Feb. 14, 2007 at 7:00 AM ET
As the Righteous Brothers might say, you've lost that loving feeling -- for online dating.
Would-be Valentines are now apparently looking for love in other places. Only 10 percent of Net users questioned in a recent survey said they had recently browsed online personals, compared to 20 percent in 2003. And the decline seems to be quickening. Last year, the figure was 16 percent.
It seems that what was once an alternative to the tired meat-market bar scene has seemingly become a tired virtual meat market.
"The sites you lurk on, it's like going to a bar. After a while it gets old," says Joelle Gropper Kaufman, vice president of online dating site Engage.com. "These are just massive online bars."
Like bars, the sites are still making good money -- some $650 million in 2006, according to survey author Nate Elliot of JupterResearch. That figure is up slightly from 2005, but the increase is attributable to price hikes rather than new customers, he said.
"Despite continued revenue growth, the U.S. online dating market is facing a period of considerable uncertainty over its ability to attract a significant number of new users to the category," Elliot wrote in his report.
Was an e-commerce darling
Just four short years ago, online dating seemed to be the Internet's new killer app, ready to take its place along with e-mail, eBay and Web browsing. It was one of the few dependably profitable electronic commerce categories. It had remarkably low overhead -- consumers voluntarily provided all the content (pictures), and all the merchandise (themselves). The sites just siphoned off a monthly fee. And buyers had the strongest motivation of all: Mother Nature.
So what's gone wrong? Market leaders eHarmony, Match.com and Yahoo Personals have spent serious marketing dollars trying to attract would-be lovebirds. And the number of single online users looking for love certainly hasn't shrunk.
Yet the sites appear to have reached their "natural limit," according to Elliot. In other words, they've topped out on the number of people who are willing to tolerate constant e-mail come-ons from supposed Russian brides. Professional con artists are everywhere online, so common that over 1,000 scammed online lovers regularly participate in the “RomanceScams” group on Yahoo.
There's also considerable disillusionment with amateur-con artists. Online daters don't quite play by the rules -- meaning they often don't list their exact age or weight, and don't publish a recent photograph.
Lying, it would seem, is standard practice online. In a survey Engage.com conducted late last year, 24 percent of respondents said it was OK to tell “little white lies” in their ads. One has to wonder if the other 76 percent were telling the truth. The most common lies that users admitted to involved income (21 percent), weight (16 percent) and age (14 percent).
Other factors also have cut into growth for online dating sites. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook provide what are effectively free online personals services for younger singles.
And, perhaps most important, the novelty element of online dating has faded.
"The need to lurk is naturally declining," Kaufman said.
Match: Plenty of room to grow
She claims her dating site is different, of course. Engage.com invites friends to introduce would-be lovers to each other, mimicking real-world matchmaking. The site was co-founded by Trish McDermott, a former Match.com executive who's now a critic of standard dating sites. Yet there is no evidence that the new approaches taken by Engage.com and other next generation online dating sites are reversing the declining interest.
Still, reports of the demise of “traditional” online personals (including my own from last year) are premature. Match.com still has 1.3 million people paying more than $20 a month. Jane Thompson, Match.com’s vice president and general manager for North America, said the site has 7 percent more paying members than last year. That's a business virtually any Net entrepreneur would be jealous of.
“There are say 22 million people in the U.S. who are single, online, open to a new relationship and have never used an online dating site,” she said, adding that the site signs up 60,000 people – both lurkers and paying customers -- every day. “I wouldn’t say we’ve reached a natural limit.”
But you can't help but sense a hint of desperation is the firm's new advertising campaign, "It's OK to look," which is obviously aimed at the drop-off in lurkers. So is the site’s new “Voyeur’s Guide.” One version of the home page now includes a fetching picture of a male member with the quote, “There’s no way I’m confessing to anything.” That’s a far cry from the wholesome, family friendly, “we’d never encourage extramarital dating” image Match.com worked so hard to cultivate in recent years.
After all, if online love sites are having trouble getting Web surfers to stop in and look at pictures of men and woman who want a date, they’re obviously going to have a harder time converting lurkers into paying customers.
That was the conclusion of Elliot’s report. Essentially, he said, those who aren’t already dating online have decided it’s not for them.
“A recent survey shows that non-users wouldn’t trust the people they found on dating sites, are uncomfortable with paying for dating services and are afraid of sharing personal information,” he wrote. “If new product or marketing approaches could win over consumers who still find paid dating services psycho-socially uncomfortable, user growth could again accelerate. However, JupiterResearch remains skeptical.”
So apparently, do the would-be Valentines out there.