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My day-to-day marketing activities are somewhat different from yours. Instead of optimising campaigns and formulating strategy, with every day comes a new onslaught of ad disapproval, a rumour of a change in policy, a decline from an ad network or long email conversation with a boilerplate-spouting representative.
In this article I'll give you an insight into the surprisingly not-salacious world of Adult Retailing in relation to the internet's biggest players: Google and Facebook.
Lovehoney is a retailer of sex toys, lingerie and intimate accessories. This article talks a lot about what we do, so if this might make you uncomfortable, be aware. However the general themes of censorship and trying to work within unclear guidelines apply to several markets.
Lovehoney recently underwent an extensive rebrand (isn't it pretty!). After a major piece of research we commissioned showed that people who used sex toys are more likely to have better sex lives, which in turn made them happier and less stressed, leading to firmer marriages, which could make people better parents.
It was clear that our aims were good. However, wherever we turn, anyone in this industry, no matter how well intentioned, is easily labelled pornographic. The biggest names in the market, Google & Facebook, treat adult retailers in different ways, though each brings its own restrictions.
Note: Some of the statements in this post are based upon my observations having worked in adult retailing for eight months. They may not be accurate, and I welcome corrections in the comments, specifically regarding policies.
However as this post will explain, guidelines that cover areas such as classification and content policy are difficult to find, a great deal of working in this industry is guesswork.
Google classifies websites in one of three ways: Family Safe, Not Family Safe (NFS/P) & Adult. The classification your site dictates your validity for ranking for certain phrases, how the SafeSearch algorithm treats you, the ability to list on Google Product Search, and which elements of PPC you are allowed to use.
Google's AdWords program is the easiest to explain of these. So if your site is rated Not Family Safe or Adult, ad extensions such as site links and business ratings will not be shown.
However, since this goes through a manual approval process, everybody does it. Every company gets their ads refused a few weeks later, if not sooner. Everyone then puts them back on.
No big deal, you might think. However for Lovehoney, our customer service, and therefore our Google Seller Rating is a key differentiator for us.Being able to use this, and therefore attract customers who are scared of buying such things online, is critical.
In any other industry we would be the poster child for Customer Service, but a system that is dependent on the discretion of the content approver means that our ability to shout about what we do - "Always go the extra inch!" is severely hobbled.
Google gives the adult sector some guidelines on how each classification is to be complied with. To obtain a Not Family Safe rating (the best we could hope for, understandably) we have to have:
- No images with exposed nipples (a constant battle when selling sheer lingerie).
- No images where nipples are covered with images (Stars or hearts, for example), including no photomanipulation of nipples such a blurring.
- Photographs where the model is wearing nipple pasties or shields is OK. Nipple pasties added in post-processing is a grey area. (A technique we're slowly perfecting!).
- No images with exposed genitalia (of course).
- No images with simulated sex where the models are not wearing underwear.
Most importantly - for PPC Adwords, it's rumoured (again, only rumour) that there must be no offending images can be viewed within one click of the landing page.
For Lovehoney, our use of 'Mega Menus' means that nearly every category page is within reach of any other page. This meant that we had to undergo an extensive site sanitisation procedure. A rigorous eye was cast over every image, even down to the photos on adult playing cards.
For a category like, Men's Fetishwear, this isn't an easy task. So what do we do? Drop Men's Fetishwear from our menu, therefore making it more difficult for those visitors interested in this category to find it?
Aside from the more fetish aspects of what we sell, lingerie manufacturers generally don't supply particularly family safe images. Even something as innocuous as stockings are supplied with photos using topless models.
So does reshooting any offending images to appease Google affect sales? Of course it does. We replaced the old image for the best seller within the Crotchless Lingerie category with one shot on a mannequin. Sales dramatically fell.
We're now trying a styled, modelled photograph for these products. It's a constant balancing act where you have to work out how much extra traffic you are going to get from each level of sanitising, and balancing this against the lower conversion rate of products.
Breaking the rules
While site sanitisation is frustrating, the more difficult to understand area is sites that break these rules, yet still maintain a Not Family Safe rating. Until very recently, an extremely well known intimates and adult accessories site had hardcore pornography DVD covers listed within one click of any page.
There isn't regular policing of the sites in this industry, and so trying to make sure everyone is working within the same standards can quickly turn into a tit-for-tat bunfight between competitor sites, since no-one knows what the actual rules are.
Advertising on non-adult terms
An area to negotiate carefully is the value of PPC advertising on trending searches for non-ddult Terms. By hijacking a popular search term with PPC ads, you can get your brand in front of a lot of eyeballs very quickly.
Some adult retailers have been lauded for repeatedly doing this, however whilst Lovehoney would dearly love a slice of that PR pie, we don't do it. Why not?
Search hijacking is essentially a form of ambient marketing. The traffic isn't engaged, so it doesn't convert. Google has repeatedly told us that it frowns upon the practice. What it does do is get your name in front of a lot of people. Great, but what if they're the wrong people?
Being in this industry, you have a responsibility to ensure that your marketing message doesn't reach those it shouldn't. I'm certain there were several uncomfortable conversations with parents had around the country when teenagers looking for iPad news found themselves on sites selling a very different type of device.
You have to ensure that your PPC search terms are of an adult enough nature so that you are only exposing (for want of a much better word) your business to those who search for it. Not to do so is deeply irresponsible. I get nervous about showing ads for "schoolgirl uniform" let alone "year of the rabbit".
When is a word too adult?
Note: In this section i use words that are deemed offensive by Google. If they're likely to offend you too, I suggest scrolling down to the section after.
Lovehoney sells a type of sex toy designed for men. It's called a "cock ring". In our onsite search, visitors search for "cock ring". In natural search, Lovehoney is second and third (just after Wikipedia) for the term. These devices are known as "cock rings".
However, our adverts for "Cock Rings" are repeatedly rejected. If we wish to advertise on this phrase, we have to use "Penis ring", irrespective of what the Google user actually searched for.
This Google Trends chart shows what users are actually searching for:
Sometimes the approval team allows "cock ring" ads, then a different team reject them. Far too much is open to interpretion and personal decision.
This seems to go against Google's wishes for ad copy that better reflects the search term, and in turn, lowers the click through of these ads. This sort of dichotomy between guidelines and practice is endemic within the industry.
Last year, something disastrous happened to our "Social Media Strategy". At about 11pm one day, anyone who was flagged as an administrator of Lovehoney's Facebook page received an email.
Unfortunately, your account has been permanently disabled for violating Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. We will not be able to reactivate it for any reason, nor will we provide further information about your violation or the systems we have in place. This decision is final and cannot be appealed.
Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states that: "You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."
Which completely horrified us, naturally. We're not hateful, we don't incite violence, and we definitely don't post nudity or pornography. Our Facebook presence existed so that we could engage with customers who didn't want to create accounts in our own Lovehoney community.
However, we did flout one rule, which we admit. Lovehoney staff go by a series of "stage names" - The Prof, The Doc etc. I'm Lovehoney - Numbers (safe link). So we set up our Facebook accounts to reflect these. A no no in Facebook's eyes. Fair's fair.
A terse email conversation with what appeared to be a robotic representative from Facebook confirmed that we had been deleted for posting "content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.", that all profiles had been deleted, and that the decision was final and could not be appealed.
Most of all they would not tell us what we posted that contravened these rules for "security reasons".
However, the hardest part of our deletion was that our Facebook fans created similar profiles. Lovehoney regulars are known as the "Orgasm Army", and so would create a secondary account under the pseudonym "Kate O'Army" for example.
Of course, the deletion of our presence brought these profiles to the attention of the moderators, and were also promptly deleted. Not a good day for anyone connected with Lovehoney, but we weren't alone.
Collared are a Slaves and Masters community that runs club nights for members. Before judging, this is a safe and consensual activity, and Collared had a Facebook presence to simply allow its members to communicate in the medium they were most accustomed to.
However earlier this year Collared was also deleted (safe link) with little warning and no obvious course of action.
Collared though, found that it was very much a case of whom you speak to. Collared eventually reached Facebook's Head of Policy for Europe, and discovered that any content related to sexual activities is immediately determined to be in breach of Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
This implies that Facebook’s insistence that we had posted hateful, threatening or pornographic content was, frankly, a lie. One that wasted a lot of our time reviewing our internal policy and questioning staff regarding what content had previously been posted. Theoretically people could have had their jobs called into question due to a lie.
Fortunately this case has escalated to the point where Facebook is reviewing its policies.
Of course, Facebook doesn't have any obligation to approve content, and it can set guidelines as it pleases. However the lack of transparency, the lack of training of representatives in those guidelines, the obfuscation of communication, and fundamentally the "decision is final, there are no appeals" standpoint implies that Facebook is a very uncertain platform for representing a business.
We regularly see moments where companies fail on Twitter by posting offensive content. In most cases this is when a temp or otherwise low-paid representative is juggling their personal account with that of the company.
So, theoretically, the same could happen on Facebook, and if flagged as offensive soon enough, an established brand could find themselves deleted, with no appeals process.
Better ways of working
I'm keen for this article not to concentrate on what's wrong. I don't want this to come across as whiny, but to highlight the issues and suggest ways of fixing them.
No internet company has an obligation to follow them, of course, however I think it would go some way in bringing the adult industry to the same standard as other markets.
Understand cultural differences
When a manual approval process is in place, mobilising a workforce to review this content generally means outsourcing. However what is considered acceptable in Europe can be very different to what's acceptable in India or America.
Localising these teams means ultimately the content you are showing is more closely aligned with your audience.
Clear guidelines & training
We're happy to play by the rules, when we know them. Issuing clear guidelines, and most importantly educating your representatives in them, not only saves a lot of time and guesswork from the advertiser's end, but also establishes a set of "ground rules".
Policing, feedback & a level playing field
Competitive markets are self-policing, and as long as no one player is allowed to work within a different set of rules, all sites will quickly fall in line.
If anyone doesn't, it's important that feedback is received and acted upon. Lovehoney and other large players in the market have account managers to act on our behalf as a feedback mechanism, many small sites don't.
Work with us
It's easy to label adult retailers as sleazy. Not the sort of people you want to work with (I'm still amazed at the number big-name 3rd party vendors who get nervous just speaking to me).
We are in fact, lovely people, who just work in an odd business. I'm more than happy to talk about what I do, and I'd love to share it with Google or Facebook, but I've yet to get an invite.
Like this article? Hate it? Think I'm whiny? Let me know below...