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It is estimated that more than a third of the world’s population are currently living under some form of lockdown. As the devastation of COVID-19 unfolds on the many industries built on the physical world, you would be forgiven for assuming that it would be no different for an industry like dating that is built entirely on meeting people in real life.
In the case of online dating however, the reality so far has very much violated this broader narrative. Only this week, Tinder reported soaring user engagement, recording more than 3 billion swipes on Sunday 28th March. That’s more than on any single day in the company’s entire history. While engagement certainly does not always equate to revenue, the industry in the short term appears to be more resilient than expected.
That is not to say however that it’s been business as usual for dating companies around the world. The pandemic has at least temporarily completely rewritten the rulebook, with some businesses better equipped than others to re-position themselves following an almost-overnight transformation of social norms. The most obvious and fascinating example of this has been video-dating, the next best thing to an in-person date and the only obvious alternative.
In this day and age, you might expect that every dating app would be equipped with video-chat capabilities as standard. Video chat however has historically been too expensive to build and maintain, requiring huge development resource which could otherwise be devoted to other features while also significantly increasing server costs. It has also generally been met with pessimism by users, given the somewhat underwhelming and awkward experience relative to meeting in real life.
Badoo were in fact the first major dating platform to launch video calls in late 2016, arguably well ahead of its time. Only in July 2019 did the next major platform join the party. That platform was Bumble, who belong to the same parent company as Badoo, in a somewhat serendipitously timed move. Leadership teams from both companies will now feel vindicated by their decisions to pursue a feature that at the time would have been deemed high-risk, with Bumble reporting a 21% increase in usage of its video chat feature since the outbreak.
As well as increased usage, people’s attitudes certainly seem to be changing too. According to Badoo CMO, Dominic Gallello, 85% of Badoo users have said they would be open to a video date since COVID-19. The longer that social distancing and lockdown is enforced, the more this new medium of dating will have the chance to blossom. At a certain point, single people’s craving for romantic human connection could leave them with no other safe choice, escalating this behavioural shift from curiosity to desperation.
Match Group ($MTCH) meanwhile have been caught rather flat-footed. Despite being home to household names such as Tinder, Match.com and OKCupid as well as the more recent breakout success Hinge, none of their major brands currently offer in-app video chat. The dating giant has responded by attempting to quickly pivot more of its services to add video capabilities, with newly-appointed group CEO Shar Dubey announcing last week that they hope to roll out an initial version on Match.com later this month.
To patch up what is increasingly looking like an oversight, Tinder have offered Passport for free to its entire user base – a paid feature that allows you to swipe on people anywhere in the world. Interestingly though they have not committed to launching a video chat of their own, perhaps indicating that the company believes this shift to be more of a flash in the pan rather than a long-term change in user behaviour.
One of the more intriguing developments in the space has come from The Intro, a London-based startup for whom user adoption of video chat could well be make or break. The Intro are the only dating app to in fact have no chat feature at all. Prior to the pandemic, The Intro’s business model was built around speed and efficiency. Users could sign up and match with another user as they would on any other dating app. From there though, The Intro would take care of the rest, scheduling a mutually convenient time and venue for an in-person date without a single message being exchanged.
With COVID-19 looming and it becoming increasingly clear that in-person dating would be off the table for the foreseeable future, the founders decided to temporarily pivot the business to focus purely on video-dates. Impressively, they were able to reposition the app entirely in less than a week, launching their first video-based date feature on March 16th. So far it’s been paying off. According to CEO and co-founder, George Burgess, they saw a 100% increase in the number of dates that took place in the first week post-launch.
Perhaps one of the reasons they have seen such dramatic adoption of this particular approach to video dating is due to the concierge nature of their platform. Since there are no social norms for this medium yet, users on other platforms may be anxious or unsure as to when to ask the other person to move the chat to a video-date. While most dating app users will have never previously arranged a video date before, having a third party arrange it for you removes the awkwardness from the equation entirely.
How video dating evolves once daily life returns to normality will certainly be interesting to follow. While video dates may have been normalised by this unprecedented disaster, it remains to be seen whether this behaviour persists beyond COVID-19. In any case, the fact that video-chat has historically been so difficult to monetise in dating does make it unlikely that companies will find ways to make video-dating a major revenue-driver in the long term. With competitors like FaceTime and the emergence of Zoom as a consumer platform, there will always be free and higher quality options too.
When it comes down to it though, the chances are our human instinct will prevail. We are after all a highly social species with rather short memories.