How India’s homegrown apps help people date in small towns

Newfound love.
Newfound love.
Image: REUTERS/Vivek Prakash
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There are two ways of getting married in India, depending on how conservative your family is: You can either let your parents arrange a match for you, or you can try to find a match yourself.

The latter path is only for the free-willed and adventurous, especially in small-town India, where dating is a fairly new social phenomenon that carries a lot of stigma. Casual dating and hookups are frowned upon, and, depending on the city or district you are in, can even lead to dangerous repercussions like harassment from the police, or worse, honor killings.

And yet, despite this cultural resistance, dating in India is becoming big business. The country has an estimated 38 million people on dating apps and is third in the world after the US and China in terms of the revenue it generates, according to the online dating services report by Statista.

The coronavirus pandemic has also helped in surprising ways. Lockdowns sent urbanites home to smaller towns and cities for months on end, helping dating apps make headway into markets they had previously found difficult to crack.

Indian companies are hoping to ride this wave, and use their unique Indianness to reach beyond the English-speaking metropolises of the country to the masses of folks hoping for a love match.

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Finding love in a new India

Online dating is a fairly new business in India. While local matchmaking websites have been around since 2013, the dating app trend only truly kicked off in 2014 with Tinder’s arrival. Since then, leading global dating companies such as Bumble, Happn, and Hinge have forged a significant presence in India. Once homosexuality was decriminalized in India in 2018, dating apps for the LGBTQ community, such as Grindr, made their way to the country; while most mainstream options such as Tinder and Bumble began to allow users to look for same-sex partners.

But there are gaps that have prevented the apps from reaching a wider market beyond urban centers.

Despite the country’s cultural diversity, most mainstream apps also operate in English, which acts as a lingua franca, even though only about 12% of India’s population speaks English. Dating app companies don’t see it as a big hurdle. “People may not know how to speak very well in English, but they know how to use the app features in English,” says Snehil Khanor, the co-founder and CEO of Indian dating app TrulyMadly, which is currently only available in English. And there’s always transliteration, or writing out words from other languages in the Roman script.

Apps also had to adapt to the particular needs of the Indian market. For years, marriage sites in India have catered to people searching for serious relationships, or what’s called “high intent.” Websites like Shaadi.com and Matrimony.com help families in the search for a life partner and an arranged marriage for their children. One of India’s largest matrimonial websites, Matrimony, has an estimated 5 million active users alone.

“When the western dating companies entered the Indian market, they assumed that casual dating apps would do the work of high-intent ones,” says Able Joseph, the co-founder of dating app Aisle. So while Tinder came to India, Match.com, its more serious parent, didn’t. Joseph launched Aisle 2014 as a “high-intent” dating app meant for serious relationships. It’s neither as casual as Tinder, nor as restrictive as a matrimonial website, offering more autonomy to prospective brides and grooms, and a more easy-going, independent vibe.

Cultural norms have also stymied the adoption of dating apps in India’s smaller towns and cities. Many women are afraid of the moral policing that comes with being on such apps. In small towns and cities, there’s a higher probability of encountering someone on the app who may know your family, which, given the stigma attached to dating and pre-marital sex, especially towards women, can lead to serious conflict. Misleading profiles and catfishing are common.

Tejveer Kalsi, a 29-year-old consultant, returned home to Lucknow from Gurugram when India announced its lockdown in March 2020. He was struck by how few people were on the app when he first returned to the city of 2.9 million (considered medium sized by Indian standards). “A lot of young people feel wary of sharing too many details on their profiles. Privacy is a major concern, as is the fact that in small-town India, this is still unchartered waters,” he says.

“Most women I know avoid these apps in smaller towns and use them only when they are living away from home for their studies or work in bigger cities,” says Ankur Bhardwaj, a resident of Sonipat in Haryana.

In states like Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, codes of social conduct for women are particularly restrictive. For instance, in Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan called for the need to surveill working women for their “safety.” If the rule were to be implemented, women working outside of their homes would need to register at their local police station. “Leave aside small towns, I fear being on these apps even in a big city,” says Preeti M, a 24-year-old resident of Bengaluru.

Ironically, a pandemic that has enforced social distancing has also had the effect, over time, of bringing more people together.

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Small towns, big dating aspirations

Strict Covid-19 lockdowns in India have given dating apps inroads in smaller cities like Ranchi (population 1.1 million), Bhubaneswar (838,000), Guwahati (1.1 million), and Lucknow.

Dating app TrulyMadly, also founded in 2014, reported a 10-fold growth in revenue in 2020 compared to a year prior from cities beyond India’s metropolitan markets—and revenue four times greater than 2019. “This immense growth from smaller towns is something that had earlier been hard to achieve,” explains Khanor, despite the market being underserved.

“I attribute this growth to reverse migration because of the lockdown, and a lot of people moving back to their hometowns to stay with their parents,” Khanor says.

TrulyMadly describes itself as a high-intent dating app which “helps you find a partner on your own terms,” as Khanor says. To stay true to this motto, the app has a paid version which gives users access to more matches and premium messages. It costs Rs699 ($5.98) per week, a steep price tag intended to narrow the pool to only serious daters. “We rarely run discounts on this package,” says Khanor.

Its Indianness comes from the questions it asks of its users which are relatively common for local couples considering marriage: What are a person’s views on living with their spouse’s family after they get married? Would they be comfortable if their partner went out alone with friends once a week? And, in the ultimate test of loyalty, would they be open to sharing their social media passwords with their partners?

Aisle has built a uniquely Indian experience by prompting users to fill out their profiles extensively, potentially allowing singles to decide early on whether they want to proceed with a match or not. Joseph says these questions are created keeping Indian sensibilities in mind. “For instance, many Indians believe in astrology and horoscopes, and this is one of the fields we offer,” he says.

These prompts are key for the Indian market, where a marriage is often thought of as the merger of two families, not just two individuals, Aisle’s Joseph says. “These questions are at the back of anyone’s mind, especially people from a conservative family. For instance, Indian families lay a lot of emphasis on finding partners from within their community,” Joseph explains. “This is the kind of subconscious decision-making that an app like Aisle can assist you with.”

Aisle also created an ad campaign as a nod to the “Indian way of dating.” The “one by two” soup share, for instance, is an old thrifty Indian trick large families would use at restaurants to pay less for a meal.

Because the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that daters can’t often meet face-to-face, Aisle, like many other dating apps, has introduced a feature called Rooms, which hosts communal conversations and ice-breaker events for users. “We saw a lot of interest around the Houseparty app during the lockdown, and realized that people were looking for spontaneous interactions of the offline world online,” Joseph says. According to Aisle, the average time users spent in a “room” has gone up from two to seven minutes when this feature launched in October.

Dating companies may not be able to bank long-term on this pandemic-led success if it’s derived mainly from urban-dwelling folks stuck in their families’ homes during the pandemic. But it has given them a chance to pitch their product in a market with plenty of room to grow. Though the Indian market generates the third-highest amount of revenue in the world from online dating, dating app penetration in India is just 2.23%, or 111th globally, according to Statista’s 2020 data. Dating companies are only now beginning to think about how to tap into this audience.

They’re hoping that larger cultural shifts will do some of the work for them. Changing attitudes to love and marriage might also eventually remove the stigma attached to dating apps for a largely conservative Indian population. “Love marriage has always been aspirational in India, but dating is a taboo,” laughs TrulyMadly’s Khanor. He hopes that as parents watch the same Netflix shows as their marriageable kids, order in from the same restaurants, and shop online from the same platforms, a social change towards dating will gradually emerge.