With thousands of dating sites on the Web, it can be as hard for surfers to find the right site as it is to find the right mate.
Affiliates are the matchmakers of the online dating world, bringing lonely hearts to dating service merchants who can light the path to true love, or at least some warm companionship. In a space Jupiter Research projects will more than double to $642 million annually by 2008, it’s no surprise that affiliate marketers are falling in love with the sector.
“Over the past one or two years, the stigma [about Internet dating] has fallen away,” said Graham Mudd, analyst for comScore, a Virginia market research company. “It’s a cycle that builds upon itself. The more people that use it, and have positive experiences with it, the more it’s talked about and used.” And, said Mudd, that usage is “at least partially driven by the fact that it tends to work.”
That’s right. People are actually finding real love on the Internet. Seventy percent of couples that meet online – and survive the first face-to-face meeting – are still in love and together two years later, reports scholar Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, who conducted the first full-length study of cyber-mating, Love Online. Additionally, dating sites tap into the very real, emotional needs of their members: to discreetly find like-minded individuals with similar interests willing to share a date, a sexual encounter or a life together. Jewish sites are a great example of this, as are sites for those with STDs, gays, religious groups and even couples seeking a third.
A few dating service affiliates claim they make as much as $500,000 per month. Our research found superaffiliates in the dating service arena make anywhere from $1,500 to $50,000 per month. Take LovingYou.com, an affiliate with three staff members and a reported 40 million page views in peak months. The site earns $10,000 per month from dating service commissions alone. Its secret, said LovingYou.com Vice President Bob Narindra, is “to not only have good content, but [get the visitor to] perform some kind of action – submit a poem, read an idea and do it, send a postcard – actually do something. Once you get them to actually do something in your site, you’ve created a connection.” Narindra said that connection is what leads people to buy.
The potential buyers are out there: Dating sites drew 20 million unique visitors in December 2003, reports Nielsen//NetRatings (55 percent men and 45 percent women). Some went for curiosity’s sake, others went for the free trials, and roughly 1.2 million plunked down $8.95 to $19.95 per month for paid memberships. Commissions vary widely. Merchants pay referring affiliates anywhere from a nickel to $3 for every click-through, and 15 percent to 110 percent of member fees if the site can convert those visitors from free registrants to paid subscribers.
Online dating is among the biggest paid-content categories on the Internet. “For the foreseeable future, it will be at or near the top in the paid ad category,” said Nate Elliott, an analyst who monitors online dating for Jupiter Research. The trick for affiliates is to get those looking for love to their sites first. That’s a task particularly hard for new entrants, who don’t have the advantage of the flush of media publicity that followed 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” nor the virtue of being a top-ranked link in search engines. “The top-10 [dating] sites normally get between 32 and 50 percent of the search traffic when combined,” said Drew Jackman of 10x Marketing, a Utah Internet consulting firm (see chart).
So how do affiliates of dating service sites survive and succeed?
“When you talk about online dating, you really need to talk about niche markets,” said Michael Jones, CEO of Userplane, which makes software for the dating industry. “Does it operate like a small bar that caters to regional interests? We’re finding so many of our clients, and so many small dating sites, exist very happily with less than 20,000 users.”
Even the big dating services, like Match.com, which is listed by Hitwise as the second-highest dating-traffic generator, see value in aligning with carefully niched sites. “We can only serve a certain number of markets ourselves, so having an affiliate network that’s willing to go out and present unique niche opportunities that are relevant to a certain number of members in a category [is a big plus],” said Gerard Sample, Match.com’s affiliate program senior manager. “Our best affiliates always find that niche and present personals relevant to that niche.”
Niche categories are definitely a growth area, said Elliott at Jupiter Research. He’s seeing dating services targeting alumni groups, ethnic groups, sexual preference, religion, language and geographical locations. Those affiliates are creating high-traffic sites just by affiliating with 10 dating services in their category. “They don’t need that many users,” Jones said, “before they become comfortable and are making money.”
With so many different services out there, affiliates must do something to set themselves apart. “The most commonplace strategies are affiliates that take the time to describe, in editorial fashion, the nature of their site,” said R. J. Lynch, senior product marketing manager for Matchmaker .com. Though many dating services offer free content that affiliates can post, the most profitable affiliates come up with their own, posting free content two or three times per week. “When people find content on your site that they can’t get anywhere else, they build an affinity for your site,” said Narindra.
Here are some value-added features that can be used in various combinations to help differentiate sites:
Newsletters LovingYou.com has 16 double-opt-in newsletters, one for each demographic it targets, ranging from its 180,000-opt-in Daily Expression of Love (a romantic quote, idea or gift of the day) to its 450,000-opt-in LoveWire. Its founder and president, Jennifer Good, writes the copy.
Reviews Rosalind Gardner at Sage- Heart.com, a superaffiliate making up to $50,000 per month who was profiled in the last issue of Revenue, writes reviews of the various dating services she promotes. Other affiliates write movie or book reviews for those sappy romantic titles.
Articles Article ideas come from emailed questions, chat room topics or frequent site search requests. Rather than hire costly magazine freelance writers, insiders recommend recruiting a talented writer who can be more proactive to users’ needs by producing regular articles in-house.
Visitor contributions Many sites post poems and love stories submitted by visitors. Others offer online forums, which provide ready reading material for visitors interested in a particular thread.
Companion affiliates Successful affiliates don’t just stop at dating service sites. They branch out by affiliating the site with related retailers offering romantic gifts, lingerie or flowers. People in every income bracket and lifestyle, ranging from very conservative to the swinger set, are actively looking to buy on the Internet. This means a ready supply of residual income for both affiliates and dating services themselves. Gay.com, a dating service for gays and lesbians, reports that its members are twice as likely to have household income of more than $60,000, twice as likely to have graduated from college, and more than twice as likely as the national index to be professionals or managers. It uses those figures to sell premium-advertising packages to companies targeting the gay and lesbian market.
Multimedia Many offer downloadable love songs, video welcome emails or e-cards. “We extensively use viral marketing in our site,” Narindra said. “Visitors to our site can send online postcards, and the person they sent it to comes to us to look at the postcard.”
An active marketing campaign is what gets date seekers into an affiliate’s site. “If we know one particular site is hot at the moment, that’s our focus – to promote that one,” Rauschenbach said. “And it changes a lot.” Banners are readjusted on pages, keywords are updated to reflect the most popular search terms, and easy bookmark and active-channel options are added to a site to make it easy for first-time surfers to return.
Meanwhile, high search engine rankings still can be achieved. “It boils down to collecting as many reciprocal links as you can [and] getting as much original content as you can,” said David Hayden, owner of Rabbit Rabbit Ltd., which runs DrDating.com. These strategies, plus a few more Hayden guards closely, seem to be working. He’s grown the site to No. 9 in the search rankings without pay-per-click search engine tactics.
Another way affiliates boost profits is by working with merchants to improve pay-per-click or pay-per-membership commissions. When LoveSites.com signs up to be an affiliate, “we do it in the traditional way, and send out an email afterwards letting the [dating service] know we’re a superaffiliate and we’re looking to promote your program at a higher-than-normal level,” said marketing manager Brian Rauschenbach. “We tell them we’re going to be taking a couple of different approaches to marketing their program, but we want to have a custom program set up first.”
The key to negotiating with merchants, Rauschenbach said, is to not just send them an email. He follows up by phone, and asks to speak directly to the affiliate manager. The net result: “We have a couple of companies that we actually have contracts with,” he said. “In case we get sold to another entity, we still have those contracts.”
Since most affiliate profits are made through membership fee commissions, it’s key to partner with dating services that have high ratios of registrants who convert to paid members after a free trial. Matchmaker.com, for instance, reports conversions of roughly 7 percent of visitors from general sites and 15 percent of visitors from dating-specific sites. That’s higher than industry standard, which pencils out to 8 percent conversion rates for males and 2 percent conversion rates for females, according to a December 2003 Nielsen//NetRatings study.
Dating service sites typically pay affiliates if that visitor returns to make a purchase within 30 to 60 days. Some services are sweetening the pot even more. Matchmaker.com, for instance, now offers unlimited return days. Its software records where visitors come from, even if those visitors don’t sign up for a service, and gives credit to the original affiliate if that visitor comes back at anytime during the course of their life. “Giving the affiliate the ability to earn commissions during the length of a subscriber’s time with us mirrors what we’re trying to achieve with our subscribers,” said Lynch. And that’s creating long-term relationships.
While some product categories are tightening or dropping affiliate partner programs, experts say that won’t happen any time soon in the dating realm. Match.com, a Forbes 2002 and 2003 “Favorite for Dating,” soon will roll out affiliate features now offered only to big-name partners, including advanced searching capabilities, customized channel designs, personality tests and seven-day free trials directly from affiliate sites. “We’re continuing to find new ways to connect affiliates with our users,” said Gerard Sample, senior manager of Match.com’s affiliate program.
Meanwhile, Matchmaker.com will become one of the first dating service sites to offer automatically updated banners: “Traditionally, affiliates would grab new creatives from BeFree and implement them on their site,” Lynch said. “Now the change can be made automatically. This not only simplifies the day-to-day execution of their site, but it also allows them to take advantage of things we do promotionally.”
There are also buyouts afoot. Companies such as Match.net are purchasing smaller services with 50,000 to 100,000 member profiles, said Jones at Userplane. “They either buy you directly or set you up as a portal into their site.”
Increasing competition is causing consumers to act more fickle. “About a year ago, the average lifetime of a subscriber used to be three months,” Narinda said. “Now, with all the competition, the timeframe has dropped to two months.” That means affiliate sites either have to refer more potential members by bringing more people to their site, or come up with additional revenue streams such as books, gifts or even background checks. MatchPatrol.com, for instance, has signed up 25 affiliates for its new fee-based program that gives online daters an identification number that proves they are who they say they are.
Even with all the changes, insiders see online dating revenues getting bigger and better. “There are so many single people out there,” said Gardner, “and everyone is looking for love.”
JENNIFER MEACHAM, managing editor of Revenue, has been writing about business and technology for more than a decade. She was named the Region X Journalist of the Year by the US Small Business Administration in 2002.