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How adultery service Ashley Madison matured after two years in exile

Two years ago, infidelity site Ashley Madison was at the centre of a hacking scandal that leaked details of over 30m users. However, the company has now exclusively told Real Business about how the attack made it stronger and, ironically, more mature.
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Ashley Madison was built to allow those in long-term relationships and marriages strike up affairs and date others also (less) committed, complete with a tagline of: “Life is short. Have an affair.”

A little over two years ago, if you thought it impossible for the controversial infidelity dating service to become any more notorious then you would have been mistaken.

Ashley Madison, set up by Noel Biderman, found itself in the middle of a very high-profile hacking scandal in July 2015 – a scenario that brought an immediate halt to the company’s marketing efforts. Reportedly, most of the 37m members had their details exposed for the masses to see online.

Ashley Madison old branding

After the hack, the business continued to grow natively

“Too bad for ALM [Avid Life Media – parent of Ashley Madison], you promised secrecy but didn’t deliver,” the hackers declared.

For the past two years, Ashley Madison has been laying low, trying to restore faith in the business internally before going on to resume any obvious external efforts.

The self-imposed exile didn’t result in the company switching off. It still operated, but merely let customers come to them. And come they did, especially in the UK. In Britain alone, the business has been attracting an astonishing 20,000 new users a month.

With a new outlook and growth coming in, Real Business spoke with Ashley Madison VP of communications, Paul Keable, to find out more exclusively.

With size and scale in mind, the business had a reported 37m users at the time of the hack two years ago. In July 2016 that membership base had grown to a reported 46m, offering an insight into how consumers value their security. Now that figure has grown further still over the year to 54.6m users globally.

Keable spoke about the company’s reduced marketing and explained that in two years it didn’t stop Ashley Madison from dominating its sector.

“I think we have been very quiet. Oscar Wilde said: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’ It’s been the hardest thing to face. We worked internally to get back to market,” he detailed.

“The biggest challenge is not being public and present in people’s minds when we’ve always been an open and transparent brand on the types of people who join, and we like to discuss the nature of infidelity.

“There are other brands that mimic and copy us, but I can also say I don’t think anyone stepped into the breach to take our leadership space. Very few people can speak in a way we can – a lot of competitors are small and local. We have 54m accounts in 50 countries. It’s hard for someone to step in and take that mantle.”

Ashley Madison app

“People are still comfortable with the idea of infidelity online”

Managing that 2015 data breach was not easy for Ashley Madison though. A little over a month later and former CEO, Noel Biderman, left the company he had been part of for years.

In July the following year, a new CEO in the form of Rob Segal was appointed, while Avid Life Media rebranded as Ruby Corp and gave itself a new tagline – “Life is short. Have an affair” became “Find your moment”.

“That was a very unfortunate event that occurred to us and very unfortunate to members. What we’ve been doing is looking very inwards about where to mature and evolve as a company,” said Keable about recovering from the data disaster.

He admitted that, while the business has grown natively, the hacking scandal did damage growth.

“It was one of the more significant security events we’ve seen. Our business has taken a step back by probably more than 40 per cent, but we’re seeing indicators towards growth, and confident coming out of our shell,” he detailed.

“We evaluate processes and the way we grew, and have accelerated plans in place. Every day you can open a paper and see high-profile security cases, like HBO right now.

“What we see most importantly is how people vote with wallets, and there are 20,000 new sign-ups in the UK every month. People are still comfortable with the idea of infidelity online – they want a leader in the space and that’s us.”

Explaining why the UK is a hot market outside of its native Canada and neighbouring US, Keable referred to third party data revealing details of British affairs. YouGov findings showed 20 per cent of men admitted having an affair, just ahead of 19 per cent of women.

“It’s an active market seeking the service we have – the UK has a very evolved culture. Just because you seek the service, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. People are looking for alternatives to divorce. It’s positive for us and new members,” he said.

“The business, we’ve never really shut it down. And with previous marketing efforts, if you hadn’t heard of us, people had by the end of summer 2015.”

Ashley Madison homepage

“We haven’t been vocal, but infidelity hasn’t decreased and nor is it going to”

In terms of demographic differences in the UK compared to the US, Keable believes infidelity spans all races, religions and cultures – so it doesn’t dramatically change.

“It’s more about where are people in their life cycle – the first few years of marriage, baby bump years. You go from the honeymoon period to a very different world. With empty nesters, people are looking at someone they’ve been living together 20-30 years and may find they’re not the same people,” said Keable.

While the brand may have been absent in many ways, the business model is sustainable and growth can be achieved with tens of thousands of new marriages happening each year presenting a new opportunity, he added.

“Infidelity is not new. We haven’t been vocal, but infidelity hasn’t decreased and nor is it going to. Monogamy is not part of our DNA, it’s something we created,” he opined, adding it gets harder the longer a relationship goes on for.

As the tagline change may have suggested, there will be less scandal from Ashley Madison in the future, something it once thrived on.

“One thing you’re going to see is a more mature approach – before it was more salacious and scandalous. Who is joining Ashley Madison? It’s not who you think it is – it crosses every member of society, colleagues, your father, mother, neighbour. We choose to denigrate it.”

For anyone who envisions Ashley Madison as a Playboy Mansion with a startup vibe, that’s not the case, Keable said.

With tech at the heart of the Toronto operation, it’s able to bring in a diverse group of recruits thanks to Canada’s laws on immigration, which he feels allows the business to push boundaries.

With 110 staff at present, there are now more than 20 vacancies available to fill as Ashley Madison ramps up its efforts once more.

Looking ahead, Keable concluded: “As part of the evolution, it’s a very members-centric approach – a longer term relationship, member growth and member experience; less on revenue. We’ll continually be driving brand awareness.

“Every company faces a challenge of a leak today and we’re addressing it in a way we feel comfortable with. We looked number of approaches, technology, process, people and culture, bolstering internal staff and external processes. The thing with tech and security, what is good today may not be good tomorrow, so how we approach it is we’re never restful.

“We’re really excited to be back and from a business perspective, there’s a significant opportunity to create some long-term relationships.”

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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