You may or may not approve of what they are marketing, but nearly everyone can learn something from the strategies that the adult industry uses to capture consumers online. The thriving adult industry has a history of pioneering many online marketing techniques and continues to provide useful lessons in how to attract and convert an audience.
From the creation of the affiliate model to monetizing user-generated content, where sex sites go, mainstream marketers often follow. The selling of sex products and content has grown to become a more than $2.5 billion annual business, according to publisher AVN Online, as each year 72 million people visit the more than 4.2 million adult content websites.
Spoil Your Partners
While search marketing and display advertising provides most of the traffic in many industries, affiliates drive most of the visitors to sex sites. Adult affiliates are treated more like partners, and publishers are unafraid to show their gratitude. Keeping affiliates happy is paramount in the hyper-competitive adult world, says Clark Chambers, general manager of adult affiliate network NicheBucks.
Like many consumers, affiliates don’t have much brand loyalty and will work the partners that offer the better returns if they aren’t satisfied. Chambers, who got into the business because a friend needed someone to oversee his exploding affiliate program, rewards his best affiliates with gifts on top of their generous commissions. He has given jewelry, video games and digital music players to his best affiliates, including one teenager in Russia who makes more than $7,000 a month.
Affiliates do the primary search engine marketing and optimization, which reduces the risk for publishers and eliminates competing with them for the same keywords. Chambers makes sure that his affiliates have access to current conversion statistics and a variety of marketing tools, including a steady stream of images through RSS feeds to attract new customers. Adult sites will even host the affiliate websites for free, according to Chambers, who has been managing adult affiliates for eight years.
Adult sites will pay more than the first month’s subscription fees in commissions to keep the traffic coming, according to an adult industry consultant who asked that his name be withheld (he says his family doesn’t know where he works). The payouts are very generous to prompt affiliate webmasters to work harder for the program, and because they can easily find other content sites to promote, the consultant says. Publishers also emphasize the personal touch by being readily available to their affiliates and quickly responding to their phone calls, and by meeting in person at industry events.
The adult industry has not only nearly perfected the art of affiliate relations, but also grows stronger through publishers earning extra revenue by also acting as affiliates themselves. “Co-opetition” is the practice of promoting competitors’ websites when visitors try to exit a website without buying something, according to Jim Lillig, president of marketing consultancy Synergy Intermedia. “It’s a last resort after exhausting all the other ways to monetize” visitors, he says.
While many publishers may not be willing to promote competitors by acting as an affiliate, Lillig says publishers may be able to earn more revenue from those who don’t buy from them than those who do. Lillig, who helped to build Mr. Skin, a subscription website focusing on celebrity nude scenes, into a successful franchise says, “98 percent of customers leave most websites without buying something.” Admitting that you may not have a product that suits every taste is a difficult but significant realization for publishers looking to maximize their revenue.
Ed Kunkel, the chief operating officer of SexSearch.com, agrees that pitching competitors’ products helps to grow sales across the industry. “[Competitors] have the audience you need and vice versa,” Kunkel says. “It’s a huge world you have access to; there is plenty (of demand) for everyone to make enough money. … Since there is no way of completely dominating a market, you might as well share the wealth amongst each other.”
Analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence says that publishers who link to their competitor’s sites can benefit. “Intercepting a person before they leave a site in an unobtrusive way would be successful in capturing some number of sales,” according to Sterling. He says applications developers such as customer relations management software company LivePerson are experimenting with displaying competing products as a last resort.
By acting as an affiliate for niche adult publishers (such as sites focusing on older women or those of a specific ethnicity), publishers can also track the conversion rates of different types of content and then develop their own competing sites, according to Lillig. He recommends creating multiple niche sites to highlight areas of content as well as to learn more about consumer habits. Also, publishers who present information about competing products gain credibility with their audience, he says.
Analyst Sterling says companies can increase their reach by parsing their content and creating niche websites, such as search technology vendor Marchex’s development of local search sites from a single database. “The creation of niche sites is a good idea if it can be done skillfully and it’s not just spam,” Sterling says.
The adult industry is a tight-knit group who know each another and “form a big circle,” referring traffic to each other in the belief that it’s better if consumers buy from a competitor than if they don’t buy at all. Adult publishers who trade links with competitors can increase their traffic without having to purchase advertising, Lillig says.
However, that circle often traps customers by generating pop-up windows when customers try to exit, an annoying practice that continues to get some adult publishers in legal trouble. Lillig says that while the pop-ups may be frustrating, adult sites studied the practice and identified the exact number of pop-up windows to maximize revenue. Though pop-ups are still in use, many adult companies now ban affiliates who create pop-ups that trap users with unending windows.
Leading the Technical Charge
Lillig says Mr. Skin was one of the first companies to watermark an image and allow it to be spread around the Internet as viral marketing to enhance branding. Mr. Skin reached millions of potential customers by putting its logo on images and by embedding pre-roll ads into celebrity videos that were circulated via email and through peer-to-peer networks. “They became moving ads,” he says.
The adult industry also popularized giving free sample content in exchange for customers providing valid email addresses and co-registration, which gives customers the option of simultaneously signing up for newsletters from competing adult sites, according to Lillig. He says adult marketers took an early lead in tracking email performance, including who opened emails and where they clicked.
Adult sites have also been adept at identifying seemingly unrelated trends in entertainment and integrating them into their product. For example, one of the fastest-growing segments is “reality porn,” an imitation of reality TV programs that has prompted adult publishers to launch dozens of niche sites.
Another cultural phenomenon being integrated into adult sites is gambling (see article on page 66). Playboy.com will open its first Internet casino by the end of 2006, and 121 Gaming Inc. this summer launched GrandNevada.com, which features naked card dealers.
Publishers need to study the latest trends and find complementary ways to expand their reach, says 121Gaming president and CEO Howard Mann. “We saw an opportunity to go in a different direction with something that added entertainment value,” says Mann, of his combining gaming with nudity.
Adult content publishers are frequently the earliest adopters of technologies such as streaming video and webcams that later are adopted by other industries. “The VCR became popular because people wanted porn, and VHS won out because that was the format that porn adopted,” Mann says. Media companies who are currently evaluating which of the new high-capacity DVD formats (Blu-ray or HD-DVD) to sell should watch to see which technology the porn industry favors.
In addition to technology and cultural trends, adult marketers are also quick to turn the latest publishing trends into tools for deriving additional income. Affiliates are authoring blogs about the adult industry to increase their natural search result rankings, and publishers are creating MySpace profiles for their rising acting stars to differentiate their brands, according to NicheBucks’ Chambers.
The Upper Hand
Of course adult sites have a distinct advantage over their general audience counterparts – sex sells, and the demand for content is almost limitless. “If there is one thing that is universal, it’s that men love to look at naked women,” says 121Gaming’s Mann. Even without any marketing, millions of people will search for adult content. “I know adult networks that get similar traffic to Yahoo,” he says.
Conversion raters are higher on adult versus PG personals searches, according to Mark Brooks, the editor of Online Personals Watch. The “conversions are best when people are looking for sexual connections,” he says. Brooks, who previously worked for AdultFriendFinder, says adult publishers can make back the commissions paid to affiliates to acquire a customer within one month, while it may take three months or more for mainstream personals.
However, because of the generous payouts on adult personals sites, publishers have to spend additional time managing their affiliate relationships. “You have to look after [the affiliates], allow them to call you on the phone and take their requests seriously,” Brooks says. Publishers also have to be steadfast in making sure their affiliates do not damage their brand by being overly aggressive. While he was at the company, AdultFriendFinder stopped allowing affiliates to do email marketing because there was too much abuse.
Lessons Not Learned
The adult industry has mastered how to tempt consumers with just enough content to prompt them to purchase without compromising sales, something that most retail sites have been reticent to experiment with thus far. Adult publishers successfully convert traffic by providing affiliates with free samples of their content, a strategy that publishers should adopt, says Shawn Collins, co-founder of the Affiliate Summit conference.
In the adult world, the profits are in the video content, and affiliates lure and hook customers by showing image galleries (often thumbnails) of naked people, and then directing them to the publishers who sell unlimited access accounts. Collins says video, audio or print media companies could greatly expand their conversions by using affiliates to distribute free samples of their content.
For example, the television networks or movie sellers could distribute clips from their sitcoms or films to affiliates to pique consumer interest, which enables customers to realize the value of the content, according to Collins. Media companies have yet to exploit the power of distributing content through affiliates, Collins says, and were slow to team up with video search engines such as YouTube.com to increase their exposure.
This strategy of partnering with large search engines and requiring users to register is the opposite of the niche marketing that has been critical to the adult industry’s success. Video search engine sites have too much content to successfully promote niches (such as British comedy or period-piece dramas) that would convert well as independent affiliate sites.
“Showing teaser videos and allowing them to be distributed virally” could boost the sales of online video, Collins says. Online music stores should allow affiliates to host and play select songs for free, and Amazon should share its technology for previewing a few pages of a book with affiliates. Reuter’s news is one of the video services that allow affiliates to display its content, but the company keeps all of the revenue from its pre-roll ads, which takes away the incentive from affiliates.
As the adult industry has shown, whetting consumers’ appetites by letting them peek at the goods goes a long way in prompting conversions. Adult publishers prove that by working closely with affiliates, innovating by embracing technology and treating competitors as assets, publishers can create new products and increase their revenue.
JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.