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Key Learnings for Online Daters from iDate 2009 (Los Angeles)

Editor's Note: Online Dating Magazine spokesperson and columnist, Dr. James Houran, recently spoke at the iDate 2009 event in Los Angeles. iDate is the largest tradeshow (held twice a year in the United States) for the online dating industry. From his attendance at the event, Dr. James Houran has written this "wrapup" for online daters:

(iDate 2009) iDate is an established conference for the online dating industry, but it’s not a venue for consumers. It is the only dating conference in the US, and it runs two US shows a year, one held early in the year in Miami and one in the summer in Los Angeles. There are also European and Asian versions of the conference.

My first iDate was in 2004 in Nice, France!  All this said, I have to mention that what happens at iDate is certainly relevant to consumers. The vendors, presenters and sessions are all geared towards trying to figure out how to please and retain consumers -- and capture new consumers who currently don’t use online dating. Let’s face it, social networking is dampening dating business. People use sites like MySpace and Facebook much more than any dating site, and they use these mega-social sites for dating as much as they do for fun and platonic social interaction. Let me review the conference from the perspective of what it means to consumers.

Major Themes of iDate 2009 (Los Angeles)
In my view, many of the underlying themes throughout the conference sessions could be boiled down to three guiding principles:

1) Personalization
2) Competency
3) Integration

refers to an intimate level of customer engagement -- bringing knowledge, information and tools to customers in a way that becomes personally relevant for them. Social networking sites do this remarkably well, as is proven by research on how long people tend to spend on these sites. However, if the rise of niche dating sites tells us anything, it’s that everyone has a “thing” and that people want to connect with others who share this. Mega dating sites like Match or eHarmony don’t consistently deliver on personalization; they instead push and depend on volume. With this in mind, I argue that the notion of a “one size fits all” dating site is slowly (or maybe not so slowly) becoming increasingly obsolete in today’s marketplace. Solutions are being customized to fit highly specific or idiosyncratic needs that different daters have. I mean compatibility means different things to different people, and niche dating sites are trying to fill the voids. I didn’t see representatives from any of the major sites at iDate this year, but I did see reps from niche sites and upstart businesses. Maybe the big sites don’t see the need or any value in conferences like this, since their business models are rigidly established. But niche sites and upstarts need the type of basic information offered at iDate, as well as a close-up view of coming technologies and site features. These smaller sites might well be more adaptive than the mega sites to what customers will be needing in the future, not just what customers wanted a decade ago. To put it bluntly, a common comment I kept hearing in the halls of iDate is that big dating sites are becoming antiquated in their features and business models.

The takeaway for daters: Explore niche sites and start-up sites to see what features they offer above and beyond what large dating sites offer. You might be surprised to find more of what you’re looking for in your definition of “compatibility” by going more local or niche versus wading through the large, deep pool of daters on the large sites. At the very least, supplement your memberships on big sites with one or two niche sites.

Of course, business development and delivering on marketing claims to daters are grounded on the premise of competency. Without ongoing research and development, dating sites can’t remain connected to the customers’ needs. This begs the question, “How many sites actually have viable Customer Relations Management programs or market survey centers?” The answer is simply unknown to me. However, one of the most active research and development programs I’ve seen firsthand is that of PlentyofFish ( The owner, Markus Frind, utilizes industry consultants and constant experimentation with new features to determine on a near daily basis how he should modify his site. In fact, Markus offers a direct pipeline between him and his membership. Maybe this is why POF often comes across more like a community of daters than just merely an impartial dating pool. In any event, many sites could do better at educating their members about the rationales or theories that underlie their matching methods, while some sites could do better at educating members on how to use various features to their advantage. Dating sites need to demonstrate their own competencies, as well as help to make daters more competent in how to use and leverage their services.

The takeaway for daters: Dating sites belong to active users, not the management. Innovation seems to be very slow at the moment in the industry. Therefore, let your opinions and ideas be heard. Participate in all market or customer surveys offered at your site and send suggestions for improvement to Customer Service. It’s up to you to tell the dating sites what you want and what works and what doesn’t. Be an active user so you’ll become as competent as possible in using the tools at your disposal. Also, share your competency with others on dating site forums. Dating sites aren’t social networks per se, but they can be online communities to an extent. Help each other!

Finally, the conference hit home the idea that online dating sites are no longer an isolated industry. The future of the industry seems to be about integration -- dating sites as standalone services is quickly becoming an outdated business model. Some of the iDate presentations addressed how companies need to integrate with other businesses to provide better payment solutions for customers, whereas other talks examined how dating sites can be meshed with social networking sites to bring new user-experiences to the marketplace. Then too, you have disruptive technologies like the iPhone, which have made companies rethink their approach to new dating applications. Before the iPhone, mobile dating was a buzz phrase in some sectors of the market. Now, new technologies are redefining even these emerging functionalities. Even the very concept of a “personal profile” is changing. Dating sites remain invested in the idea of a fixed, stationary profile -- one that remains on the dating site. However, the future likely belongs to the idea of a “portable profile” -- one that a person can take and use across many dating or social networking sites. These themes of integration reflect the consumer demand for increased mobility and flexibility. However, iDate offered no solid insights into what’s coming down the pike, or should be coming down the pike. The big dating sites, or new businesses, might be working on these concepts at a fevered pace, but attendees wouldn’t know it.

The takeaway for daters: Don’t wait for dating sites to bring new features to you; be creative on your own. This is one of the reasons why I wrote about creativity this month (click here). Daters need to take greater onus for their activities, rather than use sites as romantic “black boxes” that serve to introduce or match you with others. Dating sites should serve to supplement your search for a suitable partner; don’t treat them as the only tool or avenue available to you. Explore social media and keep current whenever possible about new technologies so you’ll be better positioned to meet and connect with others in new and creative ways. Traditionally, people meet romantic partners in one of three ways: accidentally, in the workplace or through introductions by family and friends. Online dating expands these options, but the traditional ways shouldn’t be completely replaced. It’s up to you to creatively expand your horizons in using the traditional methods.   

Where We Go From Here
A true “meeting of the minds” from the dating and social networking spaces is the ideal, but I doubt that will ever happen at a conference like iDate. The different dating and social sites are too territorial and protective to ever “play nicely” with one another. At least, that’s my take at the moment. However, I think it’s a fair statement to say that significant changes with online dating will come from market forces outside the industry. New technologies, new online concepts, new consumer demands and better educated consumers will be the impetus for the industry either to adapt or die.

Online dating -- and indeed all social-oriented sites -- are supposedly to be customer driven. Too often, sites are preoccupied with revenue at the cost of meeting consumers’ needs. The sites that deliver great service, content and an overall experience are the ones expected to be profiteers; not the ones that cut corners and force customers to make do. In this sense, iDate might consider running sessions with the industry experts that arguably matter most of all -- the daters themselves. The industry would benefit by hearing and asking questions of actual customers who talk about their needs and wants in their own words. After all, dating and social networking sites encourage members to talk to each other all the time, so why not put some resources into broadening that dialogue to include dating site executives and strategists?  To me, that would be a killer addition to future iDate conferences, and go a long way to communicating something very important to consumers…notably, that their voices are being heard and sites are working to adapt to their ever changing needs and wants.


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