Even if you don't know his name, Brian Shuster just may be the most hated man on the internet. If you believe an old MSNBC report that named him the prince of pop-ups after he was awarded a patent for what he insists is an exit survey, you might have to fight the urge to rip him limb from limb for inventing the most hated ad format in history.
On the other hand, if you believe Shuster when he says that all of the outcry can be traced to a single reporter who misread his patent application, you might find him a sympathetic figure – a bona fide internet impresario with an innate ability to grasp and exploit the constantly evolving digital medium.
Perhaps the truth about Shuster is somewhere in the middle. But controversy aside, Shuster has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of internet marketing since the mid-90s, when a $700 investment made him one of the elite players in online adult entertainment.
While it would be easy to paint Shuster as simply a pornographer, the truth is that many of the marketing tactics that he and his competitors pioneered have helped build the basis for both the mainstream and adult internet alike.
Not all of those lessons are being used by mainstream marketers, according to Shuster, who says clumsy advertising runs the risk of destroying the online space as we know it. And Shuster should know; an early experiment with online ads enraged many of his users.
"We were deluged with hate mail when we put up our first banner ads," Shuster says of his first viable internet business model. "There was a big uproar from users who thought the internet should be a commercial-free space. We were seen as evil."
But it was commercialism, not porn, that made Shuster evil in the eyes of those who had taken the time to write him hate mail. Shuster was still a year away from his start in adult entertainment. His pre-porn business, he explains, was not unlike what DoubleClick does today, aggregating smaller websites that lacked the scale to sell ads on their own.
At the time, Shuster ran a website featuring his comic strip "Chaos." While the site was a small success with about 500 daily visitors, Shuster says it suffered from a problem that plagues publishers and advertisers to this day.
"I had the traffic, but my readers were spread out all over the country, so I could only show one or two fans in a given city," he says, adding that finding thousands of similarly situated publishers inspired him to start aggregating and selling ad space.
It could have been timing or it could have been execution, but the ad network business wasn't for Shuster in those days. He confesses that a prospective angel investor told him that the only business likely to yield a profit online was porn.
Mint money like a porn mogul and advertise the competition
With $700 between them, Shuster and a partner launched their internet porn business. Within 18 months, they were among the elite of an online sector that was minting money when other dot-coms were living off the big eyes and fat wallets of Silicon Valley's venture capitalists.
While Shuster admits that porn was inherently popular with many internet users, he doesn't see content as the driving force for success. Ask him if he thinks that anyone can make money in porn simply because of the old adage that sex sells, and Shuster will reply with a flat "no," adding a seldom reported detail that many porn companies can, and do, fail.
What made the model work, according to Shuster, was his willingness to explore the unique nature of the web.
"The internet works in a very counterintuitive way," Shuster explains. "Adult webmasters like myself figured out pretty early on that they could often make more money advertising their competitors than they could selling their own product."
According to Shuster, the internet is a medium that rewards depth above all else, catering to individual passions that go narrow and deep, rather than the wide yet superficial pastimes enjoyed by the masses.
Porn tactics for the mainstream
While promoting the competition was an early building block for online affiliate marketing, Shuster sees it as a lesson that ought to be applied across the entire web for all revenue-driven marketing efforts.
The New York Times ought to dedicate quality ad space to The Washington Post, Shuster says, explaining that both publishers make the mistake of treating internet users as a depletable resource.
"People who go to either one of those sites have already expressed an interest in news," he says. "Visitors might actually want more news, so you need to take them there and figure out a business model that makes that profitable. The truth is that you can often make more money steering traffic away from your site than you can by trying to keep it on the page because users are looking to use the internet to dig deep on a given subject."
Shuster further illustrates his point by citing an example well known to adult webmasters who speak constantly of sending traffic to each other, but they seldom discuss incoming traffic or overall popularity as measured by sites such as Alexa.
"Adult webmasters know that people who go to a particular site may want blonde women," he says. "OK. So that site has blonde women, but so does everyone else. And no site will have enough blonde women to keep the user coming back, so sending him away can actually be more profitable."
While you might disagree with Shuster, it's worth asking yourself precisely how Google built its online empire. Although the search giant's products are now too numerous to count, most share one commonality: Google is in the business of taking users exactly where they want to go and slicing off a fractional fee for connecting everyone to, well, everyone else.
Of course, there are limits, and it's not as if Google would serve up a Pepsi ad on Coke's site. But as Shuster explains, branding is a totally different animal online.
The branders must be crazy
Unlike pornographers who produce and sell DVDs, most online porn is fungible. There are niches, but virtually any webmaster can acquire enough content to cover every niche because each niche is almost nonexclusive by definition. That means that with very few exceptions, there are no real brands to speak of when it comes to online porn. While the lack of brands is a significant departure from the DVD side of the business, which follows a Hollywood model of branded entertainment where each producer builds a name around one or more porn star, Shuster says a web without brands is often a good thing.
"I think you're crazy if you try to use the internet to brand something," Shuster says. "Branding only works for a few really big, mature companies. Let me put it to you this way: As someone marketing products, I think branding is a fool's notion. But as someone who sells ads, I think it's a gift from heaven."
Before she started her own Club Jenna brand, Jenna Jameson was not only a contract girl for Vivid Entertainment, she was the starlet the studio sought to build its brand around.
The message to consumers was simple: Jenna Jameson = Vivid, and vice versa.
The internet changed things for adult studios, even if they were slow to learn that lesson. What Shuster and his cohorts found was that the internet detached people from traditional distribution chains because the competition was only a click away.
What that meant was that brands that operated as antonymous commercial islands suffered from isolation, compared to nameless operators that were brand agnostic and therefore able to band together.
The new message to consumers on the internet is even more basic: Any well-run adult website will either deliver exactly what you want or take you to another site that has the content you're looking for.
Adult websites are kind of like Burger King in that way. Once the user has expressed interest in a burger (or porn), they'll get it their way, right away. Of course in real space, Burger King won't run over to McDonald's for you if you desire a Big Mac, although perhaps the two should explore the idea of working together online.
The web without brands isn't just an idea that has its place in porn, Shuster says. Whether you're talking about a brick-and-mortar company or a dot-com, the idea mostly remains the same: Work with your competitors.
If you're thinking about marketing cars online, the solution is to have Ford and Lexus side by side. While Ford could lock up a dealership in a small town and buy enough local media to keep Lexus under the radar in one locale, it simply can't blot out the sun when it comes to the internet. That means that people interested in cars simply won't tolerate a disconnected internet; they'll just move on and likely never look back.
So, where Ford and Lexus compete in real space, they need to cooperate online to fuel the customer's passion for everything automotive.
Tom DeWolfe should befriend Mark Zuckerberg
For internet-based brands, Shuster's game plan is even more striking.
For those consumed with selling ads on social networks, the emphasis is on finding the best-in-breed brand – MySpace or Facebook. But the fuss made over MySpace losing market share to a site like Facebook misses the point, according Shuster, who says the two should collaborate on joint ventures to bounce users between them.
"They're different enough to be distinct, but similar enough to make a lot more money working together," Shuster says.
Shuster's point is simple, though counterintuitive. The idea is to give the customer what he wants. If he wants a social network, give him the best social network possible, but don't put up a wall at the edge of your site if you're MySpace. The way Shuster sees it, part of MySpace's goal should be to transport users anywhere they wish to go on any social network.
But Shuster says he doubts whether a hypothetical deal could ever be struck between MySpace and Facebook because old thinking continues to dominate the new medium.
Think small, strike it big
The way Shuster sees it, being big can often be a liability on the internet. With little money on the line, it's easy to experiment. Witness bloggers who have sky-rocketed to popularity in the past few years. One tried-and-true tool for bloggers is a blog-roll, which lists the blogs that blogger likes to read. While many bloggers now know the importance of a blog-roll, the initial risk of identifying and linking to competitors might have been viewed as too great had serious money been on the line.
"One of the things that made the early internet work was that we did so many things on a small scale," Shuster says. "Today's big brands are often handicapped by size. Being too big makes them reluctant to experiment. Those big companies need to recalibrate. They need to figure out the minimum conditions necessary to test a hypothesis and then go for it."
The mass media mentality is something Shuster sees as a remnant of TV and print, where gigantic campaigns were the only option. But the way Shuster sees it, success on the internet often starts with a very small seed, and it typically blossoms overnight.
From pop-ups to virtual worlds
Think back to the beginning of this article and you probably heard a word you haven't encountered in a while: pop-up. If pop-ups now seem like a laughable, albeit annoying, Web 1.0 tactic, you're right. But there's a direct line between those pesky ads that infuriated the internet's early users, the Web 2.0 of today, and the virtual worlds Shuster sees as the Web 3.0 of tomorrow. The line that pierces through the history of the internet is the user's experience and the degree to which companies have enhanced and detracted from the way we work, play and socialize online.
Without a hint of irony, Shuster explains that he's a fan of passive ads, not pop-ups.
"If they want to engage [the ad], it's successful, but if you force them, you don't get much," Shuster says.
It's not easy to tell if Shuster genuinely dislikes pop-ups or if he simply realized they don't work. But maybe his feelings don't matter as much as the lesson he seems to have learned from the pop-up: that you have to give people what they want.
The pop-up, Shuster explains, is the worst kind of ad because it's intrusive, literally blocking you from the content you sought out. The exit survey (sometimes known as a pop-under), was an attempt to interact with a user who may not have gotten what he wanted from a site, to ask him why he left, and perhaps to sell on what he was actually looking for.
Today, Shuster's pop-up or exit survey is all but dead, with only a handful of marketers using the tool.
In its place, Shuster has launched Utherverse, his galaxy of virtual worlds that range from Red Light Center (a Second Life for adults only) to Virtual Vancouver. In Shuster's mind, virtual worlds are the ultimate expression of a society that's moving more and more functions online every day. Rather than a simple site, network or portal, Shuster says we'll all soon navigate cyberspace as interplanetary explorers, jumping from one world to the next.
But right now, there's a catch when it comes to virtual worlds. Shuster likes Second Life, but he sees a fatal flaw in its execution.
"They let the advertisers in too early," he says. "Second Life came out of the chute not quite fully cooked."
To be clear, Shuster has no objection to ads, in fact his sites even feature ads from competitors. What worries Shuster about Second Life is that it opened up to advertisers too quickly, perhaps alienating some of its users.
"Advertisers could destroy these new worlds [if the company isn't careful]," Shuster says. "We permit ads, but in a passive way."
When Shuster talks about letting ads into Utherverse, or any other issue surrounding his virtual worlds, he often sounds like a benevolent dictator trying to figure out how to make democratic reforms. And in a way, that's the challenge that faces all virtual worlds. On the one hand, you have the internet – the penultimate medium for free expression and interaction. On the other hand, you have the natural human expectation that their will be order.
As Shuster sees it, virtual worlds will ultimately be able to organize themselves. But for now, control must rest in the hands of the developer, and that means ceding power to the site's users and advertisers in bite-sized portions.
According to Shuster, the alternative is a virtual world where advertisers hijack users, bouncing them from one brand to the next. A virtual world without rules isn't something we know how to deal with because it doesn't mimic our real world experience. What is sometimes permitted online would be akin to a Budweiser representative, yanking you out of bed, dragging you to a local bar and forcing beer down your throat. In a nutshell, that's a pop-up – an unwanted intrusion that blocked a requested activity.
The pop-up may be dead, but Shuster doesn't want to see it resurrected in the virtual worlds of tomorrow.
Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.