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How Technology Is Revolutionizing the Cannabis Market

By Special Guest
Veronica Hanks
May 14, 2019

Advertising is the lifeblood of an e-commerce company. Over $220 billion was spent on U.S. advertising media in 2018 alone. Any savvy entrepreneur will tell you: building an e-commerce business means advertising the hell out of it.

This critical step is not-so-straightforward for one burgeoning industry. The legal cannabis market, valued at $10.6 billion not including ancillary companies, finds itself without access to the most commonly used advertising channels from social media marketing to paid display ads.

When traditional online advertising platforms aren’t an option, how do you advertise your business?

Just ask Smoke Cartel co-founders Sean Geng and Darby Cox. This entrepreneurial pair experimented and overcame the hurdles of advertising cannabis accessories they successfully retail to consumers on a growing number of web domains including,, and most popularly.

Despite not selling cannabis itself as a leading online head shop worth nearly $6 million with a 26,000 square-foot warehouse and stock ticker of its own (“SMKC”), the store continues to jump through extra hurdles in advertising, banking, commercial real estate, and credit card processing.

Growing an Online Business without Online Ads

There may be an international shift from black market to mainstream, but many of the companies that stand as a conduit to consumers are holding down hard lines against advertising cannabis or cannabis-related material.

The National Cannabis Industry Association reports that only Nebraska and Idaho continue to fail to make legal accommodations for THC and CBD products as of April 2019. Ten states offer recreational adult use laws with an additional twenty-three U.S. states protecting medical rights.

Regardless of state law, major companies like Facebook and Google still regard “marijuana” as a federally prohibited substance. While Facebook has started discussions in preparation for full legalization (as already seen in Canada, Georgia, South Africa, and Uruguay), companies still cannot use their online ad services for cannabis and cannabis-related products in the meantime.

So what is an online business to do when they can’t run Facebook or Google Ads like their friends in other industries? Grassroots promotion, organic SEO and social media engagement, direct customer relationship-building, trade show appearances, and a few other creative workarounds.

Smoke Cartel is an online head shop that sells bongs, dab rigs, vaporizers, cannabis-themed apparel (for both people and pets!), torches, and pretty much anything else you might want or need to enjoy cannabis and tobacco products.

From the company’s 2013 launch, organic grassroots connections have played a key role in its growth strategy. Fortunately the innovation and quality of these products keep people talking. But as a “tech-driven cannabis accessory company,” the team wasn’t about to give up on online outreach that easily.

A strong brand identity powered by Brand Director, Angelica Sorauf, made Smoke Cartel products instantly recognizable -- and desirable -- in the social media community. This sparked natural engagement on unpaid posts that had people re-sharing, tagging their friends, and eventually led to social media influencer partnerships.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) captured the attention of people already curious and in the market for the products the company carried.

Potential and existing customers are also added to an email list that helps the company maintain each relationship. Email marketing provides opportunities to educate people on products and the culture that surrounds it while stirring up excitement for new releases, re-stocks, and cannabis-themed holiday promotions.

It should be noted, strong 24/7 customer service is what kept its early-adopters coming back for more as Smoke Cartel’s proprietary warehouse management technology, Warely, kept things operating smoothly during the expansion into wholesale, drop-shipment, and new product line acquisitions.

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