“Rivals should be utterly terrified,” The Motley Fool’s Senior Technology Specialist said of Facebook’s entry into the dating industry.
Such rivals seem to be masking that terror by expressing enthusiasm for the move or raising concerns about whether Facebook can be trusted with such personal data following the Cambridge Analytica revelations.
Dating companies have always recognised Facebook as a competitor of sorts. Arguably, it has been in the dating industry since Marc Zuckerberg added “Relationship Status” to the profile settings. There is also a great deal of anecdotal and empirical evidence of people who developed or rekindled a romantic relationship on Facebook. (Somehow, those stories are actually less surprising than those of people meeting on online dating platforms.)
48 Percent of single women admit to researching their prospective online date on Facebook before meeting for the first time according to a Match Singles in America Survey. But perhaps more fundamentally, digital dating services already use Facebook: Tinder, Bumble and Happn use Facebook Connect and data to provide their services. Match.com’s AI dating coach Lara, integrates with Facebook Messenger and has delivered a 30% increase in registrations across Europe since its launch.
Integrations like those have shown Facebook more than a thing or two about the dating industry. That’s why the announcement of a dedicated Facebook dating service is justifiably unnerving the dating industry.
Although commentators are pointing to the 22% fall in Match Group’s share price, Match is by no means the only brand that could suffer. Match also operates Tinder, OK Cupid, and Plenty of Fish. As well as the other dating giant eHarmony there’s also the raft of mainstream publishers operating dating services. The Guardian’s Soulmates is probably the most successful of the mainstream UK publishers, but the Evening Standard, the Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Mirror all provide dating services through white label dating providers.
There’s also all the smaller sites supporting particular communities, characteristics and niche interests. Facebook joins many people together via their niche interests – their hobbies, interests and charactertistics. Their market entry poses a threat to all of these players.
But “Senator, we sell ads”…?
Considering Mark Zuckerburg’s “Senator, we sell ads,” explanation for Facebook’s ability to provide services for free, it is surprising that a Facebook spokesperson told Re:Code that ads won’t appear next to profiles and users’ dating data won’t be used to target them with ads on other Facebook properties.
The Motley Fool suggests that the dating service doesn’t need to generate revenue independently. It’s enough that it will strengthen user engagement with Facebook’s core service. It will support the advertising business, albeit indirectly. (I’m open to be proven wrong, but I’m still expecting advertising will play a role in Facebook’s dating service. It may not be planned now, but that’s not to say it won’t appear later.)
Another great advantage for Facebook is that it won’t have to spend as much money as competitors in trying to attract users to its dating services. Facebook Dating already has its users’ subscription data, profile data, interest and behavioural data – and importantly their everyday photos. What’s more, since dating will be an anciliary service to the main Facebook service, it won’t face anywhere near the same level of subscriber churn that pure play dating services suffer.
That advantage comes from the real strength of Facebook’s dating service: it possesses a single unified data profile for its users across all the services it provides. (Perhaps that’s one way that they’ll be able to avoid exchanges of naked photos, as the images used for the dating profile pictures will be the same as the mainstream profile pictures. People don’t generally display naked pictures to their friends, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews who make up their Facebook social network nowadays.)
The additional dating data will make Facebook’s database even more valuable.
How to be a player
Facebook’s market entry will change the rules of the digital dating game. To be a player, requires the following:
1) Diversify into complementary services
Facebook’s additional services don’t just add new revenue streams, they promote engagement with the core offering. It’s notable that the large dating sites have already started diversifying into complementary services. Match offers advertising, events and short breaks holidays. The Match.com group also owns tutoring service The Princeton Review.
eHarmony certainly recognised the affinity between offering dating services and recruitment with the launch of Elevated Careers, albeit they put it up for sale 10 months later. There is an opportunity to deliver premium content, advertising, education, events, travel, retail services and more in a complementary manner that will keep consumers returning to the business.
2) Consolidate all current audience profile data into a single data platform
Numerous digital publishers offering dating services are neglecting to make maximum use of their data, not just to match singletons with more relevant people, but to support other commercial ventures. National news brands are offering dating services, recruitment services, education and training courses, bookshops, events, holidays and even financial services. All of this data could be used to provide better services to subscribers as well as to support each area of the business.
The vast majority of both dating and mainstream digital publishers offering these complementary services keep their incredibly valuable data in separate silos. That’s a huge missed opportunity. What’s more they’re often wasting money buying audience data from third parties to enable them to offer certain services, most notably for targeting advertising, even though they already have incredibly rich and relevant user data in another part of their business.
If all that data is effectively consolidated into a single data platform, they could build unified data profiles in much the same way as Facebook. What’s more, using this data as seed data for machine learning technologies, they can build incredibly detailed and accurate profiles of users that haven’t even subscribed to a single service.
3) Form data alliances
Entering data alliances – whereby complementary data controllers work together to derive value from combined data sets – is one way to compete with Facebook, and can add huge scale to publishers’ data sets. The mass of guys with tigers, photos at music festivals, and profiles which list ‘laughing’, ‘travelling’ and ‘going out and staying in’ as defining characteristics don’t do justice to the incredibly insightful data that online dating services possess.
Subscribers share their passions, favourite locations, work, education, appearance, family status, salary bracket as well as their age, gender and more. The right data partnerships enhance brand positions and develop a strong niche market which is extremely appealing to consumers and brands seeking to communicate with the resultant audiences.
However, data alliances pose numerous technical and compliance challenges. Publishers need to collect and share data in a GDPR compliant fashion, ensuring appropriate consents. They also need good technology to make the data consolidation process simple, ensuring the traceablity of the data source, and processing it in a GDPR compliant fashion. They also need raw access to the data to be able to gain meaningful insight from the data and put it to use.
4) Improve the consumer experience
Since Facebook’s dating system hasn’t been launched yet, there’s no evidence of the success of its compatibility matching. However, numerous independent data studies show the accuracy of predictions of personality traits, political affiliation and ethnicity based on Facebook’s collection and processing of data.
The success of dating companies’ numerous matching systems have come into question numerous times. In January 2018, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority even ruled that eHarmony’s matching system didn’t offer users a significantly greater chance of finding lasting love.
Dating providers need to assess whether their current tech stack is up to the competition Facebook now poses. They need to investigate new data platforms that are up to the challenge. If they use effective AI they can add the equivalent of millions of data scientist man hours to their data team. Machine learning technologies can match, even predict, the level of interest that one person will have in another person, an article, a service or an ad. Dating services need to adopt these technologies now, as Facebook is far ahead of them in this area.
It took just five years for Facebook to go from college dorm room project to overtaking its main social media competitors. The competition mainstream publishers have been facing from FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) is coming to the dating industry.
Publishers of personals advertising and dedicated dating services need to up their game immediately. This can’t wait.