5 things your sustainability program can learn from the adult entertainment industry

Risque or business guru?

First off, yes, this article is safe for work. Secondly, no, I’m not going to suggest you include more provocative photography in your annual sustainability report. But, there’s a lot we can learn from the adult entertainment industry.

Despite its, um, interesting choice of content, the US adult entertainment industry brings in close to $12 billion annually, about the same size as the GDP of Iceland. One estimate places the global industry at close to $100 billion. Adult entertainment has been immensely successful, comprising nearly 25% of all internet searches, with millions of viewers each year.

Of course, as any advertiser will tell you, sex sells. Clothing brands have known this for a long time and even a few less sexy products like tire valve caps have gotten in on the game. Now, I’m not suggesting you use racy pictures to hawk solar panels (please don’t). However, an industry as successful as this one deserves a bit of investigation to see if there are some lessons we can extract and extrapolate to sustainable business. So here are 5 lessons that might surprise you:

1. Don’t be afraid of technology. The adult entertainment industry has long been at the forefront of using technology to hawk its wares. It was an early mover into the internet and e-commerce, and is often credited with driving the growth of VCRs. The industry doesn’t necessarily create the technologies, but it is a master of finding creative ways to use the technologies to drive growth. You can now access adult content through VHS, DVD, streaming, your mobile device, twitter, Tumblr, etc.

How you can apply this:  

If you’re still talking about sustainability via a paper report or even a downloadable PDF, think about ways you could enliven the information. Instead of just a report, why not think about doing a video to tell the story from a different angle. Or, if you’re a large, multi-category brand, what about creating an app that has the sustainability information for all your products in one easy place, accessible as you’re walking down the grocery store aisle?

You can also think about using technology to get feedback. The adult entertainment industry has long used chat rooms and forums to allow people to interact, and some of their stars have even adopted twitter to interact with their fans. Consider setting up a place where your consumers and other stakeholders can give you feedback. Maybe a twitter handle to gather up a sustainability wish list from your loyal customers? Or web chats and webcasts where you discuss sustainability progress? Walmart has already started doing this with their public webcasts.

2.  Get to the heart of the matter quickly. Not that I’ve ever seen one, but I’ve heard that adult films they are generally light on plot. Similar to a Michael Bay film (Transformers, Pearl Harbor), plot is simply used as a device to carry the viewer between, well, action sequences and provide a quasi-believable story that links everything together.

How you can apply this:

When you’re talking to managers in your company, does your sustainability presentation involve a science lesson, stories of poor orphan children, and a conversion story akin to that of Paul? Stories are incredible tools, but too many of them, and your message gets confused. When you’re talking with managers, get to the heart of the matter quickly. Make sure that the benefits, and the asks of their time are clear and up front. They don’t need a science lesson and they don’t need charming stories, what they need to know is what’s expected of them.

Yes, we all want managers to become sustainability evangelists. But, most won’t (any more than they’ll become financial compliance evangelists). You can still use a story or a framing device, but use it to simply move between the different parts of your presentation. Make sure your managers come away with a clear understanding of the steps they need to take, and the metrics to hit, not what a great story you told. Just remember this: action first, story second.

3.  You don’t always need to be original. Adult films notoriously offer us the same plot device over and over again (pizza delivery, sexy teacher, etc.) or steal from TV and Film titles (Forrest Hump? Really?). Yet, people continue to buy them. Why? Because of the different adult stars and techniques involved that differentiate one title from another.

How you can apply this:

Don’t worry about the creative, worry about how it’s going to get done. Bottom line, your sustainability strategy won’t be that much different than everyone else’s (energy efficiency, waste management, water management, etc.). Stop spending so much time trying to make your strategy unique and instead focus on the practical steps people will have to take. As you go along, the differences will naturally emerge based on your own corporate culture. And, you may find that if you and a competitor have similar goals, collaboration might be a solution to help you both achieve your targets.

4.  Use teasers. If you ever happen to stumble across certain adult websites—accidentally, of course—you’ll note that many use teaser images and trailers to promote their product (yes, I realize the irony inherent in the concept of a teaser which involves naked people). These teasers give you a peak behind the curtain and pique your interest so that you click that “buy” button later.

How you can apply this: 

When you develop your communications materials, are you giving away the whole show? Or do you tease people just enough to get them interested? While it’s not always easy, running campaigns that give away only a particularly tantalizing number ($2 billion saved) to serve as a “hook”—especially with employee engagement—can be incredibly effective. When you’re ready to release your sustainability report, start dropping teasers into your twitter feed (“80% savings? Sign me up! Find out more at….). Or maybe use a teaser graph in an e-mail to your colleagues. Take a graph of your carbon savings over time and remove all the labels and only include a headline to the effect of “What to find out what it all means? Join us for a conference call this Friday.” You might even consider creating a teaser trailer of your own (no nudity please) if you have an in-house media team.

5. Weird Sells.  There are adult sites catering to literally every conceivable niche—from people who like to dress as furry animals to those who are in love with inanimate objects. The industry has clearly taken the long tail theory of selling to heart. Not only does the industry supply content to meet these needs, it has also often created online communities to help people find others with similar interests.

How you can apply this: 

Your energy manager doesn’t experience sustainability in the same way as your lead product designer. So why are you talking about sustainability in the same way with each of them? Think about finding ways to help various departments customize their sustainability programs. You might consider a monthly newsletter to each department with stories that are specific to that department or role. Or, help your colleagues find industry peers in similar positions so they can discuss sustainability with someone who “gets” them. The 2degrees Business Advantage Program is a perfect example of this.

Often niche groups develop their own language, unfamiliar to outsiders. Sustainability certainly has. Try to use this language as much as possible when engaging with different departments and you will likely find more success. You can also do a little homework and find out if there is any trade organization that team members are likely a part of. For example, if you’re working with accountants, perhaps directing them towards sustainability articles in accounting magazines will be more fruitful than if you try to talk to them in a language they are unfamiliar with.

I’m sure there are other lessons we can extract, though in the interest of trying to keep this safe for work, there were a few I couldn’t mention. Either way, using technology to your advantage, getting to the heart of the matter, not being afraid to copy, using teasers, and getting a litte weird, are five lessons from a non-traditional source that just might make you a little more successful in implementing your sustainability program. 

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