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Guest Editorial: The Biggest Online Dating Challenge - Converting Guests into Members
by Michael Jones, President of Userplane

(April, 2004) Returning from the recent Internet Dating Conference in Miami, one thing is clear: aside from gaining overall site traffic, the majority of online dating sites feel that their primary challenge is perfecting the art of conversion -- taking a free membership granted to a guest, and converting that guest membership to an actual paying subscriber.

Judging online dating sites isn’t all that different from sizing up potential partners at any social event. Visitors to online dating sites typically assess the prospective website by the images displayed on the first few pages of their membership query. While this has become the standard approach for the dating website homepage, it’s unfortunate. This tendency doesn’t enable users to determine the site’s real value and utility. Just as in online dating itself, first impressions (the “look and feel” of those members displayed during that all-important initial search) trump the actual experience. And just as with people, website appeal shouldn’t be skin deep.

There are exceptions, of course., for one, boasts a superior personality-based matching system and does not place an inventory search on its homepage. Along with other personality-based dating sites, eHarmony attempts to put more emphasis on the functionality and actual success rate of individual matches than on the physical characteristics of its members.

In order to combat this “hot or not” impulse, many sites require users to register or at minimum sign up for a free guest membership prior to allowing an in-depth search of the member base. Alternatively, some permit an in-depth search but restrict actual member contact until the visitor subscribes. While this can be successful, it does require the visitor to actually find a relevant match within a few simple clicks – an unlikely prospect for many. The byproduct of these approaches is a large number of free visitor-memberships, but a small percentage of conversions from guests to paying members.

Fortunately, a new breed of dating website is emerging, taking more progressive steps toward a solution to the problem. Among the methods these sites use to support guest-to-member conversion are these:

Give away more free lifetime memberships to women.
The same principle of a good nightclub now applies to online dating websites; if women are present in abundance, men will join. Sites such as Verona Street have realized that typical online dating websites have a 70/30 ratio of males to females and that with a larger female user base and a more female-friendly environment, they can more easily attract male subscribers. Although this is hardly a new concept offline, I regard it as a new trend online.

Support real value through features and experiences, not restrictions.
In general, most online dating sites go to great lengths to prevent users from revealing their offline information (blocking the display of email addresses and phone numbers, etc.). The theory holds that the more control a dating site can exercise over member and guest contact, the more dependent the member or guest becomes on the dating site. A better approach to online dating will not use the website as a method of controlling contact but as a platform/environment to provide users with a more intimate and safe online setting.

The concept of providing unique online real-time methods of communication such as audio and video chatting, online dating games and more advanced chat rooms enables online dating site users to obtain value from actual experiences, rather than simply paying for contact restriction. Those websites that embrace this approach will be providing members with tools that enhance and extend the value of paid membership.

Catch me when I’m engaged.
A growing number of new online dating sites have realized the tangible benefits of offering live communication tools and rich media experiences such as instant messaging, video profiles and chat rooms. One specific benefit – easy to implement and certain to pay dividends in the form of increased conversions -- is to enable guest users time-limited access to these live communication tools. There is no better “taste test” than allowing a guest to participate in a instant messaging session, watch a live video profile, or engage in a chat room conversation for a specified amount of time, then redirecting the user to a membership conversion page.

Using this method, a dating website can convert a visitor who is actively engaged in a live experience that only that site can provide into a paid, sustaining member – you just have to ask. Although dating websites have traditionally been wary of providing guests with access to these live chat services for cost reasons, the live communities available through online chat and instant messaging are often the most compelling reasons to join. Without actively participating in these experiences, prospective members are left with the limited exposure of that first query and thus miss out on sampling the personality and flair of the active online user base.

The online dating industry remains in its infancy. Searching the web reveals a handful of new dating sites being launched every day. With the new competition and more niche-focused environments, there is something (and someone) out there for everyone.

My sincere hope is that in the near future, dating sites will be judged not by a few pretty faces, but by their ability to provide unique, interactive online experiences – experiences unmatched by any alternative medium, online or off.

Michael Jones

Michael Jones, founder and business partner of Userplane, oversees the company’s application and business strategy, focusing on the future of live communications through the development of web apps.

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