image: Exotic multimedia ads
By Mike Brunker Projects editor
msnbc.com

While Internet dating has revolutionized courtship for the young, hetero online majority, it has had an even greater impact for those whose sexual proclivities overflow the banks of the mainstream. And businesses big and small are working hard to turn each and every one of these matchmaking tributaries — no matter how small — into rushing rivers of revenue.

Though still no match for the top general dating Web sites, the alternative or adult sector — the “naughty niches,” in the quaint words of one market researcher — has become a major matchmaking market. And like its straight-arrow sibling, it is a very profitable one.

Users say the reason for the success is simple: The sites are more important to them because their tastes are harder to match.

“I’m in a female dominated profession, I live in a bucolic setting and … running into a tall, smart, well-endowed man at my local Home Depot isn’t a reality for me,” said Marsha, a 45-year-old-plus divorcee who has met dozens of men through ads placed on adult personals sites since her decree was issued four years ago.

The problem of meeting like-minded partners is even greater if your tastes run toward leather and instruments of torture.

“It’s not like you can just go out and meet someone at a bar who’s into BDSM (bondage and sadomasochism),” said Dianna Vesta, Web mistress of Femsupreme.com and Fetishnetwork.com.

That explains why, unlike the mainstream dating sites where attracting vast numbers of eyeballs is the goal, the alternative sites aim to thrive by narrowing their focus to create like-minded “communities” devoted to an individual sexual practice or a certain demographic.

The sites run the gamut from those that might make grandma shudder — sites devoted to previously unimagined fetishes or porn-personals, for instance — to communities who might number granny among their members — such as a dating service devoted to senior citizens or a geographically based community.

Fragmentation on the fringes
The fragmentation that led to the tightly focused communities of today began early in the online personals explosion.

“When we started Friendfinder early in 1996, we found a lot of guys were posting profiles that were more risqué than we wanted on the site,” recalls Andrew Conru, a pioneer of online personals who created what is believed to be the first dating site, WebPersonals.com, in 1993. “We started out deleting them, but then we recognized the opportunity and started Adultfriendfinder.”

Today Adultfriendfinder bills itself as “the world’s largest sex personals” site, a claim apparently borne out by a spot check of alternative ad sites by ComScore Media Metrix, which said the site drew 2,321,000 unique visitors in July 2002. That dwarfs the 788,000 that the generalized Friendfinder attracted that month, as well as the numbers of other alternative sites examined at the request of MSNBC.com.

Conru, whose Palo Alto, Calif., based company has about 150 employees, also runs Alt.com, a site he describes as “adult personals for the whips and chains crowd” that gives users the ability to search for aficionados of 70 fetishes, as well as sites aimed at gays, Hispanics, Asians and seniors.

In what appears to be the most common business model in the online personals space, Adultfriendfinder allows users to register for free, which enables them to view three profiles every 24 hours. Expanded access and the ability to contact those placing ads comes at a price: $19.95 a month for a silver membership that grants access to most of the site’s features, or a “gold” membership at $29.95 that adds searching capabilities and an automated notification feature for new ads that match the user’s search criteria.

Though Conru said that Adultfriendfinder is not “a porn site with personals,” the overtly sexual tone of many of the site’s ads has made the company a target of competitors who say that alternative doesn’t have to equate with raunchy.

“I have a feeling he makes a lot of money every month … but there is no difference in my mind between what he does and what any other porno company does,” said Joe Shapira, CEO of Matchnet.com, a Beverly Hills, Calif., company that is publicly traded on the Frankfurt stock exchange.

“We stay away from nudity, lewdity and foul language simply because we want to attract people who are looking for quality, not a fast thrill,” he said of Matchnet’s eight niche dating sites, which include the leading Jewish singles site, Jdate.com, and Gay11.com, which the company says is for “relationship-minded gay men and women.”

While Shapira said the company’s conservative approach reflects “personal values” — “I’ve been in business for 25 years and I’ve never done anything that I couldn’t show my children” — he acknowledged that it is a strategy that is dictated by the company’s public ownership.

“Our business is to create value for the company, and I don’t think the financial markets would give value to a company that dabbles in pornography,” he said.

That may also explain why the leader in the online personals market, Yahoo!, attempts to steer well clear of the alternatives sector.

“We see our charge as helping to legitimize the category,” Katie Mitic, general manager of Yahoo! Personals, said in a statement in response to a query from MSNBC.com. “… We have policies in place to ensure that our service is being used by singles who are seeking a serious, meaningful relationship or dating experience.”

Such talk irritates Keith Griffith, owner of cruisingforsex.com, a hard-core personals site for gay men in search of sex without strings.

“Many sites really try hard to not make it appear that they are setting people up for sexual encounters,” he said. “America Online is essentially a meeting service for gay men who want to get off, but you’d have a hard time getting them to admit it.”

Griffith said his free site draws between 30,000 and 60,000 visitors a day even though he has “never spent a penny on advertising” since launching it in December 1995.

He said the in-your-face attitude that the site projects directly reflects his approach to sex.

“When I want to get off, I want to get off and I don’t want to play games and I don’t want to be around people who are playing those games,” he said. “I knew there were many, many people who shared that view.”

On the other hand, he said, “I’m sure there are men who use my site who are looking for long-term relationships or partners. It’s not discouraged, it’s just not our focal point.”

Labors of a lifestyle 
Sites like Griffith’s and those of Vesta, the dominatrix in chief of Femsupreme.com and Fetishnetwork.com, typify those that are labors of lifestyle.

Vesta said she started Fetishnetwork as a BBS in the pre-Internet days to provide “information, resources and education” to fetishists, then began adding porn after moving to the Web.

She also set up FemSupreme, a bondage/sadomasochism porn retailer that also offers free personals and discussion forums.

Though Vesta sells subscriptions to FemSupreme, which gain access to adult material, she said she doesn’t begrudge those who come to look and post.

“The way I look at it is that it creates an interactivity that keeps the site interesting,” she said. “The ones that don’t (subscribe) still make up part of the community, they’re just not interested in stories, pictures and all that.”

Even without a huge audience, Vesta said her one woman operation is financially successful thanks to subscriptions, advertising and the twice-monthly “femdom” parties she hosts at Club Kink in Pompano, Fla.

That kind of bottom line has attracted the attention of numerous refugees from failed “dot coms” and fueled a new wave of expansion in the alternative personals market.

Typical of these newcomers is sexhookup.com, which has only been online for four months but already is attracting 300,000 unique users a month, according to Bill Wolcott.

Wolcott, who lost his job when his previous employer - the GoNorCal search engine - went down in flames, decided to try his hand at porn, opening a Net directory site. But after adding a personals component and watching traffic take off, he decided to “put the porn in the closet” and concentrate on matchmaking.

“Nobody wants to see the porn anymore,” he said with a chuckle.

Wolcott, who also operates the adultfreeway.com adult site, is gambling that he can become a player in the industry with video personals, though he admits that the innovation has so far been plagued by technical problems and encountered a lukewarm reception from the site’s clientele.

“They’re happy with it, but they’re having a hard time figuring out how to make a video,” he said.

From messaging to meeting
Users of the sites say the expansion has greatly expanded their opportunities to meet people who live in their area and are compatible.

“I think it’s much easier to get to know the real person (online), as opposed to a dance where maybe the person has pounded down 10 drinks,” said Mary, a 34-year-old swinger in Nova Scotia, referring to a local partner-swapping shindig that she and her “significant other” once attended.

“For Gary and I, it’s more quality than quantity,” she said. “We like to meet people through the Internet, then get together for coffee a few times before deciding whether to go forward. We’re into long-term things with people that we’re comfortable with.”

Marsha, who places personal ads on “vanilla” - or mainstream - sites as well as adult sites, said she has had greater success with the latter.

“I’ve met much more interesting men,” she said, numbering a college professor from Spain, a Swiss banker and a New York Times author among them.

Marsha, who said she has a background in psychology, said she gives her phone number to about one out of every 50 men who respond to her ads, which indicate she is interested in swinging as well as one-on-one encounters. Of those, she said, maybe one in 10 conversations results in a “meet and greet.”

Though she said many of her friends express fears of meeting a personals pal in person, Marsha said she has never had a bad experience, unless you count the “Italian guy from New York who turned out to be shorter and probably 30 pounds heavier than he had said.

Part of the reason for that is that the Web personals make her initial screening process much more efficient.

“After doing this for three years, I don’t waste time sharing my history and life story,” she said. “I have a copy-and-paste for the basic three paragraphs, but after that I find that moving to phoning is much better.”

The process has an added benefit in helping her screen out men who don’t fulfill her desires, she added.

“When a guy writes to me and says I’m well endowed,’ I say ‘OK, well prove it,’” she said. “Asking a man to send a frontal nude shot has been a very effective screening tool for me.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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