Nov 5th 2009
From The Economist print edition
What online-dating sites are learning from pick-up artists.
In a dark underground room in central London, a group of men scribble intently in notebooks. They are in a class on “how to be funny” and they want to get it right. It has been a long day; they have already attended classes on teeth-whitening, self-esteem and personal finance as part of an intensive course on how to attract women. This evening they will put their work into practice as tutors assess their attempts to score dates in some of the city’s leading clubs.
The programme is run by Love Systems, an American firm that charges up to £3,000 ($5,000) for three- day boot camps. Other outfits offer similar “pick-up” courses, though they remain relatively small and almost clandestine. The real money in the “dating industry” is online.
Corporate cupids such as eHarmony, an American firm that claims to be responsible for 236 weddings a day in the United States, and Meetic, a French company which recently bought the biggest online- dating firm in Britain, Match.com, serve a British market worth almost £100m, according to Mintel, a research firm. Another, comScore, reckons 5m people visited British dating sites in September, more than a year earlier. It is, they say, something of a recession boom.
Mintel thinks the surge is being driven by the human tendency to re-evaluate priorities in dark times. The more sceptical say it is simple economics. It costs, on average, £30 a month to belong to an online-dating service, and free sites like plentyoffish.com and Smooch are springing up. Online dating is a cheaper way of meeting people than a night on the town.
Around 8% of Britons say they use dating websites, compared with 4%, on average, in the rest of Europe. But business analysts point out that America outstrips them all. Mark Brooks, an online- dating consultant, thinks this is because Britons are more sceptical than their transatlantic cousins. He regularly warns American firms eyeing the British market that overblown promises of true love are likely to repel rather than attract.
Mr. Brooks also thinks online giants are missing a trick that the underground pick-up industry learned long ago. “You can meet the best people in the world and still screw it up because you don’t know how to date,” he says. “People need help, guidance, style counselling…feedback when a date goes wrong.”
Some are moving in this direction, though as yet they offer nothing like Love Systems’ face-to-face tuition. EHarmony, for one, has consultants on how to tweak a profile. More than 500,000 people have registered with its British branch since it opened in June 2008. Last month a National Dating Advice Line was launched, with instant guidance from dating “experts” at £1.50 a minute on matters such as what to text, what to wear and when to kiss. Another new firm, eLove, sets up personal matchmakers.
One way and another, the dating business is growing fast. Broadband access is increasing, webcam facilities spreading, phones getting smarter, techniques getting smoother. One danger, though, for the love merchants: if they make too many lifelong matches, they will find their client base significantly reduced.