Denying the Dough: Female Founders Share Why Facebook Has Blocked Their Ads

dough

We’ve all been there: You’re scrolling through social media and suddenly you see a politically-charged post from your second cousin once removed that’s pushed the limit so far, you wonder how Facebook has allowed it to stay up for three days. 

While your cousin may get away with saying whatever he’d like, small business owners seem to be able to say much less—even when their posts have nothing to do with politics.

Vanessa Bruce, founder of Dough, a marketplace for women-owned brands, has been on the receiving end of Facebook’s censure for advertising political content. 

Except, instead of putting her dollars behind the types of rantings and ravings you might see from distant relatives, the so-called problematic content she promotes includes candles, tea, and face masks.

Since she founded Dough, Vanessa has been attempting to understand the terms and conditions of Facebook advertising and when they apply, as well as trying to decipher the social media behemoth’s unwritten rules.

I recently talked to Vanessa about her experience advertising with Facebook, what she’s learned about promoting different messages and products, and her tips for other business owners who are trying to discern paid social advertising. 

Here’s what she told me.

How Dough is doing their mission statement right

Vanessa and her co-founder, Anna, built Dough based on a discriminating observation—that money is power, and consumers can use their dollars to influence economic equity. 

The duo realized it’s more important than ever to spend with women-owned businesses and brands that represent your values—especially considering women receive less than three percent of investment dollars but control 80 percent of consumer-driven purchases, according to Dough’s website.

“We started Dough because there are tremendous barriers for women-owned businesses to get off the ground and running. We said, ‘What if we could try to fix this from the bottom up? What if we could get everyday shoppers to shop women-owned?’” Vanessa said. 

“If everyone spent just $20 a month on a woman-owned business, we could drive five billion dollars a month to female-led companies, which is pretty powerful. So that’s why we started Dough and that’s why we’re here,” she said.

"If everyone spent just $20 a month on a woman-owned business, we could drive five billion dollars a month to female-led companies, which is pretty powerful. So that's why we started Dough and that's why we're here."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

Here’s how Dough works: Founders can list their business on Dough’s collective for free. Consumers can use Dough solely to discover new businesses, or they can sign up to be a Dough VIP and pay a monthly fee to access discounts from the brands that partner with Dough. 

Brands can decide what promotion they’ll offer to members and what product or products it applies to. Dough VIPs can shop the deals directly on the brand’s website or through Dough if the brand decides to opt-in to selling certain products on the marketplace. Once shoppers discover new brands through Dough and find products they love, they continue shopping with those businesses through their websites.

join dough website

And if you’re thinking that the Dough marketplace is just another Amazon or Etsy, think again.

Vanesa emphasized that a core component of Dough’s mission is to create a fair marketplace where all brands on the platform have an equal shot at earning customers. 

“We believe the monoliths of the world need to improve the way they give recognition and visibility for small business owners, especially when they’re just starting out,” she said.

"We believe the monoliths of the world need to improve the way they give recognition and visibility for small business owners, especially when they're just starting out."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

While this may seem like it should be a given, many marketplaces play favorites based on how much a vendor pays or how many reviews they have. This can make it almost impossible for small businesses to earn visibility with shoppers.

“With Dough, we track who we’ve featured and who we haven’t, as well as who’s getting sales and who isn’’t. We actively try to bring the businesses to the forefront that haven’t made sales yet or that we haven’t featured yet because we believe in an equitable marketplace model,” said Vanessa. 

It’s easy to be politically incorrect

Before they built out their product catalog, Vanessa solely focused on promoting Dough’s newsletter through Facebook advertising. The messaging behind these ads was that subscribers would receive a digest of women-owned businesses in their inbox on a weekly basis. But Facebook immediately flagged these ads as political.

In response, Vanessa began testing out different versions of her messaging to see what was and wasn’t acceptable according to Facebook’s advertising policies.

“We tried adjusting the language. We did an experiment where we use the same quote from Sheryl Sandberg and we attributed her name to one version and didn’t attribute her name to the other, and the one with Sheryl Sandberg’s name got approved and the one without it didn’t,” said Vanessa. 

"We tried adjusting the language. We did an experiment where we use the same quote from Sheryl Sandberg and we attributed her name to one version and didn't attribute her name to the other, and the one with Sheryl Sandberg's name got approved and the one without it didn't."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

Although she said these experiments often resulted in more questions than answers, Vanessa decided she would do her best to play by Facebook’s rules, so she registered Dough as a political company, even though it isn’t—and Vanessa is still uncertain why Facebook deems encouraging consumers to shop with women-owned businesses too political. 

“When you’re running a small business, paid advertising is usually part of your marketing funnel in some way, shape, or form, so learning to navigate what you can do on those channels with the least path of resistance has always been our objective,” said Vanessa. 

“We went through a whole process where we now have a political badge, and we have to put it on some of our ads to show Dough is behind them because they’re flagged for being related to politics just because the message to ‘shop women-owned’ is political, as it turns out. And it varies. Sometimes we can get ads through without the badge, and then other times it’ll get kicked back because our messaging revolves around a social issue, so we need to put the badge on it,” she added.

Over the span of three years, Vanessa has grown accustomed to Facebook’s changing rules and has familiarized herself with the ins-and-outs of their advertising policies, but that’s not to say she hasn’t still encountered some surprises. 

“Because of the election, Facebook paused our ads in November—which, of course, is our busy season being around Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the winter holidays. We couldn’t get our ads up if we referred to the statistics around wallet share that we typically promote. We couldn’t put out simple facts about women-owned businesses until about a month or two ago when they lifted those restrictions,” said Vanessa.

"We couldn't get our ads up if we referred to the statistics around wallet share that we typically promote. We couldn't put out simple facts about women-owned businesses..."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

“I remember at one point, our ads were performing incredibly well, and suddenly, Facebook froze our account without telling us. They suspended our account and our ad specialist had to dispute it to get our ads back up, but it took three weeks, and those three weeks were critical to the business—especially considering how well the ads were converting at the time,” she added.

A guessing game of passable promotions

As the Dough team has developed a lineup of affiliate partners, their paid advertising has become more product-oriented as well.

In terms of what items tend to elicit issues when it comes to advertising on Facebook, I wanted to learn more about Vanessa’s experience after coming across this tweet. 

 

Vanessa expressed her frustration with Facebook blocking an advertisement for a candle with the justification that “ads must not constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services or activities.”

While I’ve heard of Facebook blocking ads for female wellness products, I couldn’t recall any stories about them blocking candle ads or anything similar—and Vanessa couldn’t provide much insight into why it happened either.

“They don’t give you any other additional context when they block your ad—you just have to try to contest it. It’s very unclear, and it’s frustrating that they don’t clarify why they’re pulling your content,” said Vanessa.

"They don't give you any other additional context when they block your ad—you just have to try to contest it. It's very unclear, and it’s frustrating that they don't clarify why they're pulling your content."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

Since Dough features businesses in a variety of categories on their marketplace, including sexual health brands, I figured Vanessa may have encountered problems promoting those products. 

But she said she rarely has problems with them, and the items she’s had the most trouble with are far more unexpected, simply because they’re so undistinguished.

“We had an ad with a floral tea from a brand called The Qi, and it got flagged saying that we were trying to promote health and wellness products that aren’t verified. We also had another brand called Fytt Beauty that makes smoothie face masks and all of her ads got declined for the same reason. Keep in mind, the product is literally just face masks made of veggies and fruits, but again, they flagged it as trying to promote an unverified health and wellness product,” said Vanessa.

But she’s not alone—the founders in Dough’s community share similar frustrations.

“My products keep getting flagged for promoting healthcare or medical devices. Violet Botanical Skincare is a plant-based bath and body care line. We use ingredients like Nilotica shea butter, mango butter, coconut oil, Marula oil, Dead Sea salt, and raw organic sugar. I don’t know why they keep removing my products from my Facebook and Instagram store. It’s frustrating,” said Robbin Turner, founder of Violet Botanical Skincare.

Additionally, while Vanessa is aware of the rules prohibiting the advertising of alcohol and CBD products on Facebook, she’s consistently run into issues putting ad spend behind non-alcoholic beverages and mixers and has found that others have aired the same grievances. 

“Because we’re a spirits and non-alcoholic cocktail mixer company, our mixer ads are constantly rejected, even though we’re only promoting the mixers and not the alcohol. Our fans use our Spicy Ginger syrup as a tonic for their digestive system with their tea or for making homemade non-alcoholic ginger beer, yet we get flagged all the time,” said Allison Evanow, founder of Square One Organic Spirits.

For Vanessa and the other female founders who have joined the Dough community, Facebook advertising remains one giant question mark.

Lessons learned the hard way

While Vanessa hasn’t completely cracked Facebook’s advertising code, she’s learned to abide by certain rules.

“We need to avoid anything around statistics, which unfortunately, can be some of our strongest messaging. We need to cut anything we typically promote on our website or in our newsletter that includes numbers around venture capital, loans, or how many women have formed an IPO, or it’ll instantly get flagged. Also, if we run ads that talk about ‘wallet feminism,’ it’s a toss up and it depends on who’s reviewing it—just because it includes the word ‘feminist’ there’s a chance it’ll get flagged or declined,” said Vanessa.

As for her advice to other business owners, Vanessa suggests founders add multiple channels to their marketing mix in order to build their audience across various digital platforms instead of relying completely on paid social media placements. 

For Dough, a combination of email marketing, partnerships, public relations (PR), referral marketing, influencer marketing, and Google Ads has been the secret sauce to their success.

“You can put a small ad budget towards those things, but make sure you’re getting people onto your own platform versus relying on Facebook and Instagram to make the sale,” said Vanessa. 

“If you can reinvest your time into your email program and get people to sign up for your email list, it can be one of your best channels—in fact, a majority of Dough sales come from the newsletter,” she added.

"If you can reinvest your time into your email program and get people to sign up for your email list, it can be one of your best channels—in fact, a majority of Dough sales come from the newsletter."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

As part of this, she recommends taking an editorial approach to the top of your funnel, even if you run a consumer-focused brand. 

“Let’s say you have a cocktail mixer brand—you can have a newsletter about fun mocktails and cocktail recipes to drink on the weekends, and promote that newsletter in your ads to get people in your funnel through your email subscription. It’s all about thinking outside the box—what can you get approved by Facebook that still aligns with your brand?” said Vanessa. 

But while Vanessa has expertly balanced paid advertising with her owned marketing channels, such as her website and email list, she admitted that trying to manipulate the unwritten rules of Facebook advertising can get exhausting—especially for small businesses with a big mission. 

“It’s frustrating when you work tirelessly on a product you’re so proud of and you can’t show it to the world in the way you imagined,” said Vanessa.

“Our strategy has been to try to make our ads as vague as possible, which we hate because we believe what makes Dough so powerful is the messages we actively communicate on our owned marketing channels—our mission on buying women-owned and educating shoppers on statistics behind why they should care about spending with these businesses,” she said.

"Our strategy has been to try to make our ads as vague as possible, which we hate because we believe what makes Dough so powerful is the messages we actively communicate on our owned marketing channels—our mission on buying women-owned and educating shoppers on statistics behind why they should care about spending with these businesses."

Vanessa Bruce, founder, Dough

Want to reduce your reliance on Facebook ads? Check out these tips from the founder of ecommerce marketing agency Sidekick.

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