by Giacomo Grison
Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook will soon enter the dating scene caused an earthquake in the online dating industry.
Within minutes, the stock price of American giant Match Group – which owns dating sites OkCupid and Tinder among others – plummeted nearly 20%. The sector’s already fierce competition is expected to increase further.
Online dating is big business. Constantly expanding to reach new users, the industry is attracting a wide range of new apps. That’s not surprising considering the market’s tremendous potential: according to a recent study by eHarmony UK, more than half of relationships across the country will have started on the web by 2031.
Despite a few major players dominating the scene, smaller dating websites have been around for quite a long time and new mobile apps are breaking through. These ‘niche apps’ are aimed at a specific kind of user.
Like Tinder, most of them are free. But how are they managing to withstand the competition of bigger rivals? Two reasons might answer this question.
Niche services don’t discriminate as much as mainstream dating sites do
Ethnic minorities represent a relevant section of those disappointed by mainstream apps like Tinder. Racial discrimination in mainstream online dating is not news: data published by OkCupid in 2014 revealed that Asian men and black women receive on average the fewest number of messages.
Prejudices against non-white minorities also emerged from social experiments conducted on the Tinder community, disclosing how the app reflects racial discriminations embedded in society.
Aruna is a 26-year-old British Indian woman living in London. She left Tinder to join Asian Single Solution, a platform presenting itself as “the largest dating website for single British-born South Asian professionals”.
“It’s not that I am only interested in dating men who share a similar ethnic background with me, but on Tinder I kept being rejected, sometimes very explicitly, just because of my origins. That really hurt my self-esteem,” she said.
Ethnicity-based dating apps are thriving, yet they represent only a fraction of these niche providers. Most of these services target consumers drawing on all sorts of characteristics, from religious affiliation like Christian Dating to sports and hobbies like Sweatt. Despite the fierce competition, some are doing well and the reason for this may be quite straightforward.
Niche Apps make it easier for people to look for partners with whom they have a lot in common
When it comes to dating, the idea that opposites attract has always seemed self-evident, but it may not be true.
In 2013, psychologists Matthew Montoya and Robert Horton published research based on the meta-analysis of more than 240 previous studies conducted on the psychology behind dating. They found a strong correlation between sharing similarities and having a mutual romantic attraction.
In other words, there is solid evidence that birds of a feather flock together and niche dating apps have an advantage when it comes to matching people with similar interests.
Mark, 26, lives in a small town outside London. He found his new love on the mobile app Get Muddy, an app launched in 2014 by dating platform Muddy Matches designed for those who share a passion for rural life.
“I’m not exactly a farmer,” he says. “The app is for those like me who don’t see themselves as urban folks. Finding yourself suddenly single in a place like this can be a challenge: it’s not easy to meet new people around here.”
Having survived the industry for more than 11 years, Muddy Matches is clearly doing its job; so are several other sites dwarfed by dating giants like Tinder.
But let’s not jump to easy conclusions
Despite these success stories, for every niche dating app doing well, dozens of others have a short lifespan. It’s not too hard to guess why.
Mary, 39, is a London-based relationship coach who counsels users of these sites. She thinks that, apart from some exceptions, most of the services available on the dating market are “a pile of good-looking crap.”
“I understand developers want to be original, but they need to start drawing a line between what really matters in finding a partner and what doesn’t.”
She recalls the story of a client complaining about irritating experiences on several dating platforms including Hater, an app that matches potential partners based on their shared dislikes.
“A few hours before our appointment, she got a message from a man claiming that their mutual hate for noisy chewing sounds made the perfect condition for a romantic dinner.” That was the point, Mary explains, when the woman realised “she had enough of all this”.
Standing out from the crowd is often as tough a challenge for users of dating apps as it is for their developers. Tinder moved beyond excessively descriptive profiling systems in favour of the more addictive “swiping” game, with some primarily choosing potential partners on the basis of their looks.
It’s almost like being at the bar, one might argue, if not for the potentially limitless basket of choices users can now have.
At the same time, the inability of Tinder and other major sites to bypass entrenched social divides, as well as their excessive focus on quantity over quality, has left many dissatisfied.
It is exactly these people that emerging actors in the dating market are trying to reach, and some of the niche apps out there have certainly proven they have what it takes to do so.
Picture by Michael Kealy