In recent years adult webmaster forums and discussions at industry events have often come back to the idea of adult companies “expanding into mainstream,” or mainstream companies crossing the divide to get more involved on the adult side of online marketing. Does that divide really still exist? How wide is the chasm and is it getting wider or more narrow as companies continue to bridge the gap between the two with rebranded mirrors of their primary business sites and new offerings that seem agnostic about which audience they will earn most effectively. AVN asked several industry insiders with a stake in mainstream and adult to get a better sense of what business owners can expect in each.
"Adult and mainstream are quite different," said Colin of TranslationsXXX, whose origins are with a large mainstream translation firm. "People in adult tend to be much more informal and responsive—which is why deals often take so much longer to move forward in mainstream. Even the modes of communication are very different. In mainstream almost everyone wants to do business face to face or over the telephone, while in adult email, Skype and ICQ are often preferred. On the B2B side of business, you can do a lot more by marketing a brand in mainstream, because in adult it really is your reputation that is by far the most crucial aspect of successful growth. From what I have experienced in adult, the majority of major players do business only with people they know and trust, which makes referrals a huge part of the equation, while in mainstream people buy things they see advertised on television, radio or wherever else much more easily."
On the content site side of the business, the allure of a mainstream audience is simply too great to overlook, even if reaching it can be challenging for an adult brand. "As the adult industry has known for a long time, getting our brands exposure in mainstream is the Holy Grail for bringing in fresh traffic from a large volume of surfers that actually buy things," said Colin Rowntree of Wasteland.com. "We've had a great deal of success with marketing our women's adult site, Sssh.com, in mainstream via internet, TV, radio and print venues, but it's a whole different kettle of fish than doing an Exoclick or Traffic Junky ad buy to pick up some clicks on your newest and greatest porn product. First and foremost—corporate mainstream still does not like having even the slightest connection to porn, even in the form of paid advertising. So in comes the ‘2 or 3 degrees of separation’ strategy. Creating something PG-rated enough but titillating enough to market into mainstream, and then have that website discreetly send traffic to your actual adult products and sites, can be a complicated chain that requires plenty of testing. In the case of Sssh.com, we've done such things as get tasteful bullet vibrators and gift cards for Sssh.com memberships into the red carpet gift bags of Academy Award nominees. Our sexy but PG-rated display ads appear in major women's magazines. Talk radio guest appearances have also been useful vehicles for our brand."
"The reality is, this is always a hard row to till," said Rowntree. "Mainstream really likes to cover porn if no sex is involved, but their corporate policies don't allow it, so what happens is we end up spending a great deal of money and effort "perfuming the pig" to get some coverage and then play the shell game with surfers to get them in the door for the target product. It would all be easier if it wasn't such an expensive proposition to test. Mainstream media is accustomed to working with multimillion-dollar advertising budgets of multinational cosmetics and fashion industry firms. So, if you want to run an ad campaign on a major "progressive" mainstream media outlet to give away a free "romance and sex tips" e-book, which just happens to come with a discount coupon to your porn site, be prepared to put on your big boy pants and shell out a minimum of 15K-plus just for the chance to test drive their deliverables."
Differences also continue to exist in the way search engines operate, according to Yo Adrian of AdultSEOPartners.com. "Marketing mainstream sites is considerably different from adult, especially in regard to SEO. I develop strategies and manage SEO campaigns for a few big adult companies who also have mainstream ventures. I find it far easier, faster and, most importantly, cheaper to rank mainstream sites than I do adult. This is primarily because there are more marketing and linking resources available for mainstream sites than there are for adult. One of the bigger examples of this is the established content marketing industry that simply does not exist in adult. A mainstream site operator can get comprehensive content out to big sites visited by millions of people at any time utilizing a number of affordable services. And considering all of Google's algorithm changes throughout 2013 have been pointing toward content marketing over link building, it should be good news for anyone launching a mainstream venture in 2014."
Even in the design and development elements of digital business differences persist between mainstream and adult clients. "We have many mainstream clients that we service through the KBProd.com branch of our company," said Kenny, owner of KennysPennies.com. "We have noticed that the mainstream clients set aside the bulk of their budget for design and development while in adult the largest portion of the budget is for marketing and traffic. That being said, we assist our mainstream clients in using social media and various other organic traffic methods to their advantage; building their brand and a loyal customer base often outweighs any immediate return on investment in their minds. In adult many are somewhat short-sighted by comparison, wanting each campaign to earn more than it costs, while in mainstream the long term is where the focus seems to be placed."
For others like Clement of VideosZ, who is launching a major mainstream online brand in 2014, the difference is more about the mindset of the people involved and the way their viewpoint is formed by their experience in either adult or mainstream along the way. "Having started in adult and built successful brands from the ground up really is a valuable education for anyone interested in pursuing mainstream success online," Clement said. "People who have the benefit of a ‘porn education’ tend to be much more willing to start from the belief that anything is possible and work back to the best ways to get it done, while people in mainstream seem much more likely to look at what they believe can be done and then try to assemble that into an idea of the best they think they can do. With our new mainstream products we are finding development to be really exciting, because we are working with a great team of talented people and many of them are experiencing the creative freedom outside a mainstream corporate structure for the first time. I believe that's a trend that will continue as adult continues to become more structured and mainstream loosens up regarding the process of site development."
Even if a divide does exist between mainstream and adult, some very successful companies have found ways to straddle it all along. "VirtuaGirl has always been right on the fence between adult and mainstream," said Richard Excoffier, CEO of TotemCash.com. "Especially in European countries where nudity is not such a big deal, you can see pictures published in mainstream of topless women on the streets of Paris. We're about to launch a new product called iDancer, based on the same technology as VirtuaGirl but featuring girls dancing in rhythm to the music you're listening to on your computer. The software tracks what you're listening to and then synchronizes a dancer perfectly with your music. The results are amazing and the experience we have had so far with mainstream has been very positive. It's harder to make a sale, but you have a much wider audience to monetize."
For others, the medium matters most, in many cases much more than the business sector that is serviced. "Some mainstream products may not be as different as many think," said Joey Gabra, managing director of Affil4You. "We have a fair bit of success in the online gambling and social gaming space with our mobile users and it turns out that the user behavior is somewhat similar to those that subscribe to our adult offers."
"I find both businesses are now very similar in many ways," said Raphael Leroux of Mentel.com. "Five years ago, we needed to just have good content; the customer service didn't need to be very efficient, and we were earning a lot of money. I personally believe that was the beginning of the end of the easy money. I remember at the time being in Las Vegas and asking big names in the industry what they were thinking of doing now that tubes had grown so popular, and in 100 percent of the cases, they didn't have a single idea. They had made so much money doing almost nothing that they sat on it without trying to improve their products or services, as if it would continue on autopilot forever."
"Now things are very different. I now find both mainstream and adult to be very similar. You need to invest a lot of money, work very hard, please your customers, and have a strong marketing strategy. That's how we have grown successfully in mainstream with Mentel, and the companies pleasing their customers in adult are the ones that continue to earn a profit as well. We never let a client down for any reason, we are fully committed, and we make it happen, whatever they want or need done. The biggest difference I see now is how easy it is to open a bank or merchant account in mainstream, and how much lower the processing fees are for mainstream. Unless you really love adult entertainment or have an awesome idea today, there is no reason to push an adult biz idea more than a mainstream one because the skills needed to succeed are exactly the same."
Whether you see mainstream as a logical extension of your adult brand or view the two as being permanently incapable of ever coming together, one thing remains very telling. An adult company owns one of the best-known electronic cigarette brands on the market; another well-known adult company advertises e-bidding sites and clothing discount sites on Comedy Central almost every evening. The largest adult companies often own several identifiable mainstream brands, and many mainstream companies have interests in adult business that goes well beyond the idea of hotels profiting from pay-per-view movies in their rooms—yet none of them want to speak up in an article like this or mention their brands by name. The lesson, at least for now, is that mainstream and adult are both great places to make a profit. But from the perspective of most companies, if you plan to have longevity in both, it's best to keep quiet about working both sides of the mainstream/adult divide.
This article originally ran in the February 2014 issue of AVN magazine.