Lulu is an app for women, but my 23-year-old brother is the one who begged me to download it.
The app asks women to anonymously review the men in their lives by taking quizzes and assigning hashtags like #FriendZone, #BroverLoad, and #SmellsAmazeballs. Most girls are nice—the app’s most popular labels are #WillActSilly, #CleansUpGood, and #EpicSmile—but they don’t have to be. There are also hashtags like #FartMachine and #PornEducated.
Until recently, men couldn't see their own reviews because the app only allowed female-identified Facebook users to download it. The tags my brother had been assigned were a mystery to him. I had the female credentials to let him in on the secret, and thus, Lulu gained a new user.
Critics have understandably called Lulu "the most sexist app on the Internet" and said it enabled non-consensual objectification and harassment. But better or worse for society, asking women to rate men as though they were beauty products was also a damn good user-acquisition strategy.
Lulu estimates its app is on the phones of one in four college girls (that's about 2.7 million phones, according to the U.S. Census). Now the startup is planning to use the momentum it built by critiquing men to turn Lulu into an app that captures and monetizes their honest critiques on beauty products, health, and anything else.
"If you want to attract women, if you want women to buy your products, or if you want to learn about what that audience thinks, that’s what we want to be" says Alexandra Chong, Lulu’s CEO. "Our goal is to understand all the interactions and thoughts at different life stages of a woman."
Last week, I visited the company’s recently established New York headquarters (the app launched in London) to take a look at what Chong calls "really, really, really early" concept designs of what that might look like.
Beauty is the first vertical that Lulu plans to launch later this year. Users will rate products the same way they rate men now: by answering pithy magazine-style quizzes (i.e. "If his face were on a billboard, people would ...") and adding hashtag reviews like #cheapasf**k and #doesthejob.
In the concept designs, women can scan a product when they're in a store in order to be taken to its feedback page or find it via search, at which point Lulu could serve them promoted products in their results. Meanwhile, Lulu will also be building a profile of each users’ interests and preferences that marketers could use to target promoted quizzes at specific demographics for their feedback. "Imagine Procter & Gamble has a new shampoo for girls with frizzy hair in humid climates," said Chong’s co-founder Alison Schwartz. "We can say, here are 5,000 Lulu users who live in Miami. Go reach out to them, send them samples, see what they think. Find out, do they want this product, and do they want it in June or do they want it in December?"
Instead of men wanting to know what women think about them, marketers will be able to tap into what women think about their products. Lulu released a guys version of its app last month that shows men their ratings and serves them content about how they can improve them. (Low scores in ambition? See "Bar Behavior 101.") It also shows men results from polls women take in the girls-only app that deal with intimate, if not necessarily deep, questions such as, "How sensitive are your sex parts after you come?" Eventually, Lulu could do the same thing (at least format-wise) for brands and charge extra for advanced analytics.
The expanded app will not be Lulu’s first foray outside of content about men. When the company launched its first product in 2011, it was a general community for women called Luluvise, not an app for just rating guys. But it did have a "report card for men" feature called WikiDate, and when the cofounders decided to pare down to a minimal viable product upon which they could perfect their "special sauce," it was the clear winning feature. "That was what they came for," Schwartz says. "We launched it and we learned from it."
So the question is, given that men were the most compelling topic in Lulu’s previous iteration, how will the company make beauty, fashion, health, and everything else just as provocative? Most men are not going to beg their sisters to download an app because of its beauty product reviews.
Lulu is banking on the very aspects of the app that have made it controversial. The hashtags that some have pointed to as crude, its founders argue, are just the way that women really talk. "We push boundaries," says Chong. "We take what happens in real life, and we’re not afraid to be real about how we speak in the app or how our product is built, because we take our inspiration from the real world." The company has a team of professional writers who create quick-quiz content and articles (in the men’s app, for instance, you can read helpful listicles like "How to have sex in a car") and help perfect that tone. "We want to sound like your funniest friend, or the funniest girl at the office," Schwartz says. "We do that by talking with real, funny women."
Tone is probably not enough, and it remains to be seen whether women are as eager to talk about eyeliner as they are to gossip about previous sex partners. But Lulu also has a head start. With its guy-rating feature, it has built a community of women who are already giving honest feedback on personal topics. There’s another service that started as a perhaps less-than-tasteful way to rate members of the opposite sex and went on to become successful in endless commercial verticals. It’s called Facebook.