Plenty of Fish is one of the most popular dating websites in the world. Despite the fact that it’s visually unappealing, there’s good reason for its popularity. Unlike most of its competitors, Plenty of Fish is totally free.

Its operator, Markus Frind, reportedly makes $10m a year from advertising displayed on Plenty of Fish. On average, it’s said that he puts in about 10 hours a week running the site.

But thanks to the ongoing recession, it appears that running a free ad-supported dating site is getting tougher. Frind announced yesterday that he has decided to add a paid feature to the mix.

That paid feature is a ‘Serious Membership‘. It doesn’t offer any additional functionality but will give paying customers a Serious Member ‘star‘ on their profile page and a highlighted listing in search results.

According to Frind, other paid dating sites capitalize on impulse but he’s capitalizing on intent:

On paid dating sites most buys are impulse and in the signup process. Paid sites monetize on Impulse, plentyoffish is going to monetize on user intent. I believe we will have far more members that are serious than paid sites. It’s one thing to be tricked into paying (paid sites), it’s another to go out of your way and pay for something.

The obvious question: will anybody really pay for this?

On most paid dating sites, the ability to contact other members is limited to those who pay. By paying to contact another member, you not only signal that you’re somewhat serious, you also signal that you’re somewhat more trustworthy. After all, people with entirely fabricated profiles probably aren’t going to shell out $30-$40/month on a paid site.

The problem I see with Plenty of Fish’s Serious Membership is that it’s not a mutual thing. If you pay for a Serious Membership, you can still receive emails sent by members who haven’t paid (the not-so-serious). Since it’s likely that a very high percentage of users will never become paid members, the Serious Membership isn’t very helpful if you’re hoping to meet other serious singles. Making matters worse, you might even get more emails from the not-so-serious since you stand out.

As David Evans at the Online Dating Insider points out:

PlentyofFish can be described as mid-market casual. These are people who for the most part refuse to pay for online dating. Either they don’t have the money, are cheap, or are ignoring the idea that using a subscription fee as a filter is as close to narrowing down your search to serious daters as you’re going to find. Casual daters simply don’t like to pay for the privilege of meeting other casual daters.

It’s a very good point. People who would be likely to pay for Plenty of Fish are probably the type of people who are already subscribing to other paid dating sites.

So while I think Frind is wise to recognize that adding a non-ad revenue stream is a good idea, the phrase that springs to mind when it comes to the Serious Membership he’s going to offer is ‘half-baked‘.

Although pricing is not yet known, it just doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of value there irrespective of price. Asking people to pay for something when you admit that “there will be no additional features and functionality” doesn’t seem like the best strategy when many people are watching their expenses like a hawk.

Given all this, I think it’s safe to call Plenty of Fish a good example of an online business that is not exactly sure how to adapt to a changing market and changing economy.

In late November 2008, Plenty of Fish began selling virtual gifts. Frind introduced them:

One of the biggest complaints from users
of the site has always been that there is no way to stand out and a
perception that paying money for something means you are serious. As
of today i’m now allowing users to buy a handful of virtual gifts that
will appear above a users inbox along with a personalized message.

In a blog post he statedthis will hopefully help us keep some of the users who feel spending money is a sign of quality.

By January 2009, he decided to stop offering them, writing that they were “not really core to what we are doing.”

That’s not true, since the new Serious Memberships are all about standing out and showing quality too. The real reason that paid gifts were abandoned was that they flopped. Why? They weren’t very well thought out. Apparently virtual flowers cost as much as $30. Needless to say a lot of users were not thrilled with the idea of paying for fake flowers what they might pay for real ones.

But that’s not the only flip-flopping going on at Plenty of Fish.

On January 3, Frind wroteIt looks like realizes they are losing marketshare fast and paid sites don’t really have a future.” 10 days later he wrote, “There is really no money in being free and we have to start
experimenting with other models now or we won’t be able to compete in
3 or 4 years.

Huh? You’re probably as confused as I am.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of Fish has an amazing story and Markus Frind is a great entrepreneur. He’s made far more money online than most of us can ever hope to.

But at a time when there’s a lot of talk about how difficult a time newspapers are having reworking their business models, I think Plenty of Fish is demonstrating that the same thing can happen to online businesses as well.

Business models are tough and changing markets and economic situations are difficult on all entrepreneurs, offline and on. We shouldn’t get fooled into believing that just because we’re online it’s any easier to adapt.