The responsibility of dating sites should be to facilitate great first dates. Unfortunately, the dating industry has chosen to protect its charge-to-communicate business model instead of give consumers access to information to make an educated decision about a potential date: Is my date a real person? Who do we know in common and what mutual interests do we share?
But there is a site out there with 1 billion people that is quite familiar with my friends and me, as well as all of our interests: Facebook.
I have been involved in the dating and social industries since 2003. I was the vice president of product at Match.com, then vice president of community at Yahoo and am now the founder and CEO of Likeit.com. I met my wife on an online dating site, and we have been happily married for nine years.
Since the launch of Match in 1995, singles have searched for fun and love online by attempting to describe themselves in 500 words or fewer. They check boxes, they answer quizzes, and they hope for the best. This method has worked for some, but it has left millions of other users dateless and dissatisfied with their online dating experiences. A shallow pool of compelling matches, coupled with outdated information, leads to a constant churn of unhappy daters. Singles belong to 2.5 dating sites on average, expressing their desire to reach more people and find a better solution.
Men and women experience online dating very differently – think hunter-gatherer. Men typically send out hundreds of quickly written emails hoping someone will respond. Women can receive hundreds of emails a week, but respond to less than 2 percent. Part of the single’s frustration is that you can’t respond to an email unless you pay. On average, fewer than 10 percent of people subscribe to and unlock communication, meaning 90 percent of people can’t respond to your emails.
To complicate the single’s experience further, most dating profiles are static and lack social network updates. The site restricts information sharing to prevent identity leakage and maintain control over communication. A common question you will hear most singles ask when they first meet is, “Who do we know in common?” While real identity is standard on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, a majority of dating sites require anonymity, which prevents consumers from seeing mutual friends. The result: Most consumers don’t pay, and they abandon sites in frustration.
Why Hasn’t Social Discovery Disrupted Online Dating?
The social discovery market can be distilled into two primary markets: business networking and dating. While Badoo, Tagged and MeetMe position themselves as “meeting new people,” their primary use case is dating. Each has achieved reasonable success, but they have not integrated Facebook’s social graph so you can see someone’s friends. There is a lot of untapped opportunity to disrupt traditional dating if they take steps to integrate further with Facebook.
Why Hasn’t A Killer Social Dating App Taken Off?
I remain convinced that online dating will evolve and integrate social elements. People have always met through mutual friends and shared interests, and bringing these capabilities online will enhance the user experience. But for most startups, there is a significant cold-start problem. Few startups are funded well enough to afford the marketing required to achieve scale. To be a successful, U.S.-wide, general-purpose dating site you need about 250,000 profiles. This allows the display of meaningful search results when singles filter for age, ethnicity, religion, distance and sexual preference.
Since most social dating sites can’t afford to buy users, they launch features to get viral. However, independent of age, four out of ten people will not post publicly on Facebook that they are using a dating app, and this arrests virality. The reluctance to share romantic activities on Facebook seems due in part to the intimacy of dating and the desire to share only with close family and friends. Many people feel increased reluctance to share their romantic endeavors on Facebook, because their group of Facebook friends has grown substantially to include co-workers, high school/college friends and extended family.
To illustrate the challenge, no social dating site has gained meaningful traction: theComplete.me (10,000), Yoke (10,000—Buzzfeed acqui-hire), Circl.es (1,000), LikeBright (1,000), thedatable (200), and atthepool.com (Alexa Rank 164,000) have struggled, while Wings, Gelato, and Thread are shuttered.
Despite these challenges and lack of innovation by the leaders, the online dating industry continues to be recession-proof – it is growing and has won wide acceptance among singles today. With Facebook’s Graph Search and the company’s newly expressed interest in online dating, can it reinvent dating, drive down the associated stigma and expand the market?
While the primary hurdle for Facebook may be privacy, there are other challenges, too. Just because someone’s profile indicates they are single does not mean they are ready for dating or want to be contacted by a stranger. On Facebook, receiving messages from strangers feels creepy (paid or not).
Facebook’s profiles are shallow and not representative of a user’s current interests or romantic preferences. Facebook’s structured data for things like movies, books, restaurants and sports is not as good as Netflix, Yelp, Amazon, etc. If Facebook becomes more competitive in these areas, will they maintain access to structured third-party feeds?
The real question may be how important is the dating market to Facebook? It will be a challenge to run so many vertical solutions: dating, recruiting, ratings, reviews, etc. Will they pick a few ideas on which to focus, and will dating make the cut?
How Can Facebook Disrupt Online Dating?
First, Facebook can assure singles that dating can be a completely private experience, and that dating activities will not be published on a wall unless singles want it to be published. Facebook can create a pseudo-closed environment by offering a dedicated dating section in About Me and allowing singles to choose whether that section is public, private or only viewable by people with dating profiles.
Facebook can easily leverage their massive social graph to enable meaningful friend-of-friend introductions. They can create very detailed, self-updating profiles by displaying and structuring data from Pinterest, Spotify, Pandora, Yelp, Netflix, Amazon, ESPN, GoodReads and more.
They can dominate real-time communication: chat, check-ins, poke, texting and Skype video chat. To help singles feel more comfortable, they can even set up a “dating inbox” to isolate unsolicited messages. To improve both the quality and response rates of emails, they can allow anonymous ratings of senders, and reward those with good behavior and thoughtful emails.
If I am on a date and I know we share trail running, Bikram yoga, spiritual books, action movies and five mutual friends, I have a lot of topics I can discuss. Facebook Graph Search will allow singles to find that special someone and could be transformational to the industry.
But most importantly, by simply allowing consumers to share their user names from other dating sites, Facebook can maintain the existing industry’s niches while allowing search and free communication across all dating services. In doing so, Facebook can simultaneously dismantle the pay-to-communicate business model that underpins a majority of the revenue in the industry today, and reinvent online dating by creating a massive front door that allows consumers to have a compelling, high-quality experience for free.