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Covid-19 Is Changing How Apps And Entrepreneurs Play Cupid This Christmas

Trying to find that special someone for the so-called most wonderful time of the year is difficult enough. Add a worsening pandemic, and it might seem downright impossible.

Locked-down lonelyhearts are less likely to put their money into technology aimed at finding new romance, as many bars, restaurants and coffee shops— the most popular places to meet a date — have either closed shop or had to reduce their service to takeout only. That’s led to big changes in the online dating industry, and inspired new competition, from mom and pop startups to 21st century matchmakers.

Apps Ride The Waves

It turns out singles looking for love aren’t the only ones getting their hearts broken this Christmas.

For the companies behind the most popular dating apps, 2020 has been a year of tidal forces. A strong start swiftly turned into a slump, then reversed. Dating apps rode the waves culminating in a surge of activity from late Spring into Summer, according to Bloomberg.

That boost was preceded by a record-breaking 3 billion Tinder swipes on just one day, early on in the coronavirus crisis: March 29, 2020.

Match Group, Inc., which owns Tinder as well as Hinge and OKCupid and controls 60% of the dating app market, saw sales increase a record $84 million toward the end of the second quarter and into the third, Bloomberg reported. In the three months through August, Match added 1.1 million subscribers across its platforms, a nearly 16% increase over the second quarter of 2020.

“When Covid-19 hit, we started to realize, like, ‘I would like to be in lock down with somebody else. Maybe I’d like to quarantine with somebody,’” celebrity matchmaker Rachel DeAlto, Match’s chief dating expert, told TV viewers on stations coast to coast. From March to May, Match.com’s app alone saw a 40% increase in engagement and OKCupid recorded a 700% increase in dates. Bumble, an app geared toward empowering single women whose owner Magic Labs saw more than its share of controversy in 2019, experienced a 70% rise in video calls, reported Brookings.

Ways to Date, Safely

Dating apps became one of the best options for meeting new people given the adoption of social distancing measures in many metropolitan areas. Experts in relationships and healthcare weighed-in on the ways to date, safely, during a pandemic, for websites like Well and Good, and on the dating sites, too: if phone calls and virtual video conversations lead somewhere, first meet outdoors, wearing masks, and go slow.

Not everybody listened. Earlier this year, a manufacturer of at-home lab testing kits noted what it called an “explosion” in sales of its sexually transmitted disease tests, according to the Chicago Tribune, and the company wanted to find out why. Of the young adults ages 20-31 that Everlywell surveyed in Chicago, 53% said they broke quarantine in April to have a sexual encounter, compared with 25% of the respondents in Los Angeles and 17% in New York City. Looks like Chicago’s millennials finally found a way to overcome their hometown’s “Second City” reputation.

Then came the next wave of the virus, following a Thanksgiving holiday during which many Americans flouted health warnings to avoid traveling and gathering. Covid-19 is now setting new records almost daily in terms of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. On Friday, the United States broke the existing record for coronavirus-related deaths, breaking the 3,000 mark, according to The New York Times. At least 223,570 new infections were reported Thursday, and government experts predict the worst is yet to come, even with the first vaccine receiving FDA approval Friday night.

The next few months will be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to CNBC.

Some Things Never Change

Those sobering thoughts are exactly the opposite of what might put lovers in the mood. Still, there’s nothing that will stop a guy from trying. The New York Post reported this week that Tinder users looking to “quarantine and chill” used some of these trending pick-up lines:

  • “Let’s be like the coronavirus and catch each other.”
  • “Looking for a plus-one for my family Zoom calls.”
  • “Looking for someone to pump up my heart rate so my glasses fog with my mask on.”
  • “A month ago I needed cuddles. But now I need sanitizer and face masks. Could you help me out?”

Hold off on the groans and rim shots until the stockbrokers make their call. Despite the surge of the summer, Match.com’s forecast for growth for this quarter probably won’t exceed 2%, according to Bloomberg. Even so, that number still beats analyst expectations for the stock, which has grown significantly in value since March.

Offering New Ways To Connect And, You Know…

Although Bloomberg reported Match isn’t offering investors any guidance on 2021 performance amid predictions of lower growth, the company and its competitors are offering subscribers new services. The hope is that these add-ons will help users cope with the seemingly never-ending pandemic, and more importantly to their bottom line: keep paying for their apps.

“People are being more intentional about dating” DeAlto told Forbes.com contributor Francesca Hogi last week. After swiping right, members can use Match Dates, where they can mutually indicate serious interest and move to a separate inbox where they can video chat. Tinder accounts for more than half of Match’s revenue and has its own video chat service, dubbed Face to Face. It’s pretty much FaceTime with dating.

Not to be outdone is Grindr, the granddaddy of LGBTQ-dating apps and certainly the most popular one. With revenue topping $100 million annually, Grindr boasts approximately 5 million daily active users — that’s almost half of the estimated LGBTQ population of the U.S. — and 13 million monthly active users. “We’ve been trying to find ways to help people use the platform in ways that are going to keep them connected but keep them safe,” said Alex Black, head of marketing at Grindr. Options include both a video chat and an audio chat feature. As Abram Brown reported in Forbes.com in April, Grindr has offered phone-sex tips, and suggested users be descriptive and indulgent in sharing their fantasies. “The platform is not known for modesty,” Brown wrote.

“‘Right now’ can wait,” Black said. “Why not have a chat about your fantasies, your kinks? Whatever you’re into. There’s a lot of other ways to stay connected and even to have sexual experiences without meeting up.”

“Pride Perseveres”

One of those other ways to stay connected was through Pride Perseveres, a series of virtual events Grindr hosted this past June to help users feel connected and show their LGBTQ Pride, despite being isolated. Given that every official Pride March and parade was canceled on account of the coronavirus, this served as a valuable virtual substitute for Grindr users, said Black, who identifies as gay.

“This 30-day digital festival we brought into the app, our hope was that this is for anybody who was isolating, stuck at home, quarantining, immunocompromised and didn’t feel comfortable out in the world, even when there weren’t restrictions in place,” he said. “We did some surveying about the campaign afterwards and got some really, really positive feedback from our users about how nice it was, even if they weren’t necessarily interested in the day’s event.”

As much as 34% of Grindr’s daily active users engaged with the Pride Perseveres content, the company said; 65% of users reported a positive view of the campaign, which relied upon content cards created by Braze.

They said it made them feel less alone and prouder than if they had not taken part, and more than half said they wanted to see something like this again.

Some of the content was specifically geared toward the transgender community: a panel featuring — as well as raising funds for — the Transgender Law Center; a discussion about LGBTQ+ rights with an emphasis on Black trans lives; another panel on grassroots Black trans and non-binary activism; more fundraisers benefiting The Okra Project, which provides resources and meals to Black trans people worldwide, and For The Gworls, which assists Black Trans folks with rent and gender affirmative surgeries.

Under New Management

This event was also a much-needed public relations boost for Grindr, coming on the heels of an orgy of controversies: data privacy practices that got the company suspended by Twitter, a chief executive who proclaimed marriage is a “holy union between a man and a woman,” the surprise shuttering of its LGBTQ news site, and an outright racist “search filter” that Grindr eliminated in June after a public outcry.

Also in June, Grindr had a change in ownership, that was forced upon it by the Trump Administration. China-based Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. sold the West Hollywood company to a group of American investors, San Vicente Acquisitions, for $608 million.

CEO Jeff Bonforte and COO Rick Marini told the Los Angeles Times they identify as straight, but that 15 members of their senior team are “part of the gay community.”

“We absolutely have the intention of recruiting more gay members of the community to every level of Grindr,” Marini told the Los Angeles Times in July, “from the lower levels to senior team to the board. Even though we may not be gay, we do support the community.”

Grindr recently hired away Alice Hunsberger from Match Group, to be its new senior director of customer experience. Hunsberger spent more than a decade in that role at OKCupid. Her most recent decision, announced last month: users can now post profile photos in their underwear. Just in time for Christmas.

Alternatives To One-On-One Dating

What other kind of “customer experiences” do Grindr users have?

Black said unlike the people who subscribe to some more traditional dating apps, “Grindr users can and do use our platform to arrange threesomes and a variety of other alternatives to one-on-one dating. Whatever type of sex or dating situation consenting adults might be looking for, we’re always trying to find ways to support those interactions,” he said, including allowing users to communicate their kinks and fetishes on both their public profiles and in private chat.

And if more than one is more fun, or non-monogamy is someone’s preferred relationship style, a bisexual couple in Connecticut developed an alternative online dating app, one reserved for open-minded singles, couples, thruples and more. It’s called #open, which is pronounced “hashtag open.” Users include heterosexuals as well as people identifying as LGBTQ and other identities. Also, it’s absolutely free to use.

Unlike Facebook, which prohibits users from creating profiles for more than one person, #open allows its users to share a dating profile. And for that reason among others, Facebook refuses to allow David Epstein and Amanda Wilson to advertise their sex-positive app, which they co-founded in 2018. #open launched on Apple’s App Store two years ago this month and in early 2019 on Google Play.

“#open is a dating app for folks who embrace ethical non-monogamy in all of its forms,” said Wilson, “from polyamory, to threesomes, to open relationships, and beyond.” She said 97% of users report they are in, or interested in what she called “ethically open relationships.”

Wilson and Epstein boast that the number of users on their app has grown even as Covid-19 has spread, with 51% more profiles added since early March, when the pandemic started being perceived as a real public health threat.

“We started the month of December with 75K users profiles and are growing at a rapid rate,” said Wilson. “We’re also seeing more people engaging in the app each month, which tells us that, despite the pandemic, people are looking for safer ways to connect with each other.”

“Five to 10 percent growth of the user community, per month,” added Epstein. “I think that’s in large part because obviously people need community right now.”

Defining Boundaries

When #open users create a profile, they can choose their gender and sexual preference from a very diverse list, or create their own and describe themselves in terms of their interests. In addition, users choose hashtags that express those interests and even define where their boundaries are.

“We’re also seeing people who are very up front about their needs and Covid-19 precautions in their public profiles,” Wilson noted. He told Connecticut Voice Magazine last year that he met Wilson on, what else, a dating app. Their attraction to one another included shared disappointment in how that particular app functioned. So they created #open.

“What folks will do,” Epstein explained, “is they’ll come into the app and they’ll search a hashtag or two that they’re interested in. And that way they’re not just, like in a lot of apps, working based on the initial snap impression of the user profile. They’re actually digging into interests and hobbies, and so that becomes a different way to network. Within our app, we don’t set distance limitations: All of our features right now are free and distance is really not relevant, we think, during the pandemic.” Some mainstream apps have taken similar steps.

Who’s On #open?

#open’s director of communications and operations, Sarah Sloane, credited positive media representations of polyamorous relationships and more awareness in the general public for a spike in the number of users interested in those kinds of relationships. “As a sexuality & relationships educator, the pandemic [is] sparking people to think about what their relationship and intimate needs and desires are, and having those conversations with their partners,” said Sloane. Here are some statistics she shared, as well as numbers from the #open site, which are constantly updated.

  • #open tracked a significant increase in users interested in polyamorous relationships, from 22% of users in March to nearly 29% in December.
  • 34.5% of users are single, 25.2% are married. Another 18.6% describe themselves as “partnered” and a little over 8% are in a relationship of some kind.
  • 46.2% identify as straight.
  • 21.5% are bisexual. Fewer than 5% identify as queer, gay or lesbian.
  • The gender identity of 52.4% of users is male; 31.7% identify as female.
  • Approximately 9% of members identify as something other than male, female, cisgender man, or cisgender woman — cisgender means, “not transgender.”
  • Of that group, 3% are non-binary, 1% genderfluid, 0.8% genderqueer, 0.7% transgender woman, 0.6% transgender man, 0.5% chose the word “person,” and 0.4% non-conforming.
  • Sloane said she believes some may not identify themselves as trans or non-binary because their identity is reflective of their authentic gender identity, and not their gender assignment history.

As it grows, could #open pose a threat to more established Goliath apps, like Grindr?

“The goal of our app, and apps like #open, is to help people connect regardless of who they are or what type of sex or dating situation they seek,” said Black, Grindr’s head of marketing. “Plenty of people in open relationships use Grindr, and if they find #open to be another useful way to find thirds or fourths, or fifths, that’s something we welcome.”

Wilson and Epstein said they would welcome public support for their fight against Facebook, which they targeted with a Change.org petition in February. As of press time more than 27-hundred signatures are attached to the petition, which cites “censorship and advertising denials we’re facing at the hands of Facebook and other online platforms, simply because we’re openly inclusive of sex-positive, non-monogamous, and LGBTQIA+ folx.”

What’s next for #open? “Monetization,” Epstein said.

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match”

Money, as they say, cannot buy happiness. But enough of it can get you one-on-one expert assistance in finding and maintaining a relationship.

Given the ongoing pandemic and the technological potholes posed by online dating, if apps aren’t appealing, there is this one last alternative: A 30-year-old entrepreneur who is a modern day Yente, right out of Fiddler on the Roof.

That is, if Yente was a gay man living in Denver, Colo. with a waiting list of high roller clients.

“I provide services throughout the entire U.S.,” said self-described “Lifestyle Liaison” Brandan Rader. He’s a former model with a master’s degree in psychology and behavioral health, a dating coach, relationship coach and matchmaker who’s been in a committed relationship with a man for 10 years himself: LGBTQ youth advocate and educator Micah Porter.

Rader’s services for matchmaking, in partnership with a separate company, come at a mind-bogglingly high price point: $30,000 a year.

“We work with an affluent clientele, an elite clientele,” he said. They would have to be, to fork over the equivalent of a mortgage payment every month. His website lists the Standard Monthly Package as including “3 romantic candidates, 2 engaging options to select from, and 1 promising rendezvous per month.” There are bonuses as well.

Coaching services start at $1,000, Rader said, but he’s adjusted his rate in cases of extreme need. As an example, he cited a couple in a relationship that was changing because of a gender transition. They needed specialized counseling, and health insurance wasn’t going to cover his fee. So he slashed it in half. “I try to break it down, depending on what their needs are,” he said.

Spiritual Brand

His technique is to convert a couple’s goals into lifestyle habits and help them discover what he calls spiritual brand: “the integration of your social-self, psychological-self, and professional-self into one distinguished identity.”

Rader got his start as an intern for “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger. “We definitely butted heads a few times,” he said, objecting to the simplification of the art of matchmaking to just “looks and sex.”

“Lifestyle, interests and hobbies and love and relationship goals,” are what make a great match, he said. “And I still believe that. My business is founded on that.”

Rader’s company, B Eternal Consulting, LLC, has not been hurt by the pandemic, he said; just the opposite.

“My clientele has more than tripled, and this demand has highlighted a social disparity,” said Rader, who found that there are not many companies offering matchmaking, date coaching, and relationship coaching services to the LGBTQ community. “As my waitlist grows, it has become evident that there is a dearth of resources to help LGBTQ singles find healthy love.

While he’s not against the online dating industry, Rader sees it as lacking what he and other LGBTQ-specialized matchmakers excel in offering: a personal touch, one that connects people based on extensive knowledge of that person.

“The Human Aspect”

“Dating apps and dating websites have really taken away a lot of that personalization; the ability to just kind of meet someone in your everyday life,” he said. “What we do is we meet all of our clients and all of our candidates in person, to get a good idea of who they are, what they’re looking for. Our interview process takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and then we have several conversations with them afterwards. I’m really getting to know them on a personal level, and anyone that I’m connecting my clients with, I also get to know on a personal level. I’m a medium for their interaction, but connected to the human aspect of them, as opposed to a dating app or a dating platform.”

Having already found love, success as an elite matchmaker as well as a model and dating and relationship coach, what’s on Rader’s wish list? Not surprisingly, he has big dreams.

“I am working on shopping a reality show concept geared towards LGBTQ matchmaking and coaching, but it’s also going to be inclusive,” he said. “We will have, ideally, equal numbers of gay, straight, transgender, bisexual people. All will be included. And the idea here is showing people that love is love.”

And his ultimate goal? “To continue to build out my brand,” Rader said, adding: “Essentially, I want to have a dating app that specifically addresses the common issues in dating.”

Look out, Grindr, #open and the rest.

Follow Brandan Radar on Instagram by clicking here. Find out more about #open by clicking this link to their website. That app as well as Grindr and other apps mentioned are available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play.