I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Ryan, Co-Founder of VisualFizz, a digital marketing agency based in Chicago. Marissa’s marketing advice has been published in Forbes, Apple News, BuiltIn Chicago, and USA Weekly.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?
I came from a small town in Wisconsin and got my degree in Green Bay. Small towns are nice, but I knew from the get-go that it wasn’t for me. I moved down to Chicago a month after graduating and fell in love with the energy of the city. I started out with an unpaid internship at a small boutique agency that believed in me. From there, I worked in a few small to mid-sized agencies and learned the ropes of digital marketing. I started off college as a Psychology major (ended with a Business Marketing Degree), and I was blown away by how much Psychology plays into marketing, especially online. Agency life gets a bad rap, but I truly loved the fast-paced nature of it. Every day was completely different — it was a whirlwind of client meetings, SOW documents, data analysis, and crazy advertising ideas that just might work. I started out managing $100 ad campaigns, and 5 years later found myself managing over $10 million in ad spend per year.
My current company, VisualFizz, was born when I met up with my Co-Founder, Dan Salganik, to talk about a project ‘idea’ he had, one of his many, many interesting entrepreneurial ideas. He came from a project management background, and I came from an advertising background, so together, we make one heck of a team. What started as an idea in a cafe in Logan Square turned into a decision to build a full-scale digital marketing agency. In our experience, we both had worked closely in industries that had severe limitations on what they were able to do with their marketing campaigns. We specialize in digital and social ad strategies for brands in the MedTech, Hospitality, Alternative Healthcare, and Cannabis, where there are often limitations and restrictions when it comes to marketing.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
Once, Dan and I planned out an entire video ad campaign. We had everything set: the script, the perfect videographer (shout out to Anh Vo!), the perfect scene list. This client was a MedTech startup, so we even got to shoot behind the scenes in their lab at UIC. Really cool stuff. When it was a week before we were supposed to shoot, we realized that both we and the client were under the impression that the other was providing paid actors for the shoot. Adding to the timeline and budget wasn’t an option, so Dan and I ended up being the actors in all 3 ad videos. Other than hating how my face sounds on a recording, the video ads turned out amazing. Next stop, Hollywood!

Growing a Cannabis Marketing Business CBD VisualFizz

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out by always looking for opportunities to extend the effectiveness of our work. Digital marketing does not happen in a bubble, and it’s very rare that efforts can’t be duplicated for the greatest impact. We understand that the target audience usually interacts with a brand 2 to 3 times, if not more, before converting, more if we want to increase the odds of a long-term customer. That means that everything, from SEO to Content, from Social to Design, must be targeted, branded, and ready to create a positive brand experience. When brands hire us, they hire us to make a significant and far-reaching impact, and we do that by keeping a careful eye on any and all opportunities to branch into new markets and reach new, different audiences.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m grateful for my parents — I grew up in small family owned business, and seeing them run a self-sustained business and working their asses off while enjoying every step of the way for over 20 years gave me the courage to do my own “thing” when I couldn’t seem to fit in elsewhere. They taught me resilience, good business ethics, empathy, and to never take myself too seriously.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We are! One of our favorite clients is an e-commerce brand in Kuwait called The Yard. We are running a series of Facebook and Instagram ads for them that have some pretty interesting deep-level targeting demographics and AB tests we will learn from for future advertising. They have a really interesting collection of gifts, fun accessories, and home goods and decor, and are design-focused. A design-focused e-commerce brand with an extremely “Instagrammable” selection of inventory is a social media advertiser’s dream!
We are also working on our own Analytics tool that will be a SaaS program. We have scoured the web and always seem to find the deep data analytics tools that are out there to be lacking in one way or another. It’s going to take a while to build since our budget is pretty low for this particular side project, but we hope to launch in 2019. All cool things to come from VisualFizz!
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
1. Emerging technologies — every day there are tons of new tech around every aspect of the cannabis industry. From new ways to farm to new medical strains, from cryptocurrencies to a countless number of apps and SaaS programs, the cannabis industry is rapidly growing and constantly expanding.
2. This industry is incredibly progressive. The industry has made conscious efforts to support the female leaders in the space and eliminate the sexually suggestive forms of advertising and sexist hiring practices that used to be prevalent in the industry. Though this number has declined in the last 2 years, women hold a large percentage of executive and leadership positions in the cannabis space, more than most other industries. Given the nature of the industry, the medical benefits focus on overall well-being and help patients turn away from prescription medications.
3. Cannabis impacts most of us — I haven’t met a single person that does not have some sort of opinion or story related to the product. Most of the stories that I have encountered are extremely positive ones (positive sentiment towards cannabis), and being a part of that positive impact is inspiring to me.
1. You knew I’d say it — the legislation around cannabis is doing everything it can to prevent the progress of the industry. This is concerning for a number of reasons. Obviously, cannabis is becoming more and more known as an alternative to prescription drugs and opiods, and one that delivers life-saving benefits to many patients.
2. Since cannabis is still coming into its own as an industry, there will be undoubtedly be growing pains that accompany any emerging field. There will definitely be hurdles and set backs that businesses will have to persevere through.
3. I get asked a lot if I’m concerned about how my professional reputation will be seen since the country is still divided when it comes to legalization of recreational use. While it is a fairly ‘new’ market and there is still a significant amount of conflict around it, new legislation is passing every day, and an overwhelming majority of voters of cast ballots for recreational legalization. It’s clear that the cannabis space is here to stay, and the go-getters don’t have time for the naysayers!
Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the Cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You need to know what not to say — I’ve run cannabis-focused social campaigns in the past, and the client refused to heed our precautions around using words like “cannabis, MMJ, and medical marijuana”. We cautioned the client many times on the best approach for his CBD-based products, and the brand was removed from Facebook and Instagram, their main channels of traffic. Don’t hire an agency to consult on your marketing and then ignore their advice!
  2. You need to know who cares about your brand and who doesn’t (i.e. your target audience) — every marketing blog ever had discussed this, and that’s because it’s a critical part of knowing what place you have in your audience’s life. What do they value about your brand that no other brand has? Why would their current demographic (age, gender, experiences, behaviors, views, etc) give you their money or visit their website? More importantly, what does your audience need to see from you in the coming months and years to remain loyal?
  3. Paid promotion is the hare, Organic is the tortoise — on the digital side of things, staying in front of your audiences — while staying under the radar of Search Engines and Facebook administrators — is the key to digital success. Good ol’ natural organic social media growth, branding, and content strategies can help your brand become visible online without breaking policies.
  4. One of the coolest things about emerging industries is that the “first to market” tends to get a significant amount of attention and funding. The trouble with this is that these are also the brands that see the biggest penalties or have to be the first ones to learn lessons on “what not to do”. This happens often on social media channels and search engines. There is no set ‘rule book’ really, and the lines are never clear on what is allowed and what isn’t. Move carefully, test out your ideas, and strategically experiment on what moves to make.
  5. In digital marketing, there’s a lot of competition, and any time there is deep competition, there are those that play dirty. We’ve seen competitor brands repeatedly report our brands on social when they are not violating policy, we’ve seen competitor brands removing listings, we’ve seen multiple instances of other cannabis brands trying to knock other players out of the space. Beware of competitors, and play nice!

In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does your cannabis passion come from?
My passion for cannabis comes from empathy for others. With the seemingly endless health, mental health, and economic benefits cannabis has, the value of the industry as a whole is overwhelming positive. While I don’t have anyone in my family that has severe health concerns, I have met with many parents, leaders, and patients that have had their lives transformed by becoming medical marijuana patients.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?
I see VisualFizz continuing to grow and expand, serving both cannabis and non-cannabis industries. The coolest part about marketing is that although the delivery methods have never stopped changing and never will, the world will always need smart, savvy marketers that stay up to date on technological chanels and how best to utilize them. I also see our company moving more into the data analysis side of marketing, and creating our own tools that help us pinpoint opportunities for non-standard marketing.
Are you able to identify any rising stars at your company or in your industry that people need to keep an eye on?
We work with a variety of other marketing brands and businesses, but we always seem to stick with individuals that match our hustler attitude. Victor Kung over at BAMF has included VisualFizz in a few of his events, and his experience in intense growth for brands has made him a great team mate. Our social media lead, Jessica Vician, has been with us since day 25 (or something like that), and her social media campaigns have been killing it. Also, our lead designer, Adam Fleishman produces some of the best design work we’ve ever used in our ad campaigns. Overall we’re just a great team!
What growth sectors should most people be paying attention to that they might not be currently?
Organic traffic drivers! Organic traffic strategies, coupled with expert SEO planning, can help brands become visible online without getting them banned from ad networks. Search engines like Google and channels like Facebook can basically set whatever rules they wish, but
Experiential marketing — creating socialably, engaging branded experiences for audiences is a fantastic way to get your brand noticed and create positive brand sentiment. Since experiential marketing campaigns are so important for brands that have struggled or plateaud in traditional marketing startegies, we at VisualFizz test in this space a lot.

Growing a Cannabis Business CBD VisualFizz

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Chris Jeffery is the president of Leafly, I think he’d be great to interview about the industry! I’d also love to speak to the content team over at Merry Jane to learn more about their content strategies and how they combine PR, content, and SEO.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!