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Inside The Online Dating Industry
by Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine

Online Dating Background Check Controversy Continues


Last week, I announced that the Illinois House of Representatives was set to vote on forcing online dating services to do background checks or post a prominent message, on their home page, that they don't (read the bill here).

Well the vote has taken place and the Illinois House passed it by a vote of 74-36. Now the bill goes before the Illinois Senate, where it can become law if passed there.

Unfortunately, most of the legislatures who passed the bill likely haven't really studied the issue or the impact it will have. This is the complete opposite of last year when a Virginia State Panel studied the issue closely and voted a similar bill down.

In Virginia's case, perhaps committee member Chap Petersen (Virginia Democrat from Fairfax) put it best when he told the Washington Post, "To think that you require a criminal background check is a little over the top. I think there's been some nightmarish stories, but I don't think that is unique to Internet dating. I felt like it was, frankly, overregulation and not an area where the government needs to jump in with both feet."

Overregulation is exactly what a bill like the one in Illinois would create. But it would also create an environment where the little guys (i.e. niche sites) would greatly struggle. What consumer is going to want to sign up for a service that has to prominently display the following message?:

"No background check of felony or sex offense convictions is done on members who use this service. Please take appropriate safety measures to increase awareness of possible risks associated with dating."

If the Illinois Senate passes the bill, they will help create strong unfair competitive advantages of certain online dating services over others. They will also succeed in raising the cost of all online dating services that would be forced to do background checks. Free online dating services would be forced to charge in order to do the background checks to avoid the "message of ill will".

As I showed you in last week's column, the controversial leader behind the push for background checks is True CEO Herb Vest. His quest perfectly plays out the strategies he lays out in his book, "Instructions to my Officers" (see review here). Strategies like "Use regulatory restraints to your advantage" and "little guys who do dramatic and controversial things quickly gain media attention." No doubt, True has received a lot of attention as a result.

But the question remains - is it a good idea? When analyzing a question like that, it's usually best to make a list of pros and cons in order to reach a decision. So let's do that:

Pros and Cons of Online Dating Background Check Legislation
Pros Cons
Some criminals will be filtered
out of the service
Creates a potential false sense of security
Online daters may feel safer Some criminals will get through
  Creates government regulation where it isn't needed
  Costs of online dating will rise for the user
  Some smaller or niche services won't survive
  States have different criminal check policies - no consistency
  Multiple laws by multiple states could create confusion
  Appears to be a ploy by True to gain media attention

Even the ACLU has weighed in on the matter of online dating background checks. ACLU data privacy expert, Barry Steinhardt, told the Washington Post last year that criminal background checks are flawed.

"You have every problem from names getting mixed up to the information being out of date," he said. He warned consumers that with online dating background checks they are "buying a defective product."


Basically, what this comes down to is an apparent ploy by True to simply gain media attention. According to the Los Angeles Times, Herb Vest / True has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to try and get states to pass legislation. Legislatures, it appears, are being used as a pawn to provide millions of dollars in "free" publicity for True. It's worked to date. Hopefully legislatures who dig deeper will stop pandering to True and start passing bills that truly benefit their state.

Tip of the Week
We're to the third tip for building a strong user base. The first tip was about the vital importance of offering a free lifetime membership and the second was about using incentives to get people to sign up. I thank those of you who responded to my offer of a free ebook I'm writing that you can provide your users with - you will have that ebook next week. That brings us to this week's tip:

Tip #3: Show How You Differ

When a person visits your online dating service, they are not going to just automatically sign up. You must convince them to sign up. One way to convince them is to differentiate yourself from other online dating services.

Since we've been talking about True this issue, let's look at something good they do right on their front page - they differentiate themselves from the competition and the differentiation is in a highly visible place. They let users know that they do background checks and that they prosecute married people. They also let people know that their compatibility test is scientific in nature (versus just a questionnaire). True does a good job of letting new people know right off the bat why the member should sign up with them.

Honesty First is a new online dating service and they use two ways to try and differentiate themselves. First, they let people know that, in addition to having all the features of other online dating services they do both background checks and ID verification (see image). You can't miss it when you go to their home page. But then they also try and use a humorous flash segment, linked to from their front page, to get people to sign up. Check it out.

How does your online dating service differ from others? Why should a people use your service. Convince them on your front page (Free Lifetime Membership, Free Online Dating Ebook, some unique feature). Entice them, then win them over.

Remember, you must apply multiple strategies at one time to build your user base. No one strategy will work alone. For example, how can you entice them if you can't get them to your Website? Next week's tip will be one on getting them to your Website.

Related Links
» Online Dating Background Check Controversy
» Book Review: Instructions to my Officers

Joe Tracy is publisher of Online Dating Magazine and is often quoted by the media in relation to online dating topics. His Inside the Online Dating Industry column is published monthly.

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