The Speed of Technology

SXSW 2000 Interactive Festival

Report from the Adult World

Presentation and discussion with Danni Ashe

Five years ago, the blonde and foxy Danni Ashe was a stripper earning a modest $1,500 a month. She'd organized, too, a fan club for all the hot-and-bothered bargoers who'd fallen in love with her, um, dancing, and she made some extra cash by selling photographs and other self-promoting merchandise in the mail. But when Ashe transferred her club online, everything changed -- since launching Danni's Hard Drive (http://www.danniharddrive.com) in 1995, the stripper who was once a mere little kitten with Internet dreams has become the head of a powerful, industry-leading adult Web site that boasts annual grosses approaching $10 million. Purrr.

As other industries struggle to make a smooth crossover to Internet commerce, adult entertainment and pornography sites such as Ashe's seem to have been raking in the cash and serving as technology vanguards from the start. Who better, then, than a media maverick like Ashe to address the budding e-commerce entrepreneurs, mainstream or not, at SXSW's Interactive Conference?

"I think the adult world has just been more aggressive and been earlier adopters of new technology," Ashe said at her Monday panel, demystifying the wizardry of the porn world.

Not to mention that a site like hers gives a lot of customers exactly what they want -- humor, smart content, and freedom from the more common traps of surfing for porn (all the never-ending pop-up windows that emerge when you try to leave a site, for instance). Much like Jack Horner, the skin-flick director played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, Ashe doesn't just want to get guys off -- she wants to captivate their imagination and hold their attention. To achieve this end, she personalizes the service (sending subscribers naughty birthday cards, etc.) and offers timely content. After paying their initial monthly charge, for instance, subscribers can watch nude video parodies of popular current movies (including some real winners like The Bare Tits Project), as well as pictures of Ms. Ashe celebrating St. Patrick's Day in a semi-ridiculous thong.

Buxom and brash as she is in her photos, though, Ashe's true assets lie in managing a mind-boggling business. Her staff currently numbers 37 and includes in-house legal counsel, marketing, and photography departments. She has expanded her traffic and profits not by linking with other sites or purchasing banner ads but by engaging in old-fashioned publicity and word-of-mouth. Knowing her audience well, she has visited The Howard Stern Show and made several appearances on the E! Entertainment Network.

All of this may be fascinating but quite irrelevant, of course, to mainstream e-commerce merchants. But the teachings of Danni Ashe also deal with basic problems of general electronic transaction. By developing their own password-protection and credit card verification systems independent of large billing companies, the staff at Danni's Hard Drive have reduced their rates of credit card fraud dramatically, boasting a charge-back rate of just .5% of all charges. The operation also holds on to a respectable 80% of its 27,000 customers from month to month. In a business that lives and dies by the monthly charge, a statistic like this is crucial.

The biggest prospect, however, for Ashe's business -- and all businesses online -- is the push for a widely accepted form of electronic currency. If Web browsers were designed to include a "cyberwallet," she argues, sites would be relieved of the need to charge high flat fees for subscriptions, and customers could purchase single pictures or items for, say, 50 cents or a dollar. All those noncustomers, then, who find her site and then click away when they have to pay a price would be able to empty little portions of their pocket instead of making an all-or-nothing choice.

It was hard to tell Monday afternoon whether the largely male audience was more excited by the strategies that have been pioneered by Ashe's site or by the boobs-and-butts image that hovered on the huge computer projection screen. But many a young man left with wide eyes, tickled no doubt in the wallet, if not elsewhere.

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