Exit traffic. Not the sexiest subject on the block.
It certainly doesn't rate up there with credit card fraud as a titillating topic of concern, that's for sure, though one can never be one hundred percent certain what's going to turn a person on in the freakish cauldron of passion that is adult Internet.
The book on online porn is that the all-inclusive window of opportunity that has fueled the industry's vast expansion is closing and that signs of over saturation are amply evident. It's a universe segmenting at the speed of light, in which niche is queen and normalcy is a quaint concept of no discernable value to the ka-ching kings, the purveyors of Internet sex. Large and small, rich or poor, these speculators spend interminable days and nights concocting clever ways to attract and convert the meandering tide of fickle eyeballs that pour through their sites like water through a prospector's sieve.
But the great experiment in freedom that is the Internet also makes every drop of water valuable in perpetuity, if not as something to be kept for one's own nourishment, then as a commodity to be sold or bartered as the market will bear.
Windows of Opportunity
Exit traffic is of course the traffic that is leaving your site. It is by definition traffic that has not purchased a membership to the site; leftovers, in other words, that are still edible. As usual, there is a vast diversity of opinion and practice as to what to do with this traffic. Some people refuse to 'reheat' it, sell it or even give it away to the less fortunate. They consider it in bad taste, unseemly, intrusive. Most webmasters, however, regard exit traffic as an invaluable source of revenue and would no sooner casually discard it than they would throw away a half-eaten package of Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies. But even within the latter group there are various opinions about how to properly manage exit traffic, which is, after all, just people. And as anyone who has had to reboot their computer in order to escape an endless loop of sexual enticements knows, the handling of exit traffic can range from the slightly irritating to the brazenly abusive. In the egregious cases, one feels they've been taken hostage as a rebuke for having the gall to browse around a site without buying a membership.
Perhaps the first question to ask of the experts is why bother with exit traffic at all? "The whole concept of exit traffic is really critical for managing an effective site, making the most out of your traffic as far as turning it into money," says Colin Rowntree of Wasteland (www.wasteland.com) fetish fame. "The concept of having a website where you go out and you pay for traffic or lure them in or do your search engines in the traditional way does not work for our industry. Frankly, most people leave. They don't want to buy anything, so what you have to do is somehow maximize that traffic into something that is going to do some good."
What about offering users options on the way in? "On the way in you do not want to distract them for even one moment from the ultimate goal of getting them through your three or four page tour and buying something," he says. "No links out, no link section, no nothing."
"Very very," answers Greg Dumas of iGallery (www.igallery.com), when asked how important exit traffic is to his overall marketing plan and profitability. "When I can sell 100 sign-ups a day to CEN, that's money right in my pocket. In addition to that, it's good faith that I'm sending other people business. We usually swap business. I'll send you a hundred; you send me a hundred, that type of thing. It's very good business for us both."
But not everyone is on the same exit traffic page. Andrew Edmond of SexTracker (www.sextracker.com), for example, has a lot of problems with the back door philosophy. "I consider exit traffic the lazy man's way of managing traffic," he says. "People look at it [exit traffic] as the only solution because they haven't thought it through. I think the message people need to understand is that better use of their front-end demographic information can help them make a front-end sale up to 25-50\\% better than any exit traffic sale would, while at the same time making the adult Internet more consumer friendly." He is pragmatic though. "You should take all the traffic that doesn't go out through the front end and throw it through exit traffic."
Richard Whitney, president of Adventures Management Group, who defines his company as adult "traffic managers," agrees with Edmond's basic premise � sort of. "I believe you have to have quality traffic coming in to have quality traffic going out," says Whitney. "We control about 3,000 domain names, some very high-profile, so we have an awful lot of qualified leads that are coming in the front door. So the guys going out the back door are, I wouldn't say as qualified as the guys coming in the front, but they are a much better lead. So I believe there are different levels of exit traffic."
The Ins and Outs
Okay, so for better or worse you've decided that you are going to proactively manage your exit traffic. Now what do you do? "There are a couple of ways that you can get rid of your traffic," instructs Rowntree. "You can sprinkle banners here and there of different programs that you've joined, partnership programs or click-through programs or paid advertisers or whatever. That's a sort of very traditional form of exit traffic. It's a very non-intrusive, not-invasive thing that's coming at people. However, the industry standard for at least the last couple of years has been to take a little bit more aggressive stance with it and generate some sort of a goodbye page, otherwise known as a console."
Actually, some are consoles and some are full-sized windows. So now the questions are, what combination of methods do you use, how many consoles do you use, and where are all these people being sent? "There are two strategies and I like a hybrid of them," says Jonathan Lieberman of JMR Creations. "You can send people to sites like yours and you can send them to sites not like yours. I like exit traffic that pops up advertising in a window after you leave that gives people essentially three choices: go to other sites of mine, be they free, be they pay, be they whatever; go to other sites like mine, and go to other sites not like mine. So if they in fact arrive at your site erroneously, and were looking for something else, you're going to give them that opportunity. If they arrived at your site intentionally, and just didn't find exactly what they wanted but like the same genre, they can find that too; and finally, just drive all your traffic, always push it other sites you have."
But he adds, "All that being said, we use exit traffic rather sparingly because of the concept of not harassing people. I think that while this might have been naive, in the long run it turned out to be right that we should provide people quality and focus on sending 100\\% of people away, because they come back on their own. You do get some loyalty and you do get some quality. What turned out to be wrong is that we missed a lot of revenue from that. But the thing that has made up for it has been that we get extremely high quality links and ratings from search engines, based on two things: we have high quality links in other places and we don't abuse the traffic."
The big content guys we spoke with certainly have no qualms about aggressively managing their exit traffic, even if the particulars differ. Ron Levi of Cybererotica is one of the pioneers of adult marketing methods. "What we do is we try different programs around the Net and see who converts the best. Then we go in and negotiate what we feel is a fair price for signups with them. In other words, we test them first. We just sign up for whatever program that they have and when we find a good conversion program, then we turn around and contact them and say, 'look at the traffic that we're sending you.' Then we tell them what we want as a price for it." We asked him if he sends certain traffic to certain sites. "You have to. We analyze everything. It's an ongoing study that we use to optimize the income of the traffic. We have over 3000 what we call 'feeder sites.' We'll send out traffic through those and each one of them is set up for different types of niches, and as they exit from there we send them on."
"If somebody comes into my site," says Dumas, "say they go into Teensex and they don't buy anything, I then send them into another one of my websites. I send them into five websites that are mine, one right after the other. Then at the very end, I flip them out to somebody else. I may sell it to CEN, or RJB or Cybererotica. We were one of the first sites to do it the way we do it now, where we pop another website inside the same browser. What it also did was help get traffic to our other sites that normally wouldn't get traffic, like a Latin site or an Asian site, before Asian was big."
Rowntree limits his back door exit windows to four. He starts by "spawning a page that is going to offer them a look at the other types of pay products that we produce, in case they came looking for bondage or fetish and decided that they really didn't want bondage and fetish. They now get a chance to go look at Asians or amateurs or whatever. Then, when you close that we will generally open another one that is nothing but free content, so it will be links and links to our various free sites. So that's our first tier of consoles - actually, it's not a console; we spawn a full window. It's very clear. It opens up, says thank you for visiting, on your way out please check out our other premium products. When you close that we have one more, which will lead directly to a listing of as many as a hundred to a hundred and fifty of our free sites. We do also have one little one that when you leave the free site listing will go to a partnership program."
One aspect of this issue that becomes quickly apparent is the high level of cooperation among companies that are often in direct competition with one another, a cooperation that mainstream online businesses have yet to emulate. "Mainstream doesn't want to annoy people,' says Lieberman. "They're all about stickiness. They seem to have this weird philosophy that surfers will hate you and not come back."
"The way adult Internet traffic works is unlike any other industry in the world," adds Rowntree. "It would be like Sears putting a link to JC Penney on their homepage. They wouldn't do that, but we do it all the time. We send traffic to our competitors and they send traffic back. It's a very interesting concept because it does take a huge number of people with different brains and personalities and puts them into a community where they are filtering back and forth to each other someone who is not appropriate for their site but may in fact be appropriate for someone else's. It's totally pragmatic. You literally can not survive as a lone wolf out there."
But as with many adult performers who are trying to make the difficult crossover into mainstream, so do adult webmasters see a huge marketing potential in the non-adult online arena. "There's a saying that we have nowadays," recounts Levi. "'Not everybody that uses toothpaste uses adult, but everybody who uses adult entertainment uses toothpaste.' You're delivering to people a demographic of 18-51-year-olds, 70\\% male, and all have proven to use credit cards. What we're working on is finding the trail and targeting. It'll be a huge revenue source for adult but also a very targeted attempt to move people onto the mainstream Internet."
Likewise with Dumas. "We're working a good deal now... to send [exit traffic] directly to this new and upcoming search engine that's going to pay me per click. A mainstream publicly traded company."
Who's Doing It and Why
So, if everyone is doing the right thing and trying to be efficient and ethical about the manner in which they manage their exit traffic, who are all those webmasters who are inflicting those endless loops of windows on us? Not anyone we spoke with. "Each one of my websites, on the homepage, has an exit button," says Dumas. "If a surfer clicks on that exit button, they're gone. There's no popping of consoles, there's no nothing, and it's very clearly stated on there. It says, "Exit," and they're gone." Why is that there? "We try to be very positive because we know that the FTC and people like that are looking into this [exit traffic]. They call it hijacking the browser. Our attorneys are FTC attorneys and have told us to be very careful how we manipulate this traffic."
"When we see free websites popping nineteen consoles and all that type of stuff," says Levi, "we will terminate them from our program because we feel that they're abusing the surfer. It's just not conducive to business. When you have someone who is a potential customer of yours and they get trapped in these things that pop multiple consoles, that uses up all of their resources in their computers and usually crashes their computer, we try and stay away from that, because we don't want people coming to our sites who are upset.
Lieberman, as usual, has an interesting take on this aspect of exit traffic. "The issue here is that somebody will always buy one more. You come to somebody and say, "I want to buy your exit console.' Okay, they buy it. Somebody says to them, 'I want your exit console.' Okay, they buy it. Soon, you're thirty layers deep and somebody still says, 'Well, instead of buying it for a penny apiece, I'll buy it for a hundredth of a cent apiece. Some people actually have, whether intentional or not, set up an endless loop. But the theory is that as long as one in x keeps buying, then keep showing them stuff. And if the [conversion] rate drops from 1 in 200 to 1 in 2000, hey, that's one more than you would have had otherwise."
And again as usual, Rowntree has a calm and practical solution. "For anybody who is sick and tired of it, if I have to go surf the Web, I will simply open up my Internet Tools in Internet Explorer and turn off my Java [script]. If you disable your Java none of this will ever happen to you. You'll never see another console for the rest of your life. It's as easy as flipping a switch. Click Tools, Internet Options, Java, disable, boom, gone. In that respect, it's different from e-mail and unsolicited advertisement. That you can't get away from."
So that's some of the skinny on exit traffic, which is not easy to distinguish from all the other marketing tactics and methods make adult e-commerce the innovative force that it is. Like the Web itself, everything is connected. There are no lone wolfs out there. And how can one speak about exit traffic without dealing directly with entrance traffic, which is precisely the point that Edmonds takes such pains to make. "There is no argument against better front-end traffic. And that's our bread and butter. The whole adult Internet is slowly catching on that demographic information derived from the SexTracker counter is something that allows them to make a lot more money. We provide a common denominator for all people to understand their traffic. Our services are more popular than ever. We're getting about a hundred new webmasters a day using our service. If you are using a SexTracker counter and you understand your traffic, you are going to demand that the people you do business with use a SexTracker counter as well. Exit traffic is abused when there is absolutely no attempt on the front end for demographic understanding."
There probably is no argument with Edmond's basic premise. Efficiency is always profitable and preferable. And though there was of course a fair amount of name-calling and finger pointing encountered in the course of researching this article, we're not going to go there. It's irrelevant. The very interconnectivity of the Internet makes perfection impossible. One can visit any number of sites that are linked to any of the principles interviewed for this article and find oneself stuck in a window loop. Our interviewees aren't necessarily to blame. It's just the way it is. The only surefire antidote is Rowntree's. Disable your Java if you can. You'll never encounter another console as long as you live. Or go read a book. You can put that down any time you want.