What Cannabis Can Teach You: Navigating an Industry with Heavy Advertising Restrictions

The last time I contributed to the Seer blog was in May 2011, and I was in the middle of my almost two-year journey here. Seer was in the earlier stages of its growth at the time, which gave me the opportunity to get exposed to not just SEO, but also a broader range of digital work where I learned the foundation on which I grew my career. I eventually applied what I learned to a content strategy-focused role on a Search team in a large media agency that worked with healthcare and pharmaceutical clients. Life later took me out to Seattle, where I’m currently heading up SEO at Leafly, “The World’s Cannabis Information Resource.”

Going from working on enterprise brands in a massive industry to a startup in a startup industry was quite the transition. Several months ago, Wil Reynolds and I got to reconnect while he was in Seattle for MozCon 2017. We talked about some of the marketing and advertising restrictions I face in such a controversial industry, and we thought it could be a good idea to share some of those roadblocks in an effort to help others overcome similar challenges.

Considerable differences aside, there are parallels between industries like pharma and cannabis. Given the nature of the brands and products, each faces a set of boundaries that limit what you can do on many digital channels. And there are a number of industries that face similar limitations. To name a few:

  • Online dating
  • Financial
  • Gaming
  • Adult entertainment & products
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco

The magnifying glass restrictions I experienced in pharma were strict, but they’re not so bad when compared to what I’m witnessing in cannabis. The federal legal status of pharmaceutical and consumer health products makes bigger companies like Google and Amazon more willing to set up guidelines for companies to work within because it’s much less of a risk. Cannabis is in a grey area because it’s not legal on the federal level, so many bigger companies aren’t yet willing to work with brands in the industry.

In this article, I’m going to review some of the digital channels that have these limitations and provide above-board strategies to help a restricted brand succeed in reaching its goals. I’ll mostly be writing from the perspective of the cannabis industry because that’s what I’m currently navigating through, and it faces some of the harshest restrictions. However, the advice in this article can be applied to any industry that is limited or blocked on major channels.

What are Some of the Restricted Channels?

Before jumping into some restricted-friendly strategies and advice, here are some of the major platforms that are either limited or not available:

Google AdWords Online Advertising

Google is one of (if not the) biggest digital platforms brands can use to reach audiences, but they have many restrictions on what is and isn’t allowed on AdWords. However, AdWords offers frameworks to work within for certain companies that fall somewhere in between these rules.

The healthcare space has some of the most extensive Google advertising policies, and a lot of creativity is required to get around all of the red tape. The nuances of what you’ll have to navigate depend on the industry, and if you’re in an industry like cannabis it’s not even an option.

These same AdWords guidelines apply to all their ad options: display, shopping, video (YouTube), and universal app campaigns. I highly recommend you check the AdWords policy section linked to above (here it is again for good measure) before starting any AdWords campaign, and get a better understanding of the confines in which you can work. If you violate these policies too many times, you run the risk of being banned.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Not being allowed to take advantage of AdWords is pretty hindering.

Unfortunately for those in cannabis, as of very recently, the Google Keyword Planner tool doesn’t even provide search volume – even for very scientific keywords, not necessarily related to the recreational product. Fortunately, many other industries – from adult to alcohol – get this data from what I’ve seen.

Social Platforms and Communities

Social networks also have many restrictions on the content published or advertised on their platform. Many industries are strictly prohibited from advertising on bigger networks like Facebook, and these restrictions extend to paid options on other networks as well, such as Twitter and Instagram.

There isn’t too much you can do to get around this. You’ll need a solid content strategy, engagement on your posts, and a real commitment to building your community on these platforms in order to see ROI. You can also work with influencers in your space and expose your brand to their following as a “paid” solution (I go into these strategies more later in this article). Just be sure as you publish, you’re familiar with the general content restrictions beyond just paid promotion so you don’t get your account banned.

Product Listings on E-commerce Giants

Ecommerce websites like Amazon have a variety of restrictions on the products and categories listed on the site. And in some cases – like many cannabis-related products and accessories – listings are completely prohibited. If you’re in an industry that is allowed to list on Amazon, make sure you very carefully follow their rules (found in the link above). Amazon has around 300 million users, and 55% of shoppers start their shopping experience here (See CPC Strategy's Google vs. Amazon post). If you can get on there, do it, and do it right; it’s a surefire way to get your products in front of as many eyes as possible.

An alternative option is to find a website with a large audience – that is the same or intersects with your audience – that has a catalog-like or directory feature for products, brands, or services. For brands in the cannabis space, this is your only online option because the federally illegal status prevents virtually any kind of online transactions for many of the products.

How Can Companies in Restricted Industries Succeed?

Without the ability to use these platforms to reach customers, you need to be smart about how you do. The following strategies and advice can help companies in a restricted industry still succeed, despite being impeded on many outlets.

Know Your Audience and Goals

This goes without saying. However, it’s especially important as a restricted business to understand who it is you’re targeting. This includes who your current audience is and the audience(s) you’re trying to better reach. When you can’t access some of the most visible platforms for brands to reach customers, you need to really know who they are to target elsewhere. Additionally, you should know why you’re online in the first place. Having clearly defined goals for your website(s) is required, restricted industry or not. This is essential in informing the rest of your strategy.

Prioritize SEO in the Company

I can’t stress this enough, especially for other cannabis businesses; organic search is the strongest channel to grow your online audience and expand your reach because Google doesn’t have as heavy of restrictions for what shows up in organic search results.

Make sure you prioritize SEO within the organization, and that it’s considered in all site updates as well as any other products and marketing initiatives. If you don’t have someone in-house with SEO in their skillset, I highly recommend finding a reputable agency or consultant. They can help you identify opportunities and issues so you can prioritize and roadmap them out. You should be investing in what can be your strongest and most profitable channel.

If you’re the DIY type and aren’t all too familiar with SEO, here are some steps you can take to get started:

  • Educate yourself on what SEO really means. There’s a lot of misinformation and plenty of myths out there, so getting a solid understanding is important so you don’t accidentally do something to get your site penalized or blocked from search engines. Educating yourself will also help you to establish smart goals with your SEO strategy.
  • Set up Google Analytics (they’ll let anyone use that) and also verify your site in the Google Search Console. These tools can provide invaluable insights into your site and/or apps and show where you can improve your organic search visibility and performance.
  • Find your favorite SEO tools. There are countless tools on the market, but I recommend using a multi-function platform for those just starting out. This way you can get the functionality of all the different SEO tools – from analyzing links to your site to content performance data – without having to learn how to use several new products. Some of my favorites that fit this bill include SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz. To get the most of these platforms you need to pay, but they have excellent customer service to help you navigate through the features and learn how to best use them for your needs. As you grow your strategy and knowledge of SEO, you can start using a more sophisticated platform like STAT Search Analytics to track your performance.
  • If you’re in the cannabis space, you’ll also need to find a replacement for the Google Keyword Planner with another tool that provides search volume for keywords. It’s ideal to also find one that lets you narrow down by geo for better targeting. You’ll have to pay to use these, but they start at pretty low prices and the return-value is definitely worth it. The three tools I mentioned above – SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz – all offer features that provide you this data. However, for a free option, you can check out The HOTH. They provide a variety of tools for SEO, and their keyword research option includes search volume and even interest trends over time.

Create the Right Content

The cornerstone of good SEO – aside from having a site that search engines can actually crawl – is having the content your audience is looking for. You need to know what your audiences are interested in to ensure you’re giving them the information they want, in the way that best resonates. For example, when someone is searching for “how to roll a joint,” we know they need some visual aid. So, Leafly’s article includes GIF images to help guide the reader (along with some helpful copy).

Here are some ways of researching ideas for new content and how you can improve existing content:

  • Keyword Suggest Tools – When you type a word into Google, you’ll notice there are usually recommended words and phrases that come after. When you hit space, they change. When you type a letter, they change again. This predictive functionality is using data that is based off of previous search patterns, and there are many tools out there that aggregate this data from different search engines. This gives you an idea of what topics your current and potential customers are interested in. As I said about SEO tools in general, there are a ton of options. However, some of my preferred tools that help you gather these audience interest insights include Answer the Public, Ubersuggest, and Infinite Suggest. Cannabusinesses will need to use one of the search volume tool alternatives mentioned above to gauge interest of these suggestions, though. For everyone else, you can use the Google Keyword Planner.
  • Determining Content Type – As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just know what topics people are searching for– you also need to know what existing content they’re considering the best resource for the topic. If image-heavy content is what the people want when searching for an educational topic related to your business, you should make sure you provide quality imagery that helps amplify the page. This can be as simple as doing some searches in Google (make sure it’s in an impersonalized browser to avoid having your history affect the results) to see what content is being favored. However, there are also tools like Buzzsumo that show you what content people are sharing and linking to the most for a given query. It’s a paid tool, but you can still use it for free to get some basic insights.
  • Listening to Customers – This is another simple thing that a lot of businesses forget. Look around on social networks to see what topics related to your industry people are talking about and sharing. This is also a good way to see which social platforms are relevant for your brand to spend time building a presence on. Other good places to look include relevant subreddits, industry forums, and paying close attention to what your customer service staff is hearing. They have the most direct contact with customers and hear questions and frustrations from them every day. Or, you could go the old-fashioned route and just survey your customers – whether it be online or in person.

There are other more comprehensive options you can use to gain some of this information that are paid, including features in the tools I mentioned above (Moz Keyword Explorer and SEMrush for example). However, the free options work for those not ready to invest.

Share Content in the Right Places

Not only do you need to create the “right” content, but you need to share it where your audience spends their time online. It’s not a good use of resources to post every single piece of content you publish on every social media site out there, and it isn’t a good way to engage with followers. It also goes against the algorithm Facebook uses for displaying brand content in users’ feeds. In fact, since many of these restricted industries can’t “pay to play” and buy visibility on Facebook (or really any social network), I highly recommend educating yourself on how the organic algorithm works. Regardless, you should at least have a Facebook page with basic information and links to the places you do regularly update.

All the major platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – require different strategies for various industries. Just be sure it’s a good place to reach your target audience and you have the resources to not only publish enough, but also engage. And don’t forget about the smaller, more niche social networks that might be more valuable for your brand and therefore a better use of your time. For smaller businesses or for those in especially restricted industries, this is a great route to take. Hopefully while you’re researching what your customers are interested in, you’ll find some good niche communities!

Think Local

Speaking of smaller businesses, many studies show organic Facebook reach is dropping for brands. In fact, you probably have noticed the news that Facebook’s algorithm is going to de-prioritize brands all together. Since they likely can’t keep pace with the budgets of bigger companies, paid social might not be the best thing to focus on for a lot of smaller companies anyway – restricted or not. Like I mentioned with finding niche communities, small brands can’t forget about using local authority to their advantage.

For companies with brick and mortar locations, use map listing sites to reach audiences. Cannabis dispensaries use many industry-specific services like Leafly, but they’re able to also create business pages on Google (and other search engines), Yelp, and other platforms they’re otherwise restricted on. They all should be used together to reach different types of customers.

Being involved in the community, doing work with local organizations, and focusing on marketing at a local level is another way to gain that location-specific visibility. It can be tempting to go after the gold and focus efforts – especially SEO and content strategy – on popular, broad topics and audiences. This goes hand in hand with knowing your customer and the concept is pretty simple: Know what battles you can win and know which customers your brand can help the most.

For local-focused SEO, here’s a great resource to get a better understanding of how all the different platforms work together.

Find Alternate Advertising Channels

When you’re not allowed to pay-to-play on the major platforms, you need to find where you can. There are many advertising options around the web, and the one right for your brand really depends on your industry, audience, budget, and the scope of whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

Let’s start with display advertising. If your industry can’t use the Google Display Network, you can find a more niche ad network that allows your industry content and caters to that audience – and there are a lot of options out there, depending on the industry. For example, MANTIS® is one of the largest display networks that cannabis-related sites can use to advertise. Just be careful and do your research, because some of these niche networks might have sites you don’t want your brand visible on.

Another option is to go straight to a publisher and work out a solution directly at the source. Going this direction allows for a bit more strategy and customization to your campaign, though it is less automated and will require more resources. There are a number of options, and as with everything else, it depends on your goals. Some options include sponsored posts on a site that will expand your reach or more native advertising solutions such as related article ads. This is similar to Outbrain, but a lot more targeted. You can go as far as national reach with a platform like Buzzfeed, or something more targeted and specific to your industry. For example, sites like Leafly and High Times are options for brands in the cannabis space.

Many of the tools I listed above – such as SEMrush – also provide helpful data to inform your advertising strategy.

Influencer Marketing

This is another “paid” strategy to advertise or grow your audience, and it’s a big part of Leafly’s marketing efforts. It can really amplify the reach of companies that aren’t able to use traditional marketing platforms. The article linked to above gives a great overview of influencer marketing in an interview with a firm that works with Leafly in the cannabis space. However, this is simply partnering with “influencers” in your space (or a related one) and getting exposure to their large, targeted audience. This can range from including an influencer in a company video or interview to contributing content for them to share on their channels.

I put “paid” in quotes because if you’re working with quality influencers, they’re not going to share crap content with their viewers – even if you’re paying for the help in getting your content out there. In order for this strategy to work, you need to be willing to devote time and budget to creating something high quality that is worth sharing.

Take Advantage of Offline Marketing & Advertising

You can’t forget about offline either, despite how much time everyone spends on a screen. Explore print ads, billboards, hosting an event (or sponsoring one), and other offline methods to reach and engage with your audiences. This will, of course, require that knowledge of your customers and overall business goals, but these traditional channels can offer a great deal to some brands. Take warning, offline options also come with their own sets of restrictions, so do your homework to prevent getting into legal trouble for ignoring policy.

Also, be sure you’re doing your best to connect all of these efforts to online. For ads or billboards, include a website URL as part of the CTA, and make sure you use an easy to remember URL that redirects to a page on your domain that you’re tracking to that campaign. If you’re hosting an event, build interest ahead of time with relevant news articles or social announcements. You can also have one or more of your influencers share the announcements, or even invite them to attend. As an added bonus, they can post their experiences in a live video on their social feeds to generate some buzz.

There are a number of ways to market and advertise offline. Again, just make sure they align with your overall goals – which you know, right?

Bringing It All Together

Hopefully these insights help marketers, company owners, and other professionals in restricted industries – and even those that aren’t restricted – think of approved marketing and advertising ideas.

Being in the cannabis space, Leafly has dealt with building our audience and brand without a lot of the normal tools available to businesses. Many of the tactics and strategies in this article are directly contributing to the 11 million sessions (around 8 million of which are from organic search), that the Leafly website receives each month.  If properly executed with a focus on your goals and audience, it will help contribute to your brand’s success too!


About Our Guest Blogger

At Seer, we don’t just care about our team’s careers when they work here -- we care about them long after they leave.  

David Karalis is a Seer SEO alum who moved on five years ago.  Through our Alumni Network, we’ve been able to keep connecting and pushing each other forward.

We’re excited to have him back as a guest blogger.  His latest role as SEO Manager at Leafly,  the world’s largest cannabis information resource, presents him with a lot of marketing challenges.  As a restricted industry, there are limitations in SEO, Paid Search, and other channels to overcome.  His piece helps identify those challenges alongside strategies to overcome them.

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