As the legal cannabis industry matures, best practices and industry standards also are evolving, including on the digital marketing, mobile apps, and the software side of the business.
A significant number of cannabis companies are at the leading edge of mobile technology, which bodes well for the industry, considering most people probably already use phones to find its products and services.
A study by comScore in 2014 announced the tipping point when mobile apps began driving more than half of all time spent online, followed in 2015 by the announcement that mobile-only consumers exceeded desktop-only consumers. Put simply, potential and existing customers are increasingly more likely to find you with their phone or tablet than they are by any other means, which may explain why Google paid $25 million to register the new .app TLD (which they have yet to unveil.) Apps are the future of digital business development, and as a forward thinking industry, cannabis companies are (or should be) key contributors to this historic wireless transition.
One contributor is Justin Rose of GrowThisFast.com, which creates custom apps for businesses in the cannabis industry. “We have managed apps, social media and other aspects of digital growth for several high volume brands in other industries over the years, but when we noticed the tremendous opportunities in the cannabis vertical, we made the decision to focus our attention on creating the best apps for cannabis companies seeking a completely frictionless development process,” Rose told MG magazine. “Now companies hire us, we create their apps and many are growing even faster than they expected. It’s surprisingly simple to many cannabis business owners.”
There is also confusion about what exactly a ‘weed app’ is; while some apps like iGrowBud or Whaxy are aimed specifically at this market, other productivity apps like Slack, Trello and PushBullet have very useful purposes within the marijuana industry—even though they have an agnostic market focus.
“That’s a really important point that many people miss,” explains Rose. “A lot of great apps that do what you need done won’t say marijuana anywhere on them. Something like Trello for example, simplifies the whole way that people manage tasks or collaborate with their colleagues, and yeah that isn’t a weed specific need – but if you have ever tried to manage a company with dozens of employees it definitely helps to have an app like Trello keeping everyone on the same page beat to beat regardless of where they are or what device they happen to prefer. We could build a weed focused version of Trello, but it wouldn’t really serve a purpose because Trello already does a great job at what it is intended to do.”
As the industry gains acceptance, businesses are also being developed that profit from apps. For example, the popular HighThere app is a dating community for the cannabis industry that doesn’t sell anything beyond the app itself. While some businesses are using apps to add functionality, speed, marketing reach or other worthwhile benefits to an underlying business, the rise of app-only businesses is also a clear sign of what is on the horizon.
Among the weed centric apps that business owners are most familiar with, mobile components of the MJFreeway software are setting the standard for order management and real-time inventory tracking. Yes, there are others looking to make their mark in that space, and which app does a better job is a topic of debate, but for the purposes of this discussion, having a well-made app certainly gives MJFreeway a major advantage in the marketplace.
On the question of developing an app or finding a good developer, GrowthisFast‘s Rose offered some common sense advice. “Always start by looking closely at the competition, if any already exists,” he said. “Apple removed marijuana apps from their App store at one point, and then affirmatively reinstated weed apps in 23 States during February of 2015. That was a very welcome step toward acceptance on a broad level, but it also created a bit of a gold rush with some companies spitting out badly made apps that look terrible and work poorly, if at all. In many cases the existing apps of a particular niche are ripe to be challenged by better, slicker, more effective versions capable of providing a better user experience.”
Some companies also are turning to DIY ‘wrapper’ platforms like apppresser.com for easy, cost-effective ways to ‘wrap’ any WordPress website in an app format that can be downloaded via the iTunes or Android App stores. As you would expect, wrapper software has limitations in what it can do, and tends to feel slower or ‘clunkier’ than a truly native app, but the simplicity and reduced cost make it a better option for some app owners than hiring professional devs to create a full-blown custom app.
“We’ve used wrappers to prototype apps for clients before building them out fully, as a way to create a working prototype,” added Rose. “They do what they do well, but if you want to do anything more complex than their cookie-cutter interfaces allow, you usually end up back at square one because they aren’t built to export their work in a way that can become a modular component of the native app you eventually end up wanting to build. One suggestion people should be aware of is that your data layer can be created in a way that allows it to connect to any number of platforms, giving you the flexibility to change platforms at a later date without having to start completely from scratch. Keeping future iterations in mind can be a huge cost savings for companies that are in business for the long haul, and that’s something you must make clear to your development team early on. Often the difference between a cheap quote and an expensive one comes from how adaptable the finished product will be to new or different future evolutions of your app.”
Another reason people build custom apps is to maintain complete control over their data. “Some companies like Whaxy.com and Leafly build out slick apps for their own consumers and then offer a degree of exportability for their clients” said Rose. “While these shortcuts may seem great at first blush, it’s important to think through the consequences of becoming reliant on a third-party for essential components of your own business. For example, the Leafly service allows storeowners a simple way to export their entire menu to their own websites, but it also passes search engine optimization link-weight back to Leafly (helping Leafly to outrank its own customers in search results as part of that process). It also creates an additional obstacle for store owners relying on that menu function if you later decide to cancel your Leafly client account since your menu data is stored on their platform rather than your own.”
As cannabis business owners become more familiar with rights management and intellectual property, many are becoming cautious about hiring firms to create custom apps out of fear that they may give away some of their own rights in the process. “I’ve heard horror stories about developers trying to hold their clients hostage, and that isn’t unique to the cannabis industry – it’s been going on forever,” Rose lamented. “What astute business owners must know is that your agreements with any developer (for an app or anything else) should also make it unequivocally clear that you own all aspects of your brand, along with any app, Software or other work product created during the entire development process without any exceptions. If your attorney structures your agreement properly, it becomes irrelevant whether you use a developer who already has an account with Apple, or apply for one oneself. That agreement has to be broad enough to include all aspects of your data, and any unfinished or ancillary work done as well.”
Finally, most apps can be created in the $2,000 to $10,000 price range with a month or two of development time needed to get a minimally viable prototype ready for submission to the major app platforms. With lead times that long and pricing that low, the one question that remains is… what are you waiting for?!
By Steward Tongue