Morgan Sommer, president of the gay-oriented, Los Angeles-based Cybersocket, said that providers of niche adult content have a major advantage during a recession: They are appealing to people who are very specific about what they want and tend to be quite passionate when they find it.
"Consumers of niche content are extremely loyal during both good and bad times because by definition, they want something that is very unique and hard to find," Sommer explained.
Sommer added, however, that while erotic niche websites with esoteric themes can maintain their popularity during recessions, content that is too esoteric can have a limited audience even during the best of economic times.
"It's really a question of whether your niche has a wide enough potential audience," Sommer said. "Some micro-niches might only have a potential audience of 100 people; another niche might have an audience of a million people — and everyone else falls somewhere in between. It's about having a niche that isn't so narrow that it only reflects your particular fetish. I've seen a number of websites get launched that were so narrow that they really only seemed to reflect the owner's strange point of view and no one else's — and then [the owners] wonder why they don't have more than 25 members."
Gay content has never been more diverse than in 2009, and the focus of a gay adult site could be anything from twinks (boyish gay men) to BDSM leathermen to military fetishes to hip-hop themes (ThugBoy.com, for example, is a gay site with gangsta rap imagery). In alt-porn, niche content ranges from goth erotica to piercing sites to punk-themed erotica — and on ethnic adult sites, the models' heritage could be anything from Brazilian to Russian to Chinese. Ethnic adult content can be either gay or straight, and it can be either kinky or vanilla. Some Latino BDSM content focuses on dominant women and submissive men; some Asian BDSM content focuses on dominant men and submissive women. And while most adult content features slender models, there is also a loyal audience for "plumper" content (which spotlights plus-size models) and pregnancy-themed content.
One of niche content's BDSM success stories is the New York City-based adult webmaster/content producer Moe Styles, who founded AmateurBound.com in 1999. Countless niches and micro-niches can be found in BDSM erotica, ranging from spanking to Japanese rope bondage to tickle torture to boot worship; Styles' focus has always been amateur BDSM content, and for a decade, customers have been paying to see him dominate submissive female models.
Styles said that although AmateurBound.com experienced steady growth for nine years, business has been down by about 30 percent during the current recession. Nonetheless, he stressed that having exciting niche content has enabled him to maintain a lot of devoted followers even in a challenging economy.
"I've had some members who have been coming back for the whole 10 years I've been in business, which is an honor," Styles said. "Coming back is something they don't have to do, and it's very flattering. I find that my membership base has been loyal throughout the years — and the way the economy is, I'm glad to have customers like that."
One pattern that Styles has observed during the current recession is some members leaving his site only to rejoin a few months later; those customers, he said, are probably having financial problems but remain enthusiastic about his content — and the fact that they keep rejoining, he said, underscores their enthusiasm.
"I'm seeing some members going and then coming back," Styles explained. "They join, download everything they can, come back three months later and download all the updates that they missed. I would say that my loyalty base is the same as it has always been, but I think that some customers are coming and going because they're having financial problems during this economic crisis. And I'm seeing more credit cards being declined due to insufficient funds."
During a recession, some niche-oriented webmasters might be tempted to lower the monthly cost of their membership sites in the hope of attracting new members. But Sommer strongly advised against that.
"One of the things not to do during a recession is to start reducing your website's prices," Sommer said. "If you start lowering your prices when times are bad, getting your prices back up to normal prices when times are good is almost impossible."
Sommer believes that slowly but surely, consumer confidence is starting to return in the United States; consumers, he said, aren't feeling as panicked as they were in September 2008, when the stock market experienced a major downturn and Americans saw the values of their 401(k) retirement plans seriously plummeting. And if consumers are starting to become less tight-fisted, Sommer said, the last thing owners of membership niche sites need is for members to get used to paying lower monthly prices for the content they're downloading.
"I think that in general, American consumers are less afraid than they were six months ago — and overall, they are starting to spend again," Sommer observed. "Everyone was terrified six months ago, especially before the election. People didn't know who the next president would be. There were just too many what-if's going on in people's minds, so everyone was retracting from spending money."
As the adult Internet became increasingly broad and diverse in terms of content, it also became increasingly competitive. Even before the recession of 2008 and 2009, the adult Internet had become much more competitive than it was during the technology gold rush of the 1990s. But Sommer stressed that instead of panicking, providers of niche content need to keep a cool head, stay focused and keep their content interesting.
"A recession doesn't require you to change your business behavior," Sommer said. "You should always be selling a good product. You should always be selling an honest product. You should always be doing your very best to convey to your potential customers why your product is something they should want. During a recession or not during a recession, those are the rules of business that always apply. But I think that people get used to being lazy when times are good."
Niche content will no doubt continue to diversify, and Sommer said that the niche content providers who are smart, creative and hard-working will be the ones who come out ahead when the economy improves.
"Niche content is still fundamental to the porn industry," Sommer noted. "It will always sell."