Vividata, a research company based out of Toronto, is using hard data to tell the story of cannabis in Canada.

"What has been interesting is this debunking of stereotypes," Rahul Sethi - the Senior Manager of Insights at Vividata - told Civilized.  "A significant proportion of cannabis consumers were not necessarily doing it just to get high, or whatever, but actually to relax. For many, it’s actually a part of a relaxation and stress reduction regimen within their lifestyle." 

The company began pursuing its study on cannabis back in March, starting with a sample size of 5,000 Canadian adults (meaning ages 19 and up) with representation from every province and region.

The study looked at both users and non-users of cannabis, recording their experiences and gauging their opinions on recreational marijuana and its upcoming legalization. Topics covered by the study included opinions on preferred channels for education and distribution, the social acceptability of cannabis compared to vices like alcohol, and whether legalization would open up non-users up to trying cannabis.

"Another interesting finding is that 45 per cent of recreational users actually have children living at home," he said. "This is a funny thing as well - they’re more likely to enroll their kids in sports. What that sort of points to is, yeah, parents are consuming cannabis, but that doesn’t make them bad parents. They’re active parents, despite what some figures in the media would have you believe." 

What initially encouraged you to get interested in Cannabis research?

Sometime around early 2018, our President and CEO as well as one of our VPs were going out and doing a lot of presentations to clients. These would be like, media companies, advertisers, as well as some agencies within the country. And as they were presenting our data, a lot of the questions were actually people asking us if we had any data on cannabis usage, as well as people’s opinions on the upcoming legalization.

At that point, we didn’t, but based on the feedback - much of it coming from businesses we’d never thought of as being interested in cannabis data - the fact that they were asking us meant that there wasn’t a lot of data in the market, and a lot of people were still quoting the Deloitte Study done in 2016, but after that, there was no real trustworthy company that had done a report on the cannabis industry in Canada since then. So, we decided to field the study right away, even opting to go way beyond what Deloitte had measured.

We created the survey within a couple weeks to a month’s time, fielded it throughout March, then released it about a month afterwards.

Do you think it was the level of professionalism of the companies starting to take an interest in cannabis that prompted Vividata to pursue the issue?

Yep. Definitely the level of professionalism as well as the size of the companies asking these questions. Many of whom were not in the cannabis industry, but realized that the industry and the upcoming legalization would be beneficial for their business if they were able to gain an understanding of their consumers right now. So, whether the organization is involved in cannabis or not, there was a definite feeling of "we gotta get on this," and the desire to understand what is happening in Canada amongst consumers in relation to legalization so that they can be at the forefront.

So, the need for data was clearly evident by what they were asking and the demand for information.

Where did you see the biggest gaps in data? Obviously, there was that entire period of time between the Deloitte study in 2016 and your study in 2018. But what do you identify as being the biggest blind spots, and what do you think still needs to be covered?

That’s a great question, because that is something we’ve been discussing and really have been focusing on internally. Since we’ve done this study, one of the things we focused on in the beginning was recreational usage, so we feel like we did a really good job of capturing recreational use, such as their motive to consume recreationally, potential consumers and what would motivate them to consume, as well as potential methods of consumption and people’s opinions on consumption and legalization. We feel that we captured all that stuff very well and on a grand scale.

One gap that we have identified now, and that we’re actually working on filling, is medical use. Also, looking into the industry now, it seems like no one has done a very granular study in relation to the consumption of medical marijuana. So, that is definitely a gap we’re looking to fill by 2019 or even sooner.

What we did measure was whether people were consuming cannabis for medical usage or not, or would they potentially be interested in consuming medical marijuana for health/medical reasons. But, within that area, what we haven’t asked - but are hoping to cover - is what specific medical reasons are they consuming medical cannabis for.

For example, a lot of medical users are using cannabis to treat, let’s say, anxiety, or pain relief. Things like that. So, what we do want to get at is that level of granularity in our medical marijuana data.

What are some of the challenges that crop up for polling medical marijuana usage? One that we’re thinking of is how trustable some of these sources are, because as long as there is still a stigma around cannabis usage, people will be less inclined to tell the truth. How do you work to verify these sources?

Before we actually release the data out to the public, we do a lot of benchmarking with a lot of other surveys or studies out there - Stats Canada, for example, to see how accurate our data was in comparison to theirs. You’ll never get the exact same number, because of all the uncontrollable variables, but we benchmarked against a number of studies across the country - some more reliable than others - and we found that we were very close to the most reliable sources in terms of the data we collected.

So that was one level of trying to capture things as accurately as possible. But the other thing you have to do when creating a survey is the wording. The way the question is asked is very important. So, one of the things we tried to do was maintain a level of professionalism in the survey as much as possible.

Building off this idea of reliable sources, how do you tell the good polls from the bad?

One thing is just the history. Stats Canada has been around for a very long time, so we are able to review their history, how many studies they have done and how established they are within the industry. Sample size is very important as well. So we have to ask, one, who they are, and two, methodology. How is the data captured? So if it’s like, a survey of 100 people that’s supposed to represent national data, well then that’s really not good enough. So size of the poll as well as representation.

We also ask, did they try to survey across the country and try to capture enough of a sample within each of the provinces and regions across the country and track by age, gender and so on so that it could be properly representative?

Staying on the topic of bad polls, what’s the biggest pet peeve you have in terms of polling questions? What are the worst kinds that you see?

I think the worst kinds of questions try to sometimes get at a level of detail that respondents just may not remember, like what hour of the day are you most likely to consume cannabis? That certain level of specificity can be difficult for respondents to remember. I think that’s one of the things that we see fairly often.

But, speaking more on the level of methodology, one of the most unreliable things that we see is people polling small sample sizes and claiming that these are representative of the country as a whole, especially companies looking to pass off a panel as a poll, when they are not exactly the same thing.

A panel, meaning…

Meaning a panel of respondents that they go to all the time for different surveys. Panels are just people who automatically opt in. They might get paid for answering questions, for example. So, when a panel is passed off as a poll…well, they’re just different things. They aren’t random, and therefore are not representative.

When looking through the data, one of the things we did find was insights that were sort of debunking popular stereotypes. For example, we found that recreational consumers actually ended up, on average, earning a higher income than the general population. They are more likely to be professionals as well - managers, owners of their own business, entrepreneurs - people who excel within their industries. The polls showed that they have a greater propensity and higher likelihood of being within that area of profession.

So, they are career oriented. They are focused, so it’s not like every single person that is consuming cannabis is that typical, stoner-culture, stay-at-home, wear-my-PJs type that you’ll often see in the media. Our data is actually showing that, no, that’s not necessarily the case.

Keep in mind, though, that we did actually poll people aged 19+, so it is perhaps the case that this "stoner" culture is actually more representative of just youth culture, and young people are going to do the same thing with alcohol.

So, the reason for polling people 19 and older, is this just a general rule on your part, or is that just the age the market dictated that it was most interested in?

We specifically focused on capturing data for adults because legalization is going to be rolled out amongst adults. We found that it would be best to poll that data within that group. It is probably more accurate, as well.

How have you found the learning curve for looking into cannabis? How does it differ from other industries?

What you do see occurring in the marijuana industry right now is as we’re talking to various cannabis organizations, certain companies are really trying to determine who their core target market is, which you’ll find in other markets as well - age, demographics and so on. So, you’ll have a company that is looking to target professional females, or people who do yoga and this is just part of their natural, active lifestyle. So, you do see that occurring right now.

Something we see that is different from other industries and organizations - and I think it’s because of the timing - is a level of uncertainty. While you see certain organizations trying to define their target, because legalization is in the process of rolling out, and so many brands are developing and trying to get their voice heard, you also have other organizations that are like, "Who is it that we’re trying to reach, and how are we going to reach them? What information do we have to leverage to come up with all these answers?" 

So, because there is this level of uncertainty, there is this demand for data. So that is the gap we’re trying to fill - to provide these insights, to provide this data and help clarify some of this uncertainty that you don’t see as much in other industries as you do in this - pardon the pun - budding industry.

Rahul Sethi

How would you like to see the data you collect used?

To inform strategy, to inform people on their media planning and buying once we get to that stage in the industry. To help cannabis organizations profile who their actual target market is so they can better understand their consumers and to better sell to them.

So, as we do with other industries in the countries, we’re really trying to give them the data to drive their strategy.

You had indicated that your next big goal is getting data on medical marijuana. How do you anticipate that being different from recreational?

Right now, with regards to our differentiation between medical and recreational measurement is really just asking people if they consume marijuana medically, then a few questions in relation to that, but they don’t get that granular. The differentiation or the reasons behind medical marijuana is something that we don’t currently measure. So, is it to reduce anxiety, or for pain relief, or other symptoms…We do ask some sort of broad questions, like, do you have a prescription? But right now we don’t ask what that prescription is for.

Who do think will be the audience for this data and its distinction from recreational use?

I’d say probably medical cannabis retailers as well as licensed producers and pharmaceutical industries. Media too, of course.

Do think the fact that Canadian companies will not be able to advertise their brand will have an impact on how your data is used?

Not necessarily, because our data is not just about that. It’s beyond that as well. It’s also just to help organizations understand their own market. By that I mean understanding the market size, profiling target markets, that doesn’t just have to do with the media they consume.