Offering convenience, a discreet shopping experience and competitive prices, ecommerce has become many adult retail shoppers’ go-to, particularly since the pandemic when so many became reliant on it. Companies were forced to adapt quickly to new online marketing techniques and implement new features to facilitate e-tail, trends that pleasure product manufacturers and retailers say are now here to stay.
Even for brick-and-mortar retailers, having a retail presence online is essential to draw certain shoppers physically back into stores.
YouTube and OnlyFans are great platforms for spreading information about sexual wellness and toy reviews — they are probably the most sex-positive.
“A lot of my customers look on my website before coming into the shop and for them, having a website is a pledge of seriousness and trust,” said Céline Menting, company director of France-based retailer La Clef des Charmes. “Since the pandemic, I have linked all my social media accounts to my ecommerce site and opened shops on Instagram and Facebook, which represent a big part of the traffic and the sales.”
Because mobile devices have made it even easier to buy impulsively, Menting said, her company also revamped its site to be responsive on tablets and smartphones.
Claire Blakeborough, marketing and communications manager at e-stim products manufacturer Cyrex, said that her company took the same initiative.
“Whereas before the pandemic around 70% of our traffic was attributed to desktop users, from the beginning of 2020 we started to see a shift where a lot more people were using a mobile device,” she noted.
The pandemic inspired Mississippi-based retailer Pepper’s Parties, Too! to shift to a “pick up and pay” model where shoppers can place orders online, sometimes even from the physical store’s parking lot. Though things have since normalized, the company has kept that model in place as the primary delivery option on its website.
“In the last year, that type of transaction made up well over 60% of our website orders,” said James M. Hubbard of Pepper’s Parties, Too! “We send them a Square invoice and set the products outside. Additionally, we only offer a single-price, ‘Get it to you as fast as we can!’ shipping option. So far, no complaints about that!”
With Amazon dominating ecommerce, Sliquid VP of Marketing Erik Vasquez observed, online shoppers have acquired an expectation of faster delivery and more accessible customer service.
“Unfortunately, Amazon’s delivery timeframes and varied return options have become the point of reference for most online shoppers,” he said. “While most pleasure product sites do not have hundreds of employees fulfilling orders and addressing customer calls and emails, being accessible to the customer is key to driving conversions and mitigating customer attrition. Prominent contact information and a chat function are key for optimizing the customer experience on any website.”
Logging Onto the Market With Digital Advertising
With people spending so much of their time online, having some sort of online presence is crucial. But just having profiles on social media platforms isn’t enough; a company must also have a plan.
“The key to a successful digital marketing strategy that will draw in new customers relies on a combination of Google AdWords, website SEO, social media, email and text marketing,” explained Sliquid VP of Marketing Erik Vasquez. “If your brand identity is cohesive across all of these channels, your chances of converting someone who comes across any of them is much higher than if your storytelling is disjointed.”
For Vasquez, a store’s online presence should not only foreshadow what the brick-and-mortar store experience will offer, but should also be consistent across platforms.
“For instance, if you portray your brand a certain way on social media but the aesthetic and storytelling does not match your website, the customer will be less likely to trust your company,” he said.
Broadly surveying digital strategies, Paolo D. Griffo, key account manager for Danamedic APS, recommended that companies use multiple platforms so that customers can get a well-rounded understanding of their products.
“According to our experience in the niche market of penis extenders,” Griffo shared, “the most effective marketing tools are Google Ads campaigns, SEO, the release of new marketing/training videos on YouTube, press releases on mainstream media outlets, and working with affiliates, influencers and brand ambassadors on social media.” In other words, take advantage of every tool available.
Given that people have limited time and resources, however, some strategies and platforms need to be prioritized over others. One tool that many industry figures recommended is email newsletters.
For Lora DiCarlo, email marketing is crucial for drumming up return business.
“When looking at customer retention and encouraging repeat purchases, we have found a lot of success in email marketing,” said company founder and CEO Lora Haddock DiCarlo. “If you’re using the right email service provider that integrates with your website, it’s simple to segment lists of customers and recommend complementary items based on purchase history. We also send special deals and limited-time offers to high-value shoppers and key audience demographics.”
Rebecca Pinette-Dorin, North American sales manager for Exsens, said her company has also had success with email.
“Honestly, automated email marketing is still our No. 1 ticket for returning customers,” she enthused. “We updated our system during COVID, and our return customer rate went up 158% in two years.”
An added benefit of email newsletters is that companies can track click-through rates, which is highly useful for gauging effectiveness.
Huge numbers of people are active daily on social media platforms, which are now largely focused on getting people to engage with advertisements — so long as a campaign is strictly SFW, of course. Therefore it is no surprise that most companies today also use social media for marketing.
For Kaitlyn Lembke, brand ambassador at Nobü, Instagram is central to the company’s overall marketing strategy.
“Instagram remains one of the biggest social media influences. We utilize our Instagram presence for advertising new stock, promos and giveaway chances,” Lembke said. “Engaging with the customer as much as possible, getting conversations going with interactive questionnaires and ‘ask us anything’ prompts.”
Carolyn Eagle, founder and manager of Betty’s Toy Box, also uses social media, but noted that each platform should be approached differently because they all have pros and cons.
“There is still something to be said about Facebook and good old email to keep customers coming back,” Eagle said. “I think it really has to do with the ease of click-through and purchasing. It is much easier for folks to make that impulse purchase through those two platforms because the links are right in front of them. You just don’t get that with TikTok or Instagram.”
“Having said that, Instagram and TikTok have been great for building our brand and keeping us at the forefront of people’s thoughts when they do shop,” Eagle concluded.
With confusing, conflicting guidelines, popular social media platforms can be difficult terrain for companies to navigate.
“We constantly run into issues on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok for sharing sexual content, even if it’s purely educational,” DiCarlo said. “That said, YouTube and OnlyFans are great platforms for spreading information about sexual wellness and toy reviews, so they are probably the most sex-positive. Vloggers across these channels are able to provide this type of content more freely without risking their accounts getting banned. Their videos are also more impactful because they are able to show our products in motion for the full effect.”
Cyrex’s Claire Blakeborough sees Twitter as the most adult-friendly social media platform.
“This is where we have most of our interactions with industry friends, bloggers, sex workers and other brands,” she said. “We find it much more difficult to connect with like-minded accounts on the other platforms.”
Eagle agreed that Twitter does not seem to stop much sexual content from being posted, but pointed out that this means posts can get “lost in the clutter.”
“We much prefer platforms like Instagram and Facebook, where you have to be very careful about what you say and do but you can have a more impactful reach,” Eagle said. “We keep our social media very clean and focus more on showing discreet products or relatable quotes. We are also very careful about the tags and language we use. For us, Instagram is more about building a brand than about selling products.”
Pleasure brands and retailers have devised strategies to avoid having social media posts or entire profiles removed. The basic rule, according to Lembke, is to avoid images that are overtly graphic, and use G-rated hashtags. She also suggested keeping posts balanced between product advertising, Q&As and educational posts to keep followers engaged.
La Clef des Charmes’ Céline Menting said that she disguises words with special characters, using “D1ck” or “VaG!n4,” for example.
“I sometimes cheat by putting a softer image before my real content,” she added. “I pay attention to hashtags, and I also have an age limit to access my social networks.”
Noting how difficult it is to keep up with social media guidelines that are unclear, unfairly enforced and change frequently, Vasquez said that Sliquid’s strategy on those platforms has been to focus on sexual wellness, health and inclusivity.
“We are informative and safe for all appropriate age ranges as we highlight the importance of safe sex, natural ingredients and inclusivity of all people,” he said.
Even with its many obstacles, social media has triggered several trends recently with viral videos, posts, influencers and celebs recommending toys such as the Internet-famous rose-shaped suction toy.
“I think there’s two different ways in which pleasure products go viral,” Blakeborough said. “The first way is really clearly demonstrated by how viral products like the Womanizer Classic or other ‘suction stimulators’ have gone over the years. This is probably the most desirable way to go viral: a group of people latch onto a positive experience and share it with their followers. I think the first I saw of the trend was a spate of hilarious Amazon reviews which were so enthusiastic that it resulted in thousands of shares — and probably sales.
“The second way seems to be where people discover a toy and make fun of it or put it in a scenario where it doesn’t belong, for comedic purposes,” Blakeborough added. “When you’ve been around sex toys as much as we all have, I think it’s easy to forget what a strange novelty they are to some people, and there are definitely some weird and wonderful creations in our industry! I think the more of our lives we spend online —and let’s face it, since the pandemic we’re more online than ever before — the more people are willing to share. There’s also the element of wanting followers and likes. Posting about sex toys is guaranteed to get a reaction from a lot of people, so I imagine for an influencer it can be a quick way to get a lot of attention.”
Eagle attributes the rise of viral pleasure products to the introduction of TikTok.
“While there have been sex toys popping up in television or movies for a while now, the reach of one TikTok video leaves all other forms of media in the dust,” she said. “I think the lesson we all need to learn from this is that sex toys are not commonplace, and people are fascinated by how they look and work. We get jaded being around toys and talking about sex all day, every day. Sex toys are still mostly taboo, thrilling, titillating and completely fascinating. Which is why the right influencer, at the right time, with the right reaction, can get millions of views in minutes just gushing about their vibrator.”
Because social media is infamous for “TMI,” it can be an appropriate venue for sharing very personal reviews of intimate products.
“Consumers eat it up,” Naughty Dreams CEO Crystal G said. “Right now, a board game called Behind Closed Doors is going viral just from a couple posting about how much fun they had with it.”
“Viral videos are like Yelp reviews,” she added. “If I see someone say their meal was out of this world, or the service was the best, nine times out of 10, I want to visit the restaurant. It’s the fact that millions can see one video in different countries, compared to an email blast to 35 people.”
Today’s TikTokkers reflect a more sexually liberated generation, which is increasingly pushing for greater acceptance of pleasure products.
“The newer generation aren’t afraid to talk about sex,” Vasquez said. “Because women are acknowledging the practice of masturbation, it has removed the stigma of sex being forbidden and bad. The Rose can now be seen being advertised on billboards on major highways.”
Influencers: The New Word-of-Mouth Marketing
The pleasure products industry was built by brick-and-mortar stores. Like all physical/in-person retail spaces, these businesses are now learning how to use digital media to inform people about products they sell, while trying to avoid losing potential customers to digital-only ecommerce websites.
For any store owner, the most traditional way to attract shoppers is good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Céline Menting of La Clef des Charmes said she especially relies on word-of-mouth from her regular customers, for whom she also created a fidelity program. It works for both in-person and online shopping, and with each purchase, customers accumulate points to earn discounts.
Lora DiCarlo has found a bridge between word-of-mouth advertising and the digital frontier: working with influencers and various online creators.
“In terms of reaching new consumers and increasing brand awareness, we have noticed major success in collaborating with sex-positive digital content creators who have like-minded audiences to ours. Our pleasure products are intimate and personal, so consumers are more willing to take recommendations from people that they trust and look up to,” DiCarlo said. “Influencers and affiliates are perfect for this.”
Companies benefit from the scale that digital advertising offers, but with the rise of influencer culture, companies must sift through a vast range of hopefuls looking to be sponsored.
“Social media influencers are the new rockstars,” Sliquid’s Erik Vasquez said. “Influencers are the backbone of social media because they provide people with entertainment, information and a million other things internet users may be looking for to pass the time. It is a huge benefit to have the support of both education- and performer-based social media influencers, simply because their followers usually trust their opinion. But while influencers are extremely important to marketing your product, high follower count does not always translate to more sales. We have found that the best people to partner with are micro-influencers. They are the people with a large following, but not necessarily millions of followers. In regard to follower count, there’s a sweet spot an influencer must have to make their followers believe and trust that a brand they are partnered with is actually worth buying, and that they aren’t just saying so to get paid.”
Danamedic’s Paolo D. Griffo believes pleasure products companies can benefit the most from partnerships with performers, sex educators and doctors.
“It is important to choose an influencer who can speak to your target audience and the market you want to hit, which is not always an easy task,” he said. “We recently started a collaboration with performer Lara De Santis. She is doing a great job promoting our brands with her audience, mostly to millennials and Generation X males.”
Consumer Education: From Basic to Advanced
It isn’t always enough simply to reach consumers with advertising. Many companies have found that they also need to educate people in order to convert them into consumers.
For industry figures like DiCarlo, educating people about pleasure products has become a necessity because sex education in the U.S. is lacking.
“Educational content is not only nice to have, it’s absolutely mandatory in this industry. With only 13 states requiring medically accurate sex education in grade school, it’s evident that people across the country are not taught about vaginal anatomy and erogenous zones,” DiCarlo said. “Plus, even for those of us who were lucky enough to have it, it’s missing a lot of important information about things like identity, pleasure and empowerment.”
For additional context, a Planned Parenthood article titled “What’s the State of Sex Education in the U.S.?” detailed just how poor sex education in the country really is. Despite over 90% of parents supporting sex education in middle school and high school covering a “range of topics, including STIs, puberty, healthy relationships, birth control and sexual orientation,” less than 50% of teens report learning accurate information about sex.
This educational gap has motivated DiCarlo to make sure her company has “a robust website filled with educational content on landing pages.”
“Many people are not equipped with the information needed to explore different pleasure points, communicate openly with their partner and feel empowered in the bedroom,” she said. “The best place to find this information is on the internet, so you want to make sure you’re providing it in a safe, accurate and effective way.”
Uberlube’s Cheryl Sloane is similarly straightforward about sex education’s importance to her company.
“For Uberlube, education is everything,” Sloane declared. “It is not about metrics to us. Education is what our brand is all about. It is how we started and how we grow.”
Providing educational content about sex for free is not just a matter of altruism; pleasure product companies have consistently found that people are more likely to become consumers if they are properly informed. As Menting explained, “Educational content permits us to offer the consumer a better experience and an uninhibited vision of pleasure and sexuality. It helps to deconstruct cliches about sexuality, break down many taboos and help people feel better with themselves.”
In addition to helping people understand the benefits of pleasure products, educational content can be a marketing tool in itself.
“Educational content is not only important for your website,” DiCarlo offered. “You can also share blog posts, videos and resources through different marketing channels — social media, emails, paid ads — in order to increase your brand credibility and set yourself apart from the competition.”
Educational content is not just shareable, but generates sizable web traffic, as Rebecca Pinette-Dorin of Exsens explained.
“Our blogs are still the No. 1 draw in traffic to our website,” Pinette-Dorin said. “That SEO alone pulls us to the top of many Google searches, but also our open and f ppreciated s build brand confidence.”
Crystal G of Naughty Dreams became aware of a need for sex education materials during the pandemic.
“While everyone was home from 2019 to 2021, more people began exploring sexuality and taking an interest in sexual wellness,” she said. “But there was still a lack of sexual education. In late 2020, I added a “wellness” tab to my website, something I didn’t then see on many ‘sex toy’ websites — a consumer resource on lube, condoms, materials and cleaning. Offering information like this gives the consumer the option to read on their own without shame.”
What she didn’t realize was just how popular these resources would become.
“The wellness page had an all-time-high of 725 page views in August,” she recalled. “I made an educational video for Anal August with a link to the page. I was shocked that despite the years of promoting Anal August, many people didn’t know there was an anal lube. This further pushes me to create a Sex Ed 101 page as a refresher and update on sexual education.”
Though its impact can be difficult to measure, there is another benefit to producing educational content: it gives a brand a sense of authority. Vasquez touched upon this when discussing Sliquid’s success.
“For the past five years, Sliquid has successfully harnessed the power of educational content to promote our product range,” he said. “When I took over the brand’s marketing, I made a conscious decision to lean into the sexual wellness aspect of our industry. Working with certified sexual wellness experts has — both for social media content and for our blog, Sliquid Says — conveyed the Sliquid brand as an authority on the topic of lubricant, which builds trust in our potential, new and current customer base.
“When customers see that they can easily source information about the what, why and how of your product, it helps empower their decision-making when selecting a product and this is one of the most apt ways to acquire new customers and retain current ones,” Vasquez concluded.
Creating sex education content that is scientifically accurate and easy to communicate is no easy task. But companies that have done so have found that, when paired with their marketing strategy, educating consumers can be just as valuable as traditional forms of advertisement.
Buy Now, Pay Later
Alternative payment options have made online shopping more appealing than ever, allowing consumers to make big purchases that can be paid for over time. Additionally, options such as Apple Pay, Klarna and PayPal have streamlined the online payment process by reducing clicks and hassles, leading to more sales.
“Every additional step in the checkout process reduces your likelihood to finalize the sale,” said Pinette-Dorin. “Typing in a credit card number is definitely a pain, and having it ready in one or two clicks exponentially increases your buy window.”
Blakeborough said that Cyrex began exploring alternative payment methods this year, and started working with Klarna.
“They reached out to us based on their successful relationship with some of our stockists and we’ve not looked back,” she said. “It’s a great way to give the customer a bit more flexibility and encourage a higher order value without being pushy.”
Eagle noticed that once Betty’s Toy Box started offering Sezzle payments, people immediately began using this option to splurge on luxury items that they probably would not have been prepared to pay for in one large lump sum.
“I think a big reason for its success is that the pandemic made people so much more comfortable with online shopping, so functions like Sezzle are now commonplace,” Eagle said. “People understand how they work, and trust them to finance their purchases.”
Vasquez sees alternative payment methods making shoppers feel more comfortable, like they’re in the driver seat for their purchase.
“This control over their own buying power conveys a sense of choice and convenience, which spurs initiative to commit to the sale,” he said. “Customers will always desire options. Payment options are just another tool in giving a customer the power to choose how they shop, and it definitely increases conversion rates. As an avid online shopper, I can personally attest to this fact.”
Online shopping isn’t all instant gratification. Customers will still have inquiries and want immediate attention while they shop online. Another major pillar for ecommerce is providing shoppers with assistance that is helpful, and ideally readily available.
Griffo said that Danamedic APS has recently implemented a complete multilingual customer support operation that will be available on demand.
“Our highly-trained team, ready to answer tickets 24-7, undergoes regular retraining to keep them on the ball and ready to help,” he said. “We have 50 people working from Hamburg, Manila and Istanbul. Everyone is a native speaker from all over the world.”
For many online retailers, having a dedicated, 24-7 customer service department to provide immediate help isn’t practical, but they must still maintain as many communication channels as possible.
“We offer support via telephone, live chat, social media or snail mail — it still happens!” Blakeborough said. “We’re currently trialing live chat on our site from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. GMT, Monday through Friday, which will always be answered by an actual human being. The jury’s still out on whether this is valuable to our customers and will be available forever, but we like to give people the option of whatever communication method they prefer, just in case.”
While taking advantage of automated chat functions sounds appealing, considering the intimate and sometimes intricate nature of pleasure products, many companies aren’t relying on them.
“Automated chat functions are fantastic for a lot of businesses, but in our case, we’ve found that these applications are unable to handle the sort of unusual technical questions we get,” Blakeborough said of Cyrex’s estim shoppers. “A lot of the time with electro sex there’s multiple solutions or improvements for an issue, so using an AI response doesn’t really work for us. Plus, we’re control freaks, so we prefer the personal touch!”
James M. Hubbard of Pepper’s Parties, Too! noted that with a small staff, monitoring and responding to customer service inquiries can become difficult when there are also in-person shoppers in the store to tend to. Facilitating communication sometimes requires limits.
“Our primary customer service points are Facebook messenger, email and phone,” Hubbard said.
Uberlube’s Cheryl Sloane agreed that email is the way to go for customer service purposes.
“We return emails within 24 hours, usually within six,” she said. “We have found that the most important aspects of customer service are delivering a fast response and easy solutions. We consistently receive responses stating surprise at how fast we got back to the customer. The chat function only works if you are able to provide consistent access for the customer. It is frustrating to see a chat function and not be able to use it.”
Sliquid’s Erik Vasquez sees value for companies in various forms of communication.
“Chat and phone are ideal for customers who are not shy about their pleasure product purchase,” he said. “It allows them to have questions answered in real time, helping to convert that shopper into a sale, or to resolve their issue in the promptest manner. For more timid customers who aren’t singularly motivated by urgency, email offers them a sense of discretion, making it the most popular channel for our business. At the end of the day, no matter what channels of customer service a company may use, having a well-trained, knowledgeable and courteous representative on the other end of the conversation is key to running a successful ecommerce business. Customers will always remember how you treat them.”
Dealing with customers who are purchasing intimate goods requires a fine balance of relating to them on a personal level while also keeping their privacy in mind.
“I feel like chat functions could go either way,” Nobü’s Kaitlyn Lembke said. “When asking questions or looking for answers online, it gives this sort of anonymous veil to work behind. It makes things less ‘real’ in a sense and it provides security and privacy, which is more desirable for shyer clients.”
Lembke voiced a sentiment common among mobile device owners nowadays.
“With the advancement of technology and everything being more easily accessible online, there tends to be less of a phone-call presence,” she said. “This could also be attributed to phone anxiety and the fact that boutiques typically have no caller IDs. People are less inclined to answer a phone call with no caller ID.”
In response to the online retail boom, distributors have stepped up to provide drop-shipping services for online operations, as well as educational tools and merchandising support for brick-and-mortars.
“Drop-shipping services had been growing before the pandemic and certainly went into overdrive once the shutdowns began,” SexToyDistributing.com Wholesale Supervisor Brenda Reynoso said. “With everybody shifting their buying online at unprecedented levels, there was an increase in new online retailers. With so much time being spent at home and indoors, plus so many furloughed and laid-off workers, many new ecommerce businesses emerged over the first two years of the pandemic. This increase in drop-ship business encouraged SexToyDistributing.com to improve order tracking and inventory processes, and even improve our product data feeds, which we provide to help our customers keep up with the demands of this fast-growing business.”
Phoebe Grott, director of marketing and strategic partnership for Nalpac, explained the support that distributors offer retailers.
“When it comes to stock and shipping, working with a distributor as your fulfillment partner has many advantages, such as graphic assets, payment processing support and a catalog of products that don’t require warehousing,” she said.
Scott H. Dantis, director of sales and marketing for Williams Trading Co., noted that the veteran pleasure products distributor’s drop-shipping services allow retailers to automatically upload product to their online shops, sync inventory and route orders, with a data feed of 19,000 items.
“This allows our customers to stay synced to our product data, images and inventory levels, to maximize sales,” he said.
Williams Trading is also well known for its e-learning platform, Williams Trading University, which offers over 237 courses and grows every month with scheduled content.
"Retail e-learning platforms have long been used by retailers to stay on top of technology changes," Dantis said. “These platforms have been used with Best Buy and Walmart and multiple mainstream retailers, to educate a wider base of employees.
“E-learning offers training 24-7,” he added. “Animated images, embedded videos, practice scenarios and learning interactions and quizzes keep users engaged. The best practice within our own e-learning platform is to keep the user engaged in short, concise training sessions with as much interactivity as possible. Gamification is a key feature to improve our overall e-learning experience and make it more engaging.”
In order to gauge which e-learning content will be most valuable for the retailers on the receiving end, manufacturers and distributors must engage with their retail partners for direction, Grott pointed out.
“In crafting Nalpac EDU, we turned to our retailers to find inspiration and direction for the topics,” she said. “Product information, and resources on how to train team members to connect a customer with the product selection, ranked highest. Nalpac’s video series, ‘What Brought You in Today?’ was born from this and takes real questions sourced from the sales floor and pairs together retail-based sex educators and leading manufacturers to train on customer selling.
“For those who are seeking a more in-depth product presentation, Nalpac’s live webinars include a chat feature that allows participants to ask questions and provide feedback in real time. These online resources, along with Nalpac’s product guide videos, resonate with retailers because they are stream-worthy, binge-able and readily available regardless of time zone, shift or schedule. Educational platforms that require an employee to take a series of courses and tests to be ‘certified’ continue to be a popular resource, but can fall short of the present-day realities of high staff turnover and availability of open-source materials online.”
Retailers of all sizes benefit from e-learning platforms because they make it easy to gather important selling points and sometimes even sexual health information from the convenience of their homes, stores or anywhere with an Internet connection, Brenda Reynoso pointed out.
“The popularity and demand for this kind of e-learning has increased exponentially over the last year or two,” she said. “At SexToyDistributing.com, retailers can access the specs and details of our products under our data feeds, which gives them the details they need to create accurate and effective content designed to promote sales.”
Surfing Into the Future
As much as we have become reliant on online shopping, it is still far from replacing traditional shopping.
“Ecommerce is the fastest-growing retail segment and will continue to be, but brick-and-mortar stores remain essential to the customer journey due to the intimate nature of the purchase,” Grott said. “As a culture, we have become more comfortable with QR codes and omnichannel shopping, and retailers can anticipate that shoppers will look for these conveniences when buying adult products in-store or online.”
While this remains an ongoing process, subject to new developments and trends, pleasure product purveyors seem to be well on their way towards reaching that happy medium.