Oct 9, 2013 · 4 minutes

You can learn a lot by watching porn.

Not the videos, man, the industry. Over the past decade, the Internet has torn apart adult entertainment's business model just like it's done to newspapers, music, and Hollywood. What's interesting, though, is how the adult industry has built it back up. The most highly-trafficked porn sites today, like YouPorn and Montreal-based Pornhub (NSFW obviously), are platforms, not publications. They aren't the ones behind or in front or sometimes on top of the camera. They merely host the content, serve ads against it, and link out to affiliate sites that pay them in kind for the clicks.

This week, Pornhub will launch a new product that experiments with how we consume content on the Web. And it's something media companies, both pornographic and clean, can learn from.

The service is called PornIQ and it uses an algorithm to create personalized video playlists for the viewer based on his or her porn preferences, the time of day, what part of the world they live in, and the available amount of time the viewer has to enjoy it. It's not unlike Songza, a service that creates music playlists based around similar data points. Think of it as a "porn concierge."

"If you know exactly what you're looking for, just search," says Pornhub VP Corey Price, describing the service. "But if you don't know exactly what you want, this is a great way to deliver a different kind of experience." Just like how on Spotify it can feel as if there's "too much music," on Pornhub there's just too much porn.

Data plays heavily into the recommendations made by PornIQ, and indeed Pornhub is known for collecting some fascinating sociological and behavioral information on its users, like what kind of porn people in Afghanistan watch. This data-intensive approach sets it apart from media companies who have tried similar playlist-oriented features like Cory Booker's reportedly floundering site waywire which focuses on user-generated playlists. While user-generated playlists are a nice feature to have on sites like Spotify (and theoretically waywire), porn consumption is a much more private affair. Who's going to share their "public amateur threesome" playlist on Facebook?

The switch from searching for what you want to passive curation is a trend we're seeing across media. Look at Circa, a news app which thanks to a recent update will intelligently suggest content based on the stories you want to follow. Apps like News360 offer a similar service. Even the chaotic self-curation of Twitter is getting a bit more data-friendly with features like @MagicRecs, which tell you which tweets and tweeters are relevant, based on the activity of those you follow.

Like all businesses supported in large part by advertising, running a free online adult entertainment site comes with challenges. But Pornhub's been able to weather these for a few reasons.

For one, Pornhub serves up a product that's highly in-demand, and their traffic shows it, with over 70 million daily visitors to the Pornhub Network of sites, and multiple destinations in the top 100 sites in the world.

But there's another factor Price cites for the success of online porn versus other entertainment industries. "The difference in adult is that there was never a TV platform where they made tons of money in advertising." Without big commercial deals to subsidize their product, and with a much smaller pool of advertisers willing to work with them, porn companies have been able to run lean media companies from the start.

And finally, content creation, even when it's shot in a dingy apartment on a handheld camera, can get expensive. Pornhub and the other sites in its network like Tube8, follow the YouTube model of hosting other people's video, whether it's user-generated or from a content partner.

Of course, there are a few areas where adult entertainment sites come at a distinct disadvantage. Not every advertiser is comfortable running ads alongside hardcore sexual positions. But that stigma has eroded considerably, as our Michael Carney wrote last month. Between the really high traffic and "dirt cheap inventory" offered by sites like Pornhub, many advertisers can't afford to be prudish about where they hock their goods.

Social media poses another interesting challenge for adult entertainment companies. After all, porn is pretty private, and you're not going to share that Pornhub video you just watched on Facebook for all your friends, family, and employers to see no matter how much you enjoyed it. But for Price, it's all about finding the right network. "Tumblr has a lot (of porn). From Reddit, we get hundreds of thousands of visits across our network," citing "/r/pornvideos" as a good source of traffic. Twitter and Facebook, because they're generally less anonymous, push less views (and we didn't discuss it but I can't imagine LinkedIn driving much either), but nevertheless they've picked up some high-profile follows to the Pornhub Twitter account, like NBA player Lamar Odom and singer Rihanna.

Online pornography may not be something you want to discuss in public. It might not be the best content sector to bring up in your next board meeting. But there are elements of these sites that all media companies can learn from, whether it's how to build a platform, using data to serve up personalized content, or knowing where to find your audience on social.

"We're no different from any other online site," says Lisa Miller, Pornhub's PR coordinator. "We don't differentiate. We have developers and engineers. What we do is very similar to what everyone else does. We just have a high amount of traffic."

Now if we could only get all those people to read about Syria, too.