Dated two weeks ago but published last Monday, Christian Rudder, co-founder and editorial director of free dating site OKCupid, tells us why paying for online dating is stupid. I’d like to respond to this OKCupid Blog post. Let’s hear what Rudder’s post says,
- Based on eHarmony’s 250 million revenue in 2009, eHarmony’s current price list and eHarmony’s audience turnover rate, OKCupid deduces eHarmony has at most 719,652 subscribers at any given time in 2009. In other words, 29 to 1 of eHarmony’s profiles are dead.
- Pay sites want you to message these dead profiles for them to acquire new subscribers. “Remember: the average account length is just six months, and people join for big blocks of time at once, so getting a new customer on board is better for them than eking another month or two out of a current subscriber.”
- Based on their experience running OKCupid, they find that “when emailing a real profile, a man can expect a reply about 30% of the time” and that the more messages a man sends per day the more his reply rate drops from around 30% to below 8%. A desperation feedback cycle causes men to message more bad matches and causes women to receive more messages from bad matches.
- Based on CDC stats, Match.com’s touted marriage rate and Match.com’s public subscriber numbers, OKCupid deduces that “you are 12.4 times more likely to get married this year if you don’t subscribe to Match.com. The post didn’t calculate eHarmony’s odds.
If the paid model is broken, why are paid sites making more revenues and profits than ever?
Both models have been around a long time and both are flourishing. Paid search engine placement, in comparison and for analogy, is dead. Complaint websites are abundant with user complaints against paid sites, yet these sites remain above-the-law and in the black. Why?
It just means that any free site who says that “paying for online dating is stupid” is running out of marketing ideas.
I feel I have to write about this today because many bloggers and OKC fans, such as HowStuffWorks’s Marshall Brain, are getting misguided by this post.
Re: eHarmony has at most 719,652 subscribers
Estimating eHarmony’s subscriber numbers ain’t as easy as that, because
- eHarmony earns substantially from on-site advertising, the same as OKCupid. The $250 million also includes ad revenue and ancillary income from eHarmony’s network of sites and their syndicators.
- Unless a registrant pays up WITHIN 2-4 WEEKS of finishing the questionnaire, she will learn about the “$19.95 / month for 3 months” price point via an email offer. After this email we can presume that she will never buy a 6-month (~$180) or a 12-month (~$240) plan, ever. Though our polls find that over half of subscribers pay up within a week, this is enough to ruin OKC’s estimate of EH’s average monthly fee.
We will see next that many responding members aren’t subscribers, so really, estimating eHarmony’s subscriber numbers aren’t as useful as people think.
Re: 96.25% of profiles in eHarmony are dead
eHarmony stopped announcing membership numbers in April 2009, so the “20 million members” figure is meaningless. It’s easy to get their database user counts though. We’ve told everyone how a long time ago. Right now, at this moment, they have 34,217,954 user accounts.
In short order, by breaking all of OKCupid’s numbers, I’ve thrown away their estimate that “29 to 1 profiles in eHarmony can’t respond”. While I’m here, I urge you to question anybody’s estimate as well. Only eHarmony knows their dead profile ratio, and this ratio doesn’t matter anyway, because for many reasons, knowing it isn’t useful at all:
- First of all, a dating site’s member population is never homogenous. One’s age, gender, geography and dating preferences determine one’s dating pool and thus one’s dead profile ratio. And then how about seasonal changes?
- One particular seasonal event are those Free Communication Weekends. As often as once a month, eHarmony turns into a somewhat-free dating site for four days, simultaneously running a massive nationwide advertising drive. Throw your calculations away during FCWs because non-subscribers can respond, but in practice many don’t.
- Presuming OKCupid’s search engine is ethical and regularly clears away inactive accounts, an OKCupid search result set IS one’s dating pool snapshot at that given moment. In eHarmony’s matchmaking design, you can’t make a similar distinction. eHarmony sends you at most six matches a day, that’s your daily dating pool. Once a match is in your “Match list”, it’s never removed. So thus, between every new day, there’s no dating pool snapshot.
- What eHarmony can control and all eHarmony can control is whether it sends you a live profile or a dead profile. Over the years, in this blog, we’ve formed an opinion that EH’s system ignores subscription status when creating matches.
Re: you’re still looking at a paltry 10% reply rate
What defeats Rudder’s math is that he confuses how a “subscriber wall” (using his term) affects reply rate. All he knows is that if the cost to reply is $0, only 3 out of 10 messages receive replies. But does he know the reply rate if the cost to reply is $1? What about $100? $5,000?
Rudder ought to ask his friends who run paid dating sites what their reply rates are. Paid sites, for a long time now, have found the sweet spot in their pricing. (Their prices have been stuck there, by the way, in the past several years.) I won’t say their reply rate is also 30%, but let’s not just multiply an apple’s 30% with an orange’s “29 to 1″, shall we?
Re: There is a negative correlation between the number of messages a man sends per day to the reply rate he gets.
Ah, eHarmony’s Guided Communication process is panacea and is the norm. A man can initiate communication with 30 women in one hour, sending 30 identical sets of five canned multiple-choice questions.
I just want to mention this and that at eHarmony, because of the throttling, no woman receives hundreds of messages a day.
Re: desperation feedback loop
Rudder says that paid dating sites laugh all the way to the bank while their members kill each other off in frustration.
Free sites laugh all the way to the bank for the same thing.
What OKCupid doesn’t say is that free dating sites also make money out of each site visitor and how long they stay active in the site. It is also isn’t in their interest to improve their system so that a site visitor finds the love of her life within one visit of their sites. Rudder says,
If you’re a subscriber to a pay dating site, you are an important (though unwitting) part of that site’s customer acquisition team. Of course, they don’t want to show you too many ghosts, because you’ll get frustrated and quit, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re relying on you to reach out to non-payers and convince them, by way of your charming, heartfelt messages, to pull out their credit cards.
Apparently, when OKCupid replaces “draw in more views and clicks to the site’s banner advertisements” with “pull out their credit cards”, it thinks it’s okay.
Obviously Mr. Rudder hasn’t tried either eHarmony.com or Match.com himself before he went to write comparative articles about them. Geez. In both sites, unpaid members cannot read messages. In eHarmony, members have to pay and then go through several Guided Communication hoops before members can send emails. In Match.com, you can’t even know who sent you an message until you pay.
Re: More options
Rudder concludes that eHarmony’s major selling point is how many millions of members they have. Rudder claims that when people look for love, they want as many options as possible.
I disagree. Because there’s only so much hours in a day, people actually want the opposite — they want help reducing their options, they want fewer choices. They ask around for someone they can trust and then ask this expert, “okay give me the top three”. This is the eHarmony model, in ideal conditions. Proof? The startup of “eHarmony of Career Planning”, “eHarmony of Mattresses”, “eHarmony of Pets”, et cetera, in recent years.
We also spoke before about the two things eHarmony has that free dating sites don’t: (1) Massive advertising in North America and (2) 24-hour customer phone support. OKCupid asks Why You Should Never Pay for Online Dating. There you go.
UPDATE: More commentary
Matt of Strange Unlimited calls our attention to OKCupid’s very own PAID service and many other things he found bizarre about the OKC post.