Internet dating. It was once interpreted by the public as something of a serial killers’ paradise as little as ten years ago but that perception has changed drastically. “Online dating used to be an absolute mystery, even at times a socially ostracised behaviour,” says Robyn Exton, founder and CEO of HER, the app for lesbian, bisexual and queer people. Indeed, meeting someone from the web a decade ago probably would’ve earned gasps from friends while today they’ll likely be able to name-drop a handful of services. “From social networks to email platforms, people have become more comfortable with marrying their personal lives to technology,” Exton adds of the market’s growth. “Having your identity already online through other platforms simplified and demystified the concept of making your dating life digital.”
To that end, there’s no question that online dating is now socially acceptable rather than something you need to hide in fear of what peers might say. “According to Statistic Brain, one fifth of all current committed relationships began online,” Exton says, while calling it “normative.” It’s a belief she instills at HER in order to make the concept less of a dirty secret, particularly as technology continually transforms lifestyles. “One of our four foundational beliefs at HER is the future is fluid,” she reveals. “Whether that refers to gender identity, sexual orientation, life choices or even the way people meet each other – we’re striving for a future with less norms around love and relationships.”
Paying homage to newspapers for paving the way to online dating with personals, Kailen Rosenberg, CEO and founder of The Love Architects, the elite matchmaking consultancy, refers to them as “true pioneers.” “AOL, Match and eharmony decided to brilliantly take the personals’ experience to the internet,” she says of the switch from print to digital. As the online dating taboo decreased, smartphones made things even easier.
No longer were singles required to boot up their laptops to get their flirt on or put on their glad rags and rehearse their best chat-up lines for a Friday or Saturday night on the town in search of romance, the power to find love was now in the palm of their hand thanks to dating apps – whenever and wherever. “When we started to carry our mobile phones day in and day out, that’s when dating apps became mainstream,” says Rosenberg, who capitalised on that trend with The Lodge Social Club, an app designed to connect users based on their passions. She adds the “everybody’s doing it” mentality encouraged app adoption.
It’s easy to see why entrepreneurs are turning to dating apps. A 2017 study from TSB, the bank, found dating pumped £14.5bn into the UK economy and dating apps accounted for a whopping £11.7bn of the sum. But who blazed the trail for the dating app explosion? “From our perspective, Grindr laid the foundation for dating apps as we know them now by creating a location-based platform for meeting dates,” Exton opines. She notes that Tinder leveraging location while introducing the swiping function built on that base. “Both of these innovations laid the groundwork for HER to create a space for fearless exploration,” she says.
As of October 2018, dating dominates the UK’s top grossing lifestyle apps on the App Store, accounting for half of the top ten, according to analytics service App Annie. Tinder, Bumble, Match, muzmatch and happn are chief among the iOS options, while Tinder, Bumble and happn also account for the top three grossing lifestyle apps on Google Play. “I don’t deign to know why all users sign up for Tinder – but I would imagine that social buzz plays a major factor in it,” says Exton. She attributes it to the app gamifying usage through swipes as something that allowed it to stand out and gain a foothold.
Of course, Tinder isn’t the be all and end all. There’s a wealth of options available and increasingly niche dating apps drill down into the specifics a user desires. One such example is muzmatch, the dating app for Muslims, which has 500,000 users worldwide. Upon receiving a £1.5m investment in January 2018, Shahzad Younas, CEO and founder, said: “With muzmatch our goal is to be the biggest app for Muslims worldwide looking for a partner. That is potentially some 400 million people.” Then there are other dating apps centred around things like beard appreciation and pet hates. Given how online moved to mobile, will themed apps become the new normal for smartphones or will generic continue to play on?
According to Didier Rappaport, CEO and co-founder of happn, the location-based dating app that crossed the 50 million user milestone in June 2018, having focused apps allows the experience to be more like real life. “Rather than having to go through a large pool of daters you know might be unsuitable, the specified apps narrow the search and connect users with people that have a better chance to develop a bond,” he says. In the case of happn, it reaches users with hyper-localisation, meaning real-time mapping to increase the chances of forging connections. “Apps are imitating life and catering for all kinds of individuals with all kinds of backgrounds, beliefs, interests and desires,” he adds.
While generic dating apps have been the mainstay for some time and niche apps are gaining traction, that doesn’t mean it’s all going to come down to a winner takes all battle to the death, Rappaport believes. In his mind, there’s room for peaceful co-existence. “Both those brands of the industry serve a purpose as they highlight a significant difference between mass and ‘tailor-made’,” he declares. “I am, however, excited to see what developments are still to come. Just in the past five years the industry has changed incredibly and we’re eager to see how it will evolve next.”
Despite the various players entering the market, the pay-off is growing alongside it. App Annie revealed on Valentine’s Day 2018 that the global consumer spend on dating apps on the App Store and Google Play had risen by 95% year-on-year between 2016 and 2017. On why niche apps can capitalise on this, Rosenberg explains: “People in general are feeling more and more disconnected so they’re looking to technology to find their tribe – niche technology supports people in doing that.” With exclusive environments in mind, she adds users are able to cut through the noise and avoid burnout.
Apparently intrigued by such a lucrative market, the biggest social player of all had its head turned. Yes, Facebook, the long-standing service with 2.23 billion monthly users, has entered the dating arena. Having announced a romantic feature was in the works during its F8 conference back in May, the service is now being tested in Colombia. “No one can deny that Facebook’s efforts to connect people was unprecedented,” Exton says. “I believe they will continue to do just this, however, that does not mean they will necessarily change the market or put other [dating] apps out of business.” She points to HER as a perfect example that will remain, explaining that “conventional platforms” weren’t built with queer women in mind.
Although Exton wishes Facebook luck, she is on the same page as Rappaport in that one company’s success doesn’t mean another’s downfall. “I think more and more niche apps will be created to keep up with users’ identities and interests,” she says. “At the same time, I think more mainstream apps will continue to innovate to keep up with user behaviour.”
Building on Exton’s point, Rosenberg concludes: “Think of it this way, mass amounts of people are happy driving Toyotas. However, a select few want a Bentley. In the end, people truly committed to finding their soulmate will turn to the services that support them.”