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The Distracted Porn Consumer: You Never Knew Your Online Customers So Well

The Distracted Porn Consumer: You Never Knew Your Online Customers So Well

This article is about a subject that should be near and dear to the heart of every adult Webmaster - the online porn consumer. I am going to provide you with a demographic picture of information about these individuals, based upon research performed by a wide variety of organizations. I will then present you with some suggestions about how to use this demographic information to increase traffic, conversions, retention, and revenue.

In previous articles I have frequently bemoaned the fact that no adult Webmaster, even the moguls who control large numbers of Websites, seems willing to invest in market research. This seems strange on the surface, because mainstream companies often spend millions of dollars to better understand their customers and learn how to achieve an advantage over their competitors. Having worked inside the mainstream for many years, I can state that many firms put this kind of information to very good use. Microsoft, for example, is a major, major buyer of market research and a direct line can sometimes be drawn between the research that Microsoft has bought and strategic actions that the company has subsequently taken.

Software firms are far from the only big buyers of research. Firms that sell consumer goods and entertainment companies are constantly researching their customers and audiences in order to better tune their products and outbound marketing activities. While purchasing such research is no guarantee of success, you'd be hard pressed to find any top executive inside those industries who doesn't consult market research before making a major strategic decision. In the operational ranks, the connection is even closer, and very few consumer or entertainment products are released in the United States without being vetted through some form of direct research about the intended customer base.

However, the online erotica industry - a major industry by any standard - seems to have little interest in funding research that might allow adult Webmasters to better understand their consumers in order to tune products, services, and business processes so that they generate more revenue. I suspect that the apparent reluctance of adult Webmasters to invest in such research results largely from the legacy of being an outlaw industry without roots in the rest of the entertainment and consumer goods industries.

Not to worry. It turns out that there is a wealth of information available about the porn consumer available from a variety of sources that allows us to extract, at the highest level, a demographic picture of the online porn consumer. While this is no substitute for real, well-directed market research, this information does provide an overview, a start in the long process of better understanding the people who are paying your bills. (I mean the consumers, not your accountant!) So let's get started.

The Cooper Study

So far as I've been able to discover, there is only one really scientific study of online sexual behavior: "Towards an Increased Understanding of User Demographics in Online Sexual Activities." The report was prepared under the leadership of noted Stanford professor Dr. Al Cooper, who has kindly given AVN Online permission to publish some of his data. (If you're interested in learning more about the good doctor and his excellent work, his Website is www.sex-centre.com.)

It must be understood that that Dr. Cooper's study is not market research, but scientific research, which is a very different animal. Dr. Cooper and his team were interested in building a clinical profile of online sexual behavior rather than extracting the kind of demographic information that would help an adult Webmaster better tune a site to make more money. In addition, his study covers public chat room activity and cybersex, most of which takes place outside the realm of pay porn sites. However, his study provides a solid view into the minds of the people who use the Internet in order to achieve some form of sexual gratification - your customers, in other words.

To build his study, Dr. Cooper and his team gathered data from 7,037 randomly-selected individuals who said that they had engaged in online sex activity. Of this sample, 5,925 were male and 1,112 were female. I mention these numbers because they are large enough to be statistically significant when compared with the population as a whole. In layman's terms, this study is the real thing and provides a real picture of the customer base.

Probably the most important element of the Cooper study is its discovery of the reasons why people engage in online sexual activity.

When looking at this data, there are several things that are particularly striking. I would bet that most adult Webmasters believe that the primary reasons consumers access adult sites is to explore sexual fantasies or to buy sexually-oriented products and content. In fact, the vast majority of people who see the Web as a vehicle for sexual gratification are simply looking to be distracted from the various stresses of their daily lives. The high rating for "education" is also interesting because very few adult sites provide any kind of education. That almost a fifth of the survey base was interested in "socializing" is also highly significant because it indicates there's a desire for a sense of community among these consumers. All of these data points have important implications for adult Websites, as we shall see in the second article of this series.

Some of the additional data gathered in the Cooper study reinforces some characteristics of the customer base that are fairly obvious. For example, the study showed that approximately four out five men who view online sexual material have masturbated while doing so. (No surprise there.) That data becomes more interesting when compared to similar data from the female respondents, who were more likely to be engaged in some kind of "relational interaction that requires their attention." In other words, the reason that women don't buy many porn site memberships is that the memberships lack the kind of social interaction that would attract women. One might draw a parallel case from gender differences inside strip clubs. While a solitary male will often enter a strip club, women almost never go to male strip clubs without a gaggle of their girlfriends. The sexual arousal is socialized by the presence of the other females. Women are also more likely than men to use the Web for "education." All of this has major implications for any adult Webmaster who wants to build Websites that would appeal to women - a potentially enormous market.

Putting gender aside, people who pursue online sexual experiences tend to be younger than the overall U.S. population, with an average age of around 33 years. They tend to be married in numbers that are less than the general population as well. Of those who are in a relationship, more than half of those surveyed reported that their online activities had not affected their relationship with their partner. However, of those who did report that the activity had not had a positive effect (and, by implication, a negative effect), there was a significantly higher proportion of men than women. In other words, the wife is likely to be pissed about the online behavior - no big news to any adult Webmaster who's tussled over a credit card bill.

One of the most interesting data points in this study was the incidence of sexual addiction. Almost 20 percent of the sample base reported that they were addicted to the Internet or to "sex and the Internet." According to a recent book edited by Dr. Cooper, entitled Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook to Clinicians (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), online sexual addiction is characterized by what he characterizes as "Online Sexual Problems" (OSPs) which include "negative financial, legal, occupational, relationship, and personal repercussions" resulting from the online sexual activity. In its most severe manifestation, OSPs can turn into "Online Sexual Compulsivity" (OSC) in which excessive behaviors "interfere with the work, social, and/or recreational dimensions of the person's life."

While the addiction model for sexual behavior is somewhat controversial among psychologists, there's little doubt that certain consumers are very heavy users and collectors of online sexual materials and experiences, and that those behaviors are not healthy - not because of the content - but because of the addictive nature of the personality. (A parallel case would be addiction to computer games or exercise.) These consumers are particularly important because of the significant financial resources that they pour into the online erotica industry.

Other Studies

Now that we've looked at Dr. Cooper's excellent data, it's time to turn to other sources. Few adult sites gather demographic information on their consumers, and fewer still share that information with the public. One site that does share this data is Playboy.com, which has posted some basic information on its site in order to entice advertisers. While the Playboy Website is softcore, it's likely that the demographics of its user base are reasonably representative of the online porn consumer. From this site we learn that subscribers to Playboy.com have a median income of over $57,000, significantly higher than the median income for the entire country, which runs at about $35,000. About 40 percent are college graduates, and of those employed, 25 percent are in professional and managerial positions.

Interestingly, Playboy magazine has a significantly different demographic in a few areas. Readers of the magazine have a median income of around $53,000, only 17 percent are college graduates, and those employed in professional and managerial positions comprise only 13 percent ? about half as many as on the Website. What this tells us is that online porn consumer tends to be wealthier and better educated than the average individual, and is more likely to be an office worker as opposed to being employed in manual labor, retail sales, and other low-level positions.

Another study gives a breakdown by profession. In late 1999, the noted author and journalist Dr. Gloria Brame conducted a survey "to get a rich, demographic portrait of adults who engage in bondage, dominance and submission, SM, spanking, watersports, fetishism, cross-dressing, infantilism, and any and all other aspects of kinky/BDSM sex." While many online porn consumers are not interested in such material, the popularity of such material on the Web, and the tendency for mainstream sites to include soft versions of that content suggests that the data may be at least peripherally relevant to the larger consumer base. Also, while the Brame study wasn't specific to online sexual behavior, it was conducted on the doctor's fascinating Website, www.gloria-brame.com, suggesting that the respondents are likely to see the Web as at least one vehicle for sexual gratification.

For the purposes of this article, the most interesting aspect of the Brame study is the distribution of careers among the BDSM community (which I am, with some reservations, treating as representative of online porn consumers as a whole.) According to her data, the most common primary line of work for her respondents was "Hi Tech" accounting for fully 15 percent of the total. This is, of course, a far higher percentage than in the public at large. There was also a very high incidence of professional people, with the top five categories (Hi-Tech, Business/Corporate, Health/Medical, Banking/Finance and Sales) accounting for 57 percent of the total.

Brame's data is particularly interesting because it clarifies the point that the workplace plays a major role in the dissemination of online pornography. That viewpoint is made clear by a study conducted by Media Metrix, a market research firm that is the leading tracker of Web usage. Media Metrix looks at unique visitors to Websites, which means that repeat visits aren't counted twice. Data from Media Metrix is widely accepted as the gold standard to understand the overall patterns of Web traffic. Table 2 shows the number of unique visitors to adult Websites compared with unique visitors to other retail sites over the period of a month (12/02). What isn't shown on this table is that the "XXX Adult Category" received more unique hits than any other retail category, including Books, Electronics, and Malls.

Notice the patterns of usage between XXX access at home and at work. Even though most companies frown on employees accessing porn during the work day, 13 percent of all U.S. Internet users are still doing so. What's more, roughly a third of the people who accessed adult Websites were accessing the sites at work. In short, there is much more porn consumption taking place at the workplace than most adult Webmasters would suspect. What's also very interesting is high percentage of Internet users who are accessing porn - around 30 percent of the total. (One caveat: unique visitors does not translate exactly into actual percentages of users because certain categories could generate more Web activity than others.) All of this suggests that there is a major untapped market out there.

The high incomes and high precedence of professional jobs among porn consumers (obviously) has an economic impact upon the growth of revenue from porn sites. According to another study by Media Metrix, "adult entertainment" was responsible for approximately $263 million in paid content revenue in the year 2002, almost twice as much as the next largest category, "Business and Financial News." This number seems small compared to the $1-3 billion figure that's bruited around on the Web. However, the larger figures are probably the result of rumor and well-known tendency of the Internet to bloat statistical data. Don't fret, though. $263 million is plenty of money to go around.

Exploiting the Data

In order to fully mine the possibilities of demographic studies, it would be necessary to launch a specifically-targeted market research project, which would cost anywhere from $60,000 to $125,000. Lacking that, I have three specific recommendations for adult Webmasters, each of which has the potential to add millions of dollars of extra revenue to the online adult industry. Some of these recommendations may seem to be controversial, but these techniques are used in mainstream business every day:

1) The online porn consumer is most likely to be male, most likely to be professional, and most likely to be using online erotica in order to distract himself from stress. A great deal of this activity is taking place at work. However, an increasing number of companies are monitoring Web traffic in order to prevent this type of Web browsing, a trend that threatens traffic, and therefore, revenue. In order to overcome this, adult Webmasters should consider creating Websites that look like business-oriented Websites, where the URL, file names, and Web page titles (which is what the companies monitor) appear to be legitimately connected to that person's office work. Ideally, there would be a site for each industry or professional category (the content, of course, could be the same). Such sites should contain warnings to any links that would take the consumer to an adult site or content that is not "legitimatized."

2) Around 20 percent of online porn consumers are experiencing some kind of addictive, or impulsive, behavior relative to their use of the Web. In order to secure the ongoing revenue from such consumers, adult Webmasters should make it substantially easier to indulge that behavior (the word for this in the mainstream world is "upselling," and it's currently a very hot marketing trend). The most effective way to do this is probably to include links to additional pay sites/paid content inside your own pay site. This is done on a few sites which have "pay-per-view" elements, but in most cases, links to additional sites are exterior, either as an exit to the tour (in order to pick up consumers who didn't convert to paid customers) or in the exit out (at which point the consumer has probably had an orgasm and is thus less likely to buy another paid membership.) The goal should be to keep the consumer within the Website and sell additional memberships for additional materials.

3) Around 15 percent of all people who look to the Internet for sexual gratification are women, most of them professionals. This market is not being well-served by this industry, which is almost totally focused on male content and methods of distribution and interaction that appeal to male online sexual behaviors. In order to pick up revenue from this segment of the market, adult Webmasters need to create sites where the primary elements are interaction and education. Such sites would allow women to obtain advice, perhaps during teleconferences with experts, have elements of cybersex, and should play into women's relationship fantasies. (i.e., a story of how a woman got a rich and powerful boyfriend because she knew how to give head better than any other woman - with instructions as to how she did it.) Such sites would be low on visual content, except as it serves the need for interaction and education. The site would have live interviews (with audience questions) with "hot" guys who tell what they like sexually. In other words, take the content of Cosmopolitan and Glamour, make it X-rated (not XXX), and provide for massive amounts of interaction.

Jack Morrison can be reached at jgsmorrison@aol.com.

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