Spark Networks and the Data Behind the Dates

by John R. Quain

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when so-called computer dating was considered the realm of the desperate and dateless. Today, though, it’s a booming $2.1-billion-a-year industry. What changed?

The mainstreaming of the Internet certainly helped, but another, often overlooked factor is how methodologies for pairing people up have improved. Now, people can self-sort and self-select on smartly designed sites, while endlessly optimized software teases out effective matches behind the scenes.

“I believe in the power of the niche,” says Michael Egan, CEO of Spark Networks Inc. (NYSE: LOV), noting that long-term relationships are often formed based on shared experiences or interests. “Race, religion, age, culture and language end up being important factors,” he continues. “If you can develop a community of people who share your individual passion, you have solved one of the main pain points in finding a partner.”

With more than 30 community-based sites, Spark Networks contains some of the biggest and most long-lived brands in online dating, including JDate.com, BlackSingles.com, SilverSingles.com and ChristianMingle.com. JDate has been matchmaking since 1997 and now has over 750,000 members.

Spark Networks

As online dating has become the norm, the demographic makeup of the dating pool has shifted radically. According to researchers at IBISworld, around a third of those looking for love on the Web are still in the prototypical 25- to 34-year-old age bracket, but the SilverSingles crowd (typically 45- to 64-year-olds) has been steadily growing. That demographic now accounts for around 21 percent of online daters.

Egan says Spark’s niche approach allows them to better address the considerable variety that exists within each group, despite common beliefs or interests. “You can go to a standard dating site and check the ‘Christian’ box, but what that means can vary widely from person to person,” he emphasizes. Setting up a profile on ChristianMingle, for example, allows users to get more specific about denomination, level of devoutness and more. Still, he says, shared interests aren’t everything.

“There’s often a difference between what someone puts down in a form and how they actually act,” says Egan. To provide effective results despite unreliable self-reporting, the company leverages its massive cache of dating data to better understand how people will act in the real world, and who they’re likely to connect with.

Some dating-business challenges are universal, however. Chief among them is the paradoxical fact that effective dating sites tend to lead to good relationships. Or, as Egan explains it, “the more successful you are, the faster customers leave your business.” Luckily, the dating business also offers an endless supply of new potential customers. Which means Spark is perpetually in customer-acquisition mode. To continually attract new singles, Spark has been busy launching mobile apps that appeal to busy professionals and will complete major overhauls of the company’s principal Web properties by the fourth quarter of this year.

All the analytics and apps in the world can’t provide a foolproof formula for love though. Despite the work they do to maximize the effectiveness of their apps, humans in love will always be somewhat unpredictable. Or, as Egan puts it, “serendipity still plays a strong role in forming a relationship.”

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