Ashley Madison‘s tagline has taken on a new ring amid the COVID-19 pandemic — “Life’s short. Have an affair.” And the “married dating” site, used to conduct clandestine affairs, has found itself in the midst of a boom.
Despite the fact that it’s harder than ever to physically meet up with a fellow cheater, Ashley Madison is seeing a surge in users. Some are just looking to chat with someone other than a spouse, some are seeking emotional validation or the fantasy of pursuing a secret sex life. Ashely Madison says it has a trove of data on how people behave, like how the site gets more signups on Mondays.
The company became a household name in July 2015, when hackers stole data on 32 million cheating spouses. The leak of sensitive data led to spouses discovering that their significant others were cheating. Divorces, breakups, and suicides ensued. The hackers also exposed that Ashley Madison used bots posing as attractive young women to lure men into engaging more with the site.
The company says it has since beefed up its security and rid itself of the bots. And now it’s more than double the size it was at the time of the hack, with over 65 million members last year. During 2019, the company added 15,500 new members a day. More recently, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been adding 17,000 new members a day.
I recently talked with chief strategy officer Paul Keable about all of this. He started at the company in 2013, took a break after the hack, and returned in 2017, so he’s seen it come back from the dead. We talked about investments in video and security innovations, as well as the psychology around affairs.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: What’s happening with the popularity of Ashley Madison during the coronavirus?
Paul Keable: We’re continuing to see strong interest. If you step away from the initial shock of what’s come upon us, we see that places like us are likely to have value. The reason to join us is there are fractures, often, at home, and those are going to be amplified, dramatically. So, if you’re under quarantine or in working from home situations with your spouse and not having [the] respite [of] going into the office and being away, people are going to look at this as an outlet, even if it won’t be a physical interaction, at least in the short term. But having someone to talk to who’s having similar feelings is going to be a relief, and it’s potentially going to be of value to a lot of people who are experiencing that.
VentureBeat: What is the way you explain the existence of Ashley Madison for folks? Why is there demand for it, and why does it make sense to do it in the way you do?
Keable: In the early 2000s, our founders saw something that really lit the proverbial lightbulb. Up to 30% of the profiles on these matchmaking sites were actually married people pretending to be single. That indicated to them that clearly there was a market for this. They created a place where people could be a little bit more honest in terms of what they were looking for, and meet similar people.
The traditional dating sites certainly don’t want married people on their sites pretending to be single. That makes for a bad experience. We created Ashley Madison, launched on Valentine’s Day in 2002, and now we’re in 50 countries and 19 languages. It’s our belief that monogamy is not everything we were told it was. We were told it was a lot of different things, but it doesn’t work for a segment of the population. It’s not for everyone.
We often hear from our members that they love their spouses, they love their families and the situation they’re in, but there’s something missing. Often it’s a physical component, from an intimacy standpoint. By seeking an affair discreetly, they’re able to maintain all the aspects of life that they value and enjoy. We’re traditionally told to either suck it up and live without the thing that you want or get a divorce and give up everything you want in search of just one thing. We’re creating a third path for people, and clearly, with everything we’ve been through nearly 20 years later, 17,000 people joining every day, we’re making a mark and establishing a space for ourselves.
VentureBeat: What is the monthly active number now?
Keable: I pulled up the last three days, because so much has changed. I wanted to see what our daily signups were like. We’re averaging more than 17,000 new members a day. In our 2019 report, we averaged 15,500 new members every day. It’s a little bit up over our daily average last year at this point in time, so that’s interesting. We’ll continue to monitor it and see how the current situation we’re facing impacts the business one way or another.
VentureBeat: Do you disclose any larger numbers?
Keable: We reached 65 million members in 2019. That’s a total [number of members] joined since launch in 2002. We signed up about 5.6 million new members last year. It showed steady growth over the course of the year, and we continue to see that number grow in 2020. We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things about how the core business operates in the next short period of time, but I think the core story is that as people look to the value of monogamy, a certain segment of the population is always going to see value in a place like Ashley Madison. We’ve seen that we’re the number one married dating website in the world by leaps and bounds.
VentureBeat: When you had the hack, what was the consequence of that? Did users disappear for a while or did you shut down for a while?
Keable: Obviously, that brought our numbers down, but even during the worst moments of that period, we were signing up more than 100,000 people a day. The massive spread of media coverage — a lot of those people were signing up just thinking, “What is this, is this for real?” But we also saw revenues jump during that small time frame.
As we moved into 2015 and looked inward, we considered what we needed to do to repair the trust we’d lost with our members. We put forth a plan that took 18 to 20 months to execute in terms of understanding what we needed to repair, what we needed to build, where we needed to build. Obviously, that started with acquiring a whole new security team to look at how to change the technology, the software suite, and how people view security from a business standpoint. Those changes have really started to show the value that we’re offering in a bigger way. That’s part and parcel of the reason why our daily average numbers have continued to grow year over year. We’ve shown that our business has been treated seriously. We listened to what our members needed. They’ve started to trust us again, and that’s the important message about that.
VentureBeat: I recall there being a lot of controversy around bots during the hack. Did something change in that case?
Keable: Ruby, our parent corporation, when they purchased Ashley Madison in 2007, found that [the bot] program did exist at the time. By 2013, we had already begun to shut down that program. We turned it off in Canada, and then in Australia in 2014. We were working systematically to shut it down and improve the tech stack for our platform. Unfortunately, obviously, what occurred in 2015 exposed that program and made it look a lot worse than it was. As soon as we shut it down, we still continued to grow from a membership standpoint. It wasn’t a big part of our business, and that’s part of the reason we needed to shut it down. That’s why we also, in our original membership report from 2017, we brought in Ernst and Young to verify the numbers and verify that the whole bot program did not exist.
VentureBeat: How much of your growth is organic versus advertising? Where do you do advertising, if you do some of that?
Keable: The vast majority of our traffic is organic. Part of that, I think, is because our brand recognition goes beyond our size. There’s a whole Simpsons episode about Ashley Madison. Hollywood has made movies where we’re central to the plotline. Jennifer Garner and Adam Sandler were in a movie called Men, Women, and Children, and there’s a whole storyline about Ashley Madison. We punch above our weight. That helps drive the organic eyes. When someone is looking for an option, they’ve likely heard of us. They read stories about us in publications. It answers a question they’ve been asking themselves if they haven’t heard about us: “Wait a minute, what about this?”
In terms of where we can advertise, there are limitations, which is interesting. Places like Facebook and Twitter won’t let us advertise. I find that really egregious in the case of something like Facebook, because they’re in an anticompetitive situation. They run their own dating site, which is run separately from the main Facebook platform, but there’s a connection. I can sign up for an account on the dating platform, and it won’t show my profile to anyone I’m friends with, which means that if I’m friends with my wife’s friends, they won’t see it. It doesn’t display my marital status. It’s the opposite of what a traditional dating site should be doing. But at the same time, they block us but let other dating platforms advertise. Most of our stuff, we have to find publishers that are comfortable with the content. We’ll do different kinds of digital advertising. But most of it is online, from that perspective.
VentureBeat: A lot of what we write about at VentureBeat is around disruptive innovation. How do you think about that? Where do you feel you are on the leading edge?
Keable: I think we’re one of the most disruptive brands, quite frankly. If you think about the idea of disruptive brands in the economy — what we really did was disrupt the whole dating concept. Traditional dating has worked pretty much the same way for eons. There wasn’t a service out there that arranged for affairs with other married people. That’s something we really invented. We created a whole new industry. There are now brand competitors that are trying to mimic us, but they’ve never been able to reach our status, for a lot of different reasons. They don’t really understand the dynamic that’s at work within our membership.
We do look at ourselves as one of the original disruptors. People may not like that, given the space that we play in, but it certainly fits with regard to how we’ve approached telling our story. We didn’t do it in a quiet, subtle way, which I think, again, is what a lot of people would have thought was the right way to present our brand, to do it quietly. We try to get out there and be as loud as we can in a sense.
It’s not trying to convince somebody to have an affair. We want to show people what’s really happening behind the walls of Ashley Madison and in the world of infidelity. It’s often not what they’ve been told it is, or what they think it is.
VentureBeat: On the technology side, do you have to do a lot of investment, and where does it go? I assume security is paramount, but how would you describe that?
Keable: I look at it two different ways. Every day we have to wake up and look at what’s happened in the world that’s changed, and what we need to do to be better and [boost] security. There’s no checkbox, where the team can say, “Okay, we’ve done security. We’re okay for the next six months or a year.” It doesn’t work that way. Obviously, we’re continuing to invest in that team and invest in that space, both technology and people, to build that framework.
On the more product side, we heavily invest in research and development. If we stay status quo, eventually someone catches up with us. Eventually, we would become obsolete. We’re investing in new forms of chat features, in the tech people use to connect. How is — not just dating in general — but how is marriage and monogamy changing? One thing we do is we work a lot with universities around the world to conduct research on the nature of infidelity, monogamy, and marriage to understand — what are people thinking, outside just our business perspective? Where are the long-term trends that are starting to emerge? We work with universities to produce this kind of research that informs us on societal trends so that technology can be designed and built around where people are heading.
VentureBeat: You mentioned that the lockdowns we’re having, the coronavirus effect, are causing a change of some kind. What’s the way to understand that?
Keable: One of the busiest jumps for us is usually the first week of January. Particularly in Western cultures, people spend a week or two, more potentially, with their family, potentially their extended family, over the Christmas holiday break. That emphasis on family time amplifies the tension that might exist in those relationships. When people head back to work in that first week of January, we usually see a 10-15% jump, if not more, in our daily signups. It shows us that we are, again, answering people’s problems.
In this case right now, when people are working from home, and some people are in multiple-week quarantines, those fractures are going to be exposed. They’re going to deepen. People are going to look for outlets. I saw a report the other day coming up on my Twitter feed that there was a sudden spike in divorce filings in China after the quarantines were starting to be lifted. Again, those fractures were opening up in that locale, and people were discovering that maybe this wasn’t the situation they wanted to be in. We think that, with our offering, we can help them.
VentureBeat: The kind of chat that happens, has there been much change in that over time? Is it essentially just email, or do you have other kinds of real-time chat or voice and video chat?
Keable: Right now, it’s primarily through an email-type function. We’re looking at some options that would potentially include video. That would have some discreet filters incorporated into the product. We’re also looking at products where you could chat with somebody from a fantasy standpoint, because sometimes what you’re looking for is a different, more unique type of experience. We’re always looking at testing different aspects of — what are the experiences people are looking for? What are the release valves people are trying to pull with regards to a relationship or a marriage, and how can we build that for them?
VentureBeat: What do you see by aggregating data? Do you notice that married dating is most popular in certain parts of the world? Is there anything that surprises you?
Keable: It’s funny. I’ve been with the company now for a little over six years, but the first few weeks my mind was being blown daily. There are still always surprises that come to the forefront in terms of the anecdotal stories, but from a big data perspective, that’s really what helps inform us in terms of why people behave and how things occur.
I can look at, for instance, when more people are likely to sign up. It’s Monday morning. Why is that? Because, again, you spent the weekend with your partner, and those cracks amplify. You seek other solutions on Monday mornings. Conversations usually ramp up closer to the weekend. They might peak on a Thursday. You’re making plans, potentially, for the weekend. That’s what really guides us.
As far as the changes around the world, that’s the interesting aspect. Something like eHarmony or Match, their business model doesn’t necessarily export so easily around the world, because dating changes from culture to culture, whereas affairs are very similar, no matter what part of the world they exist in. If you look at our reports, there are some places where we see more women in the ratio, but for the most part, it’s a fairly balanced ratio of men to women in every market that we operate in. It depends on the population size, the economy, and access to mobile internet. All those little elements feature into it. But we feel that for the most part, affairs of the heart are universal, and the language may be changing, but the actions are very similar no matter which part of the world you’re coming from.
VentureBeat: I don’t know that you have a way of measuring this, but do you know how many people just chat, as opposed to actually meeting someone?
Keable: I can’t put that in a data point, because obviously not everyone is going to inform us, but in talking to a lot of members, and we talk to them every week, I do know a lot of people in particular that just come for the conversation, that outlet. And all sorts of different types. Not just sex talk. There can be just casual conversations.
One of the more interesting things — we did work with the University of Missouri and Dr. Alicia Walker. She did a long-term study with both men and women. We certainly know that people chat, and sometimes they’re looking only for conversation. Through that study, we know that men, in particular, are more likely to come on seeking emotional validation. That often comes in the form of chat. That’s one of the primary needs or desires, more so than anything physical. I’m not saying all men want that, but it was a bigger proportion than we had originally thought. On the flip side, women were coming almost exclusively because they were looking for a physical outlet. There was a much bigger cohort of men who were looking for an emotional outlet through chat versus a physical interaction.
VentureBeat: As far as security tech goes, are there any interesting developments on that front in the last few years that have helped you? Do you go through testing that produces any kind of report on that?
Keable: Absolutely. We have a vetting program that’s always up and running. We have pen testing that’s constantly being scheduled. When we launch new features and releases, it’ll go through a phase where we obviously want to look into that. Our security team, as I mentioned earlier, is working constantly. They’re not just thinking of, “What are we going to do today?” Not just for the needs of the product as it is, but as we’re building toward new things and expanding into new areas.
It’s a funny part of the business. It’s the one that people ask the most questions about, but it’s the part we talk about the least. Whenever we give away details, that obviously gives away information that would be useful for a bad actor. We do all the things that major corporations in this space do to make sure that our security is where it needs to be on a daily basis.
VentureBeat: Did you have any luck appealing to Facebook on the advertising issue?
Keable: We have had multiple conversations with them, and no, it’s a fruitless conversation, unfortunately. They let in some dating platforms and block others. This is part of the problem with Facebook, in general, in that they get to pick and choose which companies are going to advertise on the second-largest, if not the largest, digital advertising platform in the world. We question the validity of that. We look at some of the competitors there on the platform, and obviously look at Facebook’s dating platform, and we think we should be allowed. We would be happy to work within their guidelines and framework that any brand would have to follow, but it’s been an absolute no.
VentureBeat: Can you talk about how the company is run? How many employees are there, and what are most of them doing?
Keable: We’re about 159 people in our offices. Obviously, the vast majority would be on the technology side, running and administrating the platform. They’re building new products and new features. We have a robust business analytics component that helps us manage our data from the perspective of, “What is this trying to tell us?” Not just getting overwhelmed with the numbers. Of course, we have the security team, and then we have a small marketing team, five or six people. The vast majority of our traffic is organic, as I said, word of mouth reaching people who understand that it offers something to them. And then the last people would be our customer support team. People contact us needing help with the technology, how to use the platform, and we’re always there to help them with any questions they might have.
VentureBeat: Have you ever needed to raise money, or is it all self-funded?
Keable: Self-funded from day one. At this stage, we would never say never to a capital opportunity, but at this point, we’re still self-funded. We always keep our eyes and ears open if there are interested parties.
VentureBeat: Is there anything else you feel like you need to communicate to people?
Keable: The biggest thing is that we’re not out here to tell people that our business is good or bad, obviously. But before you judge, try to look at the information and understand why people choose infidelity. Then try to make a more informed decision. Not just because your government or your religion says it’s bad. There’s a lot that’s going on behind the veil. We’re always willing to talk about it. There’s more to this than meets the eye, to a certain degree.
Ashley Madison is one of the more resilient brands out there. We’ve gone through some life-altering events and we’re still standing. As we look forward to the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be offering a solution for some people. Hopefully, we can meet the demand when it shows up. There’s an opportunity for us to provide a solution for some people, even if it’s just a release valve for the next few weeks or months.