Lovehoney is an online retailer of sex toys and other adult products, and one which faces some unique challenges in its approaches to marketing and selling online.
I've been talking to Lovehoney director and co-founder Neal Slateford about the business...
How long has LoveHoney been trading?
We took our first order in April 2002 – there have been a lot of ups and downs since, but mostly ups. Sorry, I can’t promise that will be the last innuendo of the interview.
How big is the team behind the site?
There are 35 people in the company, split roughly half and half between warehouse operations and people who support the website through programming, design, content management, photography, PR and buying.
Can you give us some idea of the size of your customer base / turnover etc?
Er, sorry no! But we sell more sex toys online than any other retailer in the UK. Even 'that' one.
What are the challenges you face that are unique to selling sex toys online?
Trust. People are very apprehensive about buying 'adult' toys on the Internet generally, partly because of the less than stellar reputation of some traditional adult shops and offline mail order operators in the past. It makes it incredibly important for us to demonstrate to potential customers that we are a reputable, reliable and trustworthy company.
Confusion. A lot of people who come to us don't really know what they want to buy - they just know that they want 'something' - so it's a big part of our job to help people understand what our products do and how they can benefit their sex lives.
Convention. A lot of conventional marketing channels that are open to 'normal' businesses are closed to us. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve suffered death-by-Powerpoint from ad networks who later decide they can’t have us on the network because of the nature of our business. Do your research!
So we have to come up with more creative ways to get our message out there. It might be something we do on the LoveHoney website - like our Rabbit Amnesty sex toy recycling scheme, the UK Sex Map, the Love Bunnies Facebook app, the UK Sex Toy Awards, our Design A Sex Toy competition – or it might be creating innovative new products like iBuzz (the first (and much-copied) ipod vibrator), our Sqweel oral sex simulator and Death By Orgasm (a vibrator in a coffin? Why not?!). Plenty more coming this year (and next).
Do you have to walk a fine line to avoid being censored in searches / picked up by email spam filters etc?
Yes. Newsletters are a constant battle. As a retailer we struggle with words like 'free' and 'offer' anyway, but add some of our more challenging products to the mix and it can be a real headache. We had a hard time lately convincing Google that 'Sqweel' (our new oral sex simulator) really was an adult search term.
Also, we have a problem with nipples. Most women (and men) have them, but PayPal and Google AdWords won’t allow us to show them. Actually, that’s not quite true – Google AdWords allows them as long as they are behind a mesh material, but not actually naked.
How have you marketed the site? What has worked for you?
Word of mouth has been one of our biggest drivers. We strive to offer unbeatable customer service wherever we can. People like this, and they tell their friends. We also do a lot of PR. Our 'Rabbit Amnesty' sex toy recycling scheme was a big hit, and generated oodles of coverage, both online and offline.
For Sqweel, our unique-in-all-the-world oral sex simulator, we created a 30 second cinema trailer-style ad that went viral. Sqweel has had heaps of coverage; it's even been on ITV’s This Morning this week!
You offer a lot of assurances about returns, why was this necessary?
We have always offered a generous returns policy. People are more likely to order if they are confident they won't have a problem returning stuff they don't want. Simple!
You have what looks to be a very active community section –do you convert many of these visitors into buyers?
It's normally the other way around - customers discover the community and forums after they have placed an order, so they tend to be some of our best customers anyway.
I've heard that you have an ‘inches sold’ KPI. Can you tell us more about that?
We have all sorts of weird and wonderful KPI's. We measure every sex toy we sell before we list them on the site, so from that, we can tell how many inches of dildos we sell every day. Most illuminating! We hope to turn it into some kind of visual barometer of the state of the nation’s sexual health.
How has Twitter worked out for you so far? How do you approach Twitter?
We use Twitter for posting deals, notifying people when hot items are back in stock, and generally monitoring our market. We're definitely seeing an increase in referred traffic and sales from social media across the board. We want to be as close to our customers as possible.
What plans do you have for the company / website over the next 12 months?
We are in a very competitive market, so you'll forgive me for not saying too much. We have some very exciting plans. Everything we do comes from a desire to help our customers have better sex - and to have loads of fun doing it.