As first dates go, it didn’t lack for whimsy. When Sarah Arnold, a 38-year-old event producer in Houston, met a potential suitor on the app OKCupid, and things progressed to an in-person date that involved masks and distancing, the guy came prepared. “He made a string, and he attached, at the ends, these two little cartoon drawings. And we were supposed to hold either end of the string. The idea was that if the string dragged the ground, that meant we were too close to each other,” she says now, about a year later. “It was cute and creative, but we got some weird looks. I appreciated the effort, I guess.”
They didn’t make it to date number two. After that first outing, on the phone, “he said something like, ‘I have a history of dating women and then blindsiding them by breaking up with them suddenly.’ And I was like, ‘Well, bro, that’s kind of a red flag.’”
Arnold is among the roughly 270 million people worldwide who navigated pandemic-era online dating last year, according to Business of Apps. Singles hoping to meet their soulmates (or at least a decent kisser) make profiles and swipe left or right (indicating they like what they see, or don’t) on the profiles of others. They meet cute or ghost ugly.
Dating app revenue worldwide grew to $3.08 billion in 2020, up 22 percent from the year before, as locked-down life resulted in boredom, soul-searching, and, frankly, a lot of pent-up sexual frustration. And it’s the undisputed titan of the industry, Dallas-based Match Group, that seems to have reaped the greatest benefits from this upsurge. The company boasts a portfolio of fourteen brands for dating and making connections—including Hinge, OKCupid, Tinder, and its namesake, Match—and earns more than three-quarters of all annual dating-app revenue globally. The company garnered $2.39 billion in 2020, up 17 percent from $2.05 billion the year before.
Numbers from Apptopia suggest that the COVID-19 crisis boosted online dating that emerged in 2019. Even amid mask warnings, social distancing, and the politicization of the pandemic, couples still found each other online and met IRL (“in real life”) to hold hands, have sex, and take steps toward settling into committed relationships, perhaps even marriage. The COVID-19 era inspired new behaviors among these daters that may have changed the online dating game permanently.
As the novel coronavirus made breathing the same air as strangers a potential health hazard, Match Group reintroduced video dates, which hadn’t previously been popular. The company also added new options, including the ability for daters to specify to potential partners whether they were open to meeting in-person, or preferred dates in outdoor settings. Forty percent of Tinder users have told Match that they plan to continue using video dates, called “Face-to-Face” on the app, even after (fingers crossed) the pandemic eventually ends.
“I think as people have gotten more comfortable using video, it’s now become the ‘coffee date,’” said Amarnath Thombre, who heads Match’s brands in the Americas, referring to a typical casual first outing for a couple. “It breaks the ice quickly, and it has led to more meaningful first dates. It’s become more of a permanent change in the way people use dating apps. I think video is going to be transformative.”
That expectation led Match to announce in early February that it would purchase Hyperconnect, a South Korean social-media company, for $1.73 billion. Hyperconnect’s technology, which is expected to be incorporated into all Match apps, can translate text and voice messages across twenty languages, and its live-streaming app, Hakuna, allows users to create their own video streams. It’s similar to a technology that has become a surprising hit on Match’s Plenty of Fish app, which is based in Canada and is popular there.
The feature, which Plenty of Fish calls “Live!,” is not unlike live streaming via YouTube or Twitch. It has enabled 8 million of the app’s users to create their own communities around themselves and whatever they choose to broadcast—whether they’re playing guitar, offering life affirmations, or just leading a group chat. Viewers can purchase virtual gifts to reward the streamers for their content. And these viewers aren’t just hoping to date the streamers; they’re also partnering up with others they meet in the livestream chat rooms, according to Malgosia Green, who leads Plenty of Fish. “We were testing it around the time the pandemic hit, over a year ago, to see what the reaction would be. We were testing it just in Texas,” she said. “When lockdown started, we quickly had a realization that we had something very special on our hands as everyone was at home and unable to socialize in a regular way.”
One of the Plenty of Fish daters who tuned in to Live! last year was an Austin single mother who goes by the online handle Duchess Leia of Arendelle. She first noticed the feature in August and found it to be a low-pressure way to scout for potential dates without all the swiping. “They can see me, they can talk to me. Maybe they can get a better idea if they want to date me,” she said.
As she began her own streams almost every day on Live!, the activity evolved into more of an online hangout with friends, not a search for dating opportunities. Duchess said that the platform’s top streamers aren’t there to date, but rather to make money through their viewers’ gifts of virtual “diamonds” that can be converted to real-world cash. “It’s certainly an ego boost to get some diamonds, but it’s not why I’m there. I’m there to talk to people and meet people. Hey, if I get a date out of it, that’d be cool, too,” she said.
In February, Plenty of Fish had a media moment when a term that originated on the dating site, “Fauci-ing,” made its way back to White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. The term, which means to eliminate someone as a potential dating match for not taking COVID-19 restrictions seriously, was met with bemused approval by Fauci himself. “I’m gonna Fauci you!” he laughed.
Match.com began in 1993 as a San Francisco–based website belonging to Electric Classifieds and soon became the flagship product of the company, which was founded by engineer Gary Kreman and entrepreneur Peng Tsin Ong. It was acquired in 1999 by New York–based holding company IAC, which specializes in media and internet brands, and quickly began acquiring other dating apps (including OKCupid, Hinge, and OurTime), thus consolidating the industry.
The company’s scale has made it practically unbeatable, says industry analyst and former Plenty of Fish advisor Mark Brooks. “Match has just come through and just won every battle, basically. And the war. I mean, they are the behemoth of the industry, and they’ve had a very good acquisition strategy,” he says.
For instance, Tinder, which is consistently the most popular dating app in the U.S., attracts young, casual users as a way not just to date, but also to meet new friends. Tinder users who end up wanting a more serious relationship might end up using Plenty of Fish or Hinge, the latter of which is geared toward millennials. The typical online dater uses at least two or three apps at a time, according to Match Group.
Some of Match’s success, Brooks says, can be attributed to the consistency of its leadership. Thombre has been at Match Group for over a decade, and Sharmistha Dubey, who was named its CEO last year, joined the company in 2006 after working as an engineer at Texas Instruments and a director of product marketing and management at i2 Technologies. “They come from a supply-chain background, both of them, and they’re the two leaders,” Brooks said. “Shar (Dubey) is very pragmatic . . . a smart operator.”
In a recent interview with Wired, Dubey engaged in a faux video date over Tinder. She argued that the line between real-life dating and virtual dating will increasingly blur, and that flirting and getting to know people will take place more online than offline as the dating industry evolves. “This year, my real life has become the dullest it’s ever been,” the CEO told the magazine. “But my screen life has become so much more interesting.”
Thombre said the diversity among Match Group’s leadership, which is much less white and male than at other companies its size, has allowed it to think more globally as it expands, and has helped its brands cross many cultural and geographic lines. He calls Dubey “a very strong product thinker” and “super analytical.” Next on the horizon for the company is a new suite of niche sites, including one called Chispa for Latino daters, BLK for Black daters, and Upward for young Christian daters.
On the technical side, Thombre obsesses over the future of artificial intelligence in online dating. “Our high-level goal is very simple,” he said. “How can we build the most effective product that makes it less work, more fun, and more effective for end users? That’s definitely video, audio, automation, like AI. How can we get better at recommendations?”
Analyst Mark Brooks says that the future for Match Group lies in expanding its reach to other countries, and not getting usurped by aggressive newer players like Austin-based Bumble, which raised an impressive $2.15 billion initial public stock offering in February. “Match will only be unseated in the next major media shift, and the next major media shift is augmented reality,” Brooks says, adding that it will be “exceedingly creepy and hugely challenging from a legal perspective, but absolutely transformational.” This future of AR dating might include pop-up information on fellow daters overlaid on video, dates that take place in computer-generated virtual spaces, and the kinds of voice and face filters popular on Instagram and Snapchat.
Brooks suggests that there’s also room in the industry for more of a human touch in dating, such as personalized matchmaking as a premium service, something Match Group has not indicated it’s pursuing. “At some stage, certain people will pay more to have help and feedback and a bit of sugarcoating on that feedback from people who know how to communicate,” he says. “And the dating industry don’t do people. We do tech.”
It’s a challenge that Match Group acknowledges. Its leaders say they’re working on features such as online video streams and watch-alongs, where potential daters can watch TV shows online together and bond over them as they might if they were sitting on the same couch or in a coffee shop or bar. “Our vision is to just make online dating much more analogous to what real-life dating used to be before people started getting online,” said Green from Plenty of Fish, noting that COVID-19 has accelerated trends in online dating that might have taken much longer otherwise. “When there’s change, there’s opportunity. For us, it’s an opportunity to try different things and see what sticks.”