When sexual health startup Vibio launched its app on the Google Play Store, it was suspended three times in the first two months. The third time, the Vibio developer account was closed, and he was forced to release a censored version of the app. Problem: She uses the C-word – clitoris.
It’s not the only health and wellness startup that has fallen out of favor with Big Tech brokers.
Fertility testing company Mojo, femtech Fizimed and Sanity Group startup Cannabis have had to contend with some words and phrases to prevent them from being expelled from app stores, social media platforms and online marketplaces.
It’s a big deal: For many of these companies that rely on Big Tech to find new customers, the impact of suspending their accounts, misclassifying products, or removing ads can be dire.
Forbidden startups catch the eye
“There is no substitute for direct digital advertising on these platforms,” says Jackie Rottman, founder of the nonprofit femtech ad group, the Center for Intimate Justice.
For any new startup, advertising on Google, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram or appearing on Google Play Store and App Store is a must to reach users.
He’s talking about monopoly [that Big Tech has on information]And she adds, “Until we have alternatives to these platforms, [health and wellness startups] They will never be able to reach the hockey stick growth that has been enabled by digital advertising.”
However, it does not turn investors away from “banned” startups. very Much; According to Dealroom, startups femtech, mentech and sextech last year raised $515 million. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the massive amount of cash that’s being collected European technology as a whole, But this number is almost five times higher than it was in 2020.
Consumers also spend more on their intimate health. by 2025 75 billion dollars It is expected to roll out to femtech globally – double what it was in 2020. The sexual health market is currently worth $35 billion.
So, as consumers and investors grapple with health and wellness startups, why are big tech platforms still so wise?
When apps and ads are blocked on Big Tech platforms, one of the main problems for smaller startups is deciphering vague and often unhelpful explanations from customer support chatbots.
Mojo, the startup that sells at-home fertility testing kits for men, had most of its ads blocked on Instagram and Facebook when it launched last fall, co-founder and CEO Mo Taha told Sifted. Even worse, he wasn’t able to speak to a real person who could tell the team specifically why he was banned.
We tried contacting Facebook customer support, but we didn’t succeed [speak to a real person] “Because we don’t spend enough money with them,” says Taha.
In the end, Taha’s friend who works for a large advertising agency that has a “huge account” with Facebook spoke to a real person from the platform on Mojo’s behalf. Only after that Taha was able to find out exactly what the contraindications are.
“They said we shouldn’t use the word sperm — but that’s what we do,” he says.
Taha’s experience is not unique. On a weekly basis, Fizimed — a French company developing a pelvic floor trainer to help women with incontinence — fights against Facebook and Instagram that ban its ads or social media posts, says founder and CEO Emeline Hahn.
“They don’t like what the product looks like or what we say about it – even though we don’t say it’s a sexual product,” she adds. “Of course, the product can increase intimate well-being, but we try not to talk too much about it on these platforms. Even if we talk about urine leakage or prolapse, the posts are removed.”
What is the cost of startups?
For startups that don’t run afoul of Big Tech’s strict and often uneven oversight policies, the results can be bleak.
Finn Hänsel, co-founder of Sanity Group, a Berlin-based cannabis startup, tells Sifted that although CBD is perfectly legal in cosmetic products, ads for its cannabis product Vaay “are regularly removed and accounts are banned due to Belonging to cannabis in general.”
It is estimated that more than 200 ads have been removed so far across all major social networks.
This seriously affected the company’s earnings, says Hansel. He claims that had it not been for a social media campaign on its content, Sanity Group’s revenue could have tripled what it is now.
Likewise, Taha told Mojo Sifted that the oversight exercised by the big tech companies has had a direct impact on their finances. He says the startup’s cost of customer acquisition was four times higher than expected, because it had to rely on less traditional (and more expensive) marketing channels like out-of-home campaigns — which are less sensitive to some words and phrases.
“This led to a runway problem, and we had to inject capital from our existing and outside investors,” Taha adds. “All together [censorship by Big Tech] It affects — and affects — our bottom line earnings and founder’s ownership.”
Alma Ramirez Acosta, co-founder and CEO of Sifted, said Vibio’s censorship of the Google Play Store, along with blocking accounts and removing ads on social media, has hampered the startup’s growth.
“We can’t advertise, we were previously removed from Instagram – now the Play Store is forcing us to censor our language and remove all content,” it says. Our app is downloaded via the Apple App Store [which did not require Vibio to censor its app] Five times higher than the Play Store, even though Android users account for 75% of users worldwide.”
But not everyone sees Big Tech’s policies around oversight of health and wellness startups as an entirely bad thing.
“There is an abundance of bad elements in [the health and wellness space]especially in online pharmacies,” said founder and CEO of erectile dysfunction startup Noman Socrates Papafloratus.
“There should be strict regulation when dealing with regulated drugs and products.”
“The world is built for men”
The censorship that health technology companies exercise over health technologies is gender biased as well. in january, a report By the Center for Intimate Justice it was found that social media companies like Facebook were rejecting femtech ads more often than products designed for men.
Most of these ads were blocked because Facebook classified the ad as containing “adult content,” the report said. While Facebook theoretically allows ads that promote sexual health — such as contraceptives and family planning — it says it shouldn’t focus on sexual pleasure.
Some examples of ads prohibited to women in the report include sexual consent education, a breastfeeding workshop, and a Kegel trainer. In contrast, advertisements targeting men were allowed to promote lubricants to “upgrade your single time” and erectile dysfunction treatments that help users “work hard and stay hard”.
The report chimes with the experiences of several founders that Sifted spoke to. Cindy Gallup, founder of social site Make Love Not Porn, told Sifted that “any ad related to the female lens of sexual health and wellness” has been removed, while anything related to male genitals remains untouched.
Why? Because the world is built for the common man, says Dominic Karitsos, general partner at Amboy Street Ventures, which claims to be the only women-led fund in Europe focused on sexual health.
“The digital domain input — those people who write the algorithms for social media platforms — are all men. So, it’s OK to talk about erectile dysfunction because men can relate to it. They can’t relate to menstrual periods.”
According to Rotman of the CIJ, Facebook has known about the problem for years.
“Most companies [CIJ interviewed for its report] She’s been trying to pressure Facebook representatives for years,” she says. “So, we know that Facebook was aware of the problem, but they don’t seem to care about fixing it.”
Cash-strapped startups, with few resources or contacts, often come to Karetsos and her team at Amboy Street Ventures and ask, “If I can’t advertise on social media, how can I sell my product?”
Her answer is always to “think beyond just selling a product” and try to “have the conversation of value” for your potential customer. This way, you can often overcome the language challenges associated with using the word “vagina” on social media.
For example, if you sell a vibrator, it’s also “an opportunity to have a conversation about bringing desire and intimacy to marriage after 30 years,” Karitsos explains.
Mojo has turned out-of-home campaigns like billboards – which has a bit of a bonus Renaissance Among the tech community – to avoid social media censorship. Despite being much more expensive than digital advertising, it came with unexpected advantages.
“[Out-of-home campaigns] Fertility clinics, femtex and digital health platforms helped us notice and make sure to collaborate.” “This B2B2C collaboration has helped us grow our user base without compromising our brand or language.”
Taha adds that using scientific language in digital advertising campaigns has also helped Mojo, but that has come with its own set of challenges.
“I really don’t want to become a classic navy blue and white medical brand that speaks in terms that no one understands, just to pass Zuckerberg’s test,” he says. “[The difficulty for us] is to find a balance between truly scientific language and engaging with the health brand we are building.”
“I really don’t want to become a classic dark blue and white medical brand speaking in terms that no one understands, just to pass Zuckerberg’s test.”
While brands have to get smarter to navigate this “nonsense,” Karetsos puts it, what will really move the needle is brands big and small banding together to form a movement.
“It is the responsibility of high-level CEOs, founders, and people in politics to get into rooms with the directors of the Metas of the world and invite them to talk about these things.
“There has to be an alliance with these digital giants, because without them, we cannot change the algorithm. We cannot change the narrative.”