When it comes to online dating, Match.com is leading the charge. With more than 653,000 paying subscribers and eight million members, Match.com -- a subsidiary of USA Interactive -- claims the top spot among web matchmaking services, according to comScore Media Metrix, a web traffic measurement service.
And as the profits roll in, it's clear Match.com's recipe for love is working. In the first nine months of 2002, Match.com was USA Interactive's fastest-growing segment, with US$ 33.4 million in revenue. That compares with US$ 12.5 million over the same period in 2001.
Match's services are becoming so mainstream that these days it runs ads and promotional placements during prime time shows. About 15 million US residents used online personals in 2002 (30 percent of whom, acccording to MSNBC, just happened to be married...). That number is expected to reach 24 million by 2007, according to Jupiter Research. Match is poised to grab the lion's share of that market.
Like what Starbucks did for coffee, Match.com has been instrumental in packaging online dating for the masses. Capitalizing on the success of Hollywood movies like You've Got Mail and reality programs like The Bachelor, Match has helped turn a one-time taboo into a trend.
"We have focused on numerous strategies and efforts to move the perception of Match.com and online dating as mainstream as buying a book online," says Melanie Angermann, vice president of marketing at Match.com.
When online dating first emerged in the mid-90s, it carried a certain sleaze factor. It used to be that online dating was reserved for the socially awkward -- the people who really couldn't get a date. Add the possibility that the date might wind up being a geek, stalker or criminal, and many singles just didn't want to take the chance.
Match.com has worked hard to overcome the creepiness factor. "Since the beginning, public relations efforts have been a foundation of our overall marketing efforts," Angermann says. "This strategy has resulted in a high awareness of Match.com by reporters and journalists across the country. Oprah, Katie Couric and the Today show, Dr. Phil and others have featured positive Match.com stories," she says, referring to popular American television personalities.
As singles have become increasingly web-adept, Match.com's target audience has warmed up to the idea of online dating. The anonymity of the Internet, personal websites and photo galleries, and the comfort many feel in corresponding through email have combined to make online dating an acceptable means of meeting people. Take busy, single people looking for romance, bring them together in a visually stimulating, but safely arm's-length environment, and gone are the days of cheesy come-ons in smoke-filled bars.
"The power of positive, viral, word-of-mouth is key," Angermann says. "We constantly talk to our users and our single targets to ensure we are providing the features, tools and environment they are seeking."
The company still hears many singles say, "It makes sense, but it's not for me." But instead of skirting around this apparent hesitation, Match is attacking it head-on via advertising -- recently expanded to include newspaper and television.
"We also have run television commercials, print ads, out-of-home advertising, online advertising and email to increase awareness of Match, highlight success stories and let singles know how many people are using Match.com -- currently eight million," Angermann says.
The company spent US$ 9.4 million on advertising through the first nine months of 2002, according to CMR, which tracks marketing and advertising spending. Industry estimates suggest Match.com will double its ad-spending budget this year.
Match has also worked to form valuable partnerships. In addition to operating its own site, Match.com powers dating services for MSN, BET Interactive, iVillage.com, AOL, Earthlink, the New York Times online, Excite and Oxygen, among others.
Such partnerships have helped Match stay ahead of its nearest competitor, Yahoo! Personals. Still, Yahoo is working hard to challenge Match's market share. It launched its own TV ad campaign in California last year, playing off Yahoo's reputation for fun and technological innovation. On Jan. 13, Yahoo Personals added streaming voice and video capabilities to its service -- the first in the industry.
While Match.com has yet to add audio and video to its service -- plans are in the works to add both in the near future, according to Angermann -- it's expanded its empire of services to include some other special features. Match.com Messenger, for one, allows subscribers to interact via instant messaging while on the site.
Last year, Match.com launched MatchTravel, a service that plans and hosts singles vacations around the world. And Match.com's most recent addition, MatchLive, organizes salsa-dancing mixers, walking tours, cooking classes and more for singles in four major cities -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The company has plans to expand MatchLive to other US and international cities in the near future.
Last November, the company also added 25 international dating sites to its suite. All sites are offered in the local language of the country, and members can choose either French or Dutch on the Belgian site, and German or French on the Swiss site. With the launch of its international sites, Match.com now claims more than one million members outside North America.