Building and maintaining an online presence for your cannabis business has become critical in today’s increasingly competitive environment. But because federal legislation prohibits cannabis sales, marketing and advertising your products at the national level remains virtually impossible. While online marketing is one of the best ways to reach your target market, there are significant limitations that must be considered carefully before embarking on a digital cannabis campaign.
There are important distinctions between actual paid online advertising and promoting your product through online platforms. In fact, paid cannabis advertising is severely restricted or prohibited on many platforms. For example, Facebook’s policy states that “Ads must not promote the sale or use of illicit or recreational drugs, or other unsafe substances, products or supplements, as determined by Meta in its sole discretion.” Google’s official advertising policy forbids “Ads for substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce ‘highs.’”
In sum, paid advertisements in the online market remain a significant challenge, although some marketers attempt to bypass the algorithm and use loopholes in these policies. On Google, if your ad is disapproved, you have the right to appeal. Repeated pursuit of such advertising, however, can cause you to be flagged, and it is possible for your account to be suspended. Ultimately, this can reduce trust among current and potential customers.
Clearly, such policies are in place to protect consumers and align with federal laws. Yet with cannabis legal in many individual states, businesses regularly face obstacles in legally marketing their products, including in the online space.
I do not advocate trying to reach consumers in unethical ways nor challenging Google’s or Facebook’s policies. They are in place for a reason. At the same time, however, you have the right to legally market your product if you are in a state where cannabis is legal to sell.
So what should a cannabis marketer do to promote their products online? There are several ways to utilize Google and Facebook ethically and responsibly get the message to your customers, including search engine optimization and content marketing.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO is the strategic use of search engines (such as Google) to maximize traffic to a particular website. The idea of organic SEO is to drive visitors to your website through unpaid traffic as opposed to paid traffic. This is done by using certain words — favored by the search algorithm — on your website so your site appears at the top of the results list provided by the search engine.
It is also about ensuring that the search engine trusts your website. Because most people do not scroll past the first page of results from a search, it is imperative the results returned from the search engine include your website. The bottom line is that utilizing keywords and integrating content with SEO is possibly the most important practice in online marketing. Given the limitations associated with cannabis marketing, it is extremely important to did this carefully from both a marketing, ethical and regulatory standpoint.
To maximize results, local cannabis businesses should begin with NAP — or the name, address and phone number. Completing the Google Business Profile (Google My Business) is an absolute must to registering your business on Google and beginning this process.
It is then important to determine the keywords that your customers may use in their search and ensure these keywords are included at your website. For example, why are people searching for cannabis? It is important to understand their motives and include words representing these motives on your website. Also, consider the suggested search terms provided by Google and use Google-provided metrics to assess their performance and relevance to your business. The most relevant keywords should appear on your webpage in titles, headers and metatags.
According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is “a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” Content marketing is about creating material posted online that motivates potential and actual customers to return to your website and ultimately share that information across various platforms. This content may also be on blogs or vlogs, websites, videos or any social media platform.
It is important, however, to not just write and post anything. Content must be unique, helpful or interesting. Moreover, content must change regularly for customers to return to your website. Writing something new of high quality every month is one rule of thumb, as opposed to writing something uninteresting or uninformative every week. For content marketing to be successful, it should be relevant to both your product and your customers. Tell an interesting customer story or a share a funny and relevant anecdote.
Utilizing the power of content and SEO has the potential to help you grow your online business, and the two can potentially work together to drive your target market to your site.
Also, make sure your website is optimized for mobile use because more and more people are accessing websites and making purchases off their mobile phones as opposed to sitting at a computer.
Until cannabis is legalized at the federal level, which may spawn changes in digital powerhouses such as Google and Meta, marijuana marketers must deal with the limitations in reaching their customers across the Web. That means marketing ethically, but strategically through digital tools that can help maximize reach and engage your consumers.
Marla Royne Stafford, Ph.D., is the William F. Harrah Distinguished Chair and Professor of Marketing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. She is the owner and president of MBRoyne Enterprises, a full-service marketing and advertising consulting firm. She has published numerous articles on advertising strategies and societal marketing issues and is a sought-after advertising and marketing consultant and keynote speaker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.