SEM and Cannabis: What You Need To Know

Cannabis and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Like so much of the evolving cannabis industry, search engine marketing (SEM) is still a mystery to many.

  • Can I advertise my cannabis business on Google?
  • How do some companies get away with SEM, while others get rejected?
  • Is it as simple as replacing “marijuana” for “420-friendly” in my copy?
  • Where are the loopholes—and how can I do it?

We hear questions like these frequently, and even though some of the rules are gray, there’s a pretty simple, concise answer:

Most indications are that popular search engines do not allow cannabis advertising in the traditional form.

Here are the rules.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, Google and Bing are staying out of it. Even if cannabis is legal in your state.

In fact, Google Adwords is pretty clear in its policies:

  • You are not allowed to advertise the promotion of substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce “highs.”
  • You are not allowed to advertise products or services marketed as facilitating recreational drug use.
  • You are not allowed to advertise the promotion of instructional content about producing, purchasing, or using recreational drugs.

Bing’s policy is more general and sweeping. Cannabis is listed as a “disapproved non-pharmaceutical controlled substance” and is, therefore, a product that cannot be advertised through Bing Ads.

So if SEM policies are this black and white, then why is there still so much confusion about SEM for cannabis? Why do so many of our clients ask us for clarification on search engine marketing?

How some cannabis marketers get away with it.

The first rule is to avoid all obvious and direct copy points related to the product in your ads (e.g., cannabis, marijuana, CBD, THC, bong, pipe, etc.) Some business-related keywords (dispensary, grow facility, recreational, medical etc.) fall into a gray area, so tread lightly, friends.

Outside of discretion with ad copy, you can technically bid on cannabis-related keywords—but it, too, is a risky proposition.

For example, you can probably bid on “cannabis dispensaries,” and have a generic ad displayed for that search query that does not contain cannabis or dispensaries.

We’re being intentionally delicate here because Google is the ultimate decision maker in what flies versus what flames. So while they have bots floating around the interwebs to police your ad buy, they also have actual reviewers who make the final call subjectively and sometimes without much context. So you have to accept that you’re playing with fire.

If you’re reading this and wondering how your competitor hasn’t gotten caught, the most obvious answer is they haven’t gotten caught… yet. Their day of reckoning will come, and if you accept all the bad karma that comes with being a snitch, you can always contact a Google account rep.

What we recommend to our clients.

Paid search strategies work across all industries and sectors. It’s why cannabis companies are risking it in getting clever with their keyword bidding and ad copy. SEM is just such a valuable part of any marketing mix—and as a wise person once said, you gotta risk it for the biscuit.

As leaders in cannabis marketing, we would never recommend brazenly breaking Google and Bing’s SEM policies. The stakes are just too high. Punishment could be as harmless as denying an ad placement and as destructive as banning your account.

Here’s a tip from the pros: Don’t intentionally flip off Google.

Like any other industry, however, you can get creative in writing generic ads that serve a segmented market. If you focus on search intent, and truly understand your audience (using their language and possible search queries), you probably can find a clever way to run paid search strategies without biting your thumb at Skynet.

This is the approach we take for our clients with a proven track record of success. Of course, Google is always rewriting the rules, and the changing landscape of policy across the country plays a huge role in our daily recommendations.

The Entourage Effect: All of this information about SEM can be applied to paid social campaigns, as well. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the rest of the social platforms are also publicly staying out of it. Thus, we help our clients come up with generic campaigns, focusing on search intent and audience. Bottom line: If you really know your customer, you will figure out a way to reach them in an ethical manner.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for your cannabis business is to engage a marketing specialist who knows what they’re doing. Expertise actually matters in this space.

So… call us! We get the job done for our clients. The team at COHNNABIS will help you walk the SEM tightrope like Philippe Petit, reaching more of your audience and gaining additional market share in the process.

Read more about who we are and clients we’ve worked for—and contact us when you’re ready to get to work.

Happy keyword bidding!

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