How online dating won the heart of the nation

A growing number of singletons and fading social stigma have seen the value of the online dating market skyrocket in recent years, with free and mobile-focused services expanding the consumer base.

The UK’s online dating market is booming with its value rising by over 70% in the last five years to reach £165m, new research shows. The report by market research group Mintel forecasts that the market will continue its strong growth to reach £225m by 2019, but warns that concerns over safety and online abuse must be addressed.

With Valentine’s Day arriving on Saturday, online dating brands have been particularly active in recent weeks in advertising their services to singletons. The report suggests that the stigma associated with online dating has diminished considerably in recent years, with more than a quarter of people aged 18 and over (27%) now on dating websites or apps.

This trend is partly driven by a rise in the number of single people within the population. The last Office for National Statistics census in 2011 revealed that over 15.7 million adults in England and Wales had never been married, up from 12.5 million in 2001. Mintel’s consumer data for November 2014, meanwhile, shows that 42% of those aged 18 and over are not married or living with a partner.

This demographic trend has coincided with an explosion of online dating brands seeking to meet different dating needs. Mintel analyst Rebecca McGrath also points out that popular apps such as Tinder, Grindr and Hinge have tapped into wider mobile and social networking habits in order to drive acceptance.

“The popularity of free dating apps has made a big impact on online dating over the last several years by dispelling perceptions, opening up online dating to a new market and driving mobile usage,” she says.

Established subscription dating sites Match.com and eHarmony have the greatest brand awareness, with 81% and 76% of over-18s having heard of them, respectively. However Plenty of Fish has the highest usage figure, being a free service, with 9% of adults having used the site at some point. It is followed by Match.com (8%), eHarmony (4%) and Tinder (4%).

The Mintel report notes that newer dating brands are introducing alternative formats in order to stand out in a crowded marketplace. In October last year, for example, a video-only dating app named Tickr was launched to allow users to upload videos of up to 30 seconds in length.

When users ‘tick’ each other’s videos they are able to send messages or have live video chats. The format is intended to bring greater transparency to online dating and make it easier for people to show their personalities.

According to the research, word of mouth is the most likely means by which a new dating app will catch on. Twenty-nine per cent of people who have used a dating service claim they did so because their friends were using the same site, while a further 28% say the service was explicitly recommended to them. These reasons come ahead of TV advertising, which prompted just 14% of people to use a site, respondents claim. Outdoor advertising was even less effective at 5%.

Mintel reports that UK advertising expenditure by online dating sites has fallen significantly from £34.4m in 2011 to £17.6m last year. It attributes this drop to a fall in promotional spend by some of the bigger sites, who are now less focused on growing brand awareness and more concerned with expanding their services. However Match.com and eHarmony remain by far the biggest ad spenders, accounting for £8.7m and £4.6m of expenditure last year, respectively.

Match.com’s most recent advertising campaign, launched in December, invites daters to celebrate their flaws through print and video ads carrying the message ‘Love your imperfections’. EHarmony, meanwhile, is currently running ads around its positioning as ‘The brains behind the butterflies’.

Although rising numbers of people are signing up for dating sites, there remain concerns about the negative aspects of online services. Twenty-two per cent of people believe that online dating is ‘unsafe’, while 71% of people who have tried it say that people misrepresent themselves on their profiles.

Mintel’s McGrath argues that as the market continues to expand, brands will have to ensure that their own safeguards and regulatory measures can keep pace. “The abuse that is directed principally towards women on online dating websites and apps, along with issues of safety, has received increased publicity over the last few years,” she says.

“Dating sites and apps need to explore more ways to combat these issues to avoid them causing significant damage to the industry.”

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