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BEYOND THE SWIPES

Can niche offerings and paid features make online dating less exhausting?

A woman checks her phone as passengers arrive at the Beijing Railway Station as the annual Spring Festival travel rush begins ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, in central Beijing
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
More matches, more swiping, but less love?
  • Karen Ho
By Karen Ho

Global finance and economics reporter

Published

Talk to anyone who has tried online dating, and the complaints quickly come out. The hours of swiping each week. The repetitive photos of people fishing, on vacation, or in front of a mountain. The confusing biographies. The conversations that go nowhere or end abruptly. Gross comments and unwanted photos.

“It can feel really disheartening,” said Gavriella Gold, a human resources business partner in Seattle who has been on and off dating apps including Bumble, Tinder, and Coffee Meets Bagel since 2017. “Honestly, it’s like an extracurricular activity that takes a lot of time and investment.”

Even more people have encountered that kind of fatigue during the Covid-19 pandemic, since online dating was the only option for many singles to meet someone. But companies are fighting fatigue and increasing engagement through new features, specialized approaches, and methods that move users beyond hours of swiping.

Users’ fruitless swiping might give companies more data, money from advertising, and sustained subscription revenue. But when companies put in the work to reduce user fatigue, everyone wins. For users, it means better experiences, more successful matches, better relationships, and an incentive to recommend the platform or app to other people. For companies, it can mean better data, better reviews, a broader user base, and a larger share of the market.

Narrowing the pool

Modern online dating has existed since 1994 with the debut of the website kiss.com. It was quickly followed by Match.com the next year. It generated revenue from paid subscriptions, fees for enhanced features, and online advertisements—before the pandemic, the industry was estimated to be worth $3 billion, with 30% of US adults saying they had used a dating website or app, according to a 2020 report published by Pew Research. For many people, the goal of these websites and apps has consistently been to find love and long-term relationships. The ubiquity of smartphones means that mobile-first dating apps now deck out profiles with location data and integrate social media profiles; users can swap voice or video messages, or even interact via augmented reality

But stories about user fatigue have existed just as long as online dating has. A huge issue is inconsistency: for every meaningful experience, users encounter a lack of responses, deceptive profiles, scams, racist comments, discrimination, harassment, and profiles that are more confusing or cliche than engaging. Companies are positioning their dating products to be reduce these negative outcomes and, in some cases, expand into non-romantic social activities and topics.

When you’re making a decision to swipe on someone, the focus is on how they look.

“Tinder, Bumble, those other ones—they definitely felt more geared towards a person’s appearance,” said Matt Booker, a digital media producer based in New Jersey who has used Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, Happn, and Friendsy. “I think that’s how you end up with situations where it’s a lot of ghosting and a lot of boring people, because they’re not really geared towards [users] actually wanting to talk to people and get to know somebody. When you’re making a decision to swipe on someone, the focus is on how they look.”

Luxury travel agent Erica Wilkinson knows this well. She’s been on and off dating apps since 2017, and all she has to show for it are two proposals to join polygamous marriages—but still no boyfriend, which is what she really wants. Wilkinson was exhausted and burned out from endlessly trying to have fun and flirty conversations with men, especially since she lives in Colorado Springs, a conservative hub where her left-leaning values are the minority. “It takes so much emotional energy and time, and I would rather have a hobby than spend an extra 10 hours, 12 hours a week on frickin’ Bumble,” she said. “I just gave up on all of them.” She eventually set up a dating profile on her personal website, but it hasn’t yielded any dates yet. “It’s given me peace of mind, and it’s not draining,” she said. “In that area, it’s a smashing success; on getting me dates, not so much.”

It’s just creating these engagements and experiences that aren’t just swiping left, swiping right, and messaging.

Though many apps and sites, such as Tinder and Bumble, are based on the idea of offering daters as many potential matches as possible, a number are hoping to keep users more engaged by narrowing the pool of potential matches. With a smaller pool, the logic goes, like-minded users can have more meaningful and human connections. Match Group owns several apps that are specifically aimed at certain demographics: BLK for Black singles; Chispa for Latino ones; Upward for Gen Z and millennial Christians; as well as OurTime for users over the age of 50. Other sites and apps are geared towards millennial Jews, swingers, various factions of the LGBTQ+ community, fans of beards, and agriculture workers.

There have also been discussions about discrimination on the more popular dating platforms, especially for Asian men and Black women. For these users, the grind of online dating can lead to fewer matches and more feelings of rejection. Niche communities can make them feel more welcome because there’s already a primary theme for shared experiences and interests.

“By creating these niche communities, the thought and the goal there is to eliminate some of this discrimination that’s found on the mainstream apps, because it’s a community of [similar] people,” said Jonathan Kirkland, head of marketing for Match’s BLK app for Black singles.

The BLK app also includes non-dating features for user engagement, such as discussion forums for topical cultural and social issues, as well as planned social activities like a virtual wine tasting with a Black female sommelier. BLK users find these options for engagement to be relaxed and less pressure than a typical date, giving them a chance to make non-romantic connections, too. “It’s really becoming just another social networking platform,” Kirkland said. “It’s just creating these engagements and experiences that aren’t just swiping left, swiping right, and messaging.”

Designed for success

Tinder’s swiping feature can feel like a game that incentivizes quick judgements and decision-making. A match is indicated through notifications and animated GIFs, while rejections are hidden. Users can feel like there are an infinite number of profiles to look at, but also an infinite number of ways to be ignored.

Hinge is making dating less exhausting by changing the way users interact with the site. Several users Quartz spoke to said the app increased the likelihood of successful matches through its detailed profile completion process, its thoughtful prompts, and encouragement to meet in person after the exchange of several messages. By nudging its users to spend more time up front and specify what they found interesting about the other person, Hinge could provide them with better information on potential matches. This allowed people to better determine if a potential match was of interest to them, what they had in common, and have more fulfilling conversations, reducing fatigue.

Those prompts help us reveal parts of ourselves that can be very unique to the individual.

Alex Orfanos said, after spending hours each week on Bumble and Tinder trying to meet someone in Chicago, Hinge’s design for profiles had a level of complexity that allowed him to represent his personal values and really learn about other people. To Orfanos, getting background information about other people’s lives and their values was worth the $50 for a year’s subscription. “Those prompts help us reveal parts of ourselves that can be very unique to the individual,” he said. In early March of last year, Orfanos met a woman named Katherine. The couple plans to move in together this summer.

Coffee Meets Bagel, a female-founded dating app that launched in 2012 and offers limited geographic availability compared to Tinder or Bumble, gives users “fresh bagels,” a limited number of daily options each day. It also requires users to answer prompts to help serve as conversation starters. Gold, the Seattle-based dater, said the answers helped her better assess potential matches who she wanted to message. “I want to have enough information at the start to make a semi-informed decision of if it’s worth trying to engage with this person.”

Even after Covid-19, online dating will continue to be an important—if not the most important—way for single people to find partners. But to most people, it is still primarily a tool for figuring out who to meet in person. For online dating itself to be a stimulating and meaningful experience well into the future, it will have to better simulate or integrate that IRL experience.

Wilkinson has a simpler idea: She wants apps to better help facilitate and maintain any relationships that they spark, not just to be focused on starting conversations. “If somebody could invent a super dope, long distance dating app, I think that they would make a billion dollars,” she said. “Everybody talks about how this is a problem in the market and how hard long distance relationships are. I just feel like people’s creativity could form a more holistic answer than Skype.”

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