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Recreational Marijuana & Google: A Match Made in Hell

Updated 05/04/2017 

When I wrote this post nearly two years ago, it was with the expectation that I would be able to update it with “good news”, that cannabis businesses are able to take advantage of the powerful AdWords platform, running ads on Facebook, Instagram and the like, and the rest of us are running happily through fields of hemp. Instead the election happened, bringing with it uncertainty, and the big players continue to be all nervous, and… well, here’s where we are.

Google giveth, Google taketh away…

marijuana marketing on google adwords

Google continues to ban ads and websites that mention cannabis and a slew of related terms, however, there are plenty of companies that are managing to run ads on the Google network. How, do you ask? Well, they are living on borrowed time, simply getting lucky and avoiding detection for now. When conversing with our Google representative recently I shared a few screenshots of ads with the question “Why are they allowed advertise, but we are not?” His answer (after he apologized and sympathized):

cannabis advertising - adwords response

Given this, we advise our clients to give it a try. There’s no risk trying (call us, we’re pros at this game). To better your chances of not getting caught right away:

  • Avoid using the culprit words in your ad copy.
  • Get creative.
  • Use alternative terminology and don’t call a spade a spade, call it a useful digging tool, if you know what I mean.

If you’re lucky – like we were – you may be able to advertise for 1, 2, 3 months or longer. During this time you can capitalize on the greatest exposure that your brand can gain.

And when you get caught, there’s always a number of other options to try…

My colleague and partner in crime Dorota Umeno will soon be providing an update on the current state of digital options available for cannabis businesses wanting to do online advertising. Stay tuned… We will drop the link here.

Google AdWords has proved an effective channel to acquire visitors and customers since its launch in October of 2000. Advertising drives the vast majority of Google’s $66 Billion in revenue. Having been involved at some level in the management of tens of millions in client media spend on AdWords over the years, I know the platform can work wonders. But what happens when the monopoly that is Google plays arbiter of civil liberties?

But… We Don’t Sell Marijuana

Canna Ventures is a marketing agency. We sell marketing services to the legal marijuana/cannabis industry. We’ve spent a good amount of time and money researching consumer attitudes in the marijuana-based products and services market. And being a small business we want to grow. Providing a free research summary of these consumer attitudes is, we thought, a benefit to the community.

Apparently Google flexes its monopolistic powers to enforce advertising policies that haven’t kept up with changing laws. By doing so they are determining which products and services can be marketed. Thus Google is interpreting use of commercial speech as defined by the First Amendment. Supreme Court decisions over the years have evolved the First Amendment to include commercial speech.

“The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.” (Edenfield v. Fane, 123 L. Ed. 2d 543, 113 S. Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993).)

More to the point, we seek to promote information used to inform and educate. How the information is used is up to the interpreter. Our message to the market is to use information to make better marketing and advertising decisions.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of having our ads declined was they had been running for over a month. The ad copy included the headline “Cannabis Marketing Agency” and keywords included variants on the “cannabis (marijuana) marketing” theme. We were enjoying click through rates of 3-10% and higher. Our landing page included an offer for our research summary and links to our blog about business issues facing the marijuana industry. We enjoyed – and still do – quality scores of 7, 8 & 9s.
Canna ventures marijuana advertising

 

Common Sense vs The Machine that is Google

Google is proudly a technology company. Mostly their products do a good job. However, all the technology in the world isn’t a replacement for good ol’ human intelligence and common sense.

Google scans new ads from advertisers and uses algorithms to flag suspect ads. We learned these algorithms don’t account for local laws. We had even geo-targeted our ads to only show to search users in Washington State and Colorado.

Having success with our program we elected to copy champion ads to new ad groups testing them against new ideas. Then things got screwy. Ad copy already approved in previous ad groups were rejected and the reason given was Google’s policy against promotion of “recreational drugs, services & related services.” We don’t promote using marijuana, we promote our marketing services.

Apparently this wasn’t sufficient and all our ads were disapproved. What was confounding was the request by Google in their reply to our challenging their decision was to remove references to marijuana and cannabis on our website. The references were in links to blog entries about business issues. Nothing about ad copy or choice of keywords. Google extending their authority and stating what we can or can’t include on our website is going too far.
marijuana marketing blog references

So, What Can You Do?

One option is to not use Google AdWords and similar platforms like Bing Ads, Facebook, etc. Search has killed the yellow pages so how effective is this option? What we’ve found to be effective is avoid trigger words like: marijuana, cannabis/canna, hashish/hash, sinsemilla, pot, weed, and ganja.

Where possible select words we’re all familiar with but which aren’t understood by Google’s algorithm: green, medicine, 502, infused, relaxing, stimulating, enhanced, alternative therapies, alternative medicine, natural, and others. Get creative and test new ideas.

Another option is to request a review in Google if you’ve had ads disapproved. The downside of this option is that previously approved ads can get denied. The “upside” is that when ads go to the Policy Team they are manually reviewed. So the element of human intelligence is added BUT these reviews are often executed by non-US based teams. They aren’t likely to know state-level US laws. You may also get an individual who is simply anti-marijuana. Which leaves advertisers left to the individual interpretations of Google’s policy police, then again it’s who you know.
Amazon Etsy advertise pot paraphernalia

Online Marketing for the Cannabis Industry: Time for a Plan B

When speaking with the Google policy team rep, he admitted that the policy has not kept up with changes in US law. He also stated it is a gray area and will in time be aligned with legal trends but there is as yet no time table.

Although Google is less of an option, entrepreneurs have quickly filled the gaps. Three start up digital advertising platforms have emerged to take what Google won’t.

Mantis – provides an alternative with several nice options for advertisers. The model is slightly different in that the cost per click prices are set vs. a bid market. But they offer a solid and growing network of sites including The Cannabist, Leafly, The Daily Chronic, and more. A nice complement to display ads is pay per click content marketing to promote your brand.

420Network – similar to Mantis the 420 Network bills itself as an option for alternative lifestyle brands. Pricing can be on cost per click, cost per 1000 impressions or flat rate. Targeting options include state and even zip codes which can be relevant for dispensaries and rec stores.

Stay tuned as this issue evolves! We’ll stay on top of changes at Google, Facebook and other key digital advertising platforms.

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