On the Hunt :: Manhunt.net leads the Gay Wide Web

by Ethan Jacobs

Bay Windows

Sunday April 6, 2008

For most gay men the name Manhunt.net conjures images of late night hookups and pages upon pages of profiles of hot (and not so hot) naked men. Since its launch seven years ago the company has extended its steamy, sweaty grasp from Boston across the country to become one of the largest gay websites in the United States. In the last few years it has gone international, helping men hook up in Mexico, South America, the U.K., Western Europe and Australia, among other far-flung locales.

But while Manhunt has made its name selling sex, you'd never know it visiting the company's corporate headquarters on the outskirts of Kendall Square in Cambridge. Walk through the front door of the offices of Online Buddies, Inc., Manhunt's corporate moniker, and you'll find a large open reception area decked out in stylish wooden furniture and tasteful accents. There are no naked men prowling the foyer, no video screens showing porn films, no oozing lube dispensers. The vibe it gives off is decidedly more "neat" than "meat."

At first glance the customer service department located towards the back of the office exudes the same sexless professional image. Customer service staffers sit in rows of cubicles, taking phone calls and staring at computer screens. But take a closer look at those screens and it quickly becomes clear that the staff at Manhunt isn't selling widgets. The reps scroll through endless Manhunt profiles, trolling for infractions of company policies (no drug references, no minors, no exchange of money, and no photos of anyone other than yourself are the main rules). As they scroll, the screens become a blur of naked bodies, a sight that would set off not-safe-for-work alarms in any other office. But Travis Roe, the trainer for Manhunt's customer service department, said that for longtime staff members, the titillation factor of coming to work and looking at pictures of naked men dissipates quickly.

"Except for the rare occasion where someone puts something up that is just either way out there or they're just so drop-dead gorgeous you just can't believe it, a dick is a dick, an ass is an ass. It's not to say, you've seen one, you've seen them all. But when you've seen them all ..." said Roe, trailing off and laughing, "At this point you've seen them all, and you get used to it."

Phil Henricks, the company's director of marketing, said that getting to enjoy first-class eye candy is a perk of working at Manhunt, but at the end of the day staffers are numbed to the sexy side of the business.

"It's kind of a fun part of the job. It's kind of hysterical, though, because we're looking at models, [and] as fun as it is it's also completely work, and you kind of get desensitized to it. But it's a combination of being desensitized and also really enjoying it because, hey, we get to select hot models for our ads," said Henricks.

Manhunt's a grower
Manhunt may be a gay household name, but when it launched in 2001 not many people noticed. Its owners and founders, Jonathan Crutchley and Larry Basile, started off in the gay telephone chat line business. Crutchley said nearly all of their customers were from the Boston area. But he said the business began to take a downward turn in 2000, as more men took to the web to find partners. Crutchley and Basile realized that the only way the business would survive is if they took it to cyberspace.

"We decided if the business was going to continue in the long run we needed to put up a website, have guys use the website, and, if it was going to be successful, get them to pay to use the website," said Crutchley. They hired a small team of web designers, tried out a few different models, and eventually launched the website that grew into a gay sex empire.

At first the service was free. By 2002 about 10,000 men from the greater Boston area had created profiles. But the big gamble was, would anyone pay for the service? In April 2002 Manhunt e-mailed its customers and told them that those who wanted to enjoy all the perks of the site would have to pay $10 per month, and those who declined to pay would be able to use a more bare-bones version of the site. About 2000 customers immediately signed up for the paid membership. Crutchley said that income helped give the company the resources to begin expanding their marketing operation outside of Boston. Soon Manhunt made its presence known in cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, building a buzz by holding events at gay bars, advertising in gay publications, paying for advertising on Google and Yahoo, and relying on word of mouth.

Within several years the company grew to become one of the largest gay websites in the United States (Henricks said most web traffic tracking services list them as the largest or second largest, neck and neck with Gay.com and the hook-up site Adam4Adam.com). In the past three to four years the company has expanded dramatically outside the U.S., as well, with large markets in Mexico, South America, the rest of the English-speaking world, and a growing presence in Western Europe.

"The potential's global, and we've reached the tipping point now where there are more subscribers outside the U.S. than in the U.S.," said Crutchley.

"Our motto is world domination. We kind of do strive for that," said Henricks.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the conference room of Manhunt's offices. Mounted on the wall behind the head of the table is a map of the world with pins sticking in every country where gay men are cruising each other on Manhunt. It resembles nothing so much as a James Bond villain's secret plan for global conquest. North America, South America, the U.K. and the rest of Western Europe are covered in pins, and there are a smattering of pins in Australia, Asia, and Africa. If there was money to be made facilitating gay hook-ups among penguins, it's likely Manhunt would be branching out to Antarctica, the one continent on the globe without a single Manhunt pin. Manhunt currently operates in more than 100 countries, and there are 1.3 million subscribers worldwide.

The secret of Manhunt's success?
"I like to use the word consistent, relentless marketing," said Henricks. "The owners have been very generous to me in terms of giving me the budget and the freedom needed to get the word out there. We do everything from Google to online banners to flyers, from guerilla tactics to spending significant amounts of money on Google and everything in between."

And the effort to keep the Manhunt brand in the gay consciousness is a never-ending campaign. This summer Manhunt will launch a 40-city tour of gay bars to promote its seventh anniversary, kicking off in Boston in May. That same month Manhunt will be doing massive promotional events at S?o Paulo Pride in Brazil, the company's third largest market (behind the U.S. and Mexico). S?o Paulo Pride bills itself as the world's largest Pride event, and Manhunt will be sending a float covered with 80 sexy men through the parade. The company will also be running a contest giving people the chance to ride with those same 80 sexy men.

Henricks said one of the biggest challenges in connecting with gay customers outside the U.S. has been the language barrier. Manhunt users can view the site in five languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French or German, and the company recently hired a new translator to ensure that the website and all of the company's promotional materials appeal to native speakers of each of those languages.

"It's not only translating but it's making sure you're using the right tone, making sure the brand is conveyed in the language. It's a constant challenge. And then especially when you're dealing with sexual terms and gay innuendo, how do you say cock and ball torture in Portuguese?" said Henricks.

Beyond marketing Crutchley attributed the company's success to two other factors. One is that the company has intentionally kept the site simple, easy to use, and fast, rather than adding complicated features. The other is the company's focus on customer service. The customer service department is staffed live 24 hours a day, and all calls to the help line are answered by a human being rather than a voicemail system. The department receives thousands of emails each week, but they respond to each e-mail on an average of five to 10 minutes after the customer sends it.

"If anyone has any problem, they get an answer right away, and that's very popular," said Crutchley.

Adventures in customer service
Before coming on board as the full time customer service trainer Roe worked in the department part time for a couple years on the night shift. Back when he first started working in 2004 and 2005 there were about 9000 customers on the site on a busy night; now, he said, it's not uncommon to have 40,000 people on at once. As the number of subscribers has increased Roe said the questions coming into the customer service department have gotten more routine, with most customers asking simple questions about technical problems or billing issues. But in the early days Roe said calls were often much more colorful, particularly on the night shift.

"In the old days we got some really interesting calls, especially when you're getting calls at 3 o'clock in the morning. There's usually another factor involved other than someone just being tired and lonely," said Roe. "I remember one guy on the overnight shift, this member called up, and he was seeing things come out of his computer. And he was confused as to why we were having things fly out of the computer from the site. ... I reassured him that, no, we were not sending demons through the computer screen to get him, just kind of talked him down. But we really don't get calls like that anymore."

What they do occasionally get are calls from people wondering why their credit card bill includes a charge from a company called Online Buddies.

"Occasionally I'll get a mother calling about a charge, and I tell her what the site is, and you hear this pause. And she goes, 'Okay, I'm going to have a talk with my son.' And then you sit there going, 'Oh! I had to be the bearer of bad news,'" said Roe.

"It's not to say, you've seen one, you've seen them all. But when you've seen them all ..."

Horny teenage guys are far from the only people who have had credit card mishaps. Roe said he has received calls from secretaries who discover that their boss accidentally used the company card, rather than their own card, to pay for their Manhunt membership. And occasionally the department gets calls from people's wives.

"I've had wives call, and once we said what the site was you heard all sorts of cursing and screaming in the background. It's unfortunate but it's like, you share a credit card with somebody, you use a credit card that isn't yours, you should be smart about it," said Roe.

Playing it safe?
Manhunt, and the Internet in general, have occasionally been targeted by those claiming that Internet cruising puts gay men at higher risk of HIV transmission. Back in 2005 the New York Times published a story on a gay man in New York infected with a supposed HIV "superbug" who had slept with and potentially infected hundreds of partners he met on the Internet. The name of the site used by the man was never disclosed, but the Times cited Manhunt as one of a handful of hook-up sites that have "provoked the most worry" among health experts. The claim that the New York man was infected with a "superbug" was later debunked, but Stephen Adelson, then serving as Manhunt's general manager, gave an interview with New York Magazine shortly after the Times article and attempted to answer the criticisms.

While the Times claimed that health officials are worried about Manhunt, in practice the company has earned largely rave reviews from the public health field.

"Manhunt really shows leadership in the industry from recognizing that they had a role in supporting the public health and individual health of their members," said Kevin Cranston, who heads the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's (DPH) HIV/AIDS Bureau. Since 2004 the Massachusetts DPH has partnered with Manhunt, providing funding to community-based organizations to conduct HIV/AIDS outreach on the site. The 11 DPH-sponsored agencies each have profiles on the site, and a certain number of hours each week they sign on. Men signed onto the site can chat with the outreach workers from the agencies, ask them questions about HIV and STDs, and get referrals to HIV testing and other services. In DPH's fiscal year 2007, 574 men got information from DPH-funded agencies on Manhunt about HIV/AIDS, other STDs, and substance abuse; nearly 100 of those men also received referrals for HIV testing.

Massachusetts' DPH may be the first health department to partner with Manhunt, but it's not alone. Shaun Lord, Manhunt's health liaison, said more than 20 state and city health departments have funded outreach efforts through Manhunt in much the same way as Massachusetts, funding organizations to have outreach workers answer questions and provide referrals on the site. Lord said agencies also receive free banner ad space on the site, and Manhunt recently unveiled its new "Manhunt Cares" logo, which will be displayed prominently on every health organization profile, allowing members to identify health resources among the other profiles. Manhunt has also partnered with health departments to begin doing partner notification through the site.

Lord said Manhunt began its work with health organizations about four years ago after noticing that several community-based groups had taken it upon themselves to create profiles and begin doing outreach on Manhunt. He said the company believes it has a responsibility to help protect the health of its members.

"We absolutely have an obligation, providing information to them. We want to do that for the members so they can make educated decisions. Obviously we can't force them to do what we think is right, but we want them to have the information and resources there so if they have a question they can reach out and talk to somebody," said Lord.

Asked if he had any concern about a link between Internet cruising and HIV transmission, Cranston said that as of now there is no conclusive research showing that men who meet each other for sex via the Internet are engaging in riskier behavior than men who meet for sex in other venues. But given the rise of the web as a meeting space for gay men, he said it makes sense to focus outreach efforts there.

"You have to go where the population is, and when gay men in large numbers began to use online services to connect with each other, it made sense [to bring outreach there]," said Cranston.

Crutchley said ultimately the responsibility for staying safe rests with individual gay men, regardless of where they meet up for sex.

"Gay men are going to meet each other whether they're going to meet in a bar or at a rest stop or whether Sen. [Larry] Craig is going to meet in a public toilet. ... What we're doing is providing people a convenient way to meet, and we're providing people messages about safe sex," said Crutchley. "They're going to do what they're going to do. It is a free country. I'm not encouraging them to be unsafe. In fact I'm doing what I can do to help them be safe."

Lord said he expects the number of health departments partnering with Manhunt to increase. Last month the National Coalition of STD Directors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a set of national guidelines on doing HIV-related Internet outreach, and the guidelines referenced Manhunt as one of several sites where organizations are already doing effective outreach. Lord said the CDC-backed set of guidelines would make health officials more comfortable working with such a potentially controversial company like Manhunt.

"State departments, some don't want to work with us because of the kind of website we are, and they didn't have the permission, didn't have the protocols. Now the protocol's here," said Lord.

Critics have also blamed websites like Manhunt for allegedly killing the gay nightlife scene, drawing business away from the bars and reducing the number of public spaces where gay people can meet up in person and form a sense of community. Last December the Boston Globe ran an extended feature bemoaning the shrinking gay bar scene and ascribing at least part of the blame on the Gay Wide Web, claiming that it is "usurping gay bars' most important function: a place for men to meet each other."

Yet Michael Bronski, Dartmouth professor, cultural critic and occasional Bay Windows contributor, said he does not believe Manhunt and similar sites will drive a stake through the bar scene anytime soon.

"There were some fears when the Internet first started and people were cruising on the Internet that it would wipe out gay bars. That hasn't happened. There will always be gay people who want to go out for the evening," said Bronski.

He also said that while most of the men on Manhunt are looking to hook up, that does not mean that sex is all that is on their mind. In mainstream straight culture, people assume that someone willing to have sex with a complete stranger is not boyfriend (or marriage) material. But Bronski said many gay men do not share that outlook.

"I would venture that half of the people cruising Manhunt are cruising for a boyfriend or a lover... I think Manhunt is a different configuration of meeting people for some kind of dating that might lead to some kind of relationship," said Bronski.

What's next? Your own Boogie Nights
What's next for Manhunt? Henricks said this fall the company will be launching version four (V4) of the site, with web chat features and a few tweaks to improve the site's functionality. Manhunt will also continue its expansion plans, and Henricks said in the next five to ten years the company is looking to expand into largely uncharted territory like China and India.

This June Manhunt will also launch a new venture, OnTheHunt.com, the company's first porn site. Henricks said Manhunt is partnering with several porn directors, and the new site will give Manhunt members the chance to become amateur porn stars.

"If you're interested in being filmed and you have a boyfriend or fuck buddy or somebody you'd like to be filmed with, we'll actually fly the porn star to your home to film it for you, to ensure the quality, to ensure that it's not completely 100 percent kind of sloppy, amateurish footage and it's shot correctly so our members can properly enjoy the scene without a shaky camera or bad lighting," said Henricks. Members who step in front of the camera will be paid $1000 per scene.

That's one way to weather the recession.

Copyright Bay Windows. For more articles from New England's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.baywindows.com