By Shweta Mulki
Online dating platform Tinder is now testing a video dating feature to tackle the Covid-related slowing of user growth. While rival app Bumble had launched a video and voice call feature last year, Hinge had launched its ‘Date from Home’ feature in March. Through the latter, users can share when they’re ready for a digital date, and this eases the often, awkward transition from messaging to meeting digitally for the first time, says CMO Nathan Roth.
Hinge says it’s witnessed a 30% increase in messages in March (versus January-February) with 70% of its members open for a virtual date. Globally on OkCupid, there has been a 30% increase in messages sent each day since March 11. Matches have increased by 10% and conversations increased by over 20% as singles turned to online dating.
Bumble too has claimed that their overall data indicates a trend of increased use by new and existing users, with regards to chat, video calls, and voice calls. Call durations were up, averaging at 21 minutes, with a 12% increase in messaging.
For Tinder in India, messaging between users was always high versus other markets, pre-pandemic. In the February-March period, conversations went up by an average of 39%, with the average duration going longer by 28%. In the beginning of May, it freed up its premium Passport feature, to let all users match across locations.
Will this Covid-induced ‘purely online dating’ phase usher in any behavioural changes? It’s perhaps time for that in a space that’s had its highs and lows in this market.
The India story
Every month, a million people in India turn 18. The 18 to 35-year cluster now has 430 million individuals. And out of the 110 million singles in urban areas, 70 odd million are actively seeking partners. Despite this demographic sweet spot, things weren’t so glorious.
There was a massive gender imbalance that had remained unresolved for some time – a big downside to digital dating. This skew had led to frequent uninstalls among users, but dating apps continued to be popular. Tinder, the platform that ushered in the era of ‘swiping is dating’, had over the last year, overtaken Netflix on mobile, to become the highest grossing app globally, including India.
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Today, besides Tinder and its sister brands like OKCupid and Hinge (under the Match group), players include Bumble, Tantan, Happn, Coffee meets Bagel and homegrown apps like TrulyMadly and Woo. But unlocking a market mostly characterised by matrimonial sites, wasn’t an easy ride.
Five Years of Tinder: Swiping left on Taboos
Since starting office here, the Tinder team’s goal has been to focus on what Indian users want, and adapt to it, said Taru Kapoor, Tinder’s India head, in a chat before the start of the pandemic. “While we’re a global company, we’re also very much a start-up,” she adds.
“We are a universal, culture-agnostic product.It’s human at its core; there’s not a lot of outward-facing layers,” says Kapoor. Besides under-the-hood complexities that make it simple, by itself the app – due to its location-based nature, is personalised and localised by design, Kapoor explains.
Their December survey of 1500 individuals among the 18-30-years target cluster, Tinder India found that 2/3rds of all first dates and 2/3rd of all relationships in the top 30 cities, started online- with a majority on dating apps. “It validated our data about not just usage, but that people were meeting, having first, second, fifth dates and relationships,” says Kapoor.
But cold-starting this fairly unchartered category was challenging. Five years ago, dating wasn’t that mainstream, and hooking up was fairly taboo. There’s not much of a culture of walking up to someone in a bar or café, and sustaining conversations with someone with whom we didn’t have contextual stuff like work, in common, says Kapoor. “We invested a lot in education – people didn’t know what to put on profiles, what’s a good conversation trigger, what’s not etc,” she adds.
Users below 25 years are accelerating and normalising the online dating space today. “More than half of our users are gen Z today- they interact differently from earlier generations. In our 18 to 30-year olds too, we don’t see any perception gap now,” she adds. For older individuals, who are concerned about what was usually called a ‘hook-up app’, Kapoor insists that it’s due to the fear of the unknown, with conversations driven by perceptions and myths, since they’ve never experienced it themselves.
Gender gaps beget an ‘always-on female focus’
Most apps have an 80-20%, or at best, 70 to 30% men to women ratio. Women were constantly warding of excessive attention from men; many had ‘no hook-up’ warnings on their bios. As for men, even in the best-case scenario – where there’s a 1:1 match, there could only be 20-30% of them getting matches, at any point.
This troublesome ratio is attributed to the overall internet skew in India, which is at about 72:28 (IAMAI).Also, the age of marriage, which though constantly rising, is lower for women than men, says Kapoor. “The pool of addressable single women is naturally smaller. Then there’s social stigma. We’re still a patriarchal society, and judgement is still higher on women than men in this context,” she adds.Once they’re on the app, women are more engaged, and share more experiences than men, she notes.Tinder’s brand messaging, in fact, has been completely women-centric for some time now.
Besides My Move -an option for women to message first, Tinder had announced incentives for female entrepreneurs, and also invested in content that demystifies dating. And while Bumble prides itself in only letting women initiate conversation, Tinder believes this shouldn’t be a blanket norm,as some women users may not really want to be the first to message.
Snehil Khanor, co-founder and CEO of TrulyMadly– the ‘serious dating’ app created to disrupt matrimonial sites- reveals that all their spends were directed towards female member acquisition. He recalls that in 2012, even matrimony site accounts were a taboo, with women especially shying away from putting up their faces on Orkut, and even on Facebook, initially.
Verification and bots
Over time, there’s been a proliferation of ‘fake dating apps’, rampant with bots and employed ‘actors’, and now with the spike in users logging on to the apps in the lockdown, stringent user verifications continue to be in the fore.
All apps rely on a mix of AI and human methods for verification. Tinder says it has a zero-tolerance policy, and iffy profiles can be flagged by users. “But safety is an all-encompassing policy, and can’t track actions off our platform, so we rely on our community to report instances of bad behaviour or misconduct,” says Kapoor. While Tinder doesn’t believe in ‘defining’ their connections, other apps do verify their users’ ‘single or married’ status.
TrulyMadly has a Trust Score system where besides the usual social-media based corroboration, profiles go through verification ranging from phone numbers and real-time selfies to Aadhar, passport, and members referrals, with scores varying accordingly. “We end up rejecting a lot of 20 to 22% profiles everyday –many married ones at that. If they appeal, we get it re-verified, says Khanor.
Siddharth Mangharam, co-founder of dating network Floh feels that online apps needed to take more responsibility for user safety, something that most of them found unwieldy. Floh also targets people seeking long term relationships, and therefore makes sure members are legally single, with the help of tech that’s tuned to detect fraud, among other functions.
Pre-pandemic, there seemed to be some kind of frustration seeping in among app users. Mangharam cites a survey of 500 respondents in the 25-40 years cluster, that attested to this ‘fatigue’ around dating. “There are many profiles but you don’t know who’s who. It’s like a strobe light that is on 24/7. People are actively seeking relationships, but many just want to meet someone in a non-obstructive, way via shared experiences,” he says.
“Most people were looking at marrying within 12 or 24 months, very few are looking for casual hook-ups – women especially at just 0.5 per cent,” Mangharam shares, adding that the next wave was about ‘using tech to meet in real life’.
So how has Floh – which curates experience-based events, responded to the Covid setback? The company is using its expertise to host zoom sessions with their members, on insight-based key relationship topics, ranging from heartbreak to identifying ‘the one’. “We also have exclusive 1:1 relationship coaching sessions. These have been a huge hit, since singles are now experiencing higher levels of anxiety and loneliness,” Mangharam shares.
Gender ratios, Languages, Niches –what lies ahead
Sumesh Menon, CEO of Woo notes that with more women getting educated, and attaining financial independence, and with no reason to think that’ll ever reverse, there’s a lot more openness and maturity now in expectations from a dating app. “At the end of the day, it’s only a tool, and women are starting to understand how to use the medium well. Then there are many on the fence too, who will eventually convert, and give it a try,” he explains. He thinks that now there could be room for Super Elite versions and a massive potential for an LGBT-focused app here.
Taru Kapoor believes that the gender skew will get better, as more of Gen Z comes on to the app. Pre-pandemic,Tinder’s study had also showed strong upticks in smaller cities beyond the top ten, with fast adoption and category openness in the last couple of years. And this is not just about growth of cell phones and data. “18 or 20-year years old today in Delhi or Nagpur or Vijaywada are not that far apart in what they want,especially in technological adoption as ideas spread fast,” says Kapoor.
EY India’s Ankur Pahwa, national leader for e-comm and consumer internet, says that there are ample opportunities to cater to various cohorts who may find it difficult to meet people with similar interests in real life. “One key opportunity here is to overcome the language barrier in a largely English-based space, in order to gain a foothold in India,” he adds.
Monetisation is far from optimal though. Pahwa says that while there’s a number of apps focussing on various models from freemium to in-app purchases to subscription to value add-ons, the uptake of these monetisation models is yet to pick up.
Safety, security, privacy and inclusivity are priorities – along with a multi-language interface, to increase traction on platforms and the ecosystem, Pahwa surmises. “Deep tech is also playing a key role in everything from screening for fictitious profiles and verifying identities to building algorithms to bring together individuals with similar interests or even disinterests, and helping address key challenges in the space,” he adds.
It would now be interesting to observe how this space pans out in the post lockdown era.