Aug 17, 2010

Rethinking Online Dating

Evaluating a potential mate through a list of criteria is like trying to describe why you like a work of art through its characteristics. And as Malcolm Gladwell once pointed out, you either like the painting or you don’t. Online dating suffers from the same problem.

If you’re one of the 92M singles in the US (thank you Census Bureau), or are recently-coupled, and are technology-savvy, more likely than not, you’ve tried an online dating service. In fact, some 40M singles in the US have ever gotten a date online. Yet online dating hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.

All of which begs the question that my friend and savvy consumer Internet investor Larry Marcus at Walden Venture Capital posed to me last week: what would you do if you could completely rethink online dating?

Ask nearly any technically savvy young bay area couple where they’ve met and there’s a good chance you’ll get a pause, a smile and the answer that they met online.

If they say they met some other way, you’re going to wonder, of course. Because in an age where we check in, tweet, and post our photos online, there’s still a sense of embarrassment associated with meeting your mate on the Internet. One reason is that finding true love on the Internet seems more than a little unromantic.

The Market
The two big paid sites take different approaches to online dating. Match shows you a whole lot of pictures along with profiles for you to read. eHarmony presents the user with an ultra-long questionnaire, which is then used as input to the site’s matching algorithms.

There’s big money in online dating. Match.com claims some $350M in revenue, some 20M total members, 1.35M paying subscribers, and 20,000 new members a day. eHarmony did some $250M in revenue in 2009. There are also, of course, the two big free sites, PlentyofFish and OKCupid.

Then there’s Zoosk, which launched in December, 2007 and leveraged Facebook and innovations around virtual goods to grow its user base.

Of course, for investors, one major question is: what’s the exit strategy? But I digress…

Rethinking Online Dating
Much of the existing online dating world revolves around two primary factors: your photo and whether you are compatible with your potential match.

According to Match, “Comparing your profiles side by side is a quick way to calculate chemistry.”

Here are some items that Match.com puts on the list: Age, Height, Eye color, Hair color, Body type, Smoking, Drinking, Job, Income, Ethnicity, Religion, Education, Languages, Marital, Want kids, Children, Exercise…  you get the idea.

Evaluating a potential mate through criteria like these is much like evaluating a work of art by breaking it down into its characteristics rather than just deciding whether – as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in blink – you like the piece of art or not. What looks good on paper may not make for a great real world relationship.

So what are other ways we could match people up?

We could send them out into the offline world! OK, OK back to online.

It’s been said that opposites attract. How about a site for opposites? Unfortunately, OppositeMatch.com is already taken and doesn’t look too active.

We could go with friends’ recommendations. One problem with this approach is that even though your friends probably know you better than you know yourself, try as they might they are unlikely to accurately describe you in an online dating profile.

The challenge is that a bunch of characteristics don’t tell us the one thing we really need to know: when put together, is there going to be a spark? Context can help too. Some situations are more conducive than others to people having a first impression of each other that will lead to the desire for a second and third impression.

What about:

Music – Larry’s original suggestion. Imagine a service where you listen and get matched with others who like the same music you do (think using Pandora thumbs up and bookmarking patterns).

Food – This one’s a little harder to do online. But perhaps there’s some way that Yelp or Opentable could match similar reviewers.

Art and Photos – With so much art and digital photography available online, users could indicate whether they like or dislike a series of images. That data could then be used to match up potential mates.

Finally, what about making online dating more fun? Online dating is very Web 1.0 – text, photos, and email. Adding music, art, and photos to the mix could make online dating a whole lot more fun. Leveraging an existing community, rather than building from scratch, would also be key.

It’s hard to say for sure whether such an approach would work. But two things are certain: first, dating is a growing market. Second, I’ll be more than happy to try out such a service if you build it. Whether that will give you the launchpad you need to get to 100M users, is, of course, another question.

6 Comments

  • Dave,

    Interesting post – you have some good ideas.

    On the “find a partner based on musical taste’ idea – I believe Tastebuds.fm already does this (or is trying to do this) http://tastebuds.fm/ – they actually can just pull in your Last.fm profile to build your dating profile.

    On the “Food” idea – I think it’s a tough way to break down a dating profile – half of people will write something obvious like Pizza and the other half will write something obscurely unique like bacon donuts dipped in mayonaise.

    I think there’s the biggest opportunity is somehow bridging the online and “real” worlds – where you could do something like erhamony or match.com meets foursquare – take my dating profile and match it to whoever’s nearby. Just an idea.

  • You should check out HowAboutWe.com. I had lunch with the founder yesterday – it’s doing really, really well. The premise is that people on the site propose dates… “How about we go get ice cream in Central Park?” The activity then leads you to read the person’s profile, look at their photos, send messages, and ultimately decide to connect offline. They’ve had very impressive metrics around user registrations and conversion to subscription memberships.

  • My company did focus groups and beta testing in the San Francisco Bay Area for 2 years to define the service for Matches That Matter.

    Like eHarmony, we eschew online profiles and chatting. Unlike anu other online dating service, we put our compatible daters into a group of 12 and have them meet for three work doing volunteer work at not-for-profits.

  • My company did focus groups and beta testing in the San Francisco Bay Area for 2 years to define the service for Matches That Matter.

    Like eHarmony, we eschew online profiles and chatting. Unlike any other online dating service, we put our compatible daters into a group of 12 and have them meet for three work doing volunteer work at not-for-profits. It’s easy to get to know someone over time, with our frequency of contact model.

  • Hi David. Very interesting ideas. We did the same thing a while ago and came up with Weopia. It is a 3D virtual world dating application that allows you to meet with your date and experience him or her in ways that aren’t possible through email and PIM that dating sites offer.

    In Weopia, users can share their music interests, look at art and talk about it with voice chat, explore the world and engage in activities and relationship quizzes which take them beyond the traditional search results that you mention here. They find that while experiencing things in a pseudo-realistic world, that they do discover deeper nuances of personality.

    Harvard research shows that their real-life date will be more successful after virtual dating and that it will be plagued if they meet in reality with only email and text chats.

    It really is an interesting thing to go inworld with someone. We are finding that people think the traditional process is faster and actually works, likely due to all the eHarmony and others wedding stats. But the stats show that people are frustrated with dating sites and the lack of compatibility.

    Even doing a little bit more than text chat goes a long way towards getting a read on someone’s personality. I’ve seen it many times, within the first few minutes as my date takes off in an aircraft and leaves me behind. When I catch up and she leaves me again, I get some interesting hints. When I catch up and she wants to find a cafe to sit and talk, I get other hints.

    It works. And you are bang on.

  • What about a dating site that matched you based on the usual criteria but added GPS location as a commonality.

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