What I Learned About the Business of Dating Apps After Trying to Build One – Marker

Your goal is love, but what exactly is their goal?

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II was once the executive assistant to the CEO of a tech conglomerate. One day, my boss came to me with a fun idea: Create a dating app, and make it gain enough traction for the big guns to buy him out.

“Fun way to make a small fortune!” he buoyantly declared. This was my multimillionaire boss’s idea of a side hustle.

In just a few weeks, I hired a team of coders, and off we trampled into the business of love. Since I’m a writer with marketing experience, my boss left the PR to me. I began doing research on other dating apps — how they promote themselves, what companies own which platforms, etc. Then I spoke with some lawyers to find out what companies like ours could and could not legally promise consumers.

The first thing I learned was that dating platforms cannot guarantee or promise the following results: that using their service will help you find love, achieve happiness, fall in love, meet someone you like, or find any other type of romantic fulfillment. Instead, marketing teams will try their best to convey a message about romantic connection that will, they hope, allow consumers to reach the above conclusions on their own. I took the liberty of listing the slogans of some of the most well-known online dating platforms so we can all start off on the same page.

  • “We believe in love!” — Match.com
  • “Serious about finding love?” — eHarmony
  • “Match. Chat. Date.” — Tinder
  • “Date. Meet. Network Better.” — Bumble
  • “Chat. Date. Match.” — Plenty of Fish
  • “Jewish Dating and Jewish Singles” — Jdate
  • “Share Your Life and Your Faith” — Christian Mingle
  • “Dating and Social App for LGBTQ People” — Her
  • “Meet Guys Near You” — Grindr

The only slogan that slightly deviates from this paradigm is from Hinge: “The app designed to be deleted. Very clever.

These companies spend countless dollars on marketing to find the closest love-adjacent insinuation as possible without causing liability.

The second thing I learned when we were creating our dating app: Some of the most famous online dating platforms are all owned by the same company.

Meet IAC, or InterActive Corp, also known as Match Group. It owns or invests in Tinder, OkCupid, Match, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and several other companies in the online dating industry. In 2015, when the company went public, IAC shared that between all of its platforms, it had about 59 million active monthly users. More than 60% of those users were under the age of 35. It’s no wonder that its slogan is “one in three relationships originates on a dating product,” but notice that Match Group doesn’t confirm how many of these online relationships turn into long-term partnerships or marriages.

Another grab-bag online dating company is Parship, a mostly European website that services singles who speak German, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. It’s available in 13 countries, including Mexico. Oh, and eHarmony is its subsidiary company. Meaning that Parship has a monopoly on Europe, a huge market in North America, and a presence in Latin America.

It was companies like these that my boss was targeting, and he explained to me why he thought he could get bought out relatively easily. Online dating monopolies have a very specific business model. They would rather buy out a small company that begins gaining traction than allow that small company to become a real source of competition to their business model. Sounded to me like basic capitalism; however, since this business revolves around something as intimate as romantic connection, I was curious to know what specific “business model” these companies were executing.

If a company’s goal is to convert me from a free user to a paying subscriber, are its algorithms really designed in my best interest?

The big companies want to own as much virtual real estate as possible in their industry. But owning all the real estate isn’t just a way to reduce competition; it can also ensure a high success rate of turning free users into paying subscribers. This is the business model my boss was referring to.

First, the company will attract you to its network through one of its free dating services. Maybe you find someone on the free app. Maybe you use it for a few months to no avail. Then, as this platform stops feeling exciting and starts becoming discouraging, advertisements for another online dating platform will appear in whatever corners of the internet you usually hang out in. Except these dating services cost money every month. You probably don’t realize it, but the free platform you’re currently using may also be owned by the pay-to-play platform that’s being promoted to you. Maybe you switch over right away; maybe you hold off. No matter — the parent company already has your email, social media data, and maybe even more. Eventually, you may receive a coupon: “20% off your first three months on [insert company here]!”

“Well,” you think to yourself, “why not give it a go? The free app isn’t working, so maybe if I paid for the service I will find my mate.”

Here’s the question I began to ask myself when I discovered this: If a company’s goal is to convert me from a free user to a paying subscriber, are its algorithms really designed in my best interest? From where I’m standing, it could behoove a company to help me miss my match every once in a while. Then I’d stay longer in its network as I continue to search for the right connection. Answers to this question, or ones like it, are not readily available to the public. Perhaps that’s because consumers aren’t aware that they should be asking for transparency. Regardless, it is important to understand how these systems work so that users (especially the paying customers) can keep tech companies accountable as they continue to grow as record speed.

While consumers can’t control how algorithms work, online dating is still a business. As such, these companies need to produce results or else they won’t keep any clients. They need to show us that we are getting some sort of value for their service. That’s why online dating companies fulfill one thing for us that we can’t do on our own: They serve as a human GPS device for romantically available individuals in your area.

That’s the minimum that most of these platforms can offer, and on that promise, they deliver every time. Grindr says it best in its slogan, “Meet guys near you.”

The final thing I learned while working for my boss is how difficult it is to show that online dating is more successful than meeting someone in person. Still, we all want to know how many people are finding the relationships they want online. When it comes to people seeking casual sex, there aren’t clear numbers on the success of these apps. Nor is there substantial research about nonmonogamous couples.

When it comes to monogamous relationships, the Statistic Brain Research Institute found that about 17% of marriages start from online dating and 20% of relationships. That’s a pretty small success rate compared to the number of users on these platforms. Some speculate that these percentages are only going to get bigger, but the truth is that online dating has been around since the 1990s. In 30 years, it has established relationships for just 20% of the population, if we are being generous.

Now, before I leave you, I want to say that this article was not created to pooh-pooh online dating. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a dating app as a tool to meet a potential lover or long-term partner — it’s convenient and works a reasonable percentage of the time, as best we know.

But whether you prefer a dating profile, a real-life meet-cute, or both, my goal is to raise awareness for all consumers. Online dating is a tool at our disposal. Like any other tech device we use in our daily lives, it is important to be aware of how it works. Next time you decide to make a profile (or if you already have a profile), check out who owns the platform you are using. Does it own other companies as well? Second, don’t be afraid to delete the app and take a break.

When it comes to big companies, they don’t want you taking a break from their product to find fulfillment in other ways. That’s in the opposite interest of their business model. If you notice that you’re starting to get lost in these human GPS systems, remember you are navigating through singles in your area filtered by a business that profits from you. Then, decide if you might want to take a break or try using the platform with a different mindset.

Each time I’ve shared what I learned about these dating apps, my friends were astounded and fascinated. No one had thought to look behind the veil. Truth be told, if I hadn’t been required to do so for my job, I wouldn’t have either. I’m glad I did, because it also released a lot of self-blame that I didn’t realize I was fostering while using these apps. As if it was my fault that an app made by someone else — for profit — hadn’t worked yet. I also found I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. If you are using a dating app right now, check to see if it’s owned by a large corporation. That doesn’t mean you need to delete the app, but I’m sure you’ll feel better knowing that you won’t be easily baited into paying for additional services — especially for something as personal as intimacy and connection.

As for my boss’s grand idea, our app to help locals find love withered like a fickle summer fling. The coders created a decent platform, and I was even used to beta test the software. I soon matched with an attractive single in my area, someone I had never seen before on another online platform.

However, I never actually got around to messaging this person. My boss informed me that my match was not actually an available single in my area, but a hired model paid to pose on the platform and attract new users. This foundational base of users would act as fillers before real clients came along, making it seem like our app had fresh meat in a saturated market. Once the app was fully up and running, these accounts would be deleted. It was another tactic my boss mimicked from another company. I was at least comforted in knowing that our CEO hadn’t thought up such a sticky ploy himself.

Ultimately, my boss decided to put his app in the freezer. The platform was nearly finished, but as expenses continued to grow, the fun little side hustle became a major project — one that was taking time away from the products actually producing revenue. Perhaps someday he’ll sell the almost-finished version to a company like IAC. Whatever the future holds, it was an illuminating journey for me — one that didn’t end with the boy getting the girl, but the consumer becoming a little more self-aware.

 

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