Monday night, Christian Rudder, author of the new bestselling book, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) and co-founder of the popular online dating site OkCupid, came, saw a huge crowd—books in hand, of course—and conquered with a slightly geeked, slightly cool approach to data in the 21st century.
He talked algorithms, testing and experimentation—with apologies sprinkled in for people’s behavior—to explain OkCupid’s success. In 2011, Match bought them for $50 million. “Our whole goal is to get people to send messages,” he said. “That makes us successful. Of course, it’s a miracle for a woman to send a message without getting one first, but…” his voice trailed off amid the laughter.
About one of every 10 Americans has used a dating website or mobile app, according to a 2013 Pew Research report. The Match Group earned revenue of $788 million last year. So when it comes to marketing, these folks are doing something right. Here are 10 elements of their success.
1. Meticulous uses of data. “OkCupid keeps track not only of what messages you send to your potential dates, but of the characters you type and then erase while you compose your little satchels of intriguingness,” wrote Jordan Ellenberg in a Washington Post review of Dataclysm. Wow. Is nothing sacred? You can’t even erase in peace anymore.
2. People like to see images of people. Emails from dating sites market with people—yes, pretty people, Rudder admitted. “People click on the best-looking photos,” he said. “That’s just the way it goes.”
3. Test extensively. “Our experiment is we’re recommending a stranger you might want to talk to,” Rudder said. “We try hard to get it right. How much do you have in common? We’ll test that against a placebo [someone you have nothing in common with] to see what works.”
4. Seek recommendations. Following up #3, Rudder said that commonalities account for about 50% of the matches—and that recommendations from OkCupid, friends, etc., account for the other 50%. “We’re using recommendation algorithms—Amazon uses the same thing.”
5. Choose a barometer for success. Rudder said that they judge matches based on 4 messages. Two could be kind of a brushoff, three not complete, and five almost too many (friend zone). “Four seems about right for us.”
6. Make it hard for people to leave. Ever try to cancel from a dating site? It is a bit hard to find, and when you do, you get many calls to return. Match will offer you a special deal equivalent only to when you first joined. OkCupid writes, “Need a break? Disable your account and come back any time.” Given that it’s free, most people probably hang around.
7. Know your goal. OkCupid wants their subscribers to send messages, so everything they do is geared to that. A SIPA member tells a story about an advertiser she helped with an ad about their swim club and then was upset when no one signed up for swimming lessons. But that was the first time the advertiser mentioned it; so nothing in the ad was directed to that.
8. Get the best data you can. Dating sites get amazing data, Rudder said—age, occupation, kids, height, religion, etc. I’ve seen awards programs that are almost as valuable as data gatherers, plus surveys and focus groups. The more data you can get the better.
9. Take the time to analyze that data. “This [book] has the real stuff,” wrote Ellenberg. “actual data and actual analysis taking place on the page. That’s something to be praised, loudly and at length.”
10. Make your online processes smooth. “People come to our site expecting that we know what we’re doing,” Rudder said. At the end, Rudder was asked about whether his site being free has much to do with their success. He doesn’t think so—more important is a smooth experience and people getting responses. “It’s really what [site] fits your vibe the best,” he said. “$10 a month is kind of irrelevant for something like happiness.”
Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering diversity, Newspaper in Education, marketing and leadership before joining SIPA in 2009 , and then SIIA in 2013.