The online dating space thrived – yet was forced to evolve significantly –during the pandemic. Now, as lockdowns lift and singles begin mingling at restaurants, movie theaters and bars the world over, top dating platforms are strategizing for what’s next. These are the key trends informing the industry’s direction.
It goes without saying that Covid reimagined socialization entirely. One of the sectors that felt this shift most acutely – and yet was perhaps among the most well-prepared – is the online dating industry. At the onset of the pandemic, 82% of singles turned to online dating. And engagement has remained high throughout the past year and a half, despite screen fatigue and isolation.
With users stuck at home with limited access to IRL socialization, however, dating apps and websites were forced to evolve, creating new digital spaces and expanding their offerings to keep users engaged. Their innovations largely paid off. On Tinder, for example, users saw an average of 11% more swipes and 42% more matches in 2020. Meanwhile, Hinge saw its global app downloads spike 63% in 2020 compared to 2019.
As the world emerges from lockdown and in-person socialization becomes normalized once again, singles are more eager to date than ever. The Drum asked top dating apps and services about the key trends shaping the direction of the industry today. Here’s what they said.
Virtual dating and video chatting are here to stay
While video chatting, voice calls, audio memos and other manifestations of virtual communication gained traction out of necessity over the last year and a half, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that these trends are becoming keystones of contemporary dating culture.
Data from Hinge, the increasingly popular dating app that bills itself as ‘designed to be deleted’, reveals that 65% of the platform’s users who have been on a video date say they are likely to continue incorporating video chat into their dating process, even post-pandemic. Not only is a quick video chat convenient; it may also introduce a welcome layer of safety, as daters can connect through the app without revealing their personal contact information.
Most if not all major dating sites and apps, including Hinge, Bumble, Tinder, Match, OkCupid and Dating Group (which owns a number of dating brands including Dating.com, DateMyAge, Promise and ChinaLove), have debuted or refreshed their video chatting and virtual communication offerings within the past year-plus.
Ensuring that users remain engaged, however, has in many cases prompted these platforms to expand their capabilities, introduce new features and partner with other brands to enhance the virtual dating experience. While Hinge rolled out virtual backgrounds for users to try out imagined date settings and video prompts that help users break the ice over the screen, Bumble launched an audio messaging capability and the playful Night In feature, which allows daters to play an interactive game via video chat after matching.
“We predict that the behaviors we’ve developed during the pandemic won’t disappear overnight, and many people won’t want to let go of some of the new dating norms we’ve developed throughout Covid-19,” says a Bumble spokesperson. Recent Bumble data indicates that a quarter of users say that video dates have become a normal part of their dating process.
Seeking something serious
Daters also revealed that they are looking for something a bit more serious these days. The results from a recent OkCupid survey indicate that more than 80% of OkCupid users are looking for a steady partner post-pandemic – and over a quarter of those reported that they’ve changed their minds due to last year’s experiences. Furthermore, the data reveals that daters are two times as likely to say the pandemic made them want to settle down earlier than they may have once thought.
And the data looks similar across the board: 75% of Hinge users say they’re seeking a relationship this summer rather than a casual fling. “As the world opens back up, many people are predicting a ‘hot vax summer’, but at Hinge, we’ve found that this isn’t the case for most singles,” a spokesperson tells The Drum. “People spent the last year slowing down, reflecting on what’s most important in their lives, and becoming more honest with themselves.”
Broadly speaking, research from many of the world’s top dating apps and websites points to changes in online daters’ behavior. Rather than ‘swiping right’ on any person they find attractive, users are increasingly exercising caution, moving slowly and leading with their core values. They’re also being more straightforward in defining what they want and what they don’t want.
More than half of Bumble users today feel less willing to compromise on what they want and need from a potential relationship, and almost 30% say they’ve noticed a decline in dead-end conversations, “as people are being more honest about what they’re looking for,” per Bumble.
Health transparency is now the norm
The social dynamics of dating during the pandemic often proved to be murky waters. Singles have had to navigate not only their own boundaries, but also how their comfort zones overlap or diverge from the comfort zones of potential partners. Amid the complexities of negotiating Covid statuses, mask-wearing and social distancing, many dating sites and apps introduced tools designed to help users navigate the conversation more comfortably and seamlessly.
Platforms like OkCupid, Hinge and Bumble rolled out ‘badges’ for users to pin to their profiles indicating vaccination status or comfort levels with various activities. OkCupid debuted Covid-focused intake questions to help match users with others of similar comfort levels. At Bumble, profile badges eventually evolved into a full-on ‘Covid Preferences Center’, in which users can set their preferences directly from their profile.
Interestingly, the novelty of users’ transparency surrounding Covid health and personal safety preferences may have inadvertently spilled over into other health and wellness areas. According to Danielle Dietzek, a healthcare practitioner turned co-founder and chief marketing officer at New York-based double-dating app Fourplay, it’s no longer “dorky or geeky or uncool to ask questions about health." While this level of transparency about one’s health began with Covid, she says, “it’s snowballed into other stuff – people are being a lot more transparent about their health now. These conversations have kind of become the norm in the world of dating.”
A shift toward social, community-focused solutions
While one-on-one dating probably isn’t losing its cool, the online dating sector has witnessed a notable uptick in community-focused features and spin-offs. Fourplay has built its entire business around the concept. “We’re trying really hard to create a sense of community for singles,” says Dietzek. She notes that while Fourplay is a dating platform, part of the brand’s mission is “normalizing any outcome” to a date – which could include friendship.
Fourplay is investing in community-focused approaches to marketing that could help the brand achieve a greater foothold in the market – and establish it more as a social platform than simply a dating app. Some of these tactics include leveraging users as brand ambassadors and hosting post-date, reality show reunion-inspired sessions where quads of daters rehash the date in an Instagram livestream. “We’re really trying to get down on that ground level of the actual people who are dating and buttering them up and spoiling our users so much that they want to talk about us,” Dietzek says.
Others, like Dating Group, have also recognized a valuable opportunity to cultivate social discovery networks beyond the world of romantic connections. Dating Group’s chief investment officer Bill Alena says that the company is building new social networking apps and tools focused on entertainment, gaming and meeting new people – that the company believes will allow singles to meet friends and find love in a more organic way.
“The overall dating ecosystem is going to evolve, and it won’t just be about one-to-one dating, but rather developing larger communities for people to communicate, engage, be entertained and meet new people — that ultimately can turn into a relationship,” Alena says. “What we’ve learned from the pandemic is that people are willing to spend a lot of time on dating sites. If we give them better tools to be entertained and engaged, we can develop the next generation of dating or social discovery platforms.”
Partnerships that elevate the user experience and boost brand visibility
The brands that dominate the online dating space are increasingly teaming with other organizations to bring new experiences to daters, market their product in innovative ways and expand their offerings.
Over the course of the pandemic, Bumble rolled out a slew of brand partnerships designed to help daters navigate the many challenges of the day. Last summer, the dating app partnered with cult favorite beverage brand Babe Wine to cover moving costs for people dealing with a break-up during the height of the pandemic. The company also inked a deal with Airbnb to launch a curated collection of online experiences hosted through Airbnb – just in time for Valentine’s Day 2021. The partnership also included special promotional discounts for Bumble users booking experiences with Airbnb.
Meanwhile, Hinge found an opportunity to provide resources to those struggling with the mental health challenges of Covid. The platform found that more than three in every four users globally have felt anxious or nervous before a date – and due to the stresses of the pandemic, a quarter of users feel this way now more than ever. For World Mental Health Day in October 2020, the company partnered with meditation and wellness app Headspace to provide users with custom pre-date meditations.
Some brand partnerships have been more lighthearted and focused simply on improving users’ real experiences of dating during a pandemic. After learning that over half of Hinge users wanted to find more creative date ideas, the company paired up with e-commerce site Uncommon Goods to debut a ‘Virtual Date Night Kit’ that included ingredients for making mocktails and cocktails, instructions for how to make three different date night drinks, and a list of icebreakers to help get the conversation flowing.
With the global vaccine campaign in full-swing, today’s singles are ready to mingle. The world’s dating platforms will be tasked with continuing to find novel – and effective – ways to tap into daters’ recalibrated expectations.