Sssh: Secrets of an Adult Site... for Women

Skye O’Donovan’s art/XXX site for women, (pronounced “Shush”), is an online erotic magazine that’s actually made a dent in the formidable barrier our industry faces down when it considers mainstream marketing: ELLE magazine, as part of an ELLE/MSNBC Cybersex and Romance Survey feature, ran a segment titled “Girly Show” by Toys in Babeland co-founder Rachel Venning. Venning “sounds off on everything [about] female-friendly porn.... ” Her number one pick in “Sites to See”?

As the site itself advertises, “Here at we know what truly ignites the female senses.” How do they know? “Because we are women.... We are women writing the articles, taking the photos, telling the stories and exploring the depths of female sexuality.”

“Movies, advice, and a hunky guy photo gallery” offers the most slender description of what a woman will find at O’Donovan elaborates, “Sssh talks about sex and sexuality, starting from the established ‘magazine format’ of original, well-researched illustrated articles; original fiction; and special-interest items like erotic and compatibility astrology readings; women’s health columns; video tutorials on such topics as ‘How to Make Erotic Massage Oils and Baths’; instructional videos on anything from masturbation techniques to achieve orgasm to a beginner’s guide to sexual fantasy role-playing; and our ever-popular quizzes.”

The bar’s set pretty high for the content that populates the categories, and includes, says O’Donovan, a range of genres, “from academic to erotic to hardcore and kink; but it is arranged in clearly and non-provocatively marked and described sections with a unique rating system that warns the reader just how explicit the material in that section is.

“A member can confidently browse information about aphrodisiacs or sex toys, and avoid a confrontation with the graphically illustrated ‘advanced techniques for having anal sex’ while her bolder sister can go straight to ‘pictures of explicit, lusty lovemaking’ and not be bored wading through pages of erotic poetry.”

That’s the Sssh key: “The real appeal of the content layout is that it makes it easy for a reader to satisfy her curiosity about a sexual topic to the level that she is comfortable with. She can explore in a controlled and systematic way, as she is reassured that the site works sympathetically with her increasing confidence, and does not attempt to sell, shock or lead her on.” O’Donovan says this is why members stay with Sssh. It offers an extensive, evolving source of information – with pretty pictures, to boot – that can be adjusted to even the most sensitive reader.

Also, a lot of work went into acquiring the well-researched non-fiction articles that notch Sssh up to a more serious level. “[Getting] fiction, opinion and photography are easier, as we shoot our own content at Wasteland Studios []. As we become better known, we are beginning to get high-quality, informative and well-researched submissions,” O’Donovan says.

Since Sssh’s launch, the site’s welcomed a number of mainstream writers, along with many well-known figures on the pro-sex/sex education landscape, like Anne Semans and Darklady; another coupe was scoring the award winning cartoonist, Jerry King. O’Donovan cautions, however, that “We will only expand as fast as we can acquire or create great content.”

With all the hue-and-cry as to the elusive nature of chick-oriented adult sites, another major question for O’Donovan in the creation of Sssh focused on how the dot-com could reach who it was trying to reach.

“Since the early days of the Web,” she notes, “we have been selling online fantasies to a mostly male audience. The question was often raised about marketing erotica to women, and the accepted wisdom was that women would not pay to join adult sites. The attempts that had been made in this arena to date were generally [made by] men attempting adaptations of conventional porn sites, or by women entrepreneurs already immersed in the traditional adult industry.

“The few successes had been with small niche fetish markets, and the broader women’s audience for online erotica remained untapped. I was determined to come up with a product which was clearly about sexuality, and would appeal to wide range of women including those who would never consider joining a ‘porn’ site,” O’Donovan says.

She’s identified the Sssh demographic as being primarily educated middle-class women over 30, the kind “who might also subscribe to Cosmopolitan or the Oxygen network,” as well as couples, “and an errant Australian gay guy.”

O’Donovan was inspired to create Sssh after two years of research and development, beginning with a thorough analysis of a major established and successful product – women’s magazines. She recorded the long-standing success of such publications as Vogue, which she found had been in business for over a hundred years, and is published in several countries and several languages. “The question,” she concluded, “– and the challenge – was how to take the established appeal of the printed magazine and evolve it for the multi-media, hyperlinked Web publishing environment.”

With this in mind, she maintains that Sssh’s strongest asset is the staff. “ employs over a dozen women in such interesting capacities as fiction authors, screenwriters, professional psychics, gourmet chefs, photographers and graphic designers,” she says.

O’Donovan identifies herself as someone who approached this venture with, first and foremost, a strong business acumen; she had a “perspective of researching and creating a profitable product.” But the aesthete in her also shaped Sssh. She realizes “that good, unobtrusive design is a significant factor in creating a Website that makes it easy for the viewer to get the experience she wants – rather than the one a Webmaster thinks she wants,” she winks.

Sssh is tuned in to its audience, remaining aware of and responsive toward customer feedback and comments. Still, O’Donovan knows it’s a short trip to ruin when a site tries to “be all things to all people; so we maintain a solid identity that reflects our vision and values.” Sssh’s revshare and flat payout programs are available through, and O’Donovan advises that “our best affiliates tend to operate dating, astrology, celebrity, diet, and other women’s sites.

“SpiceCash has a lot of excellent promotional materials and sampling of original content that our affiliates may use,” she says, “and offers help in making use of those materials.” Webmasters can begin by developing free sites in the areas mentioned above, and should concentrate on learning how to get their search engine – Google in particular – page rank numbers up. “Our current average retention is seven months,” an exceptionally high figure in adult Internet.

Also, “We sell advertising space in the members’ area, and have attracted several large corporations, which, I feel, confirms that we have succeeded in reaching a mainstream consumer demographic with an adult product in a manner that does not offend corporate sensitivities.” The company’s quite proud of the attention they garnered from ELLE.

“If Sssh had been our first Website,” O’Donovan relates about the site’s start up and challenges, “it would have been a monumentally daunting project that would probably have failed. As it was, with a solid background in launching and managing a successful adult Web company [O’Donovan cut her teeth at Colin Rowntree’s], I could concentrate on the details of researching, developing, and marketing a very specific product without having to worry about such issues as hosting, billing, support, customer service, affiliate programs and so forth.

“Thankfully, most of the worst mistakes were made before Sssh got started.”

Coming soon (and yes, that’s punny) is an expansion of the line of instructional videos Sssh has found significant success with. “We have had a lot of fun making explicit – but tasteful – masturbation tutorials, and exploring the world of sex toys,” O’Donovan shares. The new line will include “our very own Dr. Love, an expert in aromatherapy and an established creator of sensuous oils, erotic cuisine and aphrodisiac bath salts, [who] has an ongoing series that shows just how easy it can be to create a mind-blowing sensual evening with your lover.”

But remember, Sssh.