Sex sells: The smutty side of internet publishing

Sex has always been a cornerstone of publishing. From Tijuana bibles to Page 3, we’ve always known that erotic content is a huge draw for audiences. Just as the porn industry choosing VHS reportedly led to Betamax losing the format war, publications like The Sun in the ’70s and its red-top competitors used sex to sell their papers in direct ‘racy’ competition with one another – The Sun even had a dedicated Page 3 website.

So ingrained was it as a practice that The Sun flip-flopped on retiring the practice of putting topless women on Page 3 until January of this year (with The Daily Star following suit in April 2019). The reality of the matter is that, while Page 3 was a hopelessly outdated practice and rightly toxic in 2019, sex and pornography aren’t going anywhere in the West – it’s simply moved online.

Sex sells: Not safe for work logo
A big part of the appeal of sites like Tumblr was its NSFW content – until it wasn’t

Sites like reddit, despite nominally being brand-safe environments, have a huge undercurrent of not safe for work (NSFW) content on the site. Even Twitter, which rightly has a reputation for being political journalism-heavy, has a subculture of people who use the platform to promote their own personal adult services and content. Patreon, too, is a haven for content creators and cosplayers whose work skews to the adult, and frequently skirts the border of acceptability according to its funding partners.

For some of those sites at least, the reality is that a fair proportion of their traffic comes from people who are exclusively using it for NSFW purposes, though lower than you might expect: despite reports that fully 30 percent of internet traffic is from porn, for instance, the actual figure is far lower. Nonetheless, it remains a sizeable draw for a fair proportion of the internet, with more accurate statistics suggesting that 14 percent of searches are for pornographic content.

Going down

So why are we talking about sex? Because the lack of it has just cost Yahoo more than $1bn.

Tumblr was bought by Yahoo in $1.1 billion dollars in 2013. A short six years later, Automaticc (the company behind WordPress) acquired it from Verizon – which had itself acquired Yahoo in the interim – for less than $3 million. The reason for the write-down has been cited as the rise of competing micro-blogging platforms like Instagram, but in reality Yahoo failed to understand Tumblr’s appeal from the off.

That reached a head in December of last year, when Yahoo decided to ban adult content on the site, despite it being estimated that fully a quarter of its users were there to consume that NSFW content. Common criticism at the time was that – despite Yahoo giving those profiles the chance to transition to posting safe for work content instead – the rules had become prohibitively strict. The Verge’s Shannon Liao explained at the time:

“Banned content includes photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations. The exceptions include nude classical statues and political protests that feature nudity.” (She also argued, correctly, that the new rules were the death of one of the few ‘legit’ safe spaces for erotic content online).

The issue is that Yahoo believed they were buying an audience that could eventually be monetised though advertising, while its founder notoriously was ambivalent about advertising: “[Marissa] Mayer hoped to turn Tumblr into an advertising cash cow. But Karp’s dislike of advertising set the tone and direction for Tumblr, where ad innovation was never a big focus for the company until Yahoo forced it to.”

To that extent, Yahoo repeated one of the fundamental errors of digital publishing: believing that large audiences were enough to leverage through ad revenue alone. As the collapse of the site – and the subsequent mourning about its sanitisation in service of the almighty ad dollar – demonstrated that was never the appeal of Tumblr. Its founders turned a blind eye to the adult content on there, recognising that it was a part of human nature brought to the fore by the internet. Meanwhile, Yahoo got caught in the perfect storm of chasing scale for its own sake, and the rush into ‘brand safe environments’ that effectively killed the site’s soul.

It remains to be seen what Tumblr’s new owners do with the site, though closer integration with WordPress seems probably and it has already announced the ban on adult content will stay. But the lessons behind that staggering write-down – that audiences are fundamentally human and indiscriminate buying of audiences is a fool’s endeavour – will hopefully have been learned.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.