Dating site eHarmony aims to dominate British market

Dating site eHarmony aims to dominate British market

eHarmony is tapping into a lucrative market with internet dating in the US rising 13% in the past year Photograph: Franck Allais/Guardian

eHarmony is tapping into a lucrative market with internet dating in the US rising 13% in the past year Photograph: Franck Allais/Guardian

A balding Californian self-confessed technology enthusiast dressed in a dull corporate suit, Waldorf, 42, appears an unlikely cupid. But his site claims to be responsible for a staggering 542 weddings every day in America – almost one in five US marriages. Waldorf hopes to repeat that trick in Britain, where eHarmony launched 18 months ago and aims to be ong paid matchmaking sites within the next two years.

Founded by a Chicago clinical psychologist in 2000, eHarmony is the second biggest paid-for dating website in the US, behind the ubiquitous Match.?com. Rather than merely letting its members browse through thousands of profiles, it uses a patented “compatibility matching system” based on a 250-question in-depth quiz to identify potential soulmates.

“It’s a scientifically proven matching system that’s been working incredibly well for 10 years in helping people find great relationships,” says Waldorf. He insists that even in a recession, it’s worth coughing up ? a month for the chance to meet the love of your life: “It’s worth making a small investment in this area of your life because it’s so important to find a terrific relationship. It can sound simple but it impacts every bit of your wellbeing.”

Profitable since 2004, eHarmony’s annual revenue is reported to be in the region of $250m and the company is likely to go public within the next few years, netting a potential fortune for its founders and a clutch of big-name venture capital investors including Sequoia Capital, which was an early backer of YouTube and Yahoo, and Technology Crossover Ventures, which put money behind the travel website Travelport.

“The goal is to be a great independent company for a long time,” says Waldorf. “An IPO [stockmarket flotation] would be a milestone along the way that I’d be happy to lead the company through.”

It is milking a healthy market, according to the research firm comScore which says the audience of dating websites in the US rose by 13% over the 12 months to July, outpacing a 9% rise in overall internet use.

“There’s been a resurgence in the past year,” says Andrew Lipsman, a comScore analyst, who says increasingly sophisticated matchmaking software is luring web users back from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. “The sector had somewhat stagnated as social networking websites came up.”

However, eHarmony isn’t necessarily everybody’s cup of tea. It describes itself, slightly sniffily, as “a relationship site – not a dating site”. Its creator, Neil Clark Warren, is a silver-haired, septuagenarian, devout Christian who initially had an alliance with a socially conservative evangelical organisation, Focus on the Family. Waldorf, chief executive since 2006, doesn’t like eHarmony being described as “conservative” but he couches its appeal in traditionalist terms, emphasising its moral fibre and stressing it is not for casual “hook-ups”.

“Anybody who has a little bit more of a values orientation may have more interest in our site,” says Waldorf. “But we have success couples who come from every angle of politics, religion. Some people are deeply religious, some people are not religious at all.”

What, exactly, does he mean by people with a “values orientation”? Waldorf is vague: “The cliche is that in order to have a values orientation you must be politically conservative. Someone who’s going to care for them deeply. I think that just transcends any kind of politics.”

But many people who are politically very liberal or middle of the road would say simply they want a relationship partner who is someone with character, values, integrity

Until March last year, eHarmony was a no-go zone for gay and lesbian love-seekers – it took a high-profile lawsuit from a US gay rights organisation to get eHarmony to open itself up to same-sex couplings. One activist branded the company “eNeanderthal”.

“There was never a policy decision why we couldn’t, it was just never a market we were in,” says Waldorf of the gay ban. He says the origins of the site’s compatibility model lay in Warren’s clinical work as a psychologist, which largely revolved around heterosexual couples. “The origin was, being a smaller site, we specialised in what we knew and that was opposite sex relationships – what Dr Warren had done.”

With same-sex couples on board, eHarmony is open to almost everybody over 18 – with the exception of a few unlucky applicants who get spat out of the computer. Married people aren’t allowed, which includes those separated but not divorced. Even if divorced, you’re barred if you’ve been married more than three times by the age of 60. And a small percentage – Waldorf says it’s under 1% – are judged by eHarmony’s compatibility software to be incompatible with just about everybody. The difficulty, apparently, is often neurosis.

“A key dimension that comes up in this is neuroticism,” says Waldorf. “I’m not talking the way people use it as a casual term, but as a more clinical term. You can actually be at a point in your life where no matter who we would match you with, it would prevent that. It’s an extreme sort of situation.”

Barring neurotics, says eHarmony, is to the benefit of the vast bulk of its membership and the results seem to speak for themselves. The website claims responsibility for 148,311 marriages in the US over the past year. But that’s only an estimate, based on a Harris Interactive market research survey of just 8,000 people, and eHarmony has been rapped by the UK Advertising Standards Authority for citing such numbers as definitive figures.

In Britain, eHarmony says it has signed up a million registered users in 18 months. But the site faces a crowded market – according to research firm Experian Hitwise, it ranks only 11th in traffic among UK dating websites, with just 1.79% of visits. That compares to the free-of-charge market leader Plentyoffish, which accounted for 18% in July.

Its traffic is below several paid-for sites – including Friends Reunited Dating and Dating Direct, not to mention gay sites such as Gaydar. It also competes with US arch rival Match, and Soulmates, owned by Guardian News & Media. But armed with a financial war chest and an aggressive television paign, Waldorf is bombastic.

“We want to be the number one site where people come for long-term relationships,” says Waldorf, who met his own wife the traditional way, through a blind date set up by a friend.

The boss of the dating website eHarmony, Greg Waldorf, just might be able to help – providing you are “values orientated”, not unduly neurotic and you haven’t been married more than three times

“I absolutely think that in the next couple of years, yes, we can overtake them to become the number one.”

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