Last month, Playboy announced it would do what someone 30 years ago would believe to be unthinkable: The naked women magazine is taking naked women out of their magazine.
Amidst the flood of perilously bad “I read it for the article” jokes, there was ample criticism. What would a sex magazine do without sex?
The magazine's biggest rival, Hustler, thought the Playboy’s founder screwed the pooch. “[Hustler founder] Larry Flynt Thinks Hugh Hefner Has Lost His Mind,” read the TMZ headline.
"I will do anything that makes sense business-wise because I’m a businessman,” Flynt told CNN a day after the decision. “But that makes no sense business-wise. That’s the one thing they buy the magazine for. It defies logic for me.”
And Flynt’s got a point: Sex sells.
But what if, in 2015, advertising stuff with your sex-adjacent platform sells a little bit more?
Enter Grindr, the now-six-year-old gay dating app and progenitor to the swipe-obsessed online dating culture that has dominated the 2010s.
It, too, wants to be a little bit more.
“We solve gay men’s problems,” Grindr founder and CEO Joel Simkhai told The Daily Beast. “The first one we attacked was ‘Who’s around me?’ We’re now going to solve other problems beyond ‘Who’s the guy I’m meeting now?’”
What does that mean? It means being a little bit more than a dating app, and evolving into a much larger lifestyle brand.
“Naturally that [process] will evolve the brand,” said Simkhai. “In other words, as we evolve the product, the brand will naturally evolve.”
That means, in part, making themselves more accessible to traditional advertisers through their ad platforms. And that net is a lot wider than you’d imagine. The app averages 1 million active users per minute, and can take over your phone screen with push notifications.
The ad targeting is good, too. The company touts a test case that allowed for an ad for a Lady Gaga concert happening down the street that night.
But it’s not all Lady Gaga tickets in the Grindr sales department. It’s pharmaceutical companies. It’s Audi and Uber and State Farm and MTV and AirBnB.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve made a concerted effort to actively partner with advertisers for national and highly targeted campaigns,” said Simkhai. “Those that have been advertising with us programmatically and saw such good results contact us directly for a more targeted ad buy.”
Simkhai concedes this was a new concept when first going to advertisers, “but Grindr has demonstrated the power of our mobile and location-based platform.”
According to the company, 25 percent of Grindr’s revenue right now comes from advertising.
Basically, if advertisers want to reach young gay males, Grindr is waiting. After all, unmarried gay Americans are the only subset of Americans who are more likely than not to have a bachelor’s degree in America. That includes unmarried straight Americans and married gay Americans. And that’s according to the U.S. census. They also make considerably more than their straight counterparts.
These smart gay guys have to spend their money somehow.
“To skip us is a mistake,” said Simkhai.
That’s why they’re branching out of strictly sex—and likely why Playboy is, too—into editorial and social-driven stuff that can more readily cater itself to advertisers.
As Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders told The New York Times after their shift away from their sex-first ethos, “The difference between us and Vice is that we’re going after the guy with a job.”
Grindr is echoing that same sentiment.
“As a company, we just want to keep solving problems for all gay men around the world. That’s a big task that will involve technology and brand and offerings, and requires us to remain nimble and experimental,” said Simkhai. “That’s not a challenge we’re afraid of, in fact, it inspires us every day.”
Even with a company that makes 75 percent of its money on subscriptions to get rid of its ads (that's Grindr Xtra), it's already working out. Leaked documents from the Ashley Madison hack say that Grindr is expected to make $40 million in revenue this year.
It might be unsexy, and Larry Flynt might call it “ludicrous,” but there’s nothing unsexy or ludicrous about a boatload of untapped cash.
“It’s not about the money,” said Simkhai, uttering a sentence no one should believe. “It’s about what gay men want in their lives, and how we can help get them to those things faster than anyone else.”