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The Ins and Outs of Cannabis Marketing: A Conversation with Colin Slager

cannabis marketing basics
We recently had a conversation on the Qredible Broadcast with Colin Slager, a marketer and podcaster in the cannabis industry, to talk about the ins and outs of cannabis marketing, including claims you cannot make on social media, keyword stuffing for SEO, and plenty more. Read the transcript of the interview or watch the video here. Joy: Welcome to the broadcast at the end of January. Today I’m excited to have Colin Slager, who is the editor-in-chief at 3Chi, a cannabis company that specializes in hemp-derived and novel cannabinoid products. Within his role, he’s responsible for increasing SEO and website traffic, assisting in product launches, and projecting the voice of the company to its consumers.  With the gray areas of regulations in cannabis, it’s paramount that he stays up to date on local and federal laws as well as proper language to ensure all published works by 3Chi are compliant. Colin also has expertise in the area of health and wellness and is on a mission to help incorporate cannabis into athletic performance and recovery. He is also an avid podcaster, recently surpassing 200 episodes where he promotes his insights and journey along with his co-host and countless guests. Welcome Colin! Colin: Thank you, I appreciate you guys having me on today. Joy: So Brian Fitzpatrick, our chairman and CEO of Qredible, will be leading the conversation, but I wanted to start with you and recap – you were at an event this week in Louisville and had mentioned there was a whole working group around cannabis marketing right now. I thought that might actually be a really good context to set. Definitely want to hear all about Colin’s perspective, as he’s so involved in it.

Cannabis Marketing Needs New Guidelines

Brian: There’s a huge work group effort going on around cannabis marketing because one of the problems we have, and I’m sure Colin’s going to touch on this, is that every state has different guidelines as it relates to what you can and cannot say. So what ASTM is doing, where I was for Committee Week in Louisville, they have a Cannabis Work Group specifically focused on breaking down all sorts of different areas for standards, everything from labeling and packaging to good manufacturing practices to banking.  They had a very big work group working on marketing. The goal is, hopefully, that these standards can drive the states to get their stuff together and sort of unify on specific standards.  Also, when this does go legal at a federal level, it becomes a good framework for a legal federal program for advertising and marketing. Joy: That’s such helpful context. I think it’s, you know, Colin, as a marketer and somebody who oversees content, this is a cause near and dear to your heart – just being able to set some kind of quantifiable standard that people are operating by. So talk to me a little bit about your experience in content, especially with cannabis marketing, how you got into that, and then what you really do day-to-day and the challenges you’ve seen. Colin: I first got into cannabis in 2020 during COVID-19. I had friends who started a CBD topical cream, but they inserted it with glutathione, which is our body’s natural kind of master antioxidant that we just don’t make a lot of. So typically people will do a glutathione IV infusion because it needs to be administered intravenously to absorb into the body. But my friends were able to nano-size it using small diamonds to nano-size their topical, so they could get the glutathione and the CBD through the dermis, the top layer of the skin. We saw a whole lot of different effects on people, from pain management to sleep to overall health and wellness. Some women used it as an eye cream at night. So with that glutathione, we were really able to change some lives. Unfortunately, that company did not last, but it gave me a taste of the cannabis industry. That’s where I saw how much it can really help people. You hear cannabis, you think it’s just people who want to legally get high, but that’s the farthest thing from it. I got firsthand experience of how powerful this plant can be and how much it can help people. Then I started marketing for my buddy’s beverage company – he had a CBD energy drink with no sugar, no calories, all monk fruit and stevia. He was trying to really clean up the beverage space. So I started loving that and eventually landed with 3Chi as their editor. I just kept hitting these stepping stones because I fell in love with the industry. I come from a health and fitness background and wanted to help people with that, and now I can incorporate cannabis within those programs too. Brian: Health and fitness, by the way, is something our guy Drew Harris who works for us, is really into. He did an Ironman last year, and we went out to see him and cheer him on. He talks about CBD and how it was really helping in his recovery. Here we are making claims, which I have in my notes to never do — this is all alleged and potential. We’ve just illustrated handily how easy it is to slip into that!

How Do You Market Cannabis Safely and Compliantly?

Joy: So give us a feel, Colin, as somebody who organizes content and oversees content production. I know all too well how hard it is to rein in messaging – how in the world do you market cannabis in a safe and compliant way? Colin: Very passively. All the language – you can’t say anything definitively. You can’t say this will relieve pain, aches and pains. It has to be this has the potential to relieve physical discomfort, physical aches and pains, joint discomfort – things like that. It always has to be very passive language, which at times, can be a pain. I know what this can do, but anecdotal isn’t good enough for the government. Just last month East Fork Culver’s, another cannabis company, got a warning letter from the FDA. They are on it white on rice – they’re going to get you if you start making claims. East Fork also referenced their product helping with COVID, and they referenced breast cancer. Those are two of the biggest no-nos. Don’t even say chemo-induced nausea – that’s a common one I often see. Just say upset stomach. In terms of avoiding those pitfalls, it’s very passive language, potential benefits, never medical claims. I always have disclaimers as well – always talk to your doctor before adding any cannabis products into your regimen. But there are no claims at all. I don’t even say anything about cancer, don’t even say the word, nothing even close or COVID. The FDA warning letter called out that East Fork had said more studies and research were needed – that was also a problem. I think that’s a little much, but because they already talked about cancer and COVID, they wanted to nitpick on just saying more research is needed, which is something I say. Our CEO is talking to me, saying hey, I know you’ve just said there’s not enough research, we can’t even say that. Well, I’m not saying cancer or COVID either, so those are the things that, if you want to get a letter from the FDA really quick, reference those illnesses or diseases. Brian: One of the things Qredible does is we monitor all these different brands out there. We’re tied into the FDA, so we can tell if a letter is being issued. As soon as it comes up, it gets alerted to the Qredible platform. Now not that we’re big fans of seeing a lot of those, but they’re doing what they have to do to try to keep consumers safe, which I think is important. The other parallel is we’ve seen class action lawsuits going on now. Those things have been quelled because many of the courts have put stays on those rulings. The reason they’ve put stays is because they’re waiting to see what the federal guidelines are going to be from the FDA on CBD and hemp. When that comes around, then they can go back to the lawsuits filed and see if they violate the federal guidelines. Even though there’s been a stay, so to speak, of these class action lawsuits, they will come back as there’s more guidance because that’s what the judges are saying. We need to see more specific guidance. It’s still a dangerous area for the FDA, and warning letters, fines, fees, and penalties will go out. Colin: Yeah, if you have a heads up on that, we’ll exchange contact info, so if anything ever comes down that I need to know about, you let me know. Brian: Absolutely, yeah. We’ve got to get you Qredible so the system will let you know automatically. Colin: Love it, perfect.

Cannabis SEO: What Can I Say?

Joy: When it comes to speaking out of turn, there’s the big penalty of letters that scare you and the big guys swinging their authority. But from a marketing perspective, have you ever seen any repercussions? I’m thinking in terms of SEO – I know right now we’re still so limited on TikTok, you have to try to squeeze it in with coded hashtags that were low-key referencing it but not overt, and then you just get shadow-banned. What do you see happening, and what do you think is going to happen? Colin: I see that with my TikTok as well – you can’t even say cannabis or that it’s only education. I’m trying to mess with that and see if I can skirt around it because I’ve seen other videos where people talk hemp and cannabis, and they have tons of views. So there’s something I still need to figure out there. We’ve had our Twitter account temporarily suspended because we had an actual vape oil showing. Depending on the platform, you can’t have a device and can’t show the actual product. Maybe you can only show packaging, or maybe you can’t even show that much. On Instagram, you always want to say there’s nothing for sale – you’ll see pictures of any cannabis product, but you can’t buy it from there. Those things you just have to take certain measures. With SEO, if we keyword stuff – usually whatever your website copy or article, you have a certain percentage of characters you want based on keywords. So if I’m writing on Delta 8, I don’t want to say Delta 8 more than 1.5-3% of the entire article. Going past that, you start to keyword stuff. Google recognizes that as spam, and you’ll get your content pushed way down. You also want to avoid that. That’s one thing I’ve seen with SEO, but we haven’t had that issue as much as an accidental social media post the platform didn’t like. Sometimes it’s a moving needle – I know Twitter, there’s been a lot of changeover. Who knows who’s catching up on what rules they and we need to abide by? That’s the worst I’ve seen lately on our end, but there are things that can go wrong quickly, and you might not even mean to do it. Brian: One of the things Qredible offers is a compliant e-commerce platform, multi-tenant for wholesale, retail, and franchise – designed specifically for CBD hemp or, at least, originally designed for that. One thing we’re in constant discussion about with clients is when they convert to our platform, they don’t want to go backward on SEO. So we’ve got to maintain where they are and advance them. With the performance of our tech, we’re able to advance them, but it’s a careful line to walk. These keywords – consumers don’t know the no-no words they shouldn’t say, but they do know what they want from the products. They want to relieve pain and anxiety, but we can’t say it. So what are some best practices around keywords for CBD? As for anxiety, how do you work around that? Colin: I created a table of terms we stay away from and good alternatives. The first is anxiety. In cannabis content, you’ll see “reduced inflammation, anti-inflammatory, reduced anxiety.” I think that’s okay for most companies; we just try to be extra careful. We might say “reduce anxious feelings” — that’s how we get around it. For depression related, “improve mood,” “uplift your mood,” and “make you more energetic and present.” For nausea, just say stomach issues or upset stomach. Chronic pain we don’t use chronic at all – just aches and pains, physical discomfort. There are things we’ve had to work around because I used to write for other CBD companies, and they wanted to be more careful. So for anxiety, we say reduce anxious feelings, tweak it a bit. Joy: That stresses the importance of content and content marketing, which I’m always preaching. If you’re providing educational content, you can almost get the keyword benefit by talking about “Does CBD help anxious feelings, does CBD help anxiety” – more question and research-based. Does that help skirt around it if it’s a blog post or research? Colin: I don’t think that really hinders ranking on Google searching “will CBD reduce anxiety” because, within the article, there will still be other keywords – CBD, CBD topical, gummy, tincture. I use Surfer SEO software, and they capture CBD relevant to any product, so I’ll still capture those big keyword terms. I’m just not blatantly saying this product will reduce anxiety. Brian: You talked about the FDA finding things and the FTC enforcing fines and penalties. The FTC has fined companies up to $50,000 per violation for unsubstantiated claims – that’s a lot per violation. When you read the letters, it’s often not just one violation. In September in New Jersey, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued $150,000 in fines between two operators, multiples of what professionals had recommended. It was for violations in claims and advertising. This is serious – some brands shrug it off until the FDA letter comes.  Colin: East Fork got theirs three days before Christmas – they don’t care when it happens, it’ll get found. Joy: As marketers, especially in smaller companies, we often rely on freelance talent and vendors. In a startup, you won’t have a big marketing team. It becomes more challenging. We’ve got this lexicon issue – how do we use language well, we can’t advertise on Meta or post on TikTok, our arms are tied. We already feel limitations and then have to outsource work. I’ve seen agencies starting to specialize in cannabis marketing, but it’s not super common. If you find freelancers on Upwork, you’ve no way of knowing if they have any idea or training. It’s tough to find that niche experience. If you’re hiring freelancers, you really have to educate and give them resources or go through every line of their copy yourself so it’s more cumbersome. Ideally, find someone experienced, but otherwise oversee closely with a fine tooth comb. Have creative control and final approval. Maybe a separate Google Drive they can access without secrets or sensitive info, and you have the final say on all content. Brian: I get asked as a non-cannabis marketing expert, what about “X” example – people posting on Instagram about getting high, websites talking about curing cancer. You realize some have taken shortcuts, not gotten penalized. What do you make of that? Colin: I don’t know exactly. I live by if you do anything long enough, they might have gotten away with it longer than others and it comes down to risk tolerance. If you have so much money, a penalty doesn’t hurt, and your marketing hits enough people that fines are a drop, maybe it’s worth it. But if you’re a startup, you can’t afford a $50k penalty, let alone more, from one blog. I don’t know how some get missed, but it’ll happen – no organization catches all bad actors. Brian: I remember mortgage CEOs saying it’s cheaper to pay fines than comply. They had capital, but that changed as laws got more significant after the 2008 implosion. Suddenly the False Claims Act was used, and fines were based not on per occurrence but on what they thought you could pay – $500k. We had a customer hit with a $150 million fine by the CFPB, nowhere near previous fines. When things go bad, and regulations mature, they’ll make an example. We’ve seen enforcement heat up, cool down, heat up. A former regulator said they’ll look at licensed cannabis companies and what they’re doing in other states – where there’s smoke, there’s fire, like the liquor industry. That’s more reason for federal guidelines and best practices to meet every state as the standard. Colin: Yeah, we don’t all want tons of regulation but need clear-cut ones defining black-and-white penalties for actions. Brian: A federal judge in Mississippi dismissed a dispensary owner’s lawsuit against the state over regulations censoring him from most advertising. It wasn’t him saying naughty things; he wasn’t allowed to say anything. The regulations violated his free commercial speech rights, and he sued on First Amendment grounds. The judge dismissed it, saying he wouldn’t win. He’s appealing, but it shows in some cases, it’s not what you say but whether you can say anything. If you can’t advertise at all, how far will that cut your business? It’s crazy. Joy: Speaking of finding guidelines and standards, Colin shared great assets on dos and don’ts he applies. Perfect timing, as on Monday, Qredible is launching a free cannabis marketing e-course, five sessions to your inbox. I’ll talk to Colin about bundling his assets so people can benefit. Enacting good practices makes companies money – high tides lift all ships. The more we disseminate good ideas, the more people and businesses can grow. We’ve been stigmatized, but marketers are scrappy and up for a challenge. Colin, tell everybody how they can connect with you – you’ve got your podcast and post great content on LinkedIn. Give a spiel on how people can learn more. Colin: On LinkedIn, search Colin Slager. Email colin@optimalfitnessrx.com, we can connect through email and social media, all good ways to reach out.  Brian: Well, thanks for jumping on, Colin. We look forward to a continued great relationship. Have a good weekend, everybody!
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