Something in the air: What's behind the big numbers on new dating apps

By Michael Carney , written on February 11, 2013

From The News Desk


There’s something in the air. In the last week, I’ve seen three new mobile, social dating apps that operate on various flavors of the Hot or Not model: Bang with Friends, Hinge, and Let’s Date. More shocking is that, at least according to the companies themselves, all three lusty platforms are seeing massive engagement, especially among young adults. The question is, why?

Maybe it’s that it’s nearly Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s that we’re all relieved to have survived the Mayan apocalypse and are ready to get back to growing the species. Maybe it’s that to many, eHarmony, OKCupid, and the like are the dating sites of a previous generation, and thus relegated to a pre-social, pre-mobile, graveyard.

Whatever it is that’s led to the recent explosion, as the old media axiom goes, three makes a trend.

The most primal of the three newcomers to catch my (happily engaged) attention was Bang With Friends. The service is focused on hooking up friends, and friends of friends, who share a mutual interest in gettin’ physical, but don’t have the guts to make a move without prior assurance that the other party feels the same way. If two users indicate that their interest in a rendezvous, the app facilitates an introduction. The app has reportedly been adding an astounding five users per minute, and is in the process of expanding beyond heterosexual matching.

Since the launch of the social wingman platform, several analogs have sprung up for completing social networks. Bang with Professionals launched as the sexual tryst platform for the business crowd, only to be shut down by LinkedIn (to no one's surprise). Bang with Nobody, on the other hand, operates on top of the Google+ platform, so, ya know, it’s a ghost town.

Let’s Date, which launched publicly earlier this week out of the LA’s Science technology studio, offers the most analogous experience to the traditional online dating service, only with a mobile first (err, mobile only) sensibility. Users fill out a brief questionnaire about themselves and what they’re looking for in a mate. The results are presented in the form of a dating card that can be shared on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Users view one another’s dating card and request a match. If both people accept, the app suggests a local meeting place that matches both their interests. The company is hoping that its dating card will become the universal credential for mobile matchmaking.

“I think Let’s Date is one of the hottest companies to come out of Science yet, in terms of long term value,” Science partner Peter Pham says. “The numbers are insane.”

Since launching initially in San Francisco on November 1, Let’s Date has seen 21 minutes of average daily usage per users, across an average of 7.3 sessions per day, says founder Sean Suhl, formerly of Suicide Girls fame. More than a quarter of all users use the app 10 or more times per day, and an astounding 96 percent of users are still active after 50 days. Perhaps most importantly, 24 percent of users go on their first date within two weeks.

Rounding out the category is Washington, DC-based Hinge, which launched into beta with 5,000 users last week. The app offers a similar experience as Bang with Friends, only less explicitly geared toward sex. Users of the app rate one another on a 1 to 5 scale, and those users who mutually rank one another 4 or greater are introduced through the app. Where they choose to take it from there is up to them. It’s too early to know how Hinge is being received, but given the engagement elsewhere in the category it would appear that there’s a significant demand.

But the real question is, why?

The average consumer between 18 and 50 years old could likely name a minimum of three prominent online dating sites. With sites that cater toward every persuasion – young people, older people, married people, gold diggers, various religious persuasions, and I’m sure dozens of fetishes and fantasies that I’ve never encountered – isn’t there something for everyone? Why do we need new services?

The answer seems to boil down to three issues. The legacy platforms are terrible on mobile, are not inherently social, and are old and thus uncool.

It’s extremely difficult to shoehorn a Web-first experience into that of mobile and come away with a first class product. There are just too many compromises forced on the mobile version by the existing Web products, says Sean Suhl of Let’s Date. So the legacy platforms have been slow to adopt to these new trends.

In a world where more and more computing is taking place on mobile, this is hard to overcome. Users want to be able to stand in line at the grocery store and flip through user profiles – maybe even start a casual chat. In much the same way, social recommendations are becoming a must. It’s far easier to accept a blind date when you know that the person on the other end of the chat window is a friend of a friend.

Take a look at the user demographics of Let’s Date, and it quickly becomes clear who’s using the platform and how important these elements will be going forward. While Suhl wouldn’t disclose total user numbers, he did reveal that a whopping 36 percent of the app’s users are 18 to 24 year old females. These young ladies have the option of mingling with, 17 percent 18 to 24 year-old males, 17 percent 25 to 35 year old females, 22 percent 25 to 34 year old males, 2.3 percent 35 to 44 year old women, and 4 percent 35 to 44 year old men. Not a baby boomer in sight. (The app requires that users be 18 years old, as verified by mandatory Facebook Connect.)

While similar metrics aren’t available for the other two platforms, it’s safe to assume that they’re attracting an equally youthful audience. Much like many teens and tweens have eschewed Facebook and Twitter, for Instagram and now Snapchat, young adults appear ready to move to online dating platforms that speak to their instant and casual sensibilities. Perhaps more importantly, these new platforms are ones that they can claim as their own. Anything that your parents and their friends may have used is immediately uncool.

With social activity increasingly going digital, online dating isn’t going anywhere. It’s early days for online dating 2.0, meaning it’s entirely likely that none of the three above companies will still be standing a year from now. That said, the early user growth and engagement stats suggest that there’s a revolution coming in the category.

Match, eHarmony, et al still boast massive installed bases which represent an enormous deterrent to new market entrants. But so does Yahoo, and not many content discovery startups are worried about the big purple portal. It’s incredibly hard to be all things to all people, and changing course to court a new generation of users risks alienating the existing members. So these Web 1.0 companies have been slow to adapt. Whether it ultimately costs them relevancy is yet to be seen.

[Image courtesy wackystuff]