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The State of Cannabis with Elliot Lane of Benzinga

Benzinga's Head of Cannabis Elliot Lane joins Spend Insights to chat about current cannabis trends he's seeing right now including SEO/content marketing, the SAFE Act, and Delta-8.


Elliot Lane works in Corporate Partnerships for Benzinga, creating relationships in multiple verticals across the broad scope of financial media.

Topics in this discussion:

SEO/Content Marketing

SAFE Banking Act


I want to kick things off with a topic that's very top of mind, I would say, for marketing industry, marketing professionals across industries, but especially important to cannabis companies that have their eyes on growth and expansion. And that is SEO and content marketing.

So, firstly, how are you seeing cannabis companies tackling SEO and content marketing? And do you feel like this is a missed opportunity as companies are growing?

“If you don't have a digital presence, you're not going to win, at least not right now. You have to be able to be searchable at the end of the day.”

Yeah, it depends on which part of the industry we talk about. But I think if you just talk about what we think of the cannabis industry as consumer facing, as brick-and-mortar retailers, as, perhaps, brands and products, then I think this industry can do a lot better than it does. That's not to say that people aren't working on it, but this industry, it has a lot of websites that have a little bit of SEO done-- some referring domains, some help, some built-out dofollow links and backlinks to start.

But, at the end of the day, you have to keep going with SEO.

It's not a product that you can stop. But in this industry, it's hard. It's hard to carve out a monthly budget for SEO. It's hard to carve out a monthly budget to have that type of content marketing.

So you have to navigate how much you prioritize being searchable, how much you prioritize being top of rank in near-me searches for your local cannabis dispensaries. There's a lot of things that you have to choose between in this industry in terms of budget. But I do think SEO hits on a lot of that.

It's a large budget, but it can fix a variety of problems if you do it and you do it well and you find the right partner to work on it with you. So that's the first part, I would say.

The second part, content marketing is something that you can do a number of ways. For those who don't know, Benzinga is-- we're a financial media company. And we cover all industries.

We cover the economy. We have a lot of articles on Elon Musk, God help us. We have a lot of articles on Janet Yellen and Jerome Powell, right? We cover everything to do with stocks.

And it's, obviously, been a very volatile and confusing time for investors over the past 12 to 18 months and maybe even longer, maybe shorter for some, depending on what part or how you invest, I should say. But, at the end of the day, content marketing is-- for us, it's thought leadership. It's being able to be seen as a leader, be seen as a person that is respected for the message you're trying to create and give.

But content marketing can also mean education for consumers.

That can come through your brand partners, through the tech partners you use.

You can utilize somebody like us or somebody like another SEO company. There's a lot marketing agencies do to create content to put out for you, that you can go straight and put out for yourselves, et cetera.

So there's a lot of ways to do content marketing. But at the end of the day, you have to be searchable. If you don't have a digital presence overall-- and that's what this all comes back to. If you don't have a digital presence, you're just-- you're not going to win, at least not right now. You have to be able to be searchable at the end of the day.

Have you seen companies who have heavily prioritized SEO and content marketing growing more effectively than companies that have put it on the back burner?

Yes and no. I think in this industry, what I've seen so far are companies that do more of it the bigger they get, right? So there was that race for assets when the industry was first doing well. And, naturally, those organizations have a bigger footprint physically, which leads to a bigger footprint digitally.

But the ones that I've seen focus on it the most are either your ancillary companies-- the ones that need to be searchable, the ones that are B2C facing, your Weedmaps, your Leaflys, maybe ERP solutions on the B2B side.

But the ones that focus on it the least are ones that could win pretty heavily. Think of services. Think of accounting firms, law firms, consultancies. Those companies, there's so many of them in this space.

And on the other side of that, while there's not as many dispensaries as there may be one day or as-- there maybe more dispensaries now than there are in the future. Either way, the ones that are focusing on it I see are actually maybe the larger private companies or the ones that are able to efficiently run operations. They're not super huge. And they have a really good domain authority for having two, three, four, or five dispensaries.

So it's quite a bit disparate in terms of who I see focusing on it. But the ones I do see focusing on it, they're pretty comfortable at the moment in terms of business inflow.

I think I can speak to the tech industry and the B2B SaaS industry in saying that SEO and content marketing is a significant play in our toolbook and it makes sense for people to invest in it.

What would you say the challenges are for cannabis companies specifically in content marketing and SEO? Do you see any specific challenges just within regulation in the industry?

Well, one is budget. And we don't have to go deep into that again. But it's expensive.

If you find anybody that is worth their salt-- I heard some-- a company told me the other day they pay $500 a month for it. And I'm like, I don't know what you could possibly get for that that's effective. But, at the end of the day, budget is, for sure, a huge issue.

Other obstacles for content marketing and SEO, honestly, there's not a ton right now. You could pretty easily rank for a lot of different things and be easily searchable for a lot of different things right now. It's just getting started and doing it and having a firm that's proven.

Benzinga does-- I would say we're not a full SEO firm, but we do offer a lot of content. We do offer a lot of expertise from the affiliate marketing side, a lot of expertise from the backlinking side and link-building campaigns, that we have people that are proven in doing this in other industries-- in fintech, in crypto, insurance, and several other industries and bringing that to cannabis.

If a company doesn't have success doing it, that's not to say they're not good at it. But you should have a clear idea of what they're going to do to provide ROI. So, I mean, it's not a direct answer to your question. But the obstacles really right now, it's just fiscal.

In addition to SEO and content marketing, do you think that there are other plays within the marketing space that feel like they're being missed right now?

What else can cannabis companies be doing to get the word out there about who they are, what they're up to, what differentiates them, and what other marketing techniques are there?

Well, I got to talk to Paul Botto, cofounder of Lucid Green, on our last podcast before recording this. And I asked him, what do brands suck at? And, actually, that was my exact question. Terrible wording, but I wanted to get the point across.

So he gave me a very interesting response to that, was creating a community of people who believe in your brand.

And while that means consumers, it also means budtenders. It also means dispensary owners.

It means making sure that they have access to your product, that they are able to try your product, that they understand what your product is and is supposed to do, and that they're easily able to communicate that when people are looking for what pain point that product solves for the consumer. So that, in his mind, is one thing that a lot of brands lack, is the connection to the budtender and the dispensary.

It's so important at every touchpoint that people know who you are.

Some do it really well. That's not everything. Not everybody doesn't do that. And, in fact, a lot of brands-- I think there's a brand in California that has a bus. And they go around and host budtender parties, right?

I think there's a lot of brands that have cool activations like that. But that's what you're competing against as a brand in this space, are marketers that come from other industries and know how valuable the retail point in the supply chain is.

I think this should be helpful for people who are exploring different techniques that they can use to get the word out about who they are and what they're doing. So hopefully that's helpful for our friends in the cannabis space.

I know that's not SEO or digitally focused, but it is a complement. You have to have education all the way through to everybody you work with or your product's ethos is not going to be communicated to the consumer.

And that includes digital. Digital is a part of your marketing strategy.

It is not your full marketing strategy, just like social media, just like, as I said, the budtendering community there. So, all in all, it's just making sure that you are able to efficiently run a company that communicates well to the consumer.

At the end of the day, it's a physical product that people are using. So you've got to be physically out there as well and have a presence in the real world, too.

So something else that I feel like is very top of mind for everyone in the cannabis space and probably will be this summer is the SAFE Banking Act. 

Firstly, if you wouldn't mind just explaining what the SAFE Banking Act is. And then I'd love to dive into a timeline, your prediction for a timeline, and also just how you see it affecting cannabis businesses in the near future.

“...the reason people are excited again and not just saying this is a load of BS and political posturing, is because this is the first time it has been introduced into both the House and the Senate at the same time.”

Safe Banking is it's pretty not self-explanatory. But, as most people in the cannabis industry know, banking is not federally accessible. You do have state credit unions and local credit unions, local community banks that have jumped on board and supported this industry.

But cannabis companies cannot access small business loans through banks.

And they have to pay thousands of dollars a month, I would say, sometimes at minimum, in order to have an account. So you have violent robberies, especially in the West Coast, for dispensaries. You have a lot of issues that arise from the lack of banking for these companies.

So Safe Banking is just that. And I would say that's barebones Safe Banking.

I would say this has passed the House of Representatives and failed seven times. So we're talking about this for the eighth time legally.

And that is the difference here, right, the reason people are excited again and not just saying this is a load of BS and political posturing, is because this is the first time it has been introduced into both the House and the Senate at the same time.

The Senate has always been the roadblock. I'm pretty sure it's never come to a vote yet. So we're still waiting and seeing. But I would say a week, maybe a week and a half after it was announced that it would take this bicameral approach, on May 11 of this month, it had a hearing in the Senate Banking Committee, which, obviously, incredibly quick for turnaround, for that to happen. But it was bare bones.

The correlating storylines of this is that Chuck Schumer, Senator Chuck Schumer, majority leader of the Senate, as we all know, wants to add expungement provisions, as well as other maybe social equity add-ons to this bill once it gets through the Senate Banking Committee. And that has been a historic roadblock for Republicans in the past.

So thinking about what could hold this bill back, it's how much are they going to add? Are they just going to add the HOPE Bill, which is focused on expungements? Are they going to go deeper than that and go into the CAOA, which is something that was cosponsored by Schumer, Booker, and Wyden.

There's a lot of political background to this that we don't have time for on this podcast. But, at the end of the day, Safe Banking could help small businesses as much, if not more, than a lot of the large MSOs. And the reason it hasn't been introduced historically is because they feel this is a direct help to the corporate side of cannabis more than it is of small businesses, which is just incorrect.

Now, what could be more helpful is if they could get rid of 280E with this. But most likely we'll be waiting on rescheduling, descheduling for that. So there's a lot that still has to play out.

Timeline wise, and they had this hearing on the 11th. The senators had seven days, so I believe yesterday, as of the recording for this, for senators to get questions to the witnesses, both pro and con witnesses. And then the witnesses have 45 days to respond, putting that timeline into mid-July for the Senate Banking Committee to vote.

Now, if that does vote and vote positively, there is a recess at the end of July. So it's unlikely for this to get voted on in the full Senate floor until September. So is going to be a whole summer of conversation for us. I hope everybody is ready and has thick armor on for this. And I would say just remain cautiously optimistic.

You can't ignore things like this. You have to hope and continue to work for and lobby, support your lobbyists, make sure that you're doing what you can as a business and as a participant in this industry to push this forward.

But just know that this is not going to happen in one wholesale bill. Incremental wins are a must for this industry.

There's a lot of people trying to add certain things on to Safe Banking and a lot of people who are on Capitol Hill and thinking on Twitter-- this is public information if you go to their accounts-- like a Brady Cobb or a Don Murphy, the most recent part was lobby groups were trying to put uplisting information into that so that MSOs and plant-touching companies in the US can list on NASDAQ, NYSE, TSX.

And, basically, Brady Cobb, Don Murphy, and others are like, this is why we can't have nice things. Stop trying to add crap to this bill, right? So it's going to be a back-and-forth all summer until we see what happens, making sure this makes it through Senate Banking Committee and through the Senate.

And, obviously, we have to dually keep an eye on the House and make sure it passes an eighth time through that, which who knows. Does this pass with Kevin McCarthy at the helm?

We've never seen that. We've not been challenged with it yet. So there's still some questions that we have to answer. But it's still possible.

I'm very thankful for your explanation on all of that because you're talking to people all day long about these things and reading all the news and are very up to date on it all. 

My follow-up question would be, what is the sentiment with people that you're speaking with about this? Are they cautiously optimistic? Are people planning things for the future, hoping that this will pass? Where are people at with this?

“There is a lot of hope right now. There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It's not just people tweeting. These people are active. They're pushing for this. They're fighting for it. But we as an industry just have to do what we can to unify and support.”

So if you go check out Benzinga Cannabis Insider, either on Apple, Spotify, or our Benzinga Cannabis YouTube channel, we did just speak with US representative Dave Joyce from Ohio, Republican from Ohio, who has his name on Safe Banking. He has his name on the HOPE Act, on the PREPARE act.

He's an activist. He's a lobbyist as a politician for the cannabis space. And he is optimistic. He thinks that this is the time when Safe goes through.

So with him as a Republican in the House, it's why I'm somewhat not worried about the Kevin McCarthy aspect because Dave Joyce is one of the more powerful Republicans in the House. So I am somewhat just watching the Senate, even though there are still questions about the House.

But I think him being positive-- we also just spoke with Representative or former Representative Ed Perlmutter, who, obviously, we know is a leader on Capitol Hill for the cannabis industry. He, too, is optimistic. But, as he'll tell you, he's been optimistic eight times.

So I would say there's hope. There is a lot of hope right now. There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It's not just people tweeting.

These people are active. They're pushing for this. They're fighting for it. But we as an industry just have to do what we can to unify and support.

Fingers crossed. Let's see if eighth time's a charm.

What do you see as sort of-- do you have any trend predictions for, should this pass, what happens next in terms of an influx of funding? How are cannabis companies taking advantage of this right off the bat?

I don't know if it's going to be an immediate change.

And I think that is something people need to be aware of, is that it's still going to be not necessarily an up-- it may be an uphill battle. It will just be a lesser degree of an uphill battle to get banks involved in this industry because I still think you're going to have banks hold out until it's federally legal.

So I think you might have a break in rates. You'll have other banks jump in. You'll have banks participate at a heavier level that were already participating.

There will be a lot of benefit. But what will change the most will be sentiment. I think you'll see, for the love of God, invest in some of these Canadian companies, as anytime something happens federally, the SNDLs, the Village Farms, VFF, the Auroras, the ACBs, the Khronos, the Organigrams, these stocks move. And we all know it has next to nothing to do with them.

But it's just that those stocks are what are mainly accessible on the NASDAQ to investors in the US. So that's what they're investing in. And, I mean, it's bad information from the mainstream media sites, from the CNBCs. Whenever there's something that moves federally legislatively, they bring Miguel Martin from Aurora on.

And I respect that man. I think what he's doing for Aurora over the past year has been pretty impressive in pushing them to be really a global leader in the space. But that man is not in the US.

So I would say you're going to see those stocks move. Just accept it. I'm sorry. Accept it.

But long term wise, you should always be-- I think if you're a cannabis investor, it's longevity in the space. And when you buy more of your investments and/or sell more, it should be under a game of long-term investments.

I think for any cannabis company out there trying to grow, they know that they've had to be scrappy and had to deal with regulations and complications and compliance things at every step of the way.

One thing we've done at Order.co is we actually created a capital, an order capital product because cannabis companies can't have traditional access to financing. So we're able to actually offer financing to cannabis companies, up to $500k, should they qualify, so that they have access to funds, so that they can keep that cash flow going. So there's been creative ways from the get-go to bypass this. And I'm curious to see what else comes out of Safe passing.

Amen. Creative capital deployment is as necessary now as it has ever been because if Safe doesn't pass, the deployment of capital, even on the debt side-- the equity side has dried up and has been dried up for a bit.

But the debt side is a little bit of a mess right now. So you need creative deployment.

You need credit.

There's a lot of talk on credit right now.

So it's interesting to see how these capital deployers adjust and are flexible and work with the companies they're lending in. If it's transactional, those will be the first deals to default.

Something we've seen just be really successful within our product for cannabis companies are the net terms that we can offer people. So even just having access to net 30 and net 60 on anything that these companies are purchasing just gives people so much more breathing room to actually grow and produce and sell.

Yeah, absolutely. Let's just hope you're not going to be like the California government and say, you can't buy anything else.

And that bill has not passed yet, but say, you can't buy anything else if you don't pay your first bill. It's tough in this space. But props to you guys. It's very important to have that kind of creative capital

It's exciting to see how we can leverage what we're doing to help these cannabis companies grow. So that's hopefully exciting for everyone listening as well.

And the last thing I wanted to chat with you about today is delta-8 and minor cannabinoids and just the future there.

So, firstly, for most people listening, I'm sure they probably are aware of what these are. But do you mind just giving a brief overview of delta-8 and some other cannabinoids and why they're important within the industry?

“I think it would be incredibly intelligent for delta-8 and hemp and the marijuana sides to work together and figure out how to combine the distribution that delta-8 has right now, figure out how to combine the R&D that's happening...I think there's a future where these two industries come together.”

It's a loophole, at the end of the day. It's synthetically derived THC and other cannabinoids from hemp. And I guess there could be, I guess, some marijuana at play.

But, really, delta-8 is hemp. And through the Farm Bill, this is something that they have in a lab figured out how to create a psychoactive product from hemp. So that's what delta-8 is.

There are very little to no regulations around mold, around testing, around metals that could be in that product. It's a dangerous product. However, companies can take it upon themselves to have their products tested. And many of the good ones do if there are no regulations, that is, in whatever state they're in.

But delta-8 is banned in several states. And I think as marijuana comes online, it's hard to see the longevity of delta-8 being allowed in gas stations, being allowed in other retail outlets of similar nature when you can only buy marijuana at a dispensary and at only a certain number of licenses per state, let alone per city or per municipality. So it's a major threat to the marijuana industry.

And I don't see politicians allowing it to continue in the way it is right now, especially state politicians. I think they'll want to grow and have control and tax revenue over the cannabis industry as a whole. So it's hard to see delta-8 in the way it is right now surviving.

I will say, I think it would be incredibly intelligent for delta-8 and hemp and the marijuana sides to work together and figure out how to combine the distribution that delta-8 has right now, figure out how to combine the R&D that's happening, these different cannabinoids from hemp and you can only get from hemp within the marijuana products. I mean, I think there's a future where these two industries come together.

But how, when, if I'm right at all, I think it's a while away. But I just don't see it lasting the way it is past whatever federal happenings occur.

What happens to the infrastructure that these delta-8 companies have built out? What happens to these companies should legalization happen?

I mean, consolidation and collaboration seems like a good option. But do you see delta-8 having a future at all on its own, should it be federally legalized?

On its own, I mean, I don't think it's against reality for delta-8 to be in dispensaries with marijuana. But what are consumers going to buy? I think that product SKU goes away pretty quickly because people will just want weed. So I'm just-- I don't see delta-8 working very well in that sense.

However, there are companies out there positioning delta-8 and these other minor cannabinoids under a health and wellness umbrella. And to me, that's the future of those types of products, is how do you, as you've done with CBD products, how do you connect these other minor cannabinoid products to daily lives, to pain relief, to health and wellness, to sleep, to appetite suppression?

There's a lot of different results that come from these cannabinoids. But I don't think getting high will be one of them eventually.

It's an interesting one. I feel like consumers don't necessarily always know what they're getting when they're getting delta-8. So I think that there's probably a little bit of a gap of information and knowledge of what they're getting especially should it legalize. The differences people don't still understand.

It's on the companies, unfortunately. I mean, it's on the companies to make the states care about delta-8. It's on marijuana companies and cannabis companies to make the consumer care about their product.

At the end of the day, we live in a very capitalist society, for better or worse for your company. And it's on you to make your products more friendly to the consumer.

For unfortunately or fortunately, it's perhaps a harsh thing to say. But I think the sooner that cannabis companies take that sort of initiative on themselves as opposed to just waiting on legislation from these different states to not necessarily doing the Papa John's way of marketing and trashing your neighbors and other pizza companies, but convince consumers why they should go through the slight extra work to go get marijuana as opposed to delta-8.

That comes back to SEO and content marketing. What can companies be doing? 

It's on these companies to educate people about their product and the differences here. So I think they have some new ideas for maybe SEO and content marketing to approach that.

Yeah. And it's through e-commerce. It's through content. And it's through PR and earned media, too. That's such an important part of cannabis.

So not everything should be paid for. And not everything should be done on a paid-for-marketing level. There's a balance to having a steady news flow, to having-- as a media company, we cover every inch of this industry in an earned capacity.

Obviously, we have a limited amount of writers. So we can only write so much. But it's something that's very, very important. And Benzinga wouldn't be what it is-- our Benzinga Cannabis brand wouldn't be what it is today without our news desk, which is separation of church and state in terms of anything we offer this industry, from events to SEO and content services.

Our news desk knows nothing about that. All they do is study the space and cover it to what they feel the reader is most-- what's most important to the reader.

It's all about building trust. And I can say as a consumer of your news and your podcast that it's extremely helpful to have all of that insight from you guys.

Is there anything else that you'd like to share about what you see going on in 2023 or anything else top of mind for you?

Honestly, just hold strong. Survive until '25.

We heard that a bunch at our Miami conference in April. Just find ways to be efficiently competitive.

It's tough out there.

I feel you. I'm empathetic. And I have so much respect for everybody running a cannabis or cannabis-adjacent business in this market. You are creating the industry of the future. And that is something to be proud of.

And you're not going to agree with everybody. And that's OK.

To form the best industry, you're going to have different opinions and different thoughts. But just continue to make your voice heard.

Continue to lobby for best efforts. Continue to do what's right for the consume and create a quality product. And, ideally, that results in loyalty once price compression isn't so rampant.

But outside of that, benzinga.com/cannabis, 30 plus articles a day. We're the, I think, the largest business publication in the world that covers cannabis as much as we do, several million readers a month. Read our articles, two podcasts-- Cannabis Insider and Cannabis Daily. But, other than that, bzcannabis.com for all of our events. Our next one is in Chicago in late September 2023.

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