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March 22, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
Business Models

“The Internet is telling you you’re pregnant, dying, or both.” Clue wants to do better.

“We’re thinking about our voice as an empathetic older sister who happens to be an OB-GYN.”

Roughly half the world’s population gets, will get, or has gotten a period. That’s a lot of women who may have questions. Often, those questions go to Google. But maybe people should ask Clue instead.

The Berlin-based Clue is a period-tracking app that’s also been accompanied by a lot of good writing about periods over the last couple of years — on Medium, for a time on Tumblr, in an email newsletter, and now on an editorial site run by Amanda Cormier, the former managing editor of newyorker.com. When Cormier started feeling burnt out by her role at The New Yorker, she brainstormed companies that were creating content that she liked, whether or not it was traditional journalistic content, and Clue was at the top of her list. “I basically emailed the founders on a whim and said, you guys do amazing content but I don’t think enough people see it. I think you should have a hub on the web for the content to live.” That’s now Cormier’s job, and she’s moved to Berlin to do it.

There’s information about periods all over the Internet, in women’s magazines, on message boards like Yahoo Answers. Is it reliable? Who knows! “There’s a gap between articles that are informed by science, articles that are informed by a process of fact-checking, and articles that maybe reference one interview with an expert as the source of truth,” Cormier said. “It requires a different set of media literacy skills, almost, to find health information. It should be a less scary experience.” In 2017, Clue’s Support team received 1,368 inquiries related to health. Not tech questions or questions about using the app — but questions like “Why is my period late?”

Clue’s editorial site officially launched earlier this month. In an intro post, “Why we made a website,” Cormier wrote:

[It] sometimes feels like the internet is telling you that you are pregnant, dying, or both. Or that your complicated question about a menstrual symptom has a too-simple answer. The available resources usually go one of two ways: reputable and well-researched but sterile; or empathetic and caring, but lacking evidence.

There’s a lot of mistrust in many of the “reputable” resources, and for good reasons. The medical establishment has made women feel like their health issues aren’t real. That their pain is imagined, that birth control side effects are inevitable and to be tolerated. Diagnoses for very common conditions and illnesses like PCOS or endometriosis come too late or not at all.

On the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of health coaches, wellness gurus, communities, and independent publishers offer empathy and empowerment, but little consensus or transparency about what informs the advice, and what the financial incentives are for providing it…

We want to help close the knowledge gap about the menstrual cycle — with information that’s accessible, serious, scientific, and empathetic.

We use the best available evidence to dive into topics that have long been ignored or misunderstood. Any health information we publish here has been rigorously fact-checked and edited. (Learn more about our framework for science content here.)

Content on the site is divided into four categories: Cycle A-Z, Life Stages, Culture, and Sex. Recent articles include “Endometriosis 101” (with footnotes and all the relevant scientific research cited at the bottom), “6 women working in reproductive health you should know” (like Virginia Vitzthum, an anthropologist who studies reproduction and says, “Women should not be expected to change their lives so as to manage the side-effects of a narrow range of contraceptive choices. Rather, we should broaden contraceptive options so as to fit the extraordinary diversity of women’s bodies and needs”), “What advertising teaches us about periods,” and “Menstruating while disabled.”

Clue, which launched in 2013 despite the reluctance of male VCs to provide funding, wants to make its content relevant to as many women as possible. The company has now raised $30 million (over time, it has other ideas on how it will make money), and has more than 5 million active users. Its largest market is the U.S., by Brazil, Mexico, France, the UK, and Germany. followed by “There’s a tendency for companies and publications to target a sort of urban millennial persona, with this ‘Hey lady, did you get laid last night?’ sort of voice,” Cormier said. (A post on Clue last year: “Let’s talk about the word ‘lady.’ Where did it come from, and why does it annoy me so much?“) “There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the experience of menstruation is totally global, and that voice isn’t going to reach or be relevant to half the globe. There are a lot of companies in the female health space that are reaching people like me. But menstruation applies to so many people; we want to make [our content] relevant to the most people.”

Clue’s content is currently only available in English, but there are plans to offer it in more languages, especially Portuguese and Spanish. “We want our content to be approachable to anyone from the age of 13 and up,” Cormier said. “We’re thinking about our voice as an empathetic older sister who happens to be an OB-GYN.”

Right now, Clue publishes a handful of articles a week, written and fact-checked in house. The company has a medical board that it consults when needed, but the company is also clear about the fact that a lot of research into women’s reproductive health is still lacking. “We aim to make it clear if we ever share any findings which are controversial, unreplicated, or when further research is needed,” the company explains in a post. “It’s surprising how much fits into this category.”

Ida Tin, Clue’s cofounder and CEO, stresses that the company doesn’t think of its editorial content as “content marketing” but rather as an essential part of the work of an app that deals in data. “We believe that creating context for the health data people are tracking with apps is becoming increasingly important,” she said. “Of course, if people download Clue after reading an article, that’s great,” she said. “But the main goal of the company is to give people a better understanding of their bodies. The app does this in one way, with data. Our website does this in another way, through content.”

And Cormier is optimistic about the ways in which companies like Clue can break down the barrier between content marketing and journalism. “If you’re a reporter, editor, public health advocate — someone driven to give people information informed by evidence — your venues to doing that with institutional support are somewhat limited,” she said. “Newspapers might be cutting back on science reporters. Or even if you do get a reporting job, it might be more social or SEO-driven, and not driven from the facts themselves.

“I think it’s important that we broaden our idea of where we can do this work. A lot of people think you can only do editorially rigorous, fact-checked work at a big legacy publication. That’s just not true. If you’re invested in these journalistic ideals, then you should try to build the next version of an economic model that will help support them.”

POSTED     March 22, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
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