Customer retention way forward for dating sites

The issue for many dating site owners becomes apparent when they realise the exact nature of the beast they are trying to build. Yes, dating sites are places where singles can now meet online, get to know each other in the chat-rooms and send IMs and private e-mails, but, in order to keep the whole shebang ticking over, it has to be a business that makes the owner money.

Free dating sites generate income through advertising, either on click-thru commissions or companies paying for the advertising space if the page ranks high enough for a given term. Paid sign-ups obviously gain access to greater benefits than a free dating membership and the website owner gets their cash directly through those fees. Either method has its merits, depending upon what you, curious single, want to use online dating for and how secure you want your Internet dating experience to be.

There is no doubt that dating sites that can boast a high, legitimate success rate will go on to use that information in their advertising campaigns. Take match.com, who reckoned at one point that they were responsible for 5% of all marriages in the US. That type of statistic is fantastic if you are looking to attract singles who judge your product, or dating site, by how well it matches with you your perfect partner, if that is indeed the reason you are signing up to online dating.

But this is where the dating site industry differs from many traditional model businesses that offer a service. In the real world, it is taken as read that your business grows by developing relationships with your existing customer base. Relationships thrive on trust, derived from continued good service; the selling aspects get negated as price becomes less of an issue. And generally, unless a major disaster strikes, that customer is yours for life.

However, for a dating site to be recognised as successful, it offers a service that means the two customers who have found love online with each other walk off into the sunset together. For every single success story, the dating site has to replace two customers; in any other realm, this would be a self-defeating accomplishment. This is why so much of a webmaster’s budget goes into advertising to attract new singles to their service and there is that constant quest to find a DCA (dynamic competitive advantage) to get one over on the competition.

But what if there was a way to keep couples as customers after they have began an offline, exclusive relationship? This has to be the way forward unless dating site owners want to continually be regurgitating the same advertising campaign, albeit with updated gadgets. It may well mean changing at least one of the dynamics of the business, but for the sake of a one-time concerted effort to research this aspect and create this aspect of the dating site, even at a reduced rate of membership fee, it is retention of a portion of your customer base that would have never graced the presence of your dating site again. Heck, having someone in your forums and chat rooms who knows the ropes and can advise other singles on the path to online dating happiness is almost like having employees, so it is well worth the effort to at least research your members to see if this is a viable option.

Zoosk has took the bull by the horns in this aspect, with Couple Profiles. It offers a place for people who have met on their dating site but don’t necessarily feel the need to give up their membership to record their relationship milestones. Again, this level of success is a fantastic advert if the target audience judge dating site success by long-term relationships. If webmasters don’t want to continually be chasing two new customers to replace every one success story and yet get membership fees working doubly hard, using those histories to good effect, highlighting couples’ true-life stories, has to be the way forward.

The dating site problem – cause, effect and solution: answer

The problem, as we’ve discussed in the first two articles, is how do dating sites retain market share when their success stories – those members who’ve found their product works – leave as soon as it does?

Well, let’s look at three of the biggest dating sites out there: Zoosk, Match.com and eHarmony. First, take a look at last year’s returns, then what their plans for 2012 are and how they affect you, the dating site member.

They all work in a similar way – you can browse for free, but then you have to commit to £20/month (ish) to get in touch with anyone who takes your fancy. Longevity of contracts differ, but that aspect of their business is very much of a muchness. It’s how each site views its members and what they’ve got in store which will shake up the 2012 dating market (or not, in some instances).

It’s fair to say that, whereas Zoosk has a massive pool of membership feeding off facebook’s getting on for a billion membership, the other two have had to build, or acquire, their memberships, granted. But it’s also fair to say that once Match.com and eHarmony get you paired off, you, the couple, are nothing more than a marketing tool for the companies’ success rates. This is where Zoosk hope to change the level of the playing field.

Match.com, by their own admission, target their efforts into delivering the best experience for the user whilst they’re single so that, should they meet up with someone and disappear for a while, as soon as they’re single again, they’ll be straight back online dating with them. Apparently, this is true of 50% of its membership.

eHarmony, similarly, is looking to enhance its existing dating site membership’s experience.  Early in Spring they plan to release a facebook app that will merge the two timelines. Nice feature, but you’re not going to entice members to continue paying their fees when they’re in a relationship and they can get facebook free, without eHarmony’s influence.

This is where Shayan Zadeh and Alex Mehr of Zoosk want to make a difference. Instead of focusing on their entrepreneurial efforts the site as it is – they have 100 developers doing that for them at any given time – but they want to introduce features that will be useful to couples after they’ve got together. In essence, it’s akin to LinkedIn, the job and professional networking social site. You may not actively be looking for work, but you never take your profile down and you do nip in from time to time on the off-chance (that you will work out how to use it properly, this time).

You can see why, out of the three, Zoosk is the fastest growing and although they’ve still a way to go before they catch up with the other two giants in the online dating world, with facebook at their back, new innovations and an unparalleled vision of the market, you can bet everyone else is looking back over their shoulders.

Some of the ideas tossed in the couple-retention pot so far are anniversary gifts, discountable products, such as dining for two, scrapbooks for their uploaded dating site photographs and, perhaps most beneficial of all, relationship advice. This could be key for people who’re getting together after a long time being single or having been widowed. And, providing the couple do not stop their membership fee, all these extras will be offered at no further cost.

Now, that’s what I call growing a business from within. Cost effective customer retention so that if the couple stay together, they’re on the dating site, if they break up, they’re there, too. Guys, pure genius. Told you 2012 will be different. You bet.