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The Secret History of How Internet Porn Paved the Way for Amazon and Modern Ecommerce

August 15, 2019 / by Tina Eaton

You can thank sneaky husbands (and wives, to be fair) for modern ecommerce.

Some people (not you, of course) wanted private, secure transactions while getting their fix online. As such, the old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” quickly became true.

In other words, sex not only sells, it basically invented new ways of selling.

The classic example is Danni Ashe, a pornstar who calls herself a ‘geek with big breasts.” She launched a softcore porn website (epically titled “Hard Drive”) in the 1990s that quickly became the busiest site on the internet.

$8 million dollars and 45 employees later, she had built one of the first ecommerce empires. Pornographers like Danni pioneered payment and security solutions that laid (pun intended) the foundations for Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and the broader commercialization of the world wide web.

Let’s take a deeper look at the ecommerce technologies brought to us, in part, by porn.

Key Ecommerce Technologies, Brought To You By The Porn Industry

Key Ecommerce Technologies, Brought To You By The Porn Industry

Whether you’re re-upping your paper towels with Amazon’s convenient Subscribe & Save feature or grabbing those concert tickets for your favorite artist, you’re probably not thinking about how those digital conveniences got their start in more salacious settings.

The true history of modern ecommerce conveniences has a lot of sizzle to it.

Let’s take a walk through how each ecommerce technology emerged and the connections to the early days of the porn industry:

Online Credit Card Payments

Oh 1998, what a year.

That’s when the infamous Pam & Tommy Lee sex tape dropped. It was the nautical romp that launched billions of online credit card transactions.

We know, we know—you never saw it. Sure. But those that partake way back when probably went through Electronic Card Systems then-innovative-now-normal credit card processing infrastructure. Richard Gordon founded the company and rolled out the technology to a broad array of porn sites in the lates 1990s and early 2000s.

The profit model was simple: Take a small commission for processing sales from porn sites where users purchased naughty content.

These days, users don’t bat an eyelash at offering up their credit card information to purchase everything from apples to zinc tablets.

Fee-Based Subscriptions

From Amazon and eBay to iTunes and Spotify, fee-based subscriptions are a big part of modern ecommerce.

As anyone who has watched the movie Middle Men will tell you, the porn business set the stage for online subscriptions. At first, porn sites offered moderate monthly fees with sky-high cancellation costs in an effort to ensure a few months of revenue out of each user. The sites acted as their own merchants at first, before outsourcing payments to other providers.

Many subscriptions came through the affiliate model (which we’ll discuss next), which meant big profits for referrers. Bogus referrals soon became a problem and these programs soon evolved to cope with changes in the market.

Modern Affiliate Program Model

Amazon may hold the patent, but many argue that Ron Levi pioneered affiliate marketing.

As the founder of Cybererotica, he invented FastCash, which allowed for the creation of mini-porn sites that showed porn samples for free while directing users to larger, paid sites. The larger sites would then pay for that traffic.

With porn sites essentially barred from traditional marketing platforms, Levi and other early leaders in porn developed their own. They bet that pictures of nude humans would attract eyeballs (and therefore clicks) and they were right.

Now, getting webmasters to produce marketing content that points to larger sites is built on the foundation set by Levi and other founders of the pornography industry. Just don’t ask Amazon to acknowledge this.

Site Memberships

Membership has its privileges—especially when it comes to internet porn.

In the old days of the internet, people were reluctant to offer up personal details in exchange for a website membership with a login and password. It didn’t feel secure. Users weren’t sure what they were getting in return.

Pornographers got wise and began offering better content with low production costs and economies of scale that came from the nature of internet distribution. They soon found very willing audiences ready to shell out for those monthly subscription fees and the memberships they afforded.

Double Opt-In Processes

To address users’ very valid security concerns, the porn pioneers (specifically Cybererotica, the original pornography mega-site) developed the double opt-in process.

You’ve done it before.

When you sign up for a new site or newsletter, you submit your email address, choose a password, and then the site or app sends you a quick email with a confirmation link. Once you click it, you can access the site as a user. Going through these seemingly tedious steps ensures that you’re not a bot and reduces the number of fake accounts created.

Now, every time you complete a double opt-in process, you’ll think about porn. You’re very welcome.

Email Marketing

People love free things.

That’s why sending people “free” porn over email was a no-brainer for pornographers. It was very cost-effective and a great way to lure them into paid content.

As you might expect, spam email got out of hand and many ISPs banned many porn sites that overdid it with email marketing. Eventually, the founding fathers of porn like Ron Levi of Cybererotica rolled out the double opt-in process to prove to ISPs that they were using valid email lists.

As fun as it may be to sign up your buddy for that porn website, that’s no longer possible. Sorry.

Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Believe it or not, pay-per-click wasn’t always a thing.

In the dark ages of the interwebs, companies would pay on a cost-per-impression (CPM) basis. They were paying for every...single...eyeball on each ad. The numbers didn’t quite work out for smaller advertisers with limited budgets.

So Levi over at Cybererotica came up with a tool (the aptly-named “XXX Counter”) that allowed webmasters to count unique visitors as opposed to raw clicks. This eventually allowed for the pay-per-click and pay-per-action models that paid affiliates only when users actually signed up for a site.

By the early 2000s—after Google Adwords and Adsense demonstrated that such advertising could be profitable—pay-per-click and pay-per-acquisition would be incorporated more broadly into digital advertising.

Live Chat

If you’ve ever been on a boring video conference call for work, you can—in part—thank porn.

One-on-one webcam chats are hugely popular and profitable in the adult industry. Pornographers evolved this use of video technology in its earliest days as customers began craving interaction with porn performers beyond viewing pictures and videos.

Nowadays you’ll find plenty of fans dropping interactive “tips” (virtual currency that is backed by real money) into the coffers of live webcam performers on a regular basis. Some viewers even subscribe to the same performers and request specific acts.

That’s not too far removed from the customer support interactions customers have with chatbots and live support specialists on many ecommerce sites. The requests are certainly different (we hope), that’s for sure.

Thank You, Porn, For Our Modern Ecommerce Landscape

Thank You, Porn, For Our Modern Ecommerce Landscape

It’s not very difficult to imagine where things might be heading.

We can now easily picture a future in which chatbots are combined with AI to make “pornbots” that develop deep relationships with users at a pretty minimal cost. That’s a very particular way of thinking about the customer experience of course, but not too different from how many current ecommerce platforms are looking to entice and win customers.

From payment processing and email marketing to pay-per-click ads and affiliate programs, modern ecommerce owes much of its infrastructure to its pornographic predecessors.

The next time you’re making that online purchase, don’t forget to say a quick thank you to the pioneers of porn who made it possible.

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Tina Eaton

Written by Tina Eaton