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Marketing Controversial Products Online – What Works and What You Can Get Away With
The Agents of Change

Do you have a “controversial” product like CBD, cannabis, or crossbows that you’re looking to market online? If so, you’ve probably already ran up against plenty of roadblocks from companies like Facebook and Google.  

Today’s guest, Shayda Torabi, has learned first-hand that in order to market her cannabis business, she needed to get creative with her marketing strategy. This means learning which words and phrases are off limits, and even which platforms – including email providers – won’t allow your business to utilize their services. She shares her successful techniques to reaching and engaging her audience…ones that will work for you, too! 

Rich: My guest today is the co-founder and CEO of Restart CBD, Texas’s premier cannabis brand. Born and raised in Austin, she founded Restart in 2018, alongside two younger sisters, after using CBD for years to personally help manage her pain after an auto-pedestrian accident she was in in 2013.

Since launching, she and her sisters have earned the name #CBDsisters, becoming one of the leading educators and retailers of cannabis in the industry. In fact, she was recently named Best Hemp Educator, Advocate and Influencer by the Texas Hemp Awards, and is host of a cannabis and marketing podcast, To Be Blunt. Love it.

She is passionate about helping build great consumer brands in the cannabis industry, and leverages her background in technology and marketing to apply to helping navigate the cannabis industry, to connect the consumer to high quality cannabis products and education. Today we’re going to be talking about marketing difficult products online with Shayda Torabi. Shayda, welcome to the podcast.

Shayda: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to have this conversation with you today.

Rich: Yeah, this is going to be fun. I’m really excited about this as well. Now when you first started Restart, did you have to manage all the marketing yourself?

Shayda: Yes, for sure. Especially with my background being in marketing. I have an undergrad in marketing and a master’s in business. And so kind of as a small business, the approach you take is trying to be as scrappy as possible. So with my expertise and my skill set, it was something that I wanted to do internally. And to this day, we still manage a lot of our marketing in-house, just because it’s our sweet spot.

Rich: All right. And we’re talking today about cannabis. But obviously there’s a lot of products out there that can be challenging to sell online because of different rules and regulations. One state has one, another state is different, one platform is different, all these sort of things. So break it down for me. What are some of the challenges you face when marketing cannabis online?

Shayda: Oh man. Well, for one, you have to be really aware of what you can and can’t say from a legal perspective. When we’re dealing with cannabis, unfortunately – or fortunately – a lot of people do use cannabis from a medicinal perspective. But referring to cannabis as the end all be all, it’s going to cure, it’s going to treat. Using kind of trigger words like that, even in photos, as text-based photos can sometimes be flagged on these platforms, social media, SEO, your website even. You have to be really and conscious and considerate about what you are actually posting on there.

And I think a lot of people think, oh, I’m just a small brand, nobody’s going to touch me. And when we’re actually looking at some of these FTC warning letters that have been sent out, it’s very clear that they’re kind of looking at anybody who’s a small business to a larger brand as well. So it’s not exclusive to any one particular end point in the industry, but really have to be aware of the social media platforms. Their rules and their terms of service I think is a really great place for people to kind of start. Sometimes people are very, “Why would Instagram do this to me?” And when you start to read the rules and you pick it apart, you realize one of Instagram – and really a lot of these social media platforms – Tik Tok is another great example, it’s hard to discern who is the end person on the other end of that device. And unfortunately, again, kind of putting cannabis in that hot seat. These platforms are afraid of us selling “drugs to children”. And so you see that reflected in not only social media but going into packaging. Your packaging, kind of same experience. You’re talking about other kinds of vice industries, tobacco being another one, Joe Camel, you can’t use cartoons to be marketing some of these products.

And so the cannabis industry has also absorbed some of that mentality where you can’t use certain cartoons, can’t say certain words, can’t say it’s going to treat or help or aid particular ailments or diseases. And so those are all just kind of things that are flying at you as a small business owner on the cannabis space. Trying to figure it out, I have a product and I know who my consumer is. Now, how do I go cut through all these different channels and mediums to actually deliver that product experience and message to the consumer?

Rich: Okay. Now every state has different rules in the U.S. about cannabis. I know when Maine started it was medicinal only. Now it’s, I don’t know if they’re calling it recreational or adult use today, they keep on changing. Was the path similar in Texas? Did it start medicinal and move into recreation?

Shayda: Yeah. So let me kind of set the stage. So marijuana is the plant that is mostly known for smoking pot. You see it in pop culture movies, Snoop Dogg, Cheech and Chong. That’s high THC, and federally it’s classified by anything that is over 0.3% delta-9. So delta-9 THC is a cannabinoid. There’s over a hundred different cannabinoids.

Now marijuana is not federally legal. It’s why you can’t go visit Colorado or California and put some cannabis in your bag and fly back to your state. Even if your state is legal, it’s not federally legal so you can’t do interstate commerce. However, the industry that I play more closely in is CBD, which is another cannabinoid, and it is derived from hemp. Which is, you know, hemp and marijuana are very parallel plants. They look very similar, but the classification is hemp is less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. And so those are federally legal, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill. And it has further been legalized in Texas in 2019. So I sell a federally legal product, which does allow me to sell across state lines.

But definitely there’s different cannabinoids that are hitting the market. Different states have different rules and regulations. Certainly different expectations on packaging and messaging and things like that. So it’s a lot to take in. But the truth of it all is it’s very unregulated. So getting caught or kind of being confronted with having to deal with it and kind of that capacity isn’t exactly guaranteed. You don’t really know who or when the shoe is going to drop, if that’s fair to say.

Rich: Is there in Texas, the reason I’m asking this is I’m curious to know. You mentioned like you can’t say things like ‘depression’ or ‘it will treat anxiety’. It sounds like you can’t say that, but there is a medical use for it here in Maine. And I’m wondering in Texas, is that the same thing? So has there been any kind of ruling about what you can say when it comes to medical things, or is there just not been enough testing, and because of the history of marijuana in this country, they’re just like, you can’t say anything about the medical effects of this particular drug?

Shayda: Sure. Texas does have a medical program. Medical programs are limited state to state, they vary. And so Texas right now is really, really confined to listing certain ailments or diseases. Originally it was epilepsy, and then it expanded into incurable diseases. And just most recently in our last legislative session, they incorporated cancer and PTSD. So if you have one of those qualifying diseases or ailments, you could, as the “dispensary or brand” market saying, “If you have epilepsy, you can take cannabis”. But it’s not being, I guess, marketed in the same way, because you’re not going through consumer channels to market as much as you might be if you’re selling a consumer package goods. You’re going through the doctors and a “pharmaceutical” approach where the doctor is prescribing you. You have this PTSD, and now you’re able to get cannabis to treat your PTSD. So it’s a very more confined channel versus in our kind of world with CBD and hemp, where we are trying to sell more broadly to people, and people are coming to us saying, “Oh, does CBD treat this?” or “I have high blood pressure. I heard CBD can help lower that.” It’s much more difficult to navigate because even kind of an extension of that, for example.

You know, getting reviews is a great, low hanging fruit way to market your brand and business. It’s social proof, right? It’s, “Hey, you bought my product. Did you have a great experience? Leave me a testimonial.” In our industry, a testimonial where you – let’s say Rich you’re saying, “Hey, this CBD really helped me cure my insomnia. It gave me really great sleep”, anything to curing or that effect in your testimonial. If I put that on my website, it can hold me liable, unfortunately. So you’re now infringing even upon a third party’s experience with your products.

Rich: And so I could go to Google or Yelp and leave you a review, and that would be kind of different because you’re not controlling that situation. But you couldn’t take my testimonial and post it on your website or post it through your social media.

Shayda: Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely a gray area, right? I think if someone wanted to go and sue you because you’re making a claim – and you’re seeing this happen across the United States – I mean, very well-known brands are being given these circumstances where they’re saying, “Hey, you’re telling people that this is curing X, Y, and Z.” Now these people are filing claims against you. And these businesses are owing hundreds of thousands of dollars because they just said, “Hey, this can cure X, Y, or Z.” And so you just have to be really mindful of how you’re communicating, unfortunately.

Rich: That reminds me more of the supplement market, where you can’t necessarily say that this supplement will help you lose weight or cure baldness or whatever it is. It feels more like that. I feel like there’s a thousand things I could ask you right now about this, but this is a digital marketing podcast, so I want to kind of reel it back in. Because I do find this fascinating.

So talk to me a little bit about some of the channels that you’d love to use, but you just can’t use for your digital marketing.

Shayda: Yeah. So I think the kind of main one is advertising. Being able to take out a digital ad on these social media platforms on certain websites is something that most businesses know is an option, and there is a path to go pursue it in the cannabis industry. It’s certainly opening up. There are definitely some media brands or certain websites that are now opening up to CBD promotion, not full marijuana. If you were again, selling marijuana, this is even more limited, right? So you kind of have to understand what you’re actually selling and how you’re selling it. And so those are different channels.

But for us, wanting to play with advertising is just off the table. Taking out Instagram ads is off the table. However, there are creative ways to get around it. I haven’t personally done it for our brand because it does require time and money and sometimes really, really high risk, because it can get your account shut down, that ad could be pulled, and you don’t get your time or money back. And so that’s just kind of like one area where if you’re in the cannabis industry, CBD, you want to be able to take advantage of these tools that other businesses have access to. And it’s just really challenging to get going from our perspective.

But the other big one that’s a really big hurdle for me personally, because I come from the world of content creation, being on YouTube, being on Instagram, wanting to use these channels both as a brand promoting content on my own business’s, Instagram or YouTube. And then the extension of that, influencer marketing. Using influencers on these channels to go promote and market my brand and business and products. And so, again, there’s certain loopholes perhaps that someone might be able to find or realize, but the reality is it’s very inconsistent. There’s no guarantee. If you follow the rules for what Instagram is displaying, you still could get your content flagged or your account shut down. Or shadow banning is a really big thing that we see in the industry.

Rich: I’m not familiar with that term. What is shadow banning?

Shayda: Shadow banning is essentially when these platforms throttle or limit what you can do on the platform, as well as who can see your content. So right now I have a friend who’s currently being shadow banned, and she’s not able to comment, she’s not able to upload new posts. She’s not able to do basic things on Instagram that you and I might be like, oh, I’m just going to check my app. I’m going to respond to a customer’s comment today on this post I made. She cannot do those things and she got flagged because she’s posting federally legal hemp products. And that’s part of the challenge is hemp looks like marijuana. And so there’s no discernment for these platforms with their algorithms and it’s unfortunate. It’s not always a person at the other side of the computer who’s dictating you pass, you fail. It’s now a computer who’s using some bot system that they’ve developed. Just a program that’s basically saying you pass, you fail. And so that sometimes, unfortunately, I think puts it into a position where people are getting reprimanded. They can then go back and challenge these platforms like, “Hey Instagram, I think you made a mistake”, but it takes some time. And maybe your account is down for days, weeks, sometimes, months, unfortunately.

Rich: So I want to dig a little bit deeper into the ads, because you said… So first of all, there’s the platforms that we’re all familiar with like Facebook and Instagram and Google and YouTube. And you’re saying there’s just no way you could advertise your products on those. The platforms really just don’t allow you to do that. I guess my question is, is it a matter of you promoting a product, or could you not even post a picture of a beautiful bud or a beautiful flower that – a cannabis flower, obviously we’re talking about. Is that even something that would get you flagged on Instagram, or is that kind of like it’s still a beauty shot and you’re fine with that?

Shayda: Yeah. So definitely again, you have to kind of think of what these platforms, “think” a drug is. And so flower photos, for example, totally off limits. Whether you’re trying to position it in an ad or just post a static post or even include it in your stories. So there’s definitely what you are including. So like similar to alcohol, you can’t actually show alcohol shots in pools, because they don’t want to make the assumption that it’s safe to consume alcohol and go swimming, even though lots of people do it. It’s just a reason that that’s a, no-no when it comes to advertising. So similar with cannabis, you can’t actually show you consuming the product. You can show you’re about to inhale the joint, but you actually smoking it is off limits.

Now kind of further on that question. Being able to understand there are, like I mentioned earlier, some loopholes. So most recently I’ve seen one brand in particular that’s coming to mind. Think about it this way. Instead of it being Shayda’s CBD company is promoting Shayda’s CBD oil is in the picture. It’s now fitness influencer Austin, and that’s the account. Someone’s going and making a shell account and then they’re uploading a photo of, let’s say a tiny oil dropper bottle, but there’s no label on it. So there’s no branding and it’s very loose. It’s like, do you want to feel better after your workout?

Rich: It’s implied, but it’s not specifically said. It feels like there’s a lot of gray areas and it feels like it’s kind of the wild west right now, as things continue to evolve in this country. The other thing I wanted to ask about, if we’re moving past our typical social media and search platforms out there, there’s obviously websites that are dedicated to cannabis or whatever your product might be. They must have advertising. So can you do banner ads on Reddit-type, and Reddit is a bad example, but like on some discussion boards where people might be discussing cannabis, CBD health benefits, all that sort of stuff?

Shayda: Yes, for sure. I mean, even just kind of going off of Reddit. I mean, Reddit is a great space to go be. You can’t really advertise but being a part of those conversations from a community perspective is obviously a form of that in some degree. So I definitely think, personally speaking, we try to pay attention to Reddit and interject ourselves creatively where we can. But yeah, there’s more sites that are opening up.

So kind of two options. One, there might be a local publication, a local magazine, a local whatever website, a more niche site. Those are taking ads. So here in Austin we partnered with the Austin Chronicle to run some holiday ads. They’re very cannabis/CBD friendly. They do a holiday gift guide. So we were able to do advertising with their website, with their print magazine, and kind of do that channel. But again, really limited, very niche, specifically to Austin.

And then kind of the other side of the spectrum, you’re talking about specific sites for maybe the industry or the type of products. So I just interviewed someone on my podcast actually from WeedTube, and it is a platform that was built to mimic YouTube. Because YouTube in 2018 had a big exodus of cannabis content creators, just again, shutting their accounts down. And they had built up hundreds of thousands of followers, and those followers are wanting to see these people’s content. So new, emerging platforms are being developed that do not censor really and are maybe more specific to the industry. So WeedTube is a place that I could go and upload my content or take out ads that play in between other people’s videos. The reality and the hard part is that I always try to reflect on its where’s the audience, where’s your consumer base. And it’s not that the consumers aren’t maybe on this niche platform or on this niche magazine website, but it’s certainly not the volume of YouTube. And so when you’re kind of stepping back, you’re like, man, I’ll go play in these smaller pools. I wish I could do the same tactics that other small businesses are. Like, man, if I was just selling t-shirts, I could integrate everything, I could sell directly on Facebook. I could link my e-commerce site. I could say, ‘add this cart’ when you’re on my Instagram story. As a cannabis business owner, I get prompted to incorporate those things, to say, “Hey, do you want to link to your e-commerce?” And I’m like, stop advertising at me. I want to do these things. And unfortunately, it’s like, your products don’t qualify, or this violates our terms of service. And so it was just like womp womp. So yeah, there’s options out there. It’s just, is there volume to actually convert on those platforms? I don’t know all the time. Every business is different.

Rich: When we talked before, you also mentioned that not every email platform is cannabis friendly. So talk to us a little bit about that.

Shayda: Yeah. So kind of just going off the same vein, I think the thing I would really love to stress is for people to read the terms of service on these platforms. I think a lot of people get shocked. They’re like, why did my account get shut down? And as an individual business owner, and as a personal brand, I take that calculated risk, too. Maybe post more questionable content to these platforms, types of content, because I’m willing to push the boundary, but I’m also not going to be shocked if something gets taken down or flagged, because I know that I’m dancing on that line.

Now, when it comes to email marketing, same application, you know, MailChimp is a great one. I grew up using MailChimp. I love their brand, they’re one of my literal favorite to watch and to engage with. And it’s easy. Again, most small businesses know email marketing, MailChimp, they’ve done a great job securing that status in the industry. Now, when you read their terms of service, they very explicitly say that they do not like cannabis related products. And so it’s one of those things. Again, will you instantly be removed from their platform the moment you say, ‘CBD’ or ‘cannabis’ or ‘marijuana’ in an email? No. But if you’re somebody who’s building up a substantial amount of email followers, subscribers, you don’t want to wake up one day and you’ve lost hundreds, thousands of subscribers from that platform.

And so you do want to try to find platforms similar with all of this. There are alternatives and there’s more alternatives emerging every day, week, month. So there are other email platforms that are pro cannabis, and they’re open platforms. We personally use Klaviyo, they’re not a cannabis specific email marketing tool, but they are more open to the cannabis industry. And so again, it’s just that security of I can be risky in this regard, but I try to mitigate risk and be a little bit more calculated and strategic about where I’m actually choosing to be risky.

Rich: Okay. All right. So those are some of the hurdles. Let’s talk about some of the places you can market. I assume search engine optimization is something that you can do legally. So what tips and advice do you have for SEO?

Shayda: Yeah, SEO is a huge one. And kind of to even stem further from that, I come from prior to getting in the cannabis industry, I used to work in corporate technology for a managed WordPress hosting company. I know, super sexy, but I’m sure your marketers are very familiar with WordPress. WordPress is an open-source platform. So when you’re choosing to ‘build your house’, quote unquote. And I always think of it as how are you going to build that foundation. And so to me, the real estate that you own is your website. That is a place that you can control what the consumer is seeing when they land on your URL. But the extension of that is, maybe you’re building it on Squarespace or Shopify. Those platforms are not explicitly cannabis friendly. And even though they say they might be, like Shopify says we’re pro CBD, I’d actually encourage you to dig in a little bit deeper, because there are certain products that they do not want on their platform. So flower, smokable flower that looks like marijuana versus a topical. Those are very different products that Shopify would allow or not allow. So that’s kind of step one is make sure that you have your website built on a platform that is open source, is my preference and my tip.

And then further from there, absolutely SEO. Because if you own that website, that’s your real estate and you can control that conversation to some extent for who’s searching for your brand and business, for what keywords you want to be coming up in search. So for us here in Austin, we really want to be the CBD brand that you find when you’re searching for CBD near me. And so we see that in actual transactions where customers are coming in and as a marketer, I’m doing my podcast, I public speak, I’m taking an ad in the local paper, and the customers come in and I go, “How did you hear about us?” Because I have a retail and it’s always good practice to have. How did you hear about us? And they say, “Oh, I just Googled ‘CBD near me’ and you came up, you were at the top”. And I’m like, you know, ding, ding, ding, that’s great. I want to be there, and all that other stuff I think builds that social proof for the person. They’re like, oh, well we saw a video of her, and they’ve got really great reviews. But being able to be searchable is really important. Because I think as a marketer, I’ve really kind of done a lot of loops to kind of come back to the point of consumers, they want it as easy as possible. if you can put it right in front of them. And so to make it as easy for them when they’re searching for you, to be the one that’s there with the information with the products, that’s how you’re going to convert and make that sale.

So, absolutely SEO is super important. It’s maybe a little challenging because the terms are really competitive. And so being somebody who kind of pushes through that does take some strategy. And like everything else, just starting to see agencies or individuals who understand the nuance of the cannabis industry, perhaps understand certain keywords that would benefit your particular brand or business that can then help execute that strategy maybe a little bit more fine-tuned than somebody who’s not familiar with the cannabis industry. But those are definitely things that I think as an industry that is so prohibited in other capacities. To market SEO and your website is to me, primo, number one, you have to invest there for now.

Rich: Now a lot of people in the cannabis industry get very specific about their language and the words that they use because of all these legal issues that they may have to deal with. So getting to the point of keywords, how do you optimize for words that you may not be a fan of? Like you mentioned a weed and pot, but I’m sure there are people in the cannabis industry who hate that because it’s got this 1960s vibe and they’re going for something completely different. Do you go after the words that people are using, or do you go after the words that you want people to be thinking about when you’re creating your content for SEO, or is it a mix?

Shayda: That’s a really great question. I definitely think it depends on what the brand is. So branding is kind of my sweet spot. And I talk a lot about that on my podcast. So extrapolating that out, there’s so many different brands in the market. I think when you think of cannabis, maybe if you’re not a consumer or maybe if you are, but you think of kind of, again, the traditional cannabis culture, weed, pot smoking, kind of that environment. But now in 2021, I mean, you have ultra-marathon runners who are cannabis consumers and advocates. You have Olympians who are cannabis consumers and advocates. So who is a cannabis consumer is evolving. And I think depending on what that brand is doing and who their brand identity is, you can start to attract maybe a non-typical cannabis consumer. Because there’s totally going to be people who are still searching for ‘weed’ or ‘pot’ or ‘cannabis near me’. But there might be people who are equally evolving into the cannabis industry who are looking for ‘plant-based medicine’ or, you know, ‘natural ways to recover after my workout’. And I think those are avenues that people can start to play in.

So for us, with our brand, I am very much the cannabis consumer. I grew up consuming a ton of cannabis, I have family in Colorado, love visiting them every chance I get. My middle sister and co-founder – so we’re three sisters – my middle sister is a former University of Texas collegiate swimmer. She is a current Under Armour sponsored athlete. She would lose her scholarship if she popped a drug test. So she grew up around cannabis in a much different light than I did. And so when we launched our brand, we really wanted to take the emphasis of not me as that target consumer, someone who’s, if I’m being honest, willing to buy cannabis from the person on the street who says they’re selling cannabis. My sister’s like, I want to know what’s in it, I want to know the purity of it, I want to understand the ingredients, I want to buy it from a brand that I trust. And so we really crafted ours with the education first, and we really try to speak to that person who is maybe a little bit more afraid of entering a cannabis environment and trying to make that pathway very user-friendly and safe and comfortable for them to have their questions answered. And so we’ve again seen success in marketing more, again, not typical cannabis languages, but one of the educational routes. So people are coming to us because we’re educated.

Rich: I was going to ask you about that, because I talk a lot about the customer journey, awareness, consideration, decision. Do you find that you necessarily right for different phases of that customer journey? Like you talk a lot about educating the consumer. What is your approach to that content creation, both for SEO, but as well as just in terms of moving people down that sales funnel or along their customer journey?

Shayda: Yeah. The best way that I can frame it, as something that I’ve kind of used from the beginning of our inception of our journey in this industry. I don’t have the privilege of selling you – using cereal as the example – Froot Loops or Lucky Charms. I’m not selling you that brand necessarily. I have to tell you what cereal is and why you need cereal. So in a very rudimentary way, my marketing, my education is baseline. It’s kind of what we were talking about in the beginning. What is cannabis? What is hemp versus marijuana? What is CBD versus THC? And the uncomfortable part is when we launched in the industry three years ago, it was brand new, federally legal. So if you can imagine, there’s not a ton of physical data and resources that explicitly, confidently say this is truth. And so you’re kind of in an industry where you’re educating people, consumers, as equally the industry is being educated on what we can and can’t say chemically about this plant, the outcome, how it’s going to actually affect you, the long-term effects. There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done. There are new cannabinoids hitting the market every month it feels like. And so those are all very new things.

Like just this morning I was reading about THCV. It’s not new by any means chemically in the plant, but it’s new in the market. And so as an industry, I do a lot of content that’s, what is THCV and how does THCV work. And trying to educate again, kind of from that rudimentary perspective of, I got to tell you what health cereal is before I can go tell you why my cereal is better.

Rich: Well, and also if you’re getting in early and you’re one of the first people writing about this, one of the things I’ve experienced over the years is then people start linking to you as the expert, and suddenly you are the expert. So it’s great to stay on the cutting edge of your industry when there is a cutting edge to the industry.

So, you have a podcast, like I do. And so that’s obviously another channel where you’re able to promote your business, educate the consumer. Is that something that you were very conscious about, like, hey, here’s another avenue that I can advertise in? Or were there any challenges when it came to launching a cannabis focused podcast?

Shayda: Other than the time that it takes me to produce it every week? Yeah, it’s definitely, I wish that I could say I was very conscious about doing this and I was going to do this with the outcome of it helping direct business to my business. My podcast is very much for the industry versus my business is selling to consumers. And so for me, I really wanted to continue to build authority, kind of what you’re saying with the last statement. It’s how do I position myself as being a resource that people can learn from kind of in that true aesthetic of being an educator, and wanting to not only walk the walk, but for sure talk the talk, too. And so explicitly being able to have a channel that yes, I do have control over, I can promote my business. But I can also be calm and be seen as this very well networked, very well-educated person in the industry who has a platform and is communicating educationally on these really hot-pressing topics in our industry.

Kind of the sidestep to that for maybe people who are not wanting to do a podcast or are wanting to do a podcast, like absolutely there’s really no rules when it comes to podcasting. You can say whatever you want. Most of these platforms, to my understanding, don’t have any restrictions on what I can or can’t be doing on them, who might advertise, or what my show artwork is or isn’t. And so, yeah, I have a pot leaf as the background in my cannabis podcast. I’m on Spotify, I’m on iTunes. I host with Buzz Sprout. I haven’t experienced any pushback necessarily yet, but it has been a great tool in helping me continue to build authority. But yeah, for us, it’s not a consumer-based podcast where I’m educating the consumer. I really saw the podcast as an output for me to educate the industry. And with that, it has been super successful for me. It’s connected me to great individuals who have helped me up-level my brand and business by providing thoughtful conversations on relevant topics that are really pressing in the industry and day to day of what we’re going through.

Rich: So people’s awareness of you has certainly risen over the years because of the podcast and your educational content. I guess you’ve become an influencer to many people. So just briefly, you referenced it earlier, talk to me a little bit about how you might be able to use, or how you are using influencer marketing in promoting your business and your brand, both your own influence, as well as maybe tapping into the influence of others.

Shayda: Yeah, for sure. So I’ll start with myself. I used to work for this WordPress managed hosting company, and part of my job there was to travel across the United States and set up corporate dinners for our partners. And I would find myself in these different cities with a corporate card and I was going to go to nice restaurants. Like, who wouldn’t do that. I’m not going to take you to Cheesecake Factory. I’m going to take you to the best spot in Philadelphia, the best place in Los Angeles. And so I started becoming known as, oh, I want to go eat with Shayda. I want to go follow Shayda. And so I started my Instagram account Dine with Shayda.

Now that was six years ago. I’ve built up about 20,000 followers personally for myself, and I was a food blogger in Austin as well as when I would travel around. Now I learned a lot during that experience. I got to work with brands like the Westin Hotel Group and Soul Cycle. And kind of baseline the way that influencer marketing works is you build up followers. And it doesn’t have to be 28,000, it doesn’t have to always be 100,000. Sometimes it can be 6,000, a micro influencer with a niche audience that’s specific to your brand, business, or target. And you’re working with that person to create content on behalf of your brand. There’s some exchanges where it’s product based, “Hey, I’ll give you X amount of product. You’re going to produce X amount of photos or videos or stories.” Sometimes it’s monetary. Sometimes it was, “Hey, I’m going to let you stay in my hotel and comp you your room and your food, and you’re going to make me content.” That was really great. And unfortunately, I was in a car accident in 2015 as you mentioned in my intro, that for me transitioned from food blogging, I went to lifestyle blogging, and ultimately converted to cannabis content creation.

So I use my personal platform. I took all those followers who wanted to see where the best cheeseburger was, and now I tell them what is THCV, what is CBD, what is delta-8? And so I’ve been able to convert my followers to influence on my personal channel. And again, going back to kind of some of the points I’ve made earlier, that’s a risk. Because I’m the influencer that these platforms, I’m not doing it under Restart CBD. I’m doing it under the Shayda Torabi’s Instagram, but I’m still talking about cannabis and Instagram obviously doesn’t love that. And so I’ve had my account flagged, ‘Hey, we don’t like that you posted that’ or, ‘Hey, don’t say that again, or we’re going to shut your account down.’ So I very much feel the heat of what Instagram’s wrath could be. But again, kind of in that next tier, brand, or business, maybe you don’t want to take the risk on your business account, but you want to work with, let’s say an influencer who is all about mommy blogging. They’re a mother, and they are looking for plant-based ways to help and heal their body or take the edge off at the end of the day. And they love CBD, and you’ve seen them post about CBD. And maybe you want to work with them to post about your CBD. Now it’s not that the risk again goes away. It’s just that you’re offsetting some of that risk by introducing it in a different channel, a different way.

I think a big, unfortunate, caveat that I’ll kind of highlight is a lot of these brands don’t do the due diligence to educate the influencer that there could be some negative impact. And I know that because I’m a cannabis influencer. But if I’m a mommy blogger and all of a sudden, my account is being taken down because I posted about CBD, I’d be like WTF. So I’ve just unfortunately seen not a lot of brands do the due diligence to actually let that content creator know like, hey, this is actually not super… But it’s definitely a growing platform and way to activate on the platform. And I think it kind of stems from we like buying from people. We know we like recommendations, and it builds trustworthiness. If it’s coming from a friend, family member, whatever, and for better or worse, people like myself, because we’ve built this authority, this influence, and people feel like they know us and they trust us. “Oh, Shayda tells me the best places to eat.” Well, if she’s telling me the best cannabis to consume, well, I trust her.

And so again, I think you’re seeing brands are finding success both individually, as well as for their business, by using that channel, that tool, because it works. People trust when other people are recommending something. And so that’s why you see influencer marketing is growing as big as it has.

Rich: Yeah. Interesting. So shifting away from that and just thinking about organic social, or Reddit, or any of these sites where conversations go on. Obviously, there are people who are opposed to CBD and the legalization of cannabis. Do you ever have to deal with trolls on reviews and comments? And if so, what advice would you give somebody who’s listening who might also find them with a controversial product?

Shayda: Ooh, that’s a good question. And a tough one, right? I think I personally struggled early on in the business with negative comments and feedback in a few different capacities. One, as an influencer. When I started posting more about cannabis and less about SoulCycle and hamburgers, I lost some brands. So I remember working with this egg company there, organic eggs, and I eat eggs every day. And I was honest with them upfront. I was like, I’m a cannabis business owner and I sometimes post about cannabis. And they were like, we appreciate you being honest, we don’t want to work with you anymore. And so it’s just kind of the reality of realizing that not everybody is obviously going to want to be on the journey with you as you are marketing and communicating yourself.

The flip side of that though, is to use those opportunities as educational opportunities. So going into Reddit or comments or things like that, I think anytime that you can just use it to kind of reframe the conversation, we certainly try to do that in reviews. You know, you never want to make someone feel ignorant or down. “Hey, great perspective, great point of view. I didn’t see it that way. Have you checked out this blog post that further explains why I felt this way or believe this” or whatever. And I think the reality is, I was just watching some documentary last night and they were talking about to continue to grow, to be successful, you want people to obviously, “I love your brand.” I” love your business.” “You’re so great.” But you also kind of need the people who are like, “Oh, that person sucks.” “They’re so loud.” “Why do they do that?” It kind of creates that tension, it creates that drama. You know, I think we love the drama. And so I think leaning into it and realizing that most people are human at the end of the day. To understanding maybe why that person is leaving that comment or taking the opportunity to go DM them and further investigate kind of where that stems from. And also, ignore it and delete it if you can. Sometimes there’s definitely trolls who leave things on our Instagram account that it’s so irrelevant and it doesn’t make any sense to the conversation. I just delete it because it doesn’t add value to the overall conversation that we’re trying to communicate. But generally, I try to educate people.

Like for example, I was posting about smoking cannabis, because smoking – fun fact – is the most bioavailable way to consume cannabis. It’s not the most medicinal because you’re smoking, but it’s the fastest way if you’re looking for immediate relief. Smoking and vaping is a great resource for that. This lady comments on one of my stories as me smoking a joint on Thanksgiving with my family. Because I have a very open family and cannabis, I mean, we own this business together. And she’s like, “Well, I can’t believe that you’re promoting smoking. And how do you think if there’s young children who view this on your account?” And you know, I responded to her, luckily it was a DM, it wasn’t public. Saying, you know, “Excuse me, thank you for your concern. My whole attitude from my personal brand is to de-stigmatize a normalized cannabis. And if I can very easily post me going to happy hour with my girlfriends and clinking glasses and that’s okay. But in the same vein, I can’t show myself inhaling a cannabis joint that is a plant at the end of the day, then, you know, just agree to disagree. And this is my perspective and I hope you can understand.” It wasn’t like she was, oh my God. You know, I love you all of a sudden, she was like, you know, okay, interesting perspective still. I just think you could do some more discretion around or, you know, quotes or something like, ‘this is not intended for children’ or things like that. And so I hear that, you know, anytime that you can leave a disclaimer, great, leave a disclaimer. I’m also a cannabis content creator, and I don’t expect children to be following me. But are they? Potentially, absolutely. So it’s a tough position to be in sometimes. But again, I think kind of navigating it with how do you reframe it? How do you re-educate that person, can always be a helpful?

Rich: Shayda, I feel like we’ve covered a lot of different subjects and ways to market products that may be questionable or controversial. Are there any other digital or mobile channels that you’ve explored that have helped you get in front of your customers?

Shayda: Yeah, I definitely think we didn’t really touch on YouTube. But I think YouTube just being one of those social media platforms, video content in general is so great. I always love to highlight YouTube as one of the largest search engines. So being creative. And I think kind of going back to a little bit to how do people discover you without maybe being so blatant, it can be a little bit more exploratory. So kind of the extrapolation from YouTube, perhaps.

We launched a webinar series last week, and a webinar series is very in line with education. So I picked a topic that was How to Shop for CBD because it’s the holidays, whether you’re looking, your loved ones are looking, and it was a way to collect emails. And so we launched the webinar, proud to say I had 12 people sign up for my first webinar. You know, it was great, but it’s the beginning, right? It’s a start to create that channel. And then I took that video, used Zoom, downloaded it, and I put that on YouTube as an evergreen asset. And so now I’m doing one action, which is doing this webinar, that now has multiple purposes. And so we’re then taking that and we’re putting it in our newsletters, and we’re putting it on our YouTube, and we’re putting it on our social media. And so there’s definitely creative tools that you can use.

I think like on Instagram, there’s a certain way you can kind of like cut down a video with keynote and you can make some graphic. So we can show on IGTV, so we can kind of display that content in creative ways that maybe fits that platform a little bit more organically. But again, I recorded a video for one hour. I made a slide deck. I’m able to then use that content for multiple things.

And then the other one that I think we’ve kind of dabbled in, is in the same vein maybe as podcasting, is radio. You’re seeing a lot of radio channels really open up to the cannabis industry. And that can be again, depending on your go to market plan, whether you want to do national or local, there’s definitely different channels that you can go and kind of get airtime in. And so I think that’s always been something that we’ve kind of tried to consider navigating. But you know, sometimes people just think radio is dead, but it’s like some people are listening to the radio.

And then probably the third thing is podcasting. Not just being a podcaster but being on people’s shows. So sometimes I public speak and I’m going through them. I’ll talk about marketing and I’m talking about marketing and I’m like, by the way, I’m marketing to you guys right now. Like this, me being on your podcast is marketing my business. So trying to go put yourself in front of, again, new audiences in ways that you’re comfortable. Not everybody’s going to love being in front of a microphone like you and I. But if that’s something that somebody on your team likes to do, kind of going and figuring out how can I get on podcasts or how can I go be a guest on people’s shows, Instagram Live, things like that can always be really great ways to cross network those channels.

Rich: Fantastic. Shayda, this has been an absolute pleasure. I loved everything we’ve talked about. Whether somebody who’s listening to selling cannabis or another controversial product, I am sure they’ve come away with a bunch of great ideas. And I’m sure they would love to learn more. So where can we send them online so they can check out more of you?

Shayda: Yes. Thank you so much. If you want to shop Restart CBD, you can go to restartcbd.com. We have a brick and mortar in Austin, but we do ship our products nationwide. And if you want to hang out with me online, I’m @theShaydaTorabi, I make it super easy. I’m on instagram.com as well. And then my podcast is, To Be Blunt, if you want to listen to more cannabis marketing conversations. But thanks for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation as well.

Rich: Thanks, Shayda.

Show Notes:

Shayda Torabi is a marketing expert and public speaker on the topic of marketing cannabis. She has experienced it all and still managed to build one of the most nationally recognized CBD brands. Check out her podcast for more marketing tips.  

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.