Kara Carlson @karacarlson2
Jun 5, 2020 at 10:08 AM
If you’ve been on a date the past few months, you likely set a time, threw together your best outfit — and then sat back down on the sofa to log onto your video chat platform of choice.
The stay-at-home orders and social distancing policies created by the coronavirus outbreak haven’t stopped singles from using dating apps and online platforms to look for potential matches.
The use of virtual dating tools such as video calls has skyrocketed as dating app users continue to look for ways to connect, date and stave off boredom. And dating app companies say they are retooling and adding features and events to encourage users to not just meet, but to actively conduct dates both online and via their apps.
Dating app companies Austin-based Bumble and Dallas-based Match Group — which owns a variety of platforms including Tinder, Hinge. Match and Plenty of Fish — reported increased use of apps in March as the outbreak spread into the United States.
Online dating had been growing in popularity even before the pandemic. In fact, online dating has become the most popular way for heterosexual couples to meet in the United States, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
In late March, Bumble saw a 26% increase in messages sent and a 56% increase in video calls increase in use for its video call tool. The company has been encouraging its clients to use those features during the pandemic and to avoid meeting in person.
“We’re encouraging you, for now, to please take all your dates virtual. Even if you’re feeling well, you could be unknowingly spreading the virus by meeting IRL,” Whitney Wolfe Herd, Bumble’s CEO and founder, wrote in a letter to users.
The company was already providing chat, voice call and video chat options in its app, which includes dating, friend and networking options.
Bumble has now added a virtual dating badge that users can use to signal they are open to virtual video dating. The company previously used similar badge features to let users signal shared interests, such as gaming.
The company previously required users to live within 50 miles of each other to interact on the platform. It has changed to allow users to match with anyone in the United States. Users can also record and send audio notes and reply to specific messages within a chat, and play an in-app feature called the Question Game.
In May, vacation rental service Airbnb announced it was partnering with Bumble to highlight virtual dating options as part of its Online Experiences feature. Online Experiences gives users free or inexpensive virtual dating experiences around the world. The options range from magic shows to wine classes. The dating company also is sponsoring a contest for a free virtual date.
“People are going towards it, because they are still craving connection and people still want to be able to have somebody to talk to have somebody to laugh with, especially if you’re isolating by yourself and single,” said Rachel DeAlto chief dating coach for Match Group. “I think it’s logical that we would use technology to benefit ourselves.”
In a user survey, Match Group found that 69% of singles said they were open to video chatting during quarantine, as compared to only 6% of singles who were using video to meet a potential date before the pandemic. The survey also found that 22% of singles were willing to become exclusive with someone they had not met in person.
“At the end of the day, we’re wired for connection and the fact of the matter is that in-person connection is ideal, but we need to work within what we’re given right now, and it’s a way to continue to stay connected to look at dating in a different way,” DeAlto said.
Match Group also unveiled new features across its platforms.
For example, Match.com added a video chat feature called Vibe Check that gives members the ability to video call in app, and Hinge added a Date from Home feature which lets both users tap a button to signal they’re open to a virtual date. The company also moved its traditional events to virtual happy hours, led by a dating moderator, to help singles find matches in their area.
Tinder also made its Passport feature, which lets users swipe anywhere in the world, free in April, and expanded Tinder U, which typically lets college students on the same campus connect. The feature has expanded to allow remote connection.
Match also launched a free hotline for daters to chat live with an expert about their quarantined dating questions and concerns. The company said the line has been ‘ringing off the hook,” with the majority of calls in late March, just before the start of stay at home weekends for many states.
It’s unclear how, if at all, dating app companies like Bumble and Match plan to monetize the new features. In its most recent earnings call, Match Group said engagement on its platforms showed increases among young people and women. However, the company said it did see decline among older users and paying users.
Users are also already looking towards a return to in-person dating. In May, a Bumble user survey found 80% of Bumble users in the U.S. said they’d be willing to meet someone in person rather than dating virtually. And about 60% said they were seeking a companion to “hunker down with,” if restrictions resume.
But even as outbreak-related restrictions begin to ease, online dating companies say they expect some of their new virtual features are here to stay..
In its most recent earnings call, Match Group said that Tinder would add a video chat feature by the end of June. Match CEO Shar Dubey said previous experiments with video have proven unsuccessful but that she was confident users would be willing to make use of the feature now.
“I have always believed that a half date on video is a great and safe way to increase the quality of your first date. And so hopefully this stays,” Dubey said during the earnings call.
Health experts also continue to encourage social distancing and wearing face coverings, which tends to limit date options.
“One thing that has become certain, our products fulfill a very fundamental human need and it’s become that much more critical now,” Dubey said in the call, adding that amid social distancing most singles have lost avenues to meet.
Regardless of the outbreak, Match Group’s DeAlto said it’s important for dating app users to keep their standards the same and not feel obligated to talk to or swipe on everyone just because dating has moved online.
“Really focus on what you’re looking for,” she said, ”because this isn’t going to last forever.“