In a lot of ways, Cynthia Fanshaw is just another star in the affiliate marketing universe. With a specialty in search engine marketing, she works hard to drive traffic to her company’s site and then to convert visitors to customers. She’s anxious to learn new tricks that give her an edge over competitors, and glad to share a few tips with newbies.
But there’s one thing that sets her apart from most of her colleagues. Fanshaw promotes adult entertainment, a completely legal yet unmistakably controversial product that has simultaneously emerged as one of the most popular and most vilified areas on the Web. And she makes no apologies.
“My friends and family don’t mind,” Fanshaw said. “They just don’t want me to be involved in being in the content, which I really have no desire to be. I’m actually doing pretty well for myself, and as long as I’m happy, they’re happy.”
Along with online gambling and prescription drugs, adult entertainment is a subject that is sure to spark furious debate whenever it is discussed among lawmakers, affiliate marketers, prosecutors or parents. Each category, in its own way, offers benefits to the consumers who support it. And each draws bitter ire from its detractors.
What can’t be debated is the soaring popularity of the three industries. Nielsen//NetRatings showed 115.6 million Americans visited adult, gambling or drug sites during January – nearly double the number that watched the Super Bowl. They’re also ubiquitous, thought not always in a good way. Worldwide, more than 13 billion spam email messages are sent each day, comprising about half of all email traffic. According to London-based email security company Clearswift, two-thirds of that spam pitches drugs, adult entertainment or gambling.
The rewards for affiliates are generous. Revenue spoke with numerous program managers who said they often pay monthly commissions well into the tens of thousands of dollars in each category.
“As an affiliate myself, I can tell you my motivation for joining such programs is money,” said Graeme Eastman, owner of Australia’s AffiliateGuide.com, a network that promotes gaming and adult entertainment affiliate programs along with more mundane pursuits such as autos and computers. “There is really no other reason to join an affiliate program.”
Or is there? Many of the affiliates we interviewed spoke of the thrill of working in areas considered by some to be on the fringe of polite society. And many pharmaceutical vendors earnestly discussed the need to provide low-cost drugs in the American market, the only major Western power that doesn’t cap the cost of medications. In all three cases, it was clear that something in addition to money was motivating affiliates.
Yet shifting laws and long-standing taboos have left these industries in a social twilight zone where most affiliates are afraid to publicly acknowledge how they make their living. Revenue contacted dozens of affiliates in these areas, and most declined to be interviewed, citing fear of harassment by authorities or simply fear of what their neighbors might say. Although we observed virtually no evidence of criminality, we found a nearly universal desire among these affiliates to operate in obscurity.
It isn’t hard to understand why. Each area carries a special burden for those in the trade:
Gambling: Affiliates promote offshore companies that cannot legally operate in the US, at least not yet. Affiliates are stuck in a legal gray area somewhere between free speech and abetting a crime, and nobody – not even federal prosecutors – could say exactly where the line is.
Drugs: While most online drug stores operate with high ethical standards, the unrelenting river of spam pushing narcotics and male potency pills taints the public’s perception. Plus, some offshore pharmacies have been caught shipping drugs that fall short of US standards.
Adult Entertainment: Tens of millions of Americans view it, but few will admit they do. And the all-too-frequent nightmare of child pornography leaves the industry with an ugly scar that darkens against a backdrop of X-rated spam. Controversial maybe. But affiliates have the US Constitution on their side. “Commercial speech, such as advertising, is entitled to First Amendment protections under well-established constitutional law,” said Larry Walters, an attorney for the Internet Freedom Association who represents clients in the adult entertainment and gambling industries.
Still, problems like these have caused some mainstream companies to shy away. Such large affiliate networks as ValueClick’s Commission Junction won’t carry adult or gaming programs, partly because credit card charge-backs are more common in these industries. Insiders say the rate is higher because customers are caught by spouses or parents when credit card statements show up. Rather than owning up, cardholders tell the credit card company that someone else was responsible. “With CJ, you can see why they stay away from online gaming sites,” said Allan Schneider, former director of the Interactive Gaming Association. “You don’t have disputes with the other industries. [In other industries,] if a guy bought $10,000 in products, I get my commission.”
Even payment processor PayPal backed out of servicing adult transactions in May 2003 and gambling transactions in October 2002. “It’s still unclear how online gambling is going to be regulated, and based on that we felt that we had a legal risk,” said Amanda Pires, spokesperson for PayPal. “We saw higher rates of charge-backs in the adult businesses specifically – and that means a higher operational cost (for us). With adult sites there was a risk and it was just best to exit the business.”
Even Yahoo, which launched a gay and lesbian portal in April 2003 and runs its own dating site, won’t allow adult sites to use its hosting service. “We’re so brand-conscious that we can’t be on a site that contains adult content,” said Michael Brucker, affiliate marketing manager for Yahoo. To be sure, Yahoo flirted with adding adult content in mid-2001, but email campaigns and threats of boycotts persuaded the company to back away from the adult entertainment industry.
Trash or Treasure?
But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and some companies have rushed to fill the void. Take dating service FriendFinder.com. Soon after its 1996 launch, “we found people were pushing the envelope (with risque content and photos) on the site,” said CEO and founder Andrew Conru. “Rather than pushing away the industry, we decided to embrace them. We rolled out AdultFriendfinder as a kind of relief valve for the more erotic content.”
Now AdultFriendFinder has more than 8 million members, making it the Internet’s largest adult personal site. While other personal sites downplay their adult content, FriendFinder promotes it just like it does BigChurch.com. “We’re one of the few companies that looked at their marketing and said we’re going to make this a legitimate offering rather than the stereotype of the dark and seedy underworld,” Conru said.
Many niche and mainstream affiliate networks also list adult entertainment, gambling and prescription drug affiliate programs. “As a major directory owner, I thought it was important to list programs from as wide a range of categories as possible,” said Eastman, the owner of AffiliateGuide.com.
From here, the similarities among adult, drug and gambling sites end. Each has its own standards, demographics, pluses and minuses that are explained in detail in the other stories in this issue of Revenue. Here’s a sneak preview of what every affiliate should know.
“The Internet is a very good learning environment,” said Schneider, who is now business development director of the affiliate marketing firm RUOnTheNet.com. “Most people won’t go to a gambling table, because of the fears they have. Here you can go online, bet $50, and not be embarrassed or humiliated at the tables.” A study released by Peak Entertainment in 2003 showed online gamblers are 38 percent female and 62 percent male. They’re most likely between 30 to 59 years old and well-educated, with degrees ranging from bachelor’s to doctorate’s. They’re heads of household and solidly middle class, with household incomes around $60,000 per year. Men are more likely to play blackjack; women are more likely to play slots.
Since the US Communications Act of 1934 doesn’t allow broadcast of gambling activities, and the Internet arguably falls in this category, foreign sites have stepped up to fill the huge US demand. There are now two types of merchants: 1) corporations – such as Canada’s Criptologic.com, which was one of the first out of the gate – working within the regulatory systems for their respective countries, and 2) offshore companies, largely unregulated.
“Internet users assume it’s legal if they find it on the Net,” said Schneider. This leaves affiliates open to the possibility that they are “aiding and abetting” the entry of illegal content into US home computers. Odds are the charge would be overshadowed by free speech protections, but that’s a bet many affiliates won’t take because of the widespread uncertainty over what’s legal and what’s not.
In any case, “it’s a good cash-grab for the publishers [affiliates], because these people have a boatload of money,” said Schneider, who still pulls down commissions from his past efforts as a gaming affiliate. To best grab that money, affiliates we interviewed suggested signing up with programs that pay a percentage of client deposits (typically 25 to 50 percent of the money gamblers put up to potentially lose) rather than a pay-per-account structure (a straight fee per sign-up, typically $50 to $150) or a proportion of client losses.
“You’re playing a numbers game,” said Schneider, who still pulls in commissions from his past efforts as a gaming affiliate. “You may as well just play like a casino, and go for the jackpot.”
Even land-based casinos are feeling the online hit. “Six of the last seven years we’ve seen declining sport pool/wagering, and that coincided with Internet sports wagering,” said Frank Streshley, a senior analyst with the Nevada State Gaming Control Board. Meanwhile, “in the last four months, poker revenue has spiked up 35 percent. From talking to properties, they’ve felt what has increased the play is Internet poker sites. (Gamblers are) playing on the Internet, watching TV and coming in to play it in person.”
With this growing demand, affiliates are scrambling to address online gambling’s hot buttons. First, the US doesn’t yet allow US-based sites so affiliates do assume a bit of risk from the “aiding and abetting” angle. However, few if any prosecutions have been initiated against affiliates involved only with promoting online gambling operations; the Justice Department declined to comment on that question.
Second, there is the fear of fueling addictions. The Wall Street Journal recently told the story of Kansas City Mayor Betty Burch who supported bringing a riverboat casino to town only to have her sister lose her home to gambling debt.
Third is the issue of non-payment. “I have dealt with some of the larger (off-shore) programs out there and still I had to fight tooth and nail in order to get paid,” Schneider said. “You have no recourse if you get burned.”
Because there are no price caps on prescription drugs in the US, there is a surging demand for drugs shipped from other countries. A September 2003 Harris Interactive poll found 7 percent of its US respondents already purchase drugs from other countries, and 48 percent said they’ll do it down the road.
Who’s buying? Twelve percent of online households now buy some prescriptions on the Internet, reports Forrester Research. They’re older, more affluent and almost 50 percent more likely to be retired than offline-only purchasers. A Families USA study found that prices for the 50 medications most used by seniors are rising at three times the inflation rate. That’s why 44 percent of Medicare members who buy prescriptions buy some online.
Meanwhile, drugstore affiliates are making substantial incomes, often more than $2,000 per month. “Those are the private entrepreneurs in the United States; they’re all American,” said David Mackay, executive director of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association.
While the spammers get most of the attention, most of the online drug market is mundane in nature. Even WheatenRescue.org, a Houston-based dog rescue group, used an affiliate link to Drugstore.com to help finance its efforts. The money didn’t pour in, but “we got a little bit from it,” said Director Gwen Arthur.
The American Medical Association classifies online questionnaires as generally substandard medical care, and the US Food and Drug Administration agrees. That’s why some online pharmacies are now requiring visits to local doctors. Still, a PharmacyChecker.com evaluation found 33 percent of online pharmacies don’t require an original prescription. The report also noted that half of foreign online pharmacies don’t have a verified license to dispense drugs.
Counterfeit drugs will continue as long as copycats can be made. A recent investigation by Dallas TV station WFAA found these copycat drugs, sold under the brand name of the drug they mimic, were 78.6 percent and 92 percent less potent.
Online pharmacies must follow the regulations of and be licensed in their country of origin. Search engines such as Google, Overture, Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN have recently started policing the market themselves, screening for and dropping advertising from unlicensed pharmacies. Still, half of foreign online pharmacies don’t have a verified pharmacy license to dispense drugs, reports PharmacyChecker.com.
“States are looking at taking action against the search engines and sites that allow (illegal) operations, but there are no guidelines for affiliates that advertise them,” said Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. “And I don’t see any legislation coming down the pike to regulate that advertising.”
Drugstore affiliates should pick their partners carefully. Check the drugstore’s home page for licensing information (usually at the bottom). Work with sites that have previous-prescription policies. Work only with sites headquartered in developed nations with strict drug regulations. To be sure, there’s still the risk of partnering with a fly-by-night operation more interested in profits than in providing safe or real products.
Seventy million people worldwide visit at least one adult Web site each week. In the US alone, 36.3 million checked out adult sites in January 2004, reports Nielsen//NetRatings. As many as 10 million plunked down $20 to $40 for monthly subscriptions. Most are men, but there’s a growing number of women. For this new generation, adult content is no longer looked at as risque; it’s looked at as a choice. “Frankly, the youth of America is laughing at us old fuddy duddies,” Walters said. “I talk to some of these young Webmasters who aren’t shy about their bodies, their sexuality or fetishes. This new generation is driving a sexual revolution, to be sure.”
Still, a societal bias persists. “Oftentimes journalists will have a headline that says, ‘Pornographer Gets Busted.’ But they neglected to say in the headline that it was a child pornographer, someone who was doing something illegal,” said Jay Kopita, vice president of YNotMasters.com. “There are plenty of people that are doing it legally, but they lump us all together. We’re up against a distorted public impression.”
Flying Crocodile, a hosting firm, estimates 9,000 US affiliates already participating in this space. Matt Mickelson, affiliate manager for XXXPressToys.com, AdultToyChest.com and NaughtyCards.com, breaks those into two categories: “One is affiliates with some kind of large membership, whether from a dating site, a gaming site or a porn site, and we’re a component within that membership section,” he said. “The other is the average guy who’s been in the search engine trenches for the past five, six, seven years, (who) has optimized html pages to feed the search engines, and is going after keywords and basically directing, or shuffling, traffic.”
There is some money to be made in this industry, but most affiliates won’t get rich. “The majority of the people in this industry in the US make $15,000 or $20,000 per year,” said Kopita, who polled adult Webmasters on the subject in 2002. “More than half the people who are involved in the adult Internet in one way, shape or form need to have another job to make a livable income outside of it. On the same token, I know several people in this industry who are more than likely self-made millionaires, and they’re still in their 20s.”
This industry also has its challenges. First, it’s become so large that existing sites dominate search engines and online marketing, leaving little room for affiliates to squeeze in. “Going back six, seven years, you were able to make money as an affiliate in the adult sites,” said Schneider. “However, they’ve reached such a saturation point where you can’t make anything unless you’re in the top one or two tiers.”
Then there’s an uncertain legal climate. Even though the industry has a certain amount of free speech protection, it’s still beefing up its defenses. That means warning labels, age verification, and records that affirm that the model is 18 or older for all photos on the site. Even banners downloaded from an affiliate program are subject to age verification laws. Since affiliates must get the records from their merchants, it’s imperative to work with sites that have them all.
The adult industry does offer a fast track to technical skill. It was the first to launch widespread affiliate programs, and has remained on the cutting edge for streaming video, pay-per-view content, coercive click conversions and community publishing. “There are still new innovations coming out all the time,” said Kopita, who also heads the CyberNet Expo, a San Diego-based adult Webmaster convention. “Something that takes a week or two in the rest of the world, takes a day here.”
The secret to success in this industry still lies in the most fundamental small business tool: a good business plan.
More than Money
In the end, it may be the potential risks as much as the money in these industries that make them so desirable for some affiliates. “They’re willing to take the risk that some public company is not willing to take,” Walters said. “The reason that people can be successful, and that the small guy can make big bucks, is because these industries are tumultuous.”
JENNIFER MEACHAM, managing editor of Revenue, has been writing about business and technology for more than a decade. She was named the Region X Journalist of the Year by the US Small Business Administration in 2002.