Tech

Subscription porn gains popularity as new apps let models sell directly to their fans

Key Points
  • A growing number of models are selling subscriptions to their content, turning their social media followings into a customer base.
  • Services like OnlyFans, Fancentro and Patreon allow performers to post adult content and charge users a recurring fee for access.
  • Private Snapchat accounts are a popular way for models to make money.
LilPinkAlien, an online model, is charging customers subscriptions for content.
LilPinkAlien

Dolly, an 18-year-old aspiring online model, was sitting in her kitchen one day in June when an exciting email arrived. Someone had just paid $10 to view her posts for a month on a social network called OnlyFans. Just like that, Dolly had her first subscriber.

Like a growing number of her counterparts in the world of online sexual content, Dolly is trying to start converting her social media following into a paid customer base. Models are using Twitter, Facebook-owned Instagram and Snapchat to promote their premium offerings on sites like OnlyFans, Fancentro and Patreon, where they can charge a recurring subscription.

In the opaque online porn industry, where billions of dollars a year flow to websites powered by ads and premium subscriptions, Dolly and others are aiming to wrest some control from the content distributors and take a bigger slice of the economic pie. Just as independent musicians are trying to make money by going directly to their fans on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, and comedians are turning to Comedy Central's Stand-Up Direct to sell uncut performances, women in porn are adopting the direct-to-consumer business model on the web and mobile devices.

"There's no in-person stuff to deal with," said Dolly, who doesn't disclose her real name, in an interview. "You make your own rules, you make your limits."

The subscription market is in its relative infancy and the sums are still generally modest. Dolly said she makes $500 to $1,000 a month at the moment. Part of her revenue comes through $10 monthly subscriptions on OnlyFans, which caters to YouTubers, trainers, models, content creators, influencers and makers of amateur porn. She also charges $12 a month for her private Snapchat (or a $35 payment for indefinite access), where users pay to see a person's posts.

Then there's the true do-it-yourself option of giving individual customers content via direct message on Twitter or providing access to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder and collecting a one-time fee through Venmo or Square's Cash App. For example, Dolly promotes what she calls "Dolly's Disney Fund," where customers can pay between $5 and $100 for photos and videos that she'll share from an upcoming trip to a Disney theme park.

Models have been able to charge for content in a variety of ways since the early days of the internet. What's new about sites like OnlyFans and Fancentro is they provide a suite of tools and a customized content management system (CMS) to help creators run their business and handle subscription billing all from their smartphone. The sites keep a portion of the revenue — between about 5% and 25% — and the rest goes to the talent.

Goddess Tierra has been in the online porn business for 13 years, long enough to remember how hard it was when there were no specialized tools available. When she started, she had to learn how to code in HTML and paid for domain and hosting services to reach her customers. Now, that all comes in a virtual package.

"Everything's so easy now," said Tierra, who typically makes at least $10,000 a month. "You just need to know how to brand yourself."

OnlyFans markets itself as a site for all types of creators and told CNBC in a statement that it doesn't "always want to be at the center of stories that focus on the adult side of the business." But pornography is clearly the market that's gotten the company attention.

Fancentro is more willing to embrace its target audience.

"There wasn't a web-based CMS targeting performers and what they needed as independent content creators and giving them the ability to run their own businesses," Fancentro CEO Stan Fiskin told CNBC. "We consider ourselves a premium social network."

On Fancentro, models set the price and frequency of the subscriptions, charging on a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis. After a user subscribes, the company notifies the model and links the customer to her private Snapchat account. The website, which takes a 25% cut on transactions, now has 15,000 active models, up from 6,000 in July 2018, though it doesn't disclose the size of its user base.

Getting more lucrative

Many of the models on Fancentro make just a couple of hundred dollars a year. But over the past year, more than 10 models generated over $1 million in revenue on the site, Fiskin said.

For LilPinkAlien, subscriptions from Fancentro and OnlyFans are great, but even better can be the tips that fans will send her through Venmo or other payment apps. Tips are their way to show extra appreciation and purchase unique photos, live video chats or even worn undergarments that she occasionally sends out.

"It was an eye-opening moment for me when I realized that people who've already spent money on me might want to continue spending more money on me," she said. Like Dolly, LilPinkAlien makes between $500 and $1,000 a month.

Juno LTK earns considerably more, pulling in between $2,000 and $2,500 a month. In December, she set up her account on Patreon, a site that's known for connecting artists and musicians with fans who pay them various sums for their work.

Juno LTK
Maya Tihtiyas

Before becoming a nude model in 2015, Juno LTK managed a fast-food restaurant, a job she hated, and did some freelance shoots. She left the food industry to model full time but struggled initially to make a living at it, in large part, she says, because she lacked the business acumen.

So she enrolled in a community college to take courses such as marketing and accounting.

"I was like, OK if I'm really going to commit to this and if I want to make a living from this then I have to look at it like it's a business," Juno LTK said. She also started reading blogs about marketing and small business.

Models on the subscription sites can choose to be paid via direct deposit to their bank accounts, PayPal or check. The apps also offer the models 1099 documents at the end of the year so they can file their taxes as independent contractors.

Before they can get on the services, the models have to verify their identity to prove they're of legal age. The sites differ in what they allow. On Patreon, for example, models can post nude photos and videos, but they're prohibited from posting content that involves "people engaging in sexual acts such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera," according to the company's website. OnlyFans and Fancentro allow more explicit content.

Snap at the center

While models are benefiting from advanced tools on new sites, Snapchat is increasingly becoming an integral part of the online porn industry. It's one of the most popular social sites on the web, and it allows creators to establish private accounts.

Performers are able to use all of the photo, video and social tools that Snap provides to its 190 million daily active users and wall off content that they want to monetize.

"There's really nothing else like Snapchat," said Ellie Boulder, a model who uses Fancentro and OnlyFans to post fetish content. "It's so user-friendly. We've all gotten used to it. The clients want to be there, and we want to be where the clients are."

Ellie Boulder
Ellie Boulder

Fancentro handles all of the transactions and administrative activities necessary to run a private Snapchat, for its customary fee, so models can offload all the back-end stuff and focus on creating the content.

Counting on Snapchat for distribution is risky. The app's community guidelines say the company prohibits "accounts that promote or distribute pornographic content." However, enforcing those rules is another story. Because Snap isn't actively policing private accounts, models are typically safe from removal or suspension unless they're reported by a subscriber for violating the rules.

A Snap spokesman declined to comment.

Fiskin says Fancentro has a love-hate relationship with Snap.

Fancentro's models are beneficial to Snapchat, he says, because their content is engaging, which is critical for Snap in luring advertisers. Even in premium private accounts, Snap sells ads. And Snapchat is a great distribution channel for a niche start-up like Fancentro.

But there's always the chance that Snap could crack down on the pornographic content provided by Fancentro's models, throwing a significant wrench in its business. Fiskin said he's not terribly concerned.

"If it's not Snapchat, there would be a way to deliver content to a private audience," he said. "As long as the privacy tools are there, there'll be a way to deliver content."

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