Match_dot_com

Match.com is about to get a major facelift. But in a sign of the times, it’s not the online dating company’s Web product that is getting the attention, but rather its mobile app, where 50 percent of all engagement already takes place. Match launched Version 3.0 of its iOS app today with the intention of bringing its user experience in line with the current best of class in consumer mobile design.

“We asked ourselves, what would the Match experience look like if we designed it from scratch today,” says Match President Amarnath Thombre.

The answer, apparently, is plenty of a swipe-heavy interactions and a minimalist design aesthetic, among other changes. Match left a lot on the cutting room floor when it comes to porting the Web product to mobile. But it’s added several mobile-only features that should drive increased engagement.

Traditional dating apps have all been search- or “match”-driven, Thombre says, but the former feels like work, and the latter is a bit cryptic for most consumers. They’re also ill-suited for the real-time, recurring engagement patterns that mobile users exhibit. Thus, Match 3.0 for iOS borrows from mobile-first companies like Grindr and its IAC-owned sister company, Tinder, to add a third interaction paradigm: Discover.

Match further breaks down its new Discover experience into two interaction options: Stream and Mixer. Stream allows the user to scroll vertically through an endless feed of profile cards which display the opposing users’ profile picture, a featured secondary photo (a la Facebook’s cover photos), and additional profile info like age and city. Users can tap through to view rich profiles, thumbs up profiles of singles that pique their interest, and even message their potential match from right within the feed.

The second interaction format within the new Discover section is what Match calls “Mixer” and it’s taken right out of the Tinder gamification playbook. Match mobile users can now swipe through cards of potential matches who are nearby using the familiar right for “yes I’m interested,” left for “no thanks” system. Users who express mutual interest with one another will be alerted to match.

“The most natural way to find people is to feel like you’re bumping into them by accident,” Thombre says. “We tried to simulate that experience with Mixer, while at the same time allowing user to browse through algorithmically curated profiles faster and easier than ever before.”

As for the notion that Match is copying Tinder – corporate familial relationship notwithstanding – Thombre views the two as non-competitive. First, Match and Tinder serve entirely different demographics, he says. Tinder obviously skews younger, and while you’d expect Match to be trending in a similar direction thanks to the emergence of mobile, the company’s audience has remained steady for the last five to seven years, Thombre claims. If anything, he adds, the company has seen an influx of older users thanks to the “Facebook effect” increasing comfort levels with Internet usage.

Beyond the different demographics, Match is a paid product while Tinder is free, meaning that the end user use cases differ substantially even within the same age groups, Thombre says. To this point, unlike Tinder, Match allows users to view rich profiles before deciding whether to “swipe right” for a potential match, making it better suited to serious courtship. Finally, it’s not like Tinder invented swipe, Thombre adds, or that “Tinder for X” products have not become so common as to represent their own meme in Silicon Valley. (Call this the everybody’s doing it defense.)

“We want to serve as wide an audience as possible,” Thombre says. “We believe that the two platforms can be complementary and additive – once you use one online dating product, you’re more apt to try another or even use multiple simultaneously.”

IAC will surely hope Thombre is right, given the valuations Tinder is now attracting and the commonly held notion that the mobile-first product serves as a gateway drug to its paid product older sibling, as well as a hedge against Match’s declining cool factor. But make no mistake about it, Match is still the golden goose within the IAC online dating family (which also includes OKCupid, BlackPeopleMeet.com, OurTime.com, and other platforms).

As for why the company included both Stream and Mixer in the newly designed app, rather than choosing a single discovery mechanism and going all in there, Thombre believes there’s no downside to offering options.

“Match has never taken the stance that there’s only one way to meet people,” he says. “We’ve always had match and search, and now we’ve added discover. People like to choose the way they’re most comfortable with meeting people, which can be different at different times.”

From a visual perspective, Match has taken a wealth of influence from the new iOS 7 design language, meaning edge to edge photos, easily accessible navigation menus, and minimal skeuomorphism. The company has also made more use of in-app notifications and redesigned its messaging experience to adopt a conversation-based format (about five years too late), meaning that a user’s conversation history with any match is visible within a single thread.

“We’re constantly gathering feedback from users, but we’ve also been working collaboratively with Apple,” SVP of Product Beth Wilson says. “There are other good apps out there in the industry, but we believe that this puts us at the forefront,” Thombre adds.

The other major change is that, for the first time, Match now enables in-app purchasing. Most of the new app’s browsing and discovery features remain free to use, it’s just the messaging product – and thus the ability to connect with other singles – that is behind the paywall. The change means that Apple will get its 30 percent cut of all memberships initiated within the app. But with users spending more time engaging with Match via mobile, the company expects to make up for this tax with increased sales volume.

“For us, this decision was really about reducing friction,” Thombre says. “We’re really excited to learn about what kinds of engagement patterns we can create. We’re confident that increased usage will offset any costs.”

Notably, the company has seen little variance in the average lifetime values and churn rates between those users engaging primarily via mobile and the Web, he adds. Whether Match can maintain these levels in the face of growing mobile-first usage, rather than mobile-as-a-supplement usage remains to be seen.

While Match may be emphasizing mobile more than ever before, the company certainly isn’t sunsetting its Web product anytime soon. Each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages, according to Wilson.

“Mobile lends itself to ongoing and real-time engagement,” she says, adding that mobile users often open the Match app for eight to nine unique sessions per day. “Mobile also allows greater access to a user’s photos library, camera, and location data. Desktop, on the other hand, supports richer profile creation. People still don’t want to write much on mobile.”

Match usage may be split evenly between Web and mobile today, but the trend is clearly going toward the latter. The platform even has a “significant percentage” of mobile only users, in Thombre’s words.

The bulk of the design updates unveiled today will be translated to new Android and iPad apps in the near future, but not all will make it to the Web, Wilson says. Mixer, for example, is a casual experience designed for a portable, touch-screen device, but ill-suited to a PC.

“We stopped looking at this as feature completion [across platforms], but rather as delivering the right features for the right device,” Thombre says. “All info is integrated and synced across platforms and we expect the various platform roadmaps to converge further in the near future.”

Match.com may be nearing its 20th birthday, but the company remains the gold standard when it comes to online dating businesses. The company’s US business generated $464.3 million in 2013 revenue, as compared to just $98.9 million for the IAC group that includes OkCupid, SpeedDate, DateHookup, Twoo, Tinder and Match’s international operations.

Given this reality, making sure that Match remains relevant in the mobile era is certainly of the utmost priority to IAC. Today’s iOS update was the first step in that process. But for the company to thrive long term, it will need to look beyond its sister companies and competitors for inspiration and prove that it can continue to lead in the next generation of virtual matchmaking.