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Mixed Blessings of Web 2.0

Mixed Blessings of Web 2.0

June 20, 2008
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" Strategic partnerships are becoming increasingly important "

By now, we can be reasonably certain everyone who has any interaction with the Internet whatsoever has heard the term "Web 2.0." What is not quite so clear for most of us is exactly what Web 2.0 means.

In general, Web 2.0 refers to the continuous process of transforming the Internet from a collection of HTML pages into a full-fledged computing platform. The term arose during a 2004 O'Reilly Media conference in Silicon Valley, and as is the case with many Silicon Valley buzzwords, "Web 2.0" quickly found itself appropriated by the masses and its original definition subverted. As Yu Cong and Hui Du explained last year to the readers of CPA Journal, "Compared to 'Web 1.0,' Web 2.0 fills the gap between a Web browser and desktop applications. It brings together documents and data scattered over local computers and the Internet, and facilitates collaboration and sharing."

Most of the time when someone mentions Web 2.0, it's almost certain they're talking about the collaborative nature of online content, but not necessarily in the ways Cong and Du envisioned. Instead, what they most probably mean — especially in the adult industry — is the ways in which users are demanding more intimate control over their experience, over what they view and over when and how they interact with commercial entities and each other.

Users today are a vital part of the creative and marketing processes; they are content producers in their own right, not strictly content receivers … and woe betide the publisher who doesn't regard them as integral partners in his or her endeavors. Information and content now flow from the bottom up, not from the top down as before. That represents a pretty radical paradigm shift, especially in an industry that in previous generations was defined by the old standbys "porn is porn" and "sex sells." Sex still sells, but the challenge is to convince consumers it's still worth buying instead of creating themselves.

Web 2.0 is revolutionizing not only the way companies interact with consumers, but also the way companies interact with each other. Strategic partnerships are becoming increasingly important, especially in the areas of traffic generation and user conversion.

The most easily recognized manifestations of Web 2.0 are tools like blogs (personal publishing), wikis (collaborative publishing), really simple syndication (RSS), content aggregators (news feeds), streaming video (YouTube, XTube, PornoTube, etc.), file sharing (peer-to-peer networks), podcasting and social networking (MySpace, AdultSpace, etc.). Fetish and niche marketers recognized the benefit of many of these technologies early on and began employing "sharing" and "community" techniques in their efforts long before February 2005, when YouTube forever changed the face of the online experience. Sites like Wasteland.com, Kink.com and various swingers' hangouts and adult-dating sites made it easy for their users to communicate with each other and with management from the get-go, partially because they arose to serve the needs of real-world communities.

Wasteland.com owner Colin Rowntree said the BDSM community was engaged in virtual community building even before the Web became public property. Adult-oriented computerized bulletin-board services in the 1980s and '90s frequently either included an area dedicated to BDSM enthusiasts or one sprang up independently to serve the needs of that community. When the web came along, many of those user groups migrated to the new medium with gusto, simply adding content-viewing components to the interactive mechanisms they already used.

"[The idea behind Web 2.0] is the same thing we've been doing all along," Rowntree said. "We've always offered discussion boards, member profiles, classified ads and 'free dating' applications in order to help members meet and greet. With the full-blown Web 2.0 explosion upon us, we've simply added new technologies to the mix."

On the whole, the adult industry was a bit slower to adopt the technologies and tools that today compose what is commonly called Web 2.0. Although some web-based studios and performers pounced upon mainstream video-sharing and social-networking sites like YouTube, MySpace and BlogSpot as soon as they appeared, they quickly found themselves banned for posting content that was too racy for audiences composed of both adults and children. Many early adopters regrouped and approached the sites with a new focus — using them as softcore signposts to age-protected personal sites that then shuttled interested users toward hardcore membership sites. The adult industry didn't begin to mimic big mainstream social networks with XXX-rated similar products until mid-2006 — not because it couldn't handle the bandwidth, technology and promotion, but because initially it couldn't find enough benefit to justify the expense.

Making any new idea or technology pay is a recurring theme in the adult industry. Profits are important to any business, and the adult industry has proven itself more agile than most at being able to turn a financial sow's ear into a silk purse. Web 2.0's social networking, though, had it stymied from the beginning.

"It's very difficult to monetize a user-directed experience," Rowntree said. For a time, Wasteland investigated tube sites and other social networks as promotional vehicles, but it didn't take long for Rowntree and company to decide the effort wasn't resulting in sufficient rewards. "Yeah, it's branding, but … whatever," he said of the copious free content producers post to adult and mainstream video-sharing sites. "There's so much of it out there it's tough to get noticed."

That's why Rowntree in late February launched KinkyCulture.com, a free site that combines videosharing, blogs, classified ads, educational articles and other user-posted content dedicated to the BDSM lifestyle. In the first five days, with no promotion or advertising except the word-of-mouth buzz from users who found the site on their own, via links at Wasteland or in Yahoo email groups, KinkCulture.com gained 750 new members.

Rowntree said he expects the site's culture-specific nature plus a combination of what he called "superior content" provided by Wasteland and social interaction to make it a viable traffic pump for Wasteland's for-profit endeavors. "It's a new incarnation of what we've been doing all along [TGPs, MGPs, blogs, etc.], but all consolidated in one place with one theme," he said, adding that in the final analysis, so-called "tube" sites are really nothing more than modern versions of TGPs and link lists — and using them effectively can have the same effect on a company's bottom line.

The nice thing about finding an effective means to use user-generated content sites as revenue-building traffic pumps is that it takes at least some of the burden off content producers. User-submitted content keeps a site fresh, requiring producers to dedicate a large percentage of their time to creating free content.

There are two other benefits to be derived from Web 2.0's social networking components, as well — immediate feedback and viral marketing. Allowing users to comment about anything and everything at a website — and making it easy for them to do so — can give content producers valuable insight into what their market seeks and what turns it off. Viral marketing is the sort of word-of-mouth, friend-to-friend promotion that carries with it the implied goodwill that can't be bought at any price.

Of course, transparency of that nature has a downside, as well: Information exchange is immediate, rapid-fire, and in its most-appreciated-by-consumers form, very public. This may mean that not only do customers know as much about stars, productions, and in-house decision making as a company does, but its competitors can gain significant insight, as well. But such is the nature of modern collaborative marketing and problem solving: Increasingly business products are created in a weird synergy with the very people who will buy them and fund the development of new products.

XTube discovered that fact early, but the company has managed to turn a very transparent modus operandi into a business model that works. The site became profitable in little more than a year despite a business model that diverged monumentally from the traditional adult mold. "It was a very difficult road finding out what our business model was going to be," Accounts and Public Relations Manager Kurtis Potec admitted, but eventually, by listening to users and then acting on their suggestions and comments, the company settled on a recipe that combines social-networking and videosharing components with a dash of end-user revenue-sharing and a liberal dose of video-on-demand marketing. The key, according to Potec, was taking its users seriously and inviting them to participate in the company's metamorphosis. Now they feel they have a stake in XTube's success, and they're very loyal, he said.

Of course, no one said adaptation to radical shifts was easy. Much of the profit in porn on the web remains in recurring monthly memberships, so producers have to determine the best way to mesh existing revenue models with the new mandates of a Web 2.0 environment.

They also have to become experts at separating the wheat from the chaff and that's liable to take some practice, even in an industry as accustomed to wading through mountains of opinions as chat board-acclimated adult has become. In The Cult of the Amateur, digital media entrepreneur Andrew Keen contends the Web 2.0 phenomenon is killing culture and assaulting the economy. He notes, "When amateurism is celebrated and anyone with an opinion can publish a blog, post a video on YouTube or change an entry on Wikipedia, the distinction between expert and amateur becomes dangerously blurred. We are facing the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated." NZ Business writer Linda Donald called the new breed of nattering nabobs "the mad Utopians of Web 2.0."

Still, even the opinions of the misinformed and malicious can be helpful in an environment shifting as rapidly as contemporary porn. According to Suzanne Knudsen, marketing manager for PornoTube parent company AEBN, "Flexibility and fluidity are important. We haven't hit the final frontier at all."


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