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By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

May 12, 2020 | 9 min read

People around the world are craving human connection in lockdown, leading dating apps to experience a boost that proves romance isn't dead (well, virtually at least). As usage heats up, these matchmaking services are not only taking advantage of abandoned ad space, but some are even braced for a revenue boost of their own as brands look to capitalise on digital dates.

Before the turn of the century, the thought of linking up with a stranger on a mobile app would have been unimaginable. Fast-forward to the present day, and platforms like Tinder, Bumble, Happn, Grindr and Hinge sit unashamedly on the phone screens of millions of singletons.

When the pandemic hit, many questioned how dating apps could survive with an estimated 2.6 billion people locked inside, date venues closed for the foreseeable future and casual hookups out of the question.

Yet while entwined hearts during the Spanish Influenza might have seen love blossom through the exchanging of letters, love in the time of coronavirus is ablaze through video calls and instant messaging, as people flock to dating apps to find that special someone.

With more and more people exploring this Black Mirror-esque world of ‘virtual dating,' a new era of dating has dawned.

Where household brands are slashing ad spend, these modern matchmakers are making the most of their moment in the sun and being smart about their brand investment. Some are even reaping the rewards of an in-app ad surge of their own as advertisers look to reach switched-on audiences.

Using tech to power connections

Prior to the pandemic, online dating was already big business. Now as Covid-19 looms large and social distancing looks to continue throughout 2020 many are retuning their business models in response.

In 2019 the number of smartphone dating app users in the US was 25.1 million and Match Group, which owns Tinder, Hinge and posted revenues of $2.05bn, gleaned from subscriptions and advertising deals.

Tinder alone pulled in $1.2 billion in revenue over 2019; a 43% increase from 2018.

To continue this upwards trajectory, Tinder last week (6 May) announced plans to add a video dating feature in the second quarter of this year as a direct response to the threat posed by coronavirus in slowing its user growth.

Tinder is actually a bit late to the video dating party — its rival apps have been far less tardy when it comes to capitalising on the trend for face-to-face calls, thus rendering them more lockdown ready. Bumble, for instance, introduced a video and voice call feature last year, while Hinge launched its own 'Date From Home' feature at the start of lockdown in March.

"I imagine that we're going to see far more dates than ever come out of this," Hinge's chief marketing officer, Nathan Roth tells The Drum, explaining how through 'Date From Home' users can easily share when they're ready for a digital date, to ease that often awkward and vulnerable transition from messaging to meeting digitally for the first time.

"This specifically came out as a response to listening to our customers and their needs during the quarantine, and figuring out a way how we could serve them best," he adds.

“During social isolation, everyone has had to adapt their dating strategies to use virtual solutions, such as video dating,” explains Naomi Walkland, associate director for EMEA marketing at Bumble, a dating app, that boasts nearly 90 million users worldwide. It is singular in that women make the first move.

Walkland explains how physical distancing has shown us that in times of uncertainty, people seek meaningful connections and “that connections made online are just as meaningful as those made in real-life. People will always look for new ways to socially connect.”

She explains that overall: “data indicates a trend of increased use by our new and existing users, especially in regards to the chat, video call, and voice call features.”

“We have seen users spending more time speaking to each other on the app, with call durations averaging at 21 minutes as well as a 12% increase in messaging. This shows that people are taking the time to really get to know each other, even whilst apart,” she continues.

After introducing the 'Date from Home' feature, in March, Hinge experienced a 30% increase in messages among users in March (compared to January and February) with 70% of its members would be open for a virtual date.

Globally on OkCupid, there has been a 30% overall increase in messages sent each day since March 11. Matches have increased by 10%, conversations increased by over 20% - as singles turn to online dating for company.

Bucking the ad spend trend

Unprecedented numbers of users are turning to dating apps during lockdown, and as such, dating apps have admitted their ad spend has been largely unaffected.

“The coronavirus hasn’t actually changed our ad spend that dramatically,” says Melissa Hobley, chief marketing officer at OkCupid. “This is driven by the fact that OkCupid has seen a surge in activity since early March across the globe, and this continues, so we want to continue to be top of mind for the millions of singles who are connecting right now — albeit virtually.”

While broadcasters are scrambling to fill ad slots abandoned by the collapse of travel and leisure brands, dating apps have found they are able to buy on platforms that would have been out of their reach just months ago.

With brands retracting ad spend across the board, Global’s commercial agency director Katie Bowden tellsThe Drum that it is determined to retain its partners, alongside attracting new business.

“Initially, there was shock and uncertainty,“ she says of the pandemic rendering many campaigns obsolete, but she shares news of a new partnership with Bumble, who spotted an opportunity on Capital FM to talk about virtual dating.

Illustration of hand holding phone with dating app

OkCupid has also taken advantage of discount rates online. “Digitally, we’ve seen lower costs and greater efficiencies, driven by other categories pulling out and time spent on devices exploding,” Hobley continues. “Like many folks, we love out-of-home, but we have had to pivot some of the plans we had to support our ‘As Yourself’ campaign.

Hobley admits like while OkCupid doesn’t advertise on TV, it is looking at all the options that might help the platform reach the single, younger dater at this time.

And while OkCupid see podcasts as a perfect channel to tell its story, “not surprisingly, the costs with the bigger players here have not shifted that much.”

As for in-app ads, Happn's chief exec Didier Rappaport says “advertising on our app hasn’t changed at all. Dating is a digital industry, therefore the impact on our industry has been small compared to other industries, as users keep using our services.”

Rappaport goes on to explain that because Happn's marketing is already very digitally-oriented, the app has taken advantage of reduced costs.

“With other brands, from other industries, reducing their ad spend, this has enabled us to have a greater digital reach for our campaigns, with the same amount of budget,“ he says.

Hinge has also admitted that its ad spend has been unaffected by the outbreak.

Keeping advertisers interested

Usage is up during lockdown, and OkCupid’s chief marketing officer reveals that this surge has sparked an increase in brands looking to advertise on the app.

“One thing that is super exciting is the interest that OkCupid has seen from brands wanting to reach our daters and advertise with us,” Hobley shares. “Dating apps have exploded over the last 2 months and I think brands are interested in how they can reach these singles who are connecting and dating at twice the rate they were before corona.“

Given that many daters love watching a TV show together, she says there “have been a few entertainment partners who are tapping into this with exciting results.”

Happn has experienced the complete opposite. “Regarding advertising revenues, we have noticed a real decrease, which is easily explained,” its chief exec Rappaport admits. “Many brands have stopped or postponed their marketing expenses but advertising is a very small part of our revenue.”

Dating post-pandemic

While lockdown has provoked a new dawn of virtual dating, Bumble's Walkland says it's "too soon to state the expected impact" on matchmaker's businesses.

On this new age of dating, she says her team suspects that users will continue to use its video/voice calling features as a way to get to know their matches before making the move to meet in person.

OkCupid, meanwhile, predicts there will be a boom in dating, post-lockdown.

"We’ll likely see a lot of people spending more time on OkCupid when things start to return to normal and more of a dependence on digital or virtual communication before actually going out on a date," claims Hobley.

With the pandemic forcing people to truly embrace digital when it comes to dating, it's fair to say that dating post-lockdown will look radically different than it did before. As for advertisers, they'll have to figure out where they fit into this new virtual world to make connections with their audiences.

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