Entrepreneurs Alison Greenberg and Audrey Wu signed investor emails with “happy vaginas!”
The co-founders of Ruth Health wanted to offer telemedicine services for pregnant women to talk about incontinence, sex and other childbirth-related adjustments.
Like most cash-strapped startups, Ruth Health began using social media to promote the company. But the content proved “offensive” to those platforms: In early 2020, Instagram removed a post that used the word “vagina.” On Pinterest, a Ruth Health ad featuring a breastfeeding woman was flagged for inappropriate content.
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“It just doesn’t make sense,” Wu said. “Then we tried a different set of images and they were rejected too. And it’s just going to be difficult. How do you actually show a woman feeding her child?”
Ruth Health isn’t the only startup struggling with this dilemma. The multi-billion dollar femtech sector is teeming with startups in its infancy. In fact, according to Crunchbase data, 40% of funded femtech startups will be in the seed stage in 2022. Armed with a small marketing budget, they rely on widely used social media platforms to gain an audience and show investors a proof of concept. Without this access to widespread marketing platforms, it can be difficult to get funding
“It’s honestly a mystery to us, but unfortunately if we’re going to do this on the platform, we have to abide by the rules they set,” Wu said.
Trouble getting investors on board
Femtech (read: female-driven health technology) has long been reluctant to fund venture capital from a predominantly male VC pool. The sector surpassed $1 billion in venture capital for the first time since the term was coined in 2016, according to Crunchbase data.
Now it faces a new hurdle: onboarding venture firms while startups struggle with a go-to-market strategy.
Emmeline Ventures, which invests in women-centric startups, has a portfolio of startups focused on ovarian cancer, sexual health and even an athletic apparel startup that provides pelvic ventilation.
“We need to talk about it right up front because we know these issues are out there, and[founders]need to have a plan for how they’re going to market what they’re building given where the hurdles are,” said Naseem Sayani, co-founder and chief executive officer of Emmeline Ventures.
Dipsea, a sexual wellness startup that offers a wide range of audio erotica, has a history with Meta dating back to 2018, involving a rotating cast of Facebook representatives. Weeks would pass if Facebook allowed Dipsea’s content, the company said; In other weeks, posts were often shortened.
“We believe that a product that puts pleasure first, the product that creates eroticism, is a sexual wellness product,” said Gina Gutierrez, co-founder and chief creative officer at Dipsea. “And we think that separating pleasure outside of healthy sex is really problematic.”
When Dipsea started pitching its sexual health platforms to mostly male investors, the same questions arose: How can Dipsea be less tied to Facebook and Instagram and still win in front of a large clientele? Would it be possible to scale the platform without Facebook? Could it survive not being able to advertise on meta?
“I can say with confidence that it’s compelling investors to invest in sexual wellness companies,” Gutierrez said.
But venture firms won’t be able to ignore the femtech industry much longer. The sector is growing as more pharmaceutical and digital health companies develop fertility drugs, health-tracking apps, and sexual wellness products.
Funding peaked at $892 million in the second quarter of 2021, a jump of $807 million sequentially. This momentum has not stopped despite the recent economic downturn.
The Lowdown, a London-based femtech startup, has also been reported on meta platforms. The Sexual Health Platform collects people’s experiences of different types of birth control so patients can better understand the side effects and choose the right birth control method.
Despite this seemingly uncontroversial goal, the platform is required to use an @ symbol when discussing the vaginal ring on social media.
The team once posted “Who’s up for a Sunday sex chat?” to an Instagram story to promote a panel discussing libido, vaginal dryness, and uncomfortable intercourse experiences. Instagram shut it down for violating so-called “adult sexual advertising guidelines.”
“We do not allow people to facilitate, encourage, or coordinate sexual activity on Instagram,” the platform said.
“It’s just another obstacle for women trying to find information about this type of stuff,” said Matilda Lucy, digital marketing strategist at The Lowdown.
Social media platforms use advertising and content regulations to help monitor posts as the platform scales. Sexually suggestive content is not allowed on meta-platforms (in the few examples, a nude statue of David is compliant, but a woman eating a banana is not).
Tiktok bans ads that focus on “intimate” body parts. Instagram also doesn’t allow nudity, even in the form of art, but female nipples in connection with breastfeeding, health-related content, or as a form of protest.
Navigating the specific rules for each platform is difficult. Algorithms struggle to digest the full context of an image: is a photograph of female nipples an art form? Protest? health consciousness? Or all three? But it also has thousands of human eyes scanning the internet, observing things too horrific for the Facebook platform, and deciding in a split second whether to let it or not.
But these split-second decisions can cripple startups that rely on social media to market their early-stage startups.
“(Now) we’ve done it long enough to have a sense of what ‘safe’ is, but that requires us to talk about our product in a way that’s arguably not the best experience for Facebook users.” is,” Gutierrez said. “Because if people are promoting products for you without using the truth about the value proposition, is that a best-case scenario?”
Despite the obstacles to social media marketing, startups have found ways to bypass big platforms.
“It’s a barrier to growth and conversion, but it’s not a deal breaker because there are so many ways to reach that end user… it’s actually about how creative this founder is at getting around those hurdles?” Sayani said of Emmeline venture
From a startup perspective, Dipsea has invested a larger chunk of marketing dollars in podcast advertising and has benefited from the shared audio platform. Meanwhile, The Lowdown has a strong organic search SEO strategy in its arsenal that brings people straight to its platform.
Ruth Health is at home on Tiktok and has received thousands of views per video on breastfeeding, patient advocacy and life after birth. In fact, Tiktok is one of the biggest traffic drivers for its website.
“In the end, we have to take these to other places, because can you do an Instagram Live about it?” Wu said. “I don’t know. We didn’t try. And frankly, why bother, right?”
Figure: Dom Guzman
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