Online dating site Match.com has appointed Initiative to handle its £10m media planning and buying account as the dating brand repositions its strategy and increasingly moves its budget above-the-line (MW last week).
Observers say the move is indicative of an industry aiming for the mainstream and expects rivals to follow suit. Initiative was appointed to the brief, replacing M2M, following a four-way pitch and follows the promotion of marketing director Jason Stockwood to managing director in January this year. Stockwood was also appointed as marketing director last year to oversee a shift in strategy, including an increased advertising budget and a greater focus on above-the-line advertising.
Match.com says it is the biggest online dating site in the world with 20 million members, with 1.3 million paid subscribers. The site, which is owned by internet conglomerate InterActiveCorp, was launched in 1995 and now has 35 country-specific sites in 18 languages in addition to its flagship portal.
However, it faces stiff competition in the UK from the likes of DatingDirect as well as from dating and personals sections of Web portals such as MSN, Yahoo! and Lycos.
According to figures from research company Nielsen Online, US brand Mate1.com had the most UK visitors to an online dating site in January, with a unique audience of 618,000 – or 1.9% of Britons online. Mate1, which spends $52m (£26m) on global advertising annually, was followed by DatingDirect, which had 421,000 UK visitors in January, Match.com with 404,000 visits, Pocado.com with 403,000 and MSN Dating & Personals, with 329,000 unique visits in January.
However, strong competition is expected from social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo, whose own popularity and interactive features attract the audiences served by Match.com and its rivals.
Social media consultancy Nixon McInnes’ managing director Will McInnes says online dating services need to move into social networking if they are to survive. He says/ “They should be striving for a more seamless flow. For example, hooking up your music info from another site.”
But McInnes also suggests: “Social networks are a buzzword and dating websites have been doing a similar thing for years.”
Mysinglefriend.com, launched by TV personality Sarah Beeney, attempts to combine social networking with dating. Strategy director Nick Lisher says a weblog has just been launched – the MSFer – which keeps members in contact with the sites owners as well as each other. “It allows our members to have a dialogue with us – something we feel is left out of other sites,” he says. It is also launching an instant messaging application for its members, a feature he says will allow them to chat in real time.
Marketing budgets are set to continue rising as dating sites continue to differentiate their offerings and strive to make the dating method mainstream. Stockwood says marketing spend at Match.com has virtually doubled year after year since its launch and the site is investing heavily in the brand on and offline over the next two years.
Stockwood, previously managing director of Travelocity, believes the market is yet to reach saturation point, with plenty of growth ahead – partly because of changing attitudes to dating and the internet. He believes online dating used to have a negative stigma, but is becoming more socially acceptable, and market leading sites have an obligation to promote this.
However, one insider suggests that the future lies in dating “exclusivity”, with more sites becoming invite-only, such as Metrofunk.com. The challenge will be whether the big players can continue growing in the face of competition from the social networks, which ironically based their core offerings around technology developed by online dating.