Killing Kittens (KK) the social brand famed for its sex parties, has grown its community to 180,000 members and raised more than $1.5m in capital, despite being effectively blocked from advertising online. Frustrated by the status quo, it’s unveiling its own ad-supported media platform, backed by a raft of fellow ‘adult safe-for-work’ brands.
It was never just about the orgies.
For Emma Sayle, the founder of Killing Kittens, the glamourous, elusive parties – parties behind headlines such as ‘NAKED BODIES EVERYWHERE’ [sic] and ‘Welcome to my ORGY’ – were always meant to be part of something bigger.
Her goal was to create a safe space and community where women could explore their sexuality. The offline came first when, in 2005, she began hosting masked, ticketed parties in London where female attendees made the first move and nothing was off limits.
Then came international expansion, the roll out of new events and the expansion of Sayle’s team. But always on her roadmap was the creation of a digital space – a social network where Kittens and ‘Toms’ (the men in the community) could chat online in an ecosystem that was sexually liberated but distinctly removed from the world of porn.
“I remember we had a really basic kind of community on like a Web 2.0 social network right from year two,” says Sayle. “There was always some kind of online forum chatroom, but it was always the bane in my existence because we went through about three different tech partners.”
Sex and tech's cold war
These vendors were unreliable and skimmed money from the company. Sayle, who has gone on to build other platforms such as Sistr and Safedate, would have selected more reputable suppliers had they wanted to work with her.
The adult nature of the KK has meant the compliance execs of the tech world have essentially walled it off from their businesses, terrified of erroneously being associated with porn or sexual exploitation.
The digital advertising industry hasn’t proven to be any more open-minded.
“As soon as you hit anything that's semi-adult, you can't do anything that you know works on digital,” says Hadleigh Bolt, KK’s chief operating officer. “That’s a massive problem everyone [in the sextech industry] has at the moment – no-one can actually do anything to grow their businesses in the normal way.
“We can't do PayPal. We got approached by Google to join their ad accelerator, but couldn't get it past compliance. The likes of Facebook and Instagram have taken anyone who wants to have an adult conversation and kicked them off. So, where do you go?”
KK could have turned to something like TrafficJunky, which serves ads to the likes of Pornhub and RedTube. But Sayle was determined to preserve the brand’s premium positioning, one that could easily be undermined by an ad placed next to a video of spurious ethical origin.
So the company kept growing through the oldest marketing platform there is – word of mouth – all while chipping away at the tech platforms and building a better app.
Two things then happened: the #MeToo movement boosted the requirement for female empowerment in the sexual discourse, and Google and Apple relented – sort of. KK was finally allowed to advertise its platform in their respective app stores (“I don't know what's changed,” sights Bolt. “They don’t tell you.").
The app, which will officially launch out of beta in Q2 2020, is a hybrid of Facebook, Bumble and Eventbrite. Members of the community can meet through icebreaker questions, send messages, arrange dates and even purchase tickets to the next KK party.
Brands have also been given space on the platform through both native pages and in-app advertising. KK has been targeting ‘adult safe-for-work’ brands that have been plagued by similar marketing frustrations; namely, lingerie, sex toy and alcohol companies that have been prevented from spending money the way they’d like to with the publishers and the duopoly.
More than 30 are lined up for launch. And while KK won’t provide them with the reach of Google Search advertising, it will offer advertisers a niche, engaged audience and a hands-off approach to content moderation.
“We know [members'] age, where they're from, what their sexuality is, what they’re looking for, what desires and kinks they have ... and what they’re searching for,” explains Bolt. “So it will probably cost a lot more in CPM to work with us, but you'll get a direct hit on who's likely to buy your product.”
Adds Sayle: “It’s like spearfishing, rather than throwing out a whole net."
Clawing in talent
The next step for KK is growing its digital community in the run up to a Series A funding round coming up in the latter half of the year. AppStore and Google Play optimization will be supported by SEO, branded content, PR, out-of-home and partnerships with the likes of the Museum of Sex.
Sayle hopes to do the bulk of KK’s own marketing in-house. But finding the talent has proven to be yet another challenge.
“We spent a good eight or nine months trying to recruit internally for digital marketing and performance marketing people,” she remembers. “We got these incredible CVs and people recommended, but for all the [digital] ideas they had, we were like, ‘We’re not allowed to do that, and we can't do that’.
“Everything they wanted to do [in digital], we couldn’t. So, we have this hole of talent in-house that we're struggling to fill.”
After nearly 15 years of struggle against the fairly puritanical Silicon Valley set, is it really all worth it? Couldn’t Sayle just stick with the parties, and brusquely tell digital media it’s not on the list?
No, she says, because Kittens are “stubborn and bloody-minded".
“When we launched it was all about going, ‘This isn't right’ and creating something that was disruptive.
"It’s the same now with the digital side of it. We know what we need isn't out there, so we're going to make something out there. It’s as simple as that.”