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Debbie does data: Porn gets statistical

Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights."
Source: New Line Cinema
Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights."

There's a scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic movie about the porn industry, "Boogie Nights," when Jack Hornerthe film director character famously played by Burt Reynoldssees for the first time a porn movie made straight for video cassette. He knows his world will never be the same.

The adult entertainment industry is experiencing another big moment, and again, content format is critical to the changes taking place.

Data analysis is entrenched in many multibillion-dollar industries as they search for new ways to reach customers and create and sell better products to them, but when it comes to porn, many of the big players remain divided on whether the use of data is critical to keeping eyes on their product.

Some adult entertainment companies already swear by the process of collecting and analyzing data gathered from their customers, while others say that the industry is too segmented and customer whims change too frequently for analysis of an increasing amount of data to be of any use.

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The split, as you might expect, generally falls between DVD-focused companies and those with a larger online presence, such as webcam and "tube" sites (think YouTube for porn), which stream live content and XXX clips.

"The customers and genres evolve quickly," said Scott Taylor, president of New Sensations and Digital Sin, which has largely focused on the DVD market. "They have a tendency to catch fire for a short period, and if you can hit while the iron is hot, then that's what you do. Then you go on to whatever is next ... I don't even know where to go to pull down historical data from my customer."

Online-focused companies, however, say they're starting to pay more attention to uses of data, recognizing the potential increases in both revenue and user "dwell time" on their sites.

Pink Visual is an adult film production studio that was conceived with the mobile and online generation in mind, and it tends to be at the forefront of new technologies, including data analysis. President Allison Vivas said custom-built systems regularly sift through four databases that interact with each other to learn more about the company's customers and their preferences.

"It definitely helps to optimize revenue," Vivas said.

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As the company has analyzed user data, it has learned to stream higher-quality video to users who are accessing its sites via Wi-Fi (versus 3G or 4G connections), since they're better able to handle the bandwidth loads. IPad users also receive higher-quality streams, since it's more noticeable on a larger screen.

The company has also discovered that some areas with high traffic aren't worth the effort.

"It helps us analyze which countries aren't doing anything for us," Vivas said. "Sometimes there are countries where a lot of visitors come by, but the credit card holding status or ability to purchase isn't really there. In some cases, we'll have to block countries if they're sucking up too much bandwidth."

Industry giant Vivid also keeps a close eye on user data.

"We run internal analysis on our proprietary data sets and aggregate industry data," said Steven Hirsch, founder and co-chairman of the company.

"From this analysis, we're able to make decisions on our company's direction and keep our finger on the pulse of the adult industry. We leverage several analytical softwares, internal databases, third-party industry-specific analysis, competitive insight and strategic advice to move our technology, user experience and customer satisfaction forward."

(Read more: When the boss is big data)

Cam4, one of several webcam sites that are rapidly growing in the industry, has found through its analysis of raw user data that visitors to its site are not unlike those who visit online dating sites. Views increase notably in the evening when users are home and not restricted to using their mobile device to log on.

To boost its daytime view rates, the company began scheduling "super shows" with its bigger performers to lure members.

The plan worked—though now the site is facing another hurdle: Seasonality.

"Our users are not that different from users on other sites," said Jas Kase, director of marketing and sales at Cam4. "In the summer, things slow down because they're taking family vacations. Even in the Internet world, everything slows down."

The company arguably making the most of big data in porn is Manwin, which owns the vast majority of the online porn sites, including the Brazzers and RealityKings collection of websites as well as several adult "tube" sites, Digital Playground and Playboy TV.

(Read more: Britain's ban on porn 'going to hurt the big boys')

Manwin has all of the data that can be collected from those—its sites are estimated to receive 16 billion visitors per month. The company also had a background in technology before it started getting into porn.

"Anyone who can mine data from as many users as Manwin [can] has a tremendously valuable source of information to aid in what they're doing," Taylor said.

Notoriously press-shy Manwin did not reply to a request for comment.

(Read more: Retail goes shopping through big data)

While data analysis in porn, as is other industries, is primarily used to optimize offerings and boost revenues, it has had one surprising side effect: a much clearer picture of today's average porn star.

The stereotypical image of a porn star is blond hair and an ample chest, but earlier this year, "Ideas Detective" Jon Millward did a deep study of the Internet Adult Film Database—which is loaded with information on more than 10,000 porn stars—and found that the stereotype is far from the reality.

After examining data for 7,000 female stars, Millward learned that the average porn starlet is 5'5", weighing 117 pounds—48 pounds under the national average for women. She's also a brunette. And instead of a bra-busting DD-cup, the average bust size in the industry is a B-cup. The most common set of measurements for the women was 34–24-34.

There's also a perception that most women who enter the porn industry quit after a single film, but the data doesn't back that up.

"The actual number of single film quitters is between 10 percent and 30 percent," Millward said. "It's difficult to settle on an exact figure, because it differs depending on how you sample the women, but one thing's for sure: Most women don't quit after one film—in fact, the majority (at least 53 percent) do three or more."

Averages don't mean a lot to porn producers, though. Because the audience for different genres is so diverse, there's little need to know what the "average" porn star looks like, they contend.

Instead, it's about choosing a performer with the right look for the film they're making, who's also willing to perform the acts the audience demands. (Related: Porn's Most Popular Stars)

"My customer is different than, say, an Evil Angel customer," says Taylor, referencing another porn company that is known for its particularly graphic content. "My place in the industry is a certain type of product—and that can have a wide scope—but Evil is a bit more hard, so that's not the [audience] I'm going after and that's not the clientele that gravitates towards us.

"There can be nuances in what makes somebody really like one scene versus another one that has nothing to do with averages. It could be the performer or the way it's shot or something else. ... History has shown if I like what I'm doing, we have a pretty substantial market that will gravitate toward it. I'm a pretty good barometer," Taylor said.

Spoken like Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner—a true porn auteur working in defiance of the march of technology—might have said.

—By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com.

CLARIFICATION: This version uses the professional name of the Cam4 marketing director, Jas Kase.

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