Hot Profits

The marketing of adult entertainment is a lot like any other segment of the affiliate industry, except that it is nothing like any other. The business model and best practices are the same, with skills that easily translate to this sector. But the content makes this a world apart. X-rated sites commercialize one of the deepest human drives, one that’s idealized, demonized, desired and feared.

Sexual expression is one of the most contentious cultural issues. And pornography has been condemned in Western culture for most of recorded human history. Those who create, distribute and market it are well aware that they’re working on the fringe.

Why do they do it? Fun and money. To some people, it’s an exciting industry, enjoyed by millions of hard-working, productive and otherwise average adults who choose to view adult entertainment legally and safely from the privacy of their homes. It can be lucrative, too. According to “Online Adult Entertainment Report 2003,” a research report published by Reuters Business Insight, only 1.5 percent of Web sites contain adult-oriented content, but those sites reaped 66 percent of all online content revenues in 2001. The entire adult entertainment industry is estimated to be worth at least $2.5 billion, and perhaps four times that. Getting in on that while working with exciting content seems like a dream come true to some of us.

Different Strokes

Let’s start with how the X-rated sector of the affiliate marketing industry is different. Like it or not, most of the obvious differences are negatives.

First off, adult-oriented affiliates work with material that’s deemed offensive by many of their peers, as well as the general public, so they may find themselves stigmatized. Next, that same material tars them with the brush of the most egregious form of spam. Finally, they’re subject to more regulations than mainstream affiliates, so they’re also more likely to have legal troubles, even if they try to obey the law. The public face of the adult entertainment industry – the bionic babes and overbuilt guys – is quite different from the reality for those who toil behind the scenes. You couldn’t pick adult affiliates out of the crowd at a computer trade show. But the negative stereotype of the pornographer is a powerful cultural image, one that many avoid by trying to stay anonymous.

For example, the head of Booble, a guide to X-rated content that’s also a parody of popular search site Google, has carefully hidden all traces of his identity. He is known only as Bob. Bob says he heads an interactive advertising agency that works with a variety of traditional clients and started the site for fun. While he thinks his advertising clients would laugh at Booble, he isn’t about to bet his agency on it.

“My suspicion is that most of my clients would think it was pretty funny, but I certainly don’t want to test them,” Bob said. “Plus, I have an ex-wife and kids, and I have to respect my private life. That’s why I choose to remain anonymous.” Many affiliates are like Bob, maintaining a firewall that keeps the quotidian world of jobs, family and friends separate from this secret avocation. But they should realize that there’s always the risk of being exposed.

Even other affiliate marketers look down on those in the X-rated line of business. “Most of our clients see the pornographic sites as the scourge of the earth,” said Drew Jackman, business development manager for 10x Marketing, a company that manages pay-per-click campaigns and provides statistics on Web searches – except for the adult industry.

Another issue that every upright affiliate in the business must contend with is X-rated spam. Triple-X spammers have a special place in hell. Their dirty tricks, from innocent-sounding headers to spawning windows that can’t be closed, are a primer on how to give commercial email a bad name. “The tactics that a lot of the porn Web masters use is really unscrupulous. They use search engine spam, they create an inordinate number of popups, they make users frustrated. We try to stay away from them as much as possible,” said Haiko de Poel, CEO and administrator of ABestWeb.com, an affiliate marketing forum. He said that while those who promote the X-rated sites are affiliates, they’re not part of the mainstream – and not of interest to most merchants. In short, he said, “We see them as the scum of the earth.”

Affiliates use tactics to trick users into opening emails because they work. People who might never seek out an X-rated site can be tempted to click on an explicit picture to see more. Unfortunately, this quirk of human nature makes it nearly impossible to stop sneaky spammers. “Particularly in the adult marketplace, you know they’re doing [spam], but no one will own up that they’re doing it,” said Colin Daniels, CEO of Phoenix Group, merchant of a network of X-rated photo galleries. While his company mails a weekly newsletter only to those who have asked to receive it then confirmed the request in a process known as double opt-in, he acknowledged that over-eager affiliates are a big part of the problem. “It seems to be primarily affiliate-based. If you look at codes, buried beneath the HTML, there is affiliate code buried in there.”

While legitimate X-rated merchants like Daniels are as diligent as any others in warning affiliates against spamming, it’s impossible for them to police the thousands of anonymous affiliates that drop in and out of their programs. But spam-happy affiliates run the risk of having their email service shut off or getting blacklisted by ISPs.

Unfortunately, this is the company you’re keeping if you’re an adult entertainment affiliate. You may have a triple-opt-in list, but, unfortunately, in this hot-button segment, the public is a lot less willing to take the time to separate the ethical affiliates from the spammers.

Lawyer Trouble

Booble, the search-for-X site, got itself into legal trouble not for its sizzling content, but for the staid old rap of copyright infringement. Lawyers at search engine Google, a former iconoclastic upstart itself, sent Booble a cease-and-desist letter, claiming Booble is an encroachment on its world-class brand. Did Google pick on Booble because of its content? In their response to Google’s complaint, Booble’s attorneys argued the search company hadn’t objected to other Web sites with similar URLs and graphic design, such as the European search site Elgoog.

There’s a lot more for adult-oriented affiliates to worry about. Those who affiliate with the wrong site can find themselves linked to illegal material or practices, for example, providing X-rated content to minors.

Most X-rated sites use possession of a valid credit card number as the de facto proof of age, said Jake Ludens, spokesperson for affiliate network ARS. Merchants only provide censored content on their premium sites until someone registers – and they need a credit card to do that. “That’s the age verification,” he said. When it comes to members of the ARS network, he admitted that there’s no way to stop all juniors from getting inside the gate. In such cases, he said, the site is responsible. “Age verification is on the affiliate.”

ARS regularly polices its affiliates, checking the sites for illegal material. Because affiliates choose which merchants they want to represent, the attitude of the industry seems to be that it’s up to affiliates to perform equal due diligence on a site before signing up to promote it.

According to Dorn Checkley, director of the Pittsburgh Coalition Against Pornography, studies show that anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of teenagers have been exposed to explicit material on the Web, most of them by accident. Seeing this stuff at an to problems ranging from inappropriate behavior to sexual violence. Unfortunately, Checkley said, the requirement of a credit card to view paid sites does little to keep minors away from content that’s illegal to show them. “Sure, you need a credit card to download or to see more, but you don’t have to pay a dime to see the most explicit stuff out there,” Checkley said.

Sizzling Success

While the challenges for XXX affiliates are many, there are rewards for those who get it right. Here’s where the segment begins to look like the rest of the industry. To succeed, adult-oriented affiliates need to work hard, find a way to rise above the clutter of mediocre sites and provide value to their visitors.

The adult affiliate marketplace has gone through changes in the last few years, according to Phoenix Group’s Daniels. Like the rest of the affiliate industry, it moved from pay-per-click to revenue sharing, typically on a 50/50 basis. The business moved to today’s flat pay-out model, where affiliates receive set payments for referrals that convert to paid memberships. Pay-outs zoomed from $25 or $30 to $50 and up, as merchants competed for affiliates’ referrals. Life was good.

But the big payouts and privileged access to X-rated content flooded the market with low-end affiliate sites. “All the affiliates had little sites with a few pictures and advertisements all over them. There was this huge influx of free [material],” Daniels said. The problem was, merchants want their affiliates to entice visitors just enough so that they’ll click through to the premium site and spend some money there. Too often, he said, after they spend a half hour looking around the affiliate sites, they’ve had enough.

Daniels said that to be successful today, X-rated affiliates should concentrate on building one or two quality sites. “Unless you have some exclusive content, it looks like everything else,” he said. Phoenix Group’s most successful affiliates write reviews and guides. “This is the type of pre-selling that’s almost critical at this point,” he said.

Booble is a prime example of combining useful reviews with unique style. Although it masquerades as a Web search site, in fact, it’s an extremely well-indexed body of original reviews created by a team of volunteers and freelance writers. All the links that show up in searches lead to sites with which Booble is affiliated – about 150 at press time; Bob said that represents about half of all available programs.

Affiliates who show they can produce traffic that converts can often forge special relationships with merchants, Phoenix Group’s Daniels said. They can negotiate for exclusive content to use on their sites, a tactic that further differentiates affiliate sites.

Scratching a Niche

Creating a niche can work as well in the adult industry as in the mainstream world. Sssh.com is a woman-oriented erotica site operated by the Phoenix Group that’s extended the market by catering to the sensibilities of female affiliates. Its program, SpiceCash, uses the same technology as the hard-core merchants, but with a softer front end.

“We made a page specifically for women, so when they sign up they don’t see the hardcore or stronger Web sites. So women feel okay about it,” said editor Angie Dapery. Because of this, Sssh.com gets a different sort of traffic, devoted not only to erotic writing and artsy photography but also things like astrology or psychics.

Many affiliates operate a mix of explicit and mainstream sites. ARS widened its purview from erotica in order to accommodate its multitasking affiliates. Founded in 1996 as the Adult Revenue Service, its acronym now stands for Affiliate Revenue Service. Last year, it relaunched its private network as a full-fledged affiliate network, and began seeking mainstream marketers and retailers to take advantage of its network of some 5,000 affiliates generating a reported 70 million unique visits a month. “We’ve noticed that a lot of our merchants had to turn to other affiliate networks in order to promote mainstream products,” said ARS vice president of customer relations and marketing John Valigorsky. “We figured, why make them go anywhere else? Let’s incorporate the companies that they’re also promoting in their mainstream sites [into our network].”

Just as in the wider world of affiliate marketing, there are a glamorous few affiliates promoting adult entertainment who have hit it big, flashing the cars, the clothes and the rings. Most are hard-working aficionados who haven’t quit their day jobs.

Said Booble’s Bob, “We’d like this little adventure to pay for itself. If we weren’t having to pay lawyers, we might make a little bit. But not enough to pay for a whole other employee.” But hey, it’s not all about the money. XXX affiliates get the thrill of being insiders in an industry that still pushes all kinds of buttons.

SUSAN KUCHINSKAS has covered online marketing and e-commercesince their beginnings for Revenue, Business 2.0, and othermedia. She also has published erotic fiction.