In an increasingly crowded field, dating apps are looking for love

Platforms are finding ways to distinguish themselves from the competition

While its millions of customers were looking for romance, one of the largest online dating apps in the U.S. changed its status to “in a relationship.”

Hinge, a dating app that says it’s “designed to be deleted,” announced a couple of days before Valentine’s Day that it is now wholly owned by Match Group. The terms of the sale were not disclosed.

This news means that almost all the big-name dating apps—including Match, Tinder, and OkCupid—are now owned by the same company. The only major player Match Group hasn’t scooped up is Bumble, where women are the first to swipe right. (Match Group sued Bumble last year, alleging that it stole its intellectual property; Bumble countersued for harassment.)

All this consolidation isn’t necessarily bad news for those looking for love. Match Group has been hands-off with the companies it acquires, encouraging them to maintain their own cultures. Each of the companies it’s bought attracts a certain demographic—Hinge, for example, does well with urban, educated millennial women—that Match Group wants to capture.

Tim MacGougan, chief product officer at Hinge, says Match Group made it clear it wants Hinge to be distinctive from the rest of its portfolio.

“Tinder celebrates single life,” he says. “Match feels matrimonial. Hinge is different. Our members are people in their 20s and 30s who are looking for meaningful connections with other people.”

Breaking away from the pack

In two separate panel discussions held this week at WeWork—one hosted by Flatiron School, the other co-sponsored by the nonprofit Out in Tech—engineers, executives, and founders of a range of dating apps talked about how they distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded field. Hinge, for instance, considers itself an expert on what makes a good date. It even reimburses its employees up to $200 a month if they’ll post about their dates on the app.

“People here have been very creative,” McGougan says. “They try something new and share it with our members.”

Hinge, which has had an estimated 3 million downloads, even sends followups to members who have met through the app, asking how things went. This information will eventually allow it to make better matches.

At OkCupid, the staff puts a lot of effort into making sure members are compatible before they even meet. It asks members hard-hitting questions that might be a deal-breaker for others scanning their profile. One example: “Is climate change real?”

“In the past few years, people have shown they care a lot about politics,” says engineering manager Jordan Guggenheim. “So we have been asking members questions like, ‘Do you prefer that your date shares your political views?’”

It’s a hot-button topic, but one that reveals a lot about people. “These simple questions carry a lot of weight in terms of who people choose to date long-term,” Guggenheim says.

Guggenheim—a graduate of Flatiron School—says he’s proud that the company remains ahead of the curve on issues like gender identity.

“We absolutely take the stance that we support more than the binary gender options,” he says. “We were one of the first apps to offer 22 different genders and 12 different orientations. We want you to be able to best express how you identify.”

Creating a safe space

As the larger apps are all being gobbled up by the same parent company, smaller apps see a chance to distinguish themselves.

Morgen Bromell, CEO of a newly relaunched dating app “for queer people of all genders” called Thurst, appreciates that mainstream platforms are becoming more inclusive. But being able to check a box isn’t enough.

“I was bummed that there wasn’t a platform for queer people, trans people, and nonbinary people,” says Bromell. “We needed a place where people didn’t feel fetishized, where they wouldn’t be targeted for who they are.”

“I want to dispel the idea that the relationships you make on an app are less important than those you make in person,” says Thurst CEO Morgen Bromell.

Bromell launched a beta version of the app in 2016, but almost immediately, trolls lashed out at users. The team spent the next year working on creating a more secure space for their community.

As the app has developed, it’s also become a social network where members create close friendships.

“I want to dispel the idea that the relationships you make on an app are less important than those you make in person,” says Bromell. “A relationship you start online can be just as valuable.”

Eric Silverberg, CEO of Scruff, says that the gay dating app fulfills several different purposes.

“Is Scruff a hookup app? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “Is it a social network? Yes, absolutely. And it’s everything in between.”

When the platform launched in 2010, Scruff was among the first gay dating apps. The field has gotten a lot more crowded since then, so Silverberg has to keep attracting members with new features.

“We’ve been beta testing a live queer quiz show on its app called ‘Hosting,’” he says. “When we saw HQ launch a little over a year ago, it got us excited about the notion of doing something live. What if we got everyone on Scruff to log on at the same time and have a shared experience?”

Silverberg says that the app’s most important function is perhaps to be a kind of virtual community center, providing its members with access to information they might not otherwise know how to find.

“We’re very proud of the fact that Scruff has partnered with thousands of LGBTQ nonprofits and health organizations to get their messages in front of our community,” he says. “One of our responsibilities to the gay and queer community is to forge those connections.”

Photos by Frank Mullaney

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