It’s a Wednesday evening at an upscale rooftop lounge in midtown Manhattan. Under gold and black tapestries that hang from the ceiling, several men are standing alone, staring at flatscreen televisions, while a few pairs of women sip cocktails, pretending to be deep in conversation.
Thirty-year-old Jen S., whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is fiddling with her phone while occasionally looking up at the crowded room.
“I just texted my friend and told her it’s like a junior high dance with really expensive drinks,” she said. “But it seems to be getting better as people are getting drunker.”
In May, Match.com launched "The Stir" -- a program of local dating events that bring together Match members for activities like cooking classes, bowling nights, and happy hours. The company, owned by Internet giant InterActive Corporation
(NASDAQ:IACI), wants to attract new members who might not otherwise try online dating.
At stake is the growth of Match, which is IAC’s second most profitable division, bringing in about 24% of fourth-quarter revenue from 2.8 million paid subscribers, according to the most recent quarterly report. The Stir could help Match grab a larger share of the 102 million singles in the US
“We believe if we can get more people face to face through our singles events, we’re going to have much more success and get more people to try Match.com,” Mandy Ginsberg, CEO of Match.com, told Investors Business Daily in June.
Match members who pay for the service (many don't, making do with the limited number of free features) get an invitation to a Stir event, and they are allowed to bring up to five people as guests. People who commit three or six months have a better chance of receiving a Stir invitation. The Stir's invitees are selected based on where they live and their age. Monthly memberships range from about $21 to $42, depending on how long one commits to using the service.
“I came tonight to support my friend,” says Christian H., 26, who adds that he has an “in-the-works” girlfriend, but if it doesn’t work out, he would consider paying for Match.com and attending the events. “It’s better than hitting the next or search button,” he said. “At least when you come to this bar, you already know the deal. You know what people are here for.”
In January, Match threw more than 400 events in 80 different cities, from Los Angeles and New York to Honolulu and Anchorage. In 2012, the company held more than 1,600 events with more than 150,000 attendees, according to Match spokesperson Amy Canaday. She added that 85% of members said they had a good time and would go to the event again.
Match.com launched in 1995, making it one of the first dating websites in history. The website and its 560,000 active users were eventually sold to IAC for $43.3 million in 1999, according to the company’s 2000 annual report. Since then, Match.com has more than quadrupled the number of paid subscribers and has added 30 other dating brands, like OkCupid and Chemistry, to its Match division. OkCupid has also launched events.
From year-end 2007 to year-end 2012, the Match division grew its revenue more than 100% to $713.4 million, and increased its paid subscriber numbers by more than 100% to 2.8 million.
Mark Brooks, an online dating consultant based in Europe who covers global businesses, says there’s no question that Match has to do events.
“Where else can they grow?”
He adds, “There’s really two distinct kinds of singles: those that go out to meet people, and those that like to idate.”
By not having events, Match misses out on those people who want to get out from behind a computer and meet someone in person, he said.
But events have had a history of failure at Match. Over the last decade, Match has tried to operate singles events and build speed dating businesses only to realize it wasn’t worth the company’s time and money. Match first tried to offer singles events in 2002 with its launch of MatchLive.com. Later in 2003, it launched SpeedMatching.com. Today, both URLs redirect to Match.com. “Back then it was very labor intensive and very costly,” Canaday said. “This time, we have the scale and technology to do it right and do it cost efficiently.”
In the past year, IAC’s stock has fallen 3.44% to $43.50. The company’s 2011 revenue was $2 billion, up 26% from the previous year. IAC’s healthy financials allow it to experiment with events again and relieve some of the pressure for immediate and significant impact on subscriber numbers.
During IAC’s fourth-quarter earnings call last week, IAC CEO Greg Blatt said although the events didn’t “pack the immediate customer acquisition punch we were hoping for, they’re really hitting their stride now.” He estimated that Match would hold 4,000 to 5,000 events this year.
Match makes attendees pay the standard price for events like wine tastings or mini golfing. It initially wasn’t charging for happy hour events, but the Match spokesperson said it is experimenting with charging fees for happy hours in select markets.
“We’re testing to see if people are more likely to predictably show up when they pay, even a little bit,” Canaday said. Right now, The Stir’s only significant cost is hiring a facilitator to check people in at the event.
“This is not adding anything much to their bottom line that’s measurable,” Brooks said. “What it’s doing is reinforcing the brand and getting people to talk.
Certainly that reinforces another comment that Blatt made during the fourth-quarter earnings call. “We’re now starting to take margin on certain events, which drives up the revenue per user, but more importantly, the events are starting to have real impact on category and brand perception,” he said. He added that after only half a year, approximately a third of US singles are aware that Match offers event dating and 67% of singles say these events make them more likely to try online dating.
“Of particular note, 15% of people who previously said they were not open to online dating say they are open to it as a result of events. This is very meaningful long-term to category expansion and competitive differentiation for Match,” Blatt said.
But to truly get people to embrace the events, they have to be a success– bad events could be deadly for the brand, Brooks said.
“If they walk away from those events thinking, ‘Oh God, I didn’t see anybody I was remotely interested in,’ then Match has failed.”
One way Match can control the dating event is by having an active host.
“By that, I mean, the wallflowers are pulled from the wall,” Brooks said. “Otherwise you end up with a bunch of people feeling stiff, uncertain, and unhappy.”
At Wednesday’s happy hour event, a perky and enthusiastic woman greeted guests when they walked off the elevator. She checked their names off a sheet of paper, then left them to fend for themselves.
“I’m disappointed to hear that,” Brooks says. “They’ve not got it right.”
Dominique Banino, a waitress at the bar, has taken it upon herself to talk to people who are sitting alone at the events. “I only do it
because I sense how awkward it can be,” Banino said. “If they hired someone to be a liaison, it would make everything way better.”
If Match’s event strategy doesn’t succeed, it could be undermined by companies like HowAboutWe. The New York-based startup asks users to suggest various dates– from skydiving to watching a movie– and other users respond to the requests. The company’s homepage reads, “Now online dating is all about getting offline.” More than 300,000 dates have been proposed on the site since its launch and membership rates range from $8 to $28 per month. Respondents find each other based on zipcodes.
(Other dating apps, like SinglesAroundMe.com, are now going further, using GPS locations to help individuals find each other. This trend has also raised security concerns
, for obvious reasons.)
“What’s incredible about HowAboutWe is that they’re helping people define themselves by what they’re interested in doing,” Brooks said.
“The problem with the dating industry is people don’t know how to write about what they’re looking for until they meet that right person.”
HowAboutWe reaches those who are event oriented, more likely to check their iPhones
(NASDAQ:AAPL) and Androids
(NASDAQ:GOOG) for online dating updates, and less likely to be stuck at home behind a desk. It's the exact target audience that Match.com is trying to win over with The Stir.
“I bet 80% of people on HowAboutWe have tried Match.com,” Brooks said.
Traditionally, Match has acquired paying customers by letting them sign up for free and then requiring them to buy a subscription if they want to send a message to someone or respond to someone’s message.
Match doesn’t disclose how many active and non-active users it has. David Evans, editor of OnlineDatingPost.com, estimated there are about 20 million profiles in Match.com’s database. But only seven million have been active in the last thirty days and just 10% of those people are paying customers.
“If you send an email to 100 women, only ten have the capability of directly responding,” Evans said.
That’s why TJ M., 24, likes the events.
“It’s a more practical version of online dating,” he said. “It’s more natural to meet someone in person than sending them an email.”
An hour into the event, another Match member walks by TJ, pauses, and clinks his Heineken beer bottle with TJ’s glass of gin and tonic. Alex D., 26, recognizes TJ from a previous event. Both guys begin complaining about the very obvious imbalance of the guy-to-girl ratio.
“My hope line is fading a bit,” TJ said. “But I never lose hope.”