For the romantically unattached, the first few weeks of a new year are peak cuffing season. Cuffing, a pragmatic tradition in which single people try to find a temporary partner for the dark winter months, is also big business for dating apps. This year, the pandemic has added a dash of extra urgency.
Cooped up, bored and lonely, user interactions on dating apps have soared over the past nine months. Swiping on potential romantic interests is one of the few activities unaffected by lockdowns. In the second quarter of 2020, Tinder reported a record 3bn “swipes” in a single day. Shares in parent company Match, whose subsidiaries also include Hinge and OkCupid, traded at a record high in mid-December as it joined the Nasdaq 100. Rival Bumble has taken the opportunity to reportedly file for an initial public offering.
Given the number of dating apps, it is a wonder there are any single people left. Around the world, the most popular include Badoo and eharmony but those with particular requirements can find niche sites like Christian Mingle or countryside-focused Muddy Matches. Clowns alone have their choice of two tailored apps: Clown Dating and Clown Passion. Facebook is also trying to muscle its way in, on the strength of its 2.7bn user base.
In the US, however, Tinder remains the app that defines online dating. Launched in 2012 in a start-up incubator backed by IAC and included in Match when it was spun out as a standalone company, it has driven its parent company’s growth. When Match listed in 2015 it priced its shares at $12 each. They now change hands for $153.
Success is down to Tinder’s relatively simple set-up. The company says that it dropped its Elo score, an unnerving system that rated user attractiveness based on how many people liked their profile and then showed them equally popular users. But it still matches on proximity and encourages users to swipe yes or no based on appearance rather than pretending to care about a date’s hobbies or interests.
The result is that shares in Match now trade at 70 times expected earnings, according to Refinitiv data. To warrant that high it must continue to add paying subscribers when life returns to normal. Tinder, which accounts for more than half of Match’s 11m subscribers, has an offering that should do the trick: a subscription level that allows users to see who likes them.
This lure has helped Tinder convert free users to subscribers without spending large sums on marketing. Five years ago, San Francisco dating app Zoosk revealed that it was spending 84 per cent of revenues on marketing before it pulled plans for an IPO. Match spent the equivalent of 20 per cent of revenue on marketing in the most recent quarter.
Longer term, however, its success rests on attracting new users. This appears more easily done for men. Women do not seem as keen. Ashley Madison, the app for cheating spouses whose users were unmasked by a hacker in 2015, showed that men are far more likely to sign up to dating sites than women. Signs that this imbalance is evening out would boost Match’s share price further.
Bumble, created by a former Tinder employee, is intended to be overtly female friendly. But it is far smaller. Match is a $40bn company — five times the size of Bumble’s projected value.
Facebook is a more dangerous competitor. But for now there are more than enough lonely hearts to go around. Match, which owns seven dating apps alone, is proof of that.
This article has been updated to say that Match, rather than Tinder, spent the equivalent of 20 per cent of revenue on marketing in the most recent quarter