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How to Advertise on Google: Cannabis Business Tips

So you’re trying to run AdWords ads for your cannabis brand and want to know how to do that? I won’t lie. It isn’t easy. And as consultants who have been running ads on Google AdWords starting back when those were in cuneiform on clay tablets (it feels that long ago) for all kinds of products and services, trying to do the same for our cannabis clients – and ourselves – can be a challenge. We’ve blogged about it before. That post has been getting a lot of traffic, which confirms that it’s a pain point for many of our compatriots in the cannabis industry. We thought it was time for an update. And as a bonus, we thought we would share some tips and tactics we have found to occasionally get you past the Google Police.

Finally, we’ll share a couple fall back options for when it just will not work for you on Google, but you want digital presence with acceptable ROI.

Cannabis & Google: the Good, the Bad, and the (Truly) Ugly

The Good News

It is NOT impossible to run your ads on Google AdWords if you offer ancillary products and services to the cannabis industry. You have several options to test, with basic Google text ads and their myriad extensions, display ads on the Google Display Network, retargeting (called “remarketing” in the Googleverse), Gmail Sponsored Promotions and Google Shopping ads. Chances are you will manage to sneak in a few past the censors, if you play your hand right. There is one exception though. If your business’ name is canna-something, you are pretty much dead on arrival. We should know.

So, while we cannot guarantee that it will work, we have found that if you are smart, persistent and very patient – willing to spend quality time on the line with Google representatives – it is possible to find ways to advertise your cannabis industry business on AdWords. Success requires intimate knowledge of the platform and any trigger actions and words that will get your ad disapproved, so we strongly recommend you hire an expert to set up and manage your account for you or at least consult with an expert if you prefer to manage in-house. I will elaborate on why this matters in the “Tips for success” section below.

The Bad News

If you sell cannabis products it is very hard, almost impossible, and not getting any easier. But there are other viable options out there for you besides AdWords. My colleague Eric Layland blogged about a few other viable cannabis advertising options a little while back and they have only grown more robust since. So, the platform has evolved away from being open to cannabis since we published that first blog post. More words are now getting flagged, including the shorthand “canna” and words like CBD, cannabidiol, cannabinoid, etc. At last check, hemp oil or hemp extract and related were still OK to use. The other approach Google has taken to try to discourage cannabis aficionados from advertising is by taking away the option of projecting how your keywords will fare in the Keywords Planning Tool. This slap on the wrist rolled out about 8-10 weeks ago as far as we can tell. So, what do you do? See below for some ideas and tips.

The (Truly) Ugly News

Can you believe this sh*t? Seriously… Google’s property YouTube has been torpedoing cannabis channels, with no warning and no good reason, sharing this article from Leafly which talks about that. WTF, Google? Which side of history do you want to be on? Of course, this means if you were relying on your great video content to bring in traffic, this option may be in jeopardy now.

Editor's Note: since this piece was originally published, Google has backed down off it's take-down approach to YouTube channels. We're not hearing about these nearly as much as we were, yet they still happen on occasion. Our recommendation is to play it safe and don't show gratuitous consumption, dumb stunts while stoned or anything you might not show your mom. Remember this is a marathon not a sprint. The brands that win in the long run will pace and build loyal consumers over time.  

How to Get Started Advertising on Google

The “skin deep” basics: Because one key to succeeding is setting things up in such a way that you pass the algorithm scan, it is important to ensure you avoid getting caught for obvious stuff: “forbidden” keywords in your ad copy, on your landing page, in your URL, in your company name (yes). If you are doing ecommerce, make sure none of the words are on your landing page when you launch. If your company name has words like canna, cannabis, pot, weed or anything like that in the name, there's a very good chance you'll get nowhere. We know as it happened to us. We started our cannabis practice and launched it as a new brand: Canna Ventures. It wasn't long before we were banned from advertising marketing services. Thus we changed our name to The Matters Group - because cannabis and being able to advertise....matters. Once your ads are disapproved just one time, a manual review is triggered, and that one is very hard to recover from – but not impossible.

Alternative Digital Advertising Options

On at least a weekly basis we receive an inquiry that goes something like this (this is an excerpt from an actual email we received):
“Hello I was wondering how you guys approach digital advertising? Google doesn’t seem too fond of cannabis related topics. It would greatly help my decision in choosing an agency if you could provide me with examples and resources of what you guys do when it comes to the digital side of things.”

Well, the answer to an inquiry like this begins with some questions of our own, like: Who are you? What do you stand for? What are you selling? To whom? And how?

Part of our success in helping our clients is that we follow a rigorous, proven approach to digital marketing. The strategies pursued, and tactics executed are driven by each client’s goals and objectives. We begin with proprietary research and alignment of management’s vision with target consumer expectations. This process is just the starting point, but the outcome informs messaging and the choice of channels. In other words, we may discover that AdWords is not even the right channel for your brand because your best potential customers are more likely to look for you on Instagram. The result is a marketing strategy and plan that fits your business. And if AdWords is not it, there are other options that we have found work well: Bing Ads (yes, and the performance has been pretty good of late), Traffic Roots, Mantis Network, and more programmatic networks are opening up to cannabis, CBD and hemp.

So, do not despair, there is a channel there for you. If you’re interested in exploring how our approach may benefit your business, contact us and we can arrange an introductory call. Mention you read this post, and we will provide you with a 30-minute free consultation. It will help us help you if you can come prepared with a summary of your business, short and long-term goals, objectives, target markets, timelines and a real budget (thousands per month not hundreds). After our call we’ll then get back to you with some useful (we promise) ideas for your business.

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