Business

Dating apps become popular for ‘window shopping’

Daniel Adler-Golden is among the millions of young singles who frequent the online dating service Tinder. But he isn’t there to find a long-term relationship or even a quick fling. He just enjoys the thrill when a young woman “likes” him by tapping an icon of a heart on his profile.

“I regard it as an occasional ego boost,” said Adler-Golden, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur from Brighton.

Advertisement

Adler-Golden is typical of a new breed of digital-dating service users: they’re just there to browse and flirt for a few minutes, with little thought of meeting their “matches” in person.

These romantic window shoppers are helping broaden the market for a booming digital dating industry that one in seven Americans has at least dabbled in.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Once regarded as a last resort for desperate, aging singles hoping computerized love formulas can identify their soul mates, online dating is now a mainstream pursuit for many age groups, including college students.

In fact Tinder, launched in 2012, has said more than 90 percent of its first users were 24 and younger. Overall, people in that age group make up 16 percent of the total users of online dating sites, according to a survey by SessionM, a Boston firm that tracks Web activity for advertisers.

The survey found three of every 10 online daters are actually “just curious” or looking for “entertainment.”

Advertisement

“It turns out most people find flipping through pictures of the opposite sex pretty entertaining,” said Sam Davidson, founder of a Boston-based group dating app called Who’s That.

The new wave of dating apps — including several developed in the Boston area — is trying to capitalize on this trend by putting every imaginable spin on matchmaking. Some offer women more features than men, or base matches on recommendations from friends, or coordinate group dates.

Whatever the twist, the common goal is to make the user experience so simple, fast, and casual that even people who may not have trouble getting a date in real life will want to participate.

“We’re trying to position ourselves in the dating category, but we’re also saying you don’t actually have to use this app for dating at all — you could just use this for feedback,” said Jay Wadhwani, chief executive of Cambridge-based Singled Out.

Launched in October, Wadhwani’s service is designed to appeal to women. The app allows women to ward off unwanted advances by singling out men using a series of yes-or-no questions, such as “Would you date a tall girl?,” or “If I smoke is that a dealbreaker?” Women can send chat invitations to the men whose responses they like, or simply collect the answers as an informal survey. Men cannot initiate contact.

Putting women in charge is one strategy for combating a persistent problem in online dating: harassment. Shielded by computer screens, some men feel emboldened to make improper advances and even verbally attack women who spurn them.

In a Pew survey last year 42 percent of women who use online dating services said they have received messages that make them feel uncomfortable or harassed.

“I actually put right in my profile that I am not looking for a hookup, since I was getting so many offers for a one-night stand,” said Vicky Haskell, a 44-year-old Tinder user from Portsmouth, N.H. “I finally figured I should put it right out there.”

Fed-up women have taken to posting screen shots of the vulgar messages they receive on an Instagram page called Bye Felipe in a campaign to publicly shame their online assailants. In less than a month the page has attracted more than 200,000 followers.

Even so, online dating has grown into a $2.1 billion business, according to research firm IBISWorld. The biggest slice belongs to the Match Group — encompassing popular sites such as Match.com, OKCupid, and BlackPeopleMeet — which is on pace to collect more than $850 million in revenues this year.

Reasons for using online dating services

DATA: SessionM survey of 16,829 adults 18-64

Globe Staff

Tinder, meanwhile, has no revenue stream despite piling up more than 30 million users in just two years. The app is free to use and Tinder does not have any advertising. However, Tinder plans to launch a paid version with premium features by the end of the year. Match’s parent company, Barry Diller’s IAC, owns a majority stake in Tinder.

In fact most dating apps are free, one key to bringing younger users into the fold. Another factor is the notion that a few pictures and some basic facts are enough to get someone looking — that people are more likely to sign up if they don’t have to create lengthy profiles.

“If you pay money it shows that you’re desperate, and no one wants to appear desperate,” said Justin McLeod, a Harvard Business School graduate and founder of the free dating app Hinge, which sifts through a user’s social network to find likely matches. “If you spend tons of time filling out a profile and answering weird, embarrassing questions, it also shows that you’re desperate. But if it’s just clicking a button and it’s free, where’s the stigma in that?”

Offering a no-cost pool of prospective mates is now a proven way to rack up users. But matchmaking entrepreneurs are still figuring out how to make a buck. Some, like McLeod and Wadhwani, plan to follow Tinder’s lead and charge for enhanced features while maintaining a free level of service for most users.

That’s a departure from the traditional model of stalwarts like eHarmony and Zoosk, which charge a monthly fee.

Who’s That debuted in July with a different business strategy. Instead of charging users directly, the app connects three male friends with a trio of women and allows them to pre-order drinks at a bar where they plan to meet. The bar gives Who’s That half the proceeds of the first round in exchange for bringing in business.

Davidson is hoping the arrangement with bars will help casual dating apps make the leap from popularity to profitability.

“We’ve hit the point of social acceptance where it’s OK to have it on your phone,” he said. “But getting 20-somethings to pay a subscription for a dating service is impossible to make cool.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.