Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman on the Singapore ban, controversy as oxygen and digital lipstick

Ashley MadisonThe boss of marital affairs dating website Ashley Madison Noel Biderman was in Hong Kong yesterday, where the site – which has 23m users globally – launched earlier this year.

The self-branded “king of infidelity”, married with two children, talked to Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks from his suite at the Peninsula Hotel about being banned from Singapore, controversy as a brand-builder, and why Asia’s ad men (but mostly women) are his perfect target group.

Where did the idea for Ashley Madison come from, and why did you think it would work?

Ashley Madison founder Noel Biderman at the Peninsula Hotel yesterday

Ashley Madison founder Noel Biderman at the Peninsula Hotel yesterday

It was a confluence of factors that led to Ashley Madison. I used to be a sports attorney. Whenever I spent time around athletes, I found them to be a very unfaithful bunch. They travel a lot; it’s a very competitive environment, and they have fans following them everywhere. Infidelity was part of sports culture and in the professional DNA.

Then in 2001, I read an article about the dotcom bubble, and how music file-sharing changed the music industry. The internet has also changed how people date. The predecessor for online dating was placing classified ads in newspapers and magazines – lonely hearts columns. But that was for losers. Or at least that was the perception.

Thirty per cent of the users of dating sites are married, and I wondered, wouldn’t married folks want a community of their own? I have created a safe space for what people will inevitably do anyway.

I gather you get a lot of hate mail. Who are your biggest enemies?

Religious groups. And a multi billion industry called marriage counselling. I used to get so much hate mail I used to have two armed guards with me on tour.

Married people could use any site to have an affair. Why should they choose yours?

First, think about why use a dating website at all. If you’re a married person, where would you go before the internet to have an affair? Your work place? That’s fraught with risk. It’s not a place to keep a secret, and affairs happen close to home. Facebook is used by lots of people to have affairs, but the world of anonymous affairs is much less risky.

The way Ashley Madison works is that if you send you a message to someone you like, I don’t charge for the fourth or even 56th message between a couple [Ashley Madison’s business model is based on credits rather than subscription, unlike rivals eHarmony and Match.com. A member pays five credits to initiate a conversation, and it’s free after that]. So there’s no need to leave the site and start texting.

Why leave digital lipstick?

I have mitigated the need to leave. My site is about making you a ghost. We’ve thought about discretion at every step. Facebook is designed for information to be shared, which is why it’s dangerous for people who want to have affairs.

Nothing on the web is totally secure. How can you be so sure that Ashley Madison is safe to use?

I can’t do everything. I can’t clear your browser. But I can put your photos under lock and key. The principle of the site is based on one to one communication. Every feature is geared towards secrecy.

Last month, a GQ journalist went undercover on Ashley Madison. He hooked up with a lady on the site who said she had slept with well known politicians and an actor using the service. If you’re a famous celebrity, you wouldn’t use the service unless it’s safe, and a married woman won’t kiss and tell.

The site’s brand has grown on the back of controversy. Is controversy the oxygen of your publicity?

I was asked to speak at a conference for venture capitalists about controversial issues, and I said they should invest in controversy, because controversy usually emerges from somebody trying to predict where society is going.

Controversy is in our DNA, because the topic we inhabit is poorly understood. There’s no study that’s looked at infidelity properly, because it’s taboo. Cheaters don’t put their hands up to be studied. So how can you tell how big a community is if you can’t study it?

Watch Ashley Madison’s ad ‘Sally’:

At school I was taught that monogamy is the exception rather than the rule in nature, and that humans are naturally promiscuous. So why do you think your site can be such a tough sell?

Is there any species that are completely monogamous? Look at the noises a woman makes during sex. Why would making noise be an evolutionary advantage? Could it be because it’s a mating call to advertise what you’re doing to others? The more diverse the sperm she attracts from mates, the less likely she is to pass on genetic defects to her progeny. We’re not engineered for monogamy. Monogamy came about in human society because of economic reasons, not scientific ones. The reality is that that people will always be unfaithful, and yet it is always deemed to be controversial when the likes of Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Silvio Berlusconi or David Beckham have affairs.

What about infidelity in the ad industry? Reckon admen and adwomen are more unfaithful than most?

The more a woman or a man is on the road, the more likely they are to be unfaithful. It’s the single biggest factor that leads to affairs. And ad people travel a lot in this region.

We poll members and look at their careers. The ad industry showed one of the highest propensities to having affairs – in the top five per cent.

Why do you think that is?

It’s a nature versus nurture thing. For a surgeon, who has a big ego and is more likely to be unfaithful anyway, it’s in their DNA. In advertising, it’s the industry that drives infidelity, the environment.

Anti Ashley Madison campaignYou were blocked from entering Singapore, but launched in Hong Kong recently and plan to expand into Taiwan. Why do you think the site would work well in Asia?

Infidelity trumps all. Even in countries where it is prohibited by law, women still have affairs. And that’s the interesting thing we’re noticing – the rise in female infidelity, which is happening in Asia too. The social handcuffs are coming off. Women are getting married less, and are entering the workforce more, and more and more women are exploring outside of their marriages.

So Ashley Madison is targeted at women?

Predominantly women. We don’t want the site to become a sausage fest. If you get women using the site, you’ll find men queuing at the door.

How well has the site been going since launching in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong has already proved to be the fastest growing city we’ve ever launched in. We’ve had young, old, single and married sign up. It seems that everyone and their grandmother wants to have an affair in Hong Kong.

How have you promoted the site locally, and which agencies are working with you?

We have local agencies on the ground doing our PR and marketing. But the firms that work with us, don’t want to broadcast it. You don’t drum up more business by working with Ashley Madison.

Brand building doesn’t happen overnight. And my brand is not about convincing someone to have an affair. You can’t. The demand has to be there first.

When is demand highest on the site?

The site always spikes on a Monday morning. I guess people have had a bad time over the weekend. But affairs ebb and flow in cycles. People have affairs, then stop, than come back years later, and that’s reflected in how the site is used.

What are your expectations for Ashley Madison in Hong Kong?

Six months in, we expect to be part of lexicon. Six years later, part of the popular culture.

How do you know when you’ve entered popular culture?

For us, I think it was being on The Simpsons, which is not just a comedy show, it’s a social commentary.

Watch a clip from the ‘Sassy Madison’ episode.

Did you pay the producers of The Simpsons to feature on the show?

It’s not the sort of show you can call up and say you’ve got great Ashley Madison joke.

How else does the brand get exposure?

Social commentary around the issue of infidelity has helped us in the press. And we do print and outdoor advertising. But it’s not so much advertising, but satire.

Ashley Madison billboards

Click to enlarge

It’s not easy for us to grow the brand virally. There is no virality to having an affair. It’s not a behaviour pattern you want to share. We have about three followers on Facebook. People who have affairs don’t want to be followed around.

Have you found PR and ad agencies to handle your launch in Taiwan? Is there a framework for how you launch in each market?

I feel like a chicken. We should be there now. But before we go in, we need to work on the demographics and get legal framework right. Technically, infidelity is illegal in Taiwan. It’s not illegal for us to exist, but a Taiwanese citizen could face fines or jail for being unfaithful.

We haven’t spoken to any agencies. Just lawyers.

So what will you marketing strategy be for a country where what you are servicing is illegal?

I don’t know if I will be able to hire a PR firm or put out a TV ad. Usually I show up in a new market and scream at top of my lungs. But I want to eek this one out in a different way. We’re trying to create an online community instead.

How do you think getting banned in Singapore affected the Ashley Madison brand in Asia?

Our Super Bowl ad was banned, and that generated publicity for one day. But I would much rather it could had run. Same with Singapore. I would rather be live in Singapore than get free publicity because it was banned. We had 80,000 people trying to access the site. That’s a lot of people saying, hey, let me in. We were trying to provide a service. We didn’t invent infidelity, we just perfected it.

Watch Ashley Madison’s banned Super Bowl ad:

Why do you think it was banned?

Part of the fury, I think, is that the site is designed for women and marketed at women. The notion that women now have the same opportunities as men frightens some people. It’s a form of suppression of feminism that’s trying to come to life.

What was the response like from PR agencies in Singapore when you approached them in November?

We were actually really pleased. We received more responses after you published your article featuring the leaked request-for-proposal.

How many agencies responded?

Six, and they were good agencies.

Ashley Madison adBefore you launched in Hong Kong, I asked six agencies if they would work for Ashley Madison. Three said they would, three said they wouldn’t, saying they wouldn’t work on tobacco or alchohol brands either. How do you feel about being a vice client?

I can accept the vice bracket, but I don’t like the porn label we sometimes get. We have nothing to do with that business. When I’m compared to Hugh Heffner that does bother me. If people want to watch porn, smoke or drink, they have a right to. The same with being unfaithful. You can’t tell people what they can and cannot do in their bedrooms.

Agencies have a right to work with companies that provide those products. The business is in the business of following demand. It’s dangerous to start getting into censorship. Think of how we used to treat teenage pregnant women or interracial couples. Now we feel ashamed about trying to control that; we’re always ashamed about being small-minded. You can’t say you wouldn’t work with a marital affairs site, but you would work with Bill Clinton in the same breath.

You’re in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and India. What plans do you have to launch the site in other markets in Asia? What about big populous countries such as China and Indonesia?

For Indonesia, we are in the process of exploring the legal landscape to investigate if and how a launch there is feasible. As for China we are already seeing a large number of attempts to access our site (since the launch in Hong Kong), many of them are coming in through VPN/IP blockers.


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