Alex Soma was out in the real world the other week, looking for a match at a rooftop drinks event sponsored by a couple of online dating sites.
“I think I’m pretty terrible at online dating,” Soma says, standing near the bar. “I just don’t get it. I think I’m better in front of a person.” So far, he just uses the site OkCupid.
Others there, like Christina Luzzi, sound like they’re becoming veterans. She says she's tried Tinder, Match and OkCupid. PlentyOfFish was "awful."
“What am I on now? I’m on eHarmony I think?”
While all those sites sound like separate competitors, a good number are part of just one company: IAC/InterActiveCorp.
In recent years, IAC has swallowed up the old stalwart, Match.com, the irreverent, young OkCupid, the fast-swiping Tinder app, and, just recently, an upstart called HowAboutWe. It owns niche sites like BlackPeopleMeet, and OurTime for the 50+ set. And it’s investing in an expensive new matchmaking service.
“What IAC is doing is incredibly smart,” said Amy Webb, author of “Data, A Love Story”. She said IAC is operating kind of like Gap Inc., which owns the brands Old Navy and Banana Republic.
“At the end of the day, they’re all clothing, but they offer different kinds of clothing to different lifestyles, different kinds of buyers,” she said.
Experts used to think the future of online dating was in small niche sites, matching farmers or people who don’t eat gluten, or maybe gluten-free farmers.
But the big sites are winning for a simple reason.
“It’s like a shop,” said Mark Brooks, an industry consultant. “And you’ve really got to stock the shelves. You can’t make do with a few hundred people. You need to have thousands of active people on a dating site.”
Each of these mainstream sites has carved out its own image, partly by word of mouth.
“The reality is that people feel at home when they go to a dating site that has people on it that look like what they think they want,” Brooks said.
That’s how Erica Berger of Brooklyn ended up on OkCupid.
“I joined OkCupid back in November 2009, after I moved to Brooklyn from Los Angeles,” she says. “I was referred to it by a close friend from high school who I trusted.”
Her first online date was a butternut squash tasting.
These kinds of referrals lead to some self-segregation. OkCupid is full of people like Berger, who is 27, lives in a big city, works in media, and is not in a rush for a relationship.
She’s also used IAC-owned apps like Tinder, popular for quick dates, and HowAboutWe, which is focused on specific date ideas. But she hasn’t used Match, whose users tend to be older, and more interested in marriage.
This is why IAC doesn't just combine all the sites into one.
Sam Yagan, CEO of the Match Group, the IAC unit that controls its dating properties, says dating is “such an intimate and personal search process, that people care a lot about the emotional affiliation they have with the brand that they choose.”
The strategy has led IAC to control more than a quarter of the $2.2 billion online dating market in the U.S., according to IBISWorld. That’s twice the next biggest competitor, eHarmony.
Match Group runs all the services separately. Occasionally, the teams will talk about features that worked well. But you don’t see OkCupid staffers talking much with those from Match.com.
Having the sites under one roof, however, does provide opportunities for cross-promotion. “It’s not like you turn 35 and we all of a sudden take your profile from OkCupid and put it on Match,” Yagan joked. “You might start seeing Match ads on OkCupid.”
Then there’s the question of the business model: “If the goal of the dating site is to get you offline and into the real world with your life partner, they probably wouldn't offer a subscription service,” Webb said.
Yagan has an answer that’s less conspiratorial, but perhaps more depressing: “The average adult has over 10 relationships before they get married," he said. "And, by the way, half of all marriages end in divorce. So, if you just do the math there’s a 90+ percent chance that the relationship you’re in when you leave Match, OkCupid [or] Tinder is not going to be your terminal relationship.”