced to acclimate to online buying, the initial wariness ebbs away and they start to enjoy all the obvious benefits: the convenience, the time saved. Even after consumers’ pandemic-related fears ease, they will continue to do their research online.

And as delivery services find their footing in the regulated California economy (and beyond), it will be easier to marry the digital experience to widespread access to products. All those digital assets will translate into cannabis arriving in customers’ homes.

New, more efficient practices are often slow to establish when the old way still works fine, but a disruptive event can change things quickly.

Going Social for Customer Relationship Building
Again, when we talk about social media, we’re talking about relationships and communities.

Facebook Groups have proliferated during the pandemic as people seek out ways to connect and interact with one another. And the inherent beauty of a Facebook group is that it’s a closed community. While it’s true that stigmas have fallen, many people still don’t want their boss or mom knowing they consume. Facebook groups are places where communities of like-minded individuals are free to engage with your brand and product.

And don’t just think about how to find and connect with individual cannabis buyers, but entire communities where your brand could be a presence that draws people together. Animal Crossing isn’t just a game that individual people enjoy; It’s a huge, digital-based community. There’s a reason why the esports team 100 Thieves decided to drop their new apparel line on Animal Crossing than through a traditional retailer.

Life is very different right now, and people are anxious for normal life to return. In some ways, however, society will find new normals, not because we have to, but because we want to. The future of cannabis was digital before the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. The only thing that has changed is the speed of this transition. The time for action is now.

Headquarters is a brand accelerator that specializes in California cannabis. We help brands launch, grow, and scale in the Golden State and beyond.

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