With so much negative coverage of publishing, we at Bibblio are shining a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. Welcome to the "Vertical Heroes" series of interviews.
In this edition, Bibblio's co-founder Rich Simmonds chats to Chris Walsh, president and founding editor of Marijuana Business Daily, the leading business news information resource for the medical marijuana and retail cannabis industry. MJBiz Daily, as it's known, is headquartered in Denver, Colorado. A highly respected initiative in a field that's quickly growing in sophistication since the plant's legalization in multiple US states, MJBiz Daily takes a serious look at the market, making it the go-to for retailers, professional cultivators, infused product makers, financiers and other industry players.
Rich caught Chris just before the latter's 2020 promotion to CEO was announced, and it was clear to Rich that Chris had an excellent handle on his pioneering publishing and trade show business. They discussed the importance of focus in a rapidly expanding sector, the value of hosting industry events and what they still need to achieve to be in the best place digitally.
Rich: Hi Chris. Let's jump in by finding out more about your target audiences?
Chris: We've taken a laser-like focus from day one and targeted the B2B side of the industry specifically. So that's entrepreneurs, executives and investors in the cannabis industry or those looking to get in. In terms of investors, we're talking about professional investors: angels, VCs and hedge fund managers, not the average person with a few thousand dollars to invest in stocks.
A lot of other media companies have tried to be everything to everyone because the area is so fascinating and people are interested in all aspects of it. So they write for mainstream and consumer audiences, politicians and regulators as well as businesses, so it becomes really unfocused. We've stuck to the traditional B2B model, despite it being really hard to do as there are so many blurring lines, but it has served us very well.
R: What kinds of content are you offering this B2B audience?
C: MJBiz Daily's digital offerings really focus on business news and analysis of developments in the industry. We look at what the impacts are to business owners and investors, what it means for them and where they're going. We have unique channels within MJBizDaily umbrellas as well, that focus on International markets, Canadian market, Hemp Industry and specifics for investors as well.
We also create 300-page industry reports with hundreds of graphs and breakdowns for people getting into the industry to use as benchmark data, from startup costs to average revenues per square foot, etc. We offer smaller market research reports too, such as how each province in Canada is regulating the recreational marijuana industry.
On the other hand, our print magazine, Marijuana Business Magazine, relies on case studies to help readers learn tips and strategies from other entrepreneurs and executives through real-life examples.
Additionally within our online space we have podcasts, but we don't do video yet. We're actually going to be doing that soon, but we want to make sure we do it right and getting the right resources. I think a lot of media companies and publishers make the mistake of just doing video for the sake of doing it, and they don't even really know why they're doing it or what the best content is. So we're making sure we're doing the market research to understand what our audience wants out of video and how we can do that effectively.
R: How large are your publications in terms of audience and staff?
C: We have around 55,000 subscribers to our daily newsletter. These are targeted high-level audiences - so that's really strong and valuable. We don't draw subscribers from consumers or patients. We get around one million page views a month, currently.
We have a controlled circulation for print of around 17,000, with issues around 125 pages. That's the sweet spot for us with revenue and costs. We extend to 190 pages near one of our events - another area of our business that's doing very well.
As far as staff are concerned, we're a little above 80 right now, with another 10 positions open. We're based in Denver, but have people in a lot of different states, such as California, Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We also have an international editor in Canada and analyst in Germany. We're growing really quickly, so a team member becomes a veteran here after a couple of weeks because three new people have started after them. For media this is a great place to be and we're trying to grow smartly.
R: You’ve managed to grow impressively, what has been the secret sauce?
C: I'm going to be completely honest here. a big part of the secret sauce is that we are in a fast-growing industry. We got into it in 2011 when no one from the mainstream media was paying attention to it, aside from pun-filled stories every now and then about this silly industry that was "cropping up". We actually recognized the opportunity very early and started writing business content for an audience who couldn't get it anywhere else. There were no niche publications, just blogs from guys, you know - the stoner in his basement covered in Cheeto dust railing on the government. But there were people out there starting businesses and they had no information; no one was paying attention to their needs on the content side.
We've been riding this wave to some degree, but we've also helped create this wave. Our secret sauce was that we took a very professional approach to this industry at a time when there was a lot of stigma attached to it. Back then, events for business people had Snoop Dog playing and there were bongs on the show floor. A lot of attendees were cannabis aficionados, maybe growing a bit in their basement, and they'd started businesses without much competition or regulation. When our two co-founders arrived from banking, and marketing/B2B publishing backgrounds, they approached it professionally. I was a former business journalist at mainstream newspapers, with an MBA, so we brought all these mindsets to everything we did, which developed our credibility quickly.
R: How do you prioritize attracting new audiences vs. engaging existing users deeper?
C: We aimed for the audience that was already in the industry rather than newbies trying to get in and who didn't understand it. As new states and countries legalize there are many people exploring the industry for a get-rich-quick solution. To focus on those is a risk from a business angle, because half of those people may never get into the industry and many of them may fail, so you're always cycling through an audience because you're only new to them for a while. That would have been a tougher long-term play - going too entry level that the existing people in the industry don't get anything out of it. Those existing people are the ones who come to our conferences and advertise in our magazine and buy booths at our show.
We've balanced it though, we don't ignore the new people completely, as they're the next big companies, entrepreneurs and investors. We focus on them in different ways, such as our crash course event in Las Vegas where we have specific content aimed at newbies. This wouldn't be for people off the street, but rather current players in mainstream industries that are looking to switch over to this one or start a company here, such as the serial entrepreneur looking to begin a startup or the marketing executive at Coca Cola looking to move to this industry.
R: How are you hooking your audience into becoming regulars?
C: The way we get people hooked is through quality journalism which right now is rare. It's also rare to get the information you need for this industry. We are keeping the business focus, we are not mimicking mainstream media. I think that's a real challenge and it's one I've seen for other B2B publications too. It's easy to take the general view when you're writing newsy stories, but what we do is hammer out high up in the story what the business angle is: Why is this important to you? What does this mean to the business community? If it doesn't mean anything to them or we don't specifically say it, we've failed. What keeps people coming back is that they hopefully know that this is where they get the business angle that resonates with them. It is our business model that allows us to do the kind of journalism that others may not be able to achieve.
R: How important is SEO to you?
C: SEO is absolutely important. It's about the right SEO, and we have internal staff that focuses on that and have made it a bigger priority this year. We engaged a third-party company who specializes in this. They've done a huge audit and are helping our marketing and editorial teams with strategic approaches. I never want it to be gimmicky - I never want to do SEO to do SEO. We want people trusting and coming to our conferences and buying our market research, rather than people coming to our site to lure advertisers who see big spikes. That's a different model than others have. The SEO needs to be done correctly and not to just boost traffic - a fact we had to make very clear to the third-party company. I'm not looking for a giant number increase unless it's the right people. For example, we could start using the word "weed" instead of "marijuana" and easily quadruple traffic, but we don't do that, as that's not where our true audience is.
R: What's your social media strategy, and how important is it for you to be present on those platforms?
C: We realize the value of social media but we're kind of behind the times with it. We are in the process of hiring a social media lead and some social media talents on the team. We've done it piecemeal up to now, with editors and reporters posting to LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Our marketing team is involved in it but on the content side we're probably a 3 out of 10 on the scale. We realize we need to bolster this as a lot of people consume content and communicate that way and are in the process of doing so.
I have seen since day one, media companies who have just jumped into social media because they think it's good They don't really know what they're trying to get from it and they don't know how to use it or how to measure it. They just throw resources at it without really knowing what they're doing. So while we are behind, and need to catch up quickly, we need to make sure we do it right. That means knowing: Why are we doing this? What are we hoping to get out of it? And then, how do we best communicate with our audience through it?
R: Would you consider yourself data driven?
C: We're building that department out in the company at the moment, as well. Our social's at a three, I'd say data's at a five. We have some strong data people on our team and we do use it to drive decisions and hopefully drive traffic, and ultimately revenue. But we realize what we could be doing with data. If we could invest more in that resource, it would ultimately have a much larger impact on our success. Most importantly, it's the reading of the analytics and making them useful for our audience that's the gap we need to bridge.
It's not enough to have a report that says here are the top stories, here is the web traffic for the month and here's the average time on site. We need resources that tell us here's why the time on site increased or decreased, and here's why this particular story did well, and here's why this one did not, such as: You took too long to get to the nut graph and you used words in the headline that aren’t SEO-optimized for our audience, and the story was 2,000 words and our audience reads 500, etc. So it's the interpretation of the analytics and how people across the company can use them that we really need to be fostering.
R: Could you shed a bit of light on your revenue model?
C: We started with digital publishing via the website Then we started doing market research and selling those reports. Next, we held our first B2B conference and expo in 2012 in Denver, and we had 400 attendees and about 30 booths. At that time, that was huge. We were like, "Wow, this is a huge success." To give you an example, and this will tell you where the revenue's coming from, our conference has grown and moved to Vegas, where this December we will have more than 35,000 people attend and around 1,400 exhibitor booths. So that has become our main revenue driver. This is a business conference. People are paying hundreds of dollars to get on the floor and thousands to have a booth. The events are fueling our business as the bulk of our revenues.
Our publishing side brings people into the fold and establishes credibility which ultimately leads them to the events. In recent times we've been looking more at this side to become largely self-sustaining. We have ads on our site, in our newsletters and magazine as well as sponsors of our free reports. We also sell reports, like our Marijuana Business Factbook. We launched a subscription site for investors earlier this year too.
The events do tend to overshadow the publishing side. Making an extra million on publishing doesn't really move the needle when your event is growing by x percent, but it does hold a lot of promise for us. The key part of this is that our editors and reporters are covering the industry every day, which feeds heavily into the content for the events, developing topics and finding speakers. Some even speak on stage, moderate panels or do some MCing. This means my team has lots of ties to revenue, and it's important to be able to trace that.
R: What are you most excited about?
C: I'm excited about the newer areas we're focusing on for growth. That's international. We've seen a lot of countries legalizing medical cannabis in the last two years. This has really become a global industry and we moved into that a little while ago. I'm excited to see how this continues to develop. We have an international newsletter now. We have analysts, reporters and freelancers in various countries. We hosted an event in Bogota, Columbia, a couple of weeks ago. We hosted one in Denmark earlier this year. We're driving the international side of our business forward and that's exciting.
The hemp industry is developing now that it has been legalized in the United States, so we're investing more in that. That has a lot of potential down the road, we've developed this out as a separate brand and website.
The investing side is another area we're enthusiastic about, as mainstream investors look at this as a new opportunity, which is why we started our subscription site.
R: Tell me more about this subscription site.
C: That's been interesting for us as a publisher. Our traditional content has always been free. We needed to build our audience, but we didn't want to start charging. I don't think the industry would have paid for it; our audience isn't really used to paying for content, aside from our really in-depth market research reports or the content they get through our events by attending. We noticed a big sea change when more and more investors started coming into the industry, bringing a noticeable increase in the volume and size of deals. Four years ago we would have written a story about a company that landed $1 million, and that would have qualified as news. Now our benchmark is $30-40 million on the low end, and even then, we usually only write a few paragraphs.
So we launched a new site called MJBiz Daily Investor Intelligence in March 2019 and we charge for that on a three-month subscription basis. We're building that now, and have swapped out our financial journalists who weren't going deep enough for that audience, and brought in private equity analysts from the finance world. These are investment people and they know how to create in-depth investment pieces that our investors appreciate. We're making changes as we go to work better for our subscribers - it's a learning process and we're fine with that.
R: Which other publishers do you look to for inspiration?
C: We took the kind of approach to reporting as The Wall Street Journal, and have been compared as such, so that's a good model for us. I think Sport Business Daily has done a great job at B2B and their industry is like ours in the sense that when you write about sports most are thinking about the consumer – the fan – but Sports Business Daily also applies that laser focus on the business side. It can be hard to not veer into other angles of stories, so I've personally looked at them a lot over the years.
R: From your own journey, what do you think other vertical publishers could learn?
C: Getting people to pay for content is tough, and it's only going to get tougher. Luckily, it's easier for vertical publishing than other types because if you're doing your job you're providing people with valuable information they can't get anywhere else. There's a future there and it's bright for vertical publishers, but there's still a large demand on the events side. In any vertical there's likely an event or several, so finding a way in is important, because as a publisher you know more than most about what an industry needs and wants. At the end of the day if you do the event right you're still providing content, it's just in a different format. So find gaps in your industry – it might be regional or a segment – and that could be an events opportunity.
R: Which stats about your company are you most proud of?
C: Over the past year we've roughly doubled our web traffic, so despite being mature in many ways we are still able to see that growth. We are in a fast-growing industry though, so that helps. Another stat I'm particularly proud of is that 3-4 years back we had a team of 15-16 people – and now we're at 80. I'm proud of that because we've actually been conservative in our growth, not becoming too big too fast. We're growing smartly which means we haven't bloated and then had to let people go. We've built a company that's employing people in good journalism jobs where they can do quality work and aren't threatened by looming cutbacks or wage freezes due to mismanaged expansion. That's really important to me.