Love is not a game: it’s big business. The online dating industry was worth $2.23bn in 2019. However, the industry feared for its bottom line when reports began to spread in early 2020 about a horrible disease coming out of Wuhan. The trepidation was understandable. After all, who has time for dating when lives are at risk? How can you even go on a date when households are forbidden to mix and all hospitality venues are shut?

At the OKCupid New York headquarters, employees watched in dread as the contagion jumped borders, forced governments’ hands and caused society-wide lockdowns.

“The mood here was similar to what everyone was thinking around the world,” Michael Kaye, senior global PR manager at OKCupid, tells Verdict. “There was a moment where we were a little bit unsure about what was about to happen. How would this global pandemic really impact our industry when people lost the opportunity to go on dates in person?”

OKCupid had reason to be concerned. Over the following weeks and months, country after country went into lockdown. People were asked to put on masks when venturing outside and to avoid seeing loved ones or, even worse, meeting people they hoped to fall in love with. And forget about holding hands – let alone kissing.

But despite social distancing restrictions and a virus hospitalising and killing millions of people, singles still craved connections.

“We were actually significantly busier during the pandemic,” Kaye says. “I think a lot of industries slowed down. We ramped up like I’ve never seen before.”

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By GlobalData

The pandemic stampede saw Tinder swipes and matches grow by 11% and 42% respectively. Why? Because people didn’t want to be alone as the world ground to a halt. A poll of some 5,000 Tinder users revealed that 60% turned to the online dating platform because they felt lonely.

“It almost became a necessity for single people,” Lil Read, research analysts at GlobalData, tells Verdict. “It was the only way you could meet new people. You couldn’t meet people in a bar, you couldn’t meet them at a social club or anything like that. Everyone was indoors with lots of free time.”

Dating apps adjusted accordingly. New features included in-app video calls, profile badges to flag if users open to socially distanced dating, audio notes, coronavirus-related questions and prompts as well as organising digital meet-ups for groups of singles. And consumers leapt upon the opportunity to use these features.

“Over nine in 10 daters on OKCupid said they were continuing to date during the pandemic, they were just doing so via messaging, video chats, and phone calls,” Kaye summarises.

At the same time, dating apps carefully trod the line between encouraging dating and ensuring singles didn’t do anything too risky for their health. The apps stopped using phrases like “meeting”, opting instead for “connecting”.

“We were pretty explicit in encouraging our users to stay home, not meet up in person,” Kaye says, adding that OKCupid tailored all its 2020 campaigns around the notion that daters shouldn’t meet up.

“We think that you can still have a meaningful connection and relationship with someone digitally or virtually,” he adds.

The results of these efforts was that, while dating apps feared the health crisis would damage the market, they ended up enjoying one of their best years ever. In November 2020, the top 20 dating apps in the US attracted an average of 17 million daily active users together, two million more than in 2019, according to data company Apptopia.

The money followed. Match Group – the owner of OKCupid, Tinder and Hinge among others – saw its revenue jump by 17% from just over $2bn in 2019 to $2.39bn in 2020.

Similarly, Bumble went public in February to the tune of $2.2bn. Add to that several hefty funding rounds for smaller startups, and it’s clear that the pandemic has been good for dating apps.

Online matchmakers are not alone in having capitalised on people’s lust for romance during the pandemic. The industry is dwarfed by the sexual wellness market, which is expected to be worth $125.1bn by 2026. The last 18 months have seen a surge in sex toy sales, with Ann Summers claiming sales of its quietest vibrator, the Whisper Rabbit, jumped by 60% year-on-year over the health crisis.

Investors have taken note. Venture capitalists have for instance injected $10m into sex product startup Maude’s Series A round and $4m into sextoy startup Dame Products’ seed round over the past year. The old axiom thus seemingly still holds true: sex sells.

Dating apps, of course, would rather not make the link between themselves and their more salacious cousins too obvious, preferring to focus on the romance.

“We are not a hookup app, we are a dating app,” Matt McNeill Love, co-founder of Thursday, which raised £2.5m in June, tells Verdict. “How people use that and what they do once they’ve gone on a date is totally up to them. We’re not going to judge people for whatever they do.”

It’s possible to argue that the pandemic has encouraged people to prioritise the emotional quality of matches over a potential partner’s physical assets.

“The relationships that we’ve seen form over this past year have been deeper and more meaningful,” Kaye claims. “People have really prioritised finding someone with similar beliefs and values over a hookup.”

However, not everyone has had a good experience on these platforms. As the health crisis upped the number of active users, it also increased the risk for cybersecurity breaches and harassment.

Safe sex

Jazz Gandhi was shocked. In passing, she’d mentioned her favourite chicken shop to a guy on a dating app and hadn’t thought about it since. That is, until the next time she went there.

“The guy had turned up at the chicken shop, waiting for me,” Gandhi tells Verdict. “He said, I figured I’d take my chance since you said you’d like to come here on Fridays.’ That’s scary.”

The incident highlights one of the biggest risk identified in new research by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky.

“The main security risks are when the user shares a lot of personal information that the attacker can abuse,” Tatyana Shishkova, senior malware analysts at Kaspersky and the author behind the research, tells Verdict.

The June report warns that dating apps encouraging daters to provide information on things like their job, university and home town means users may inadvertently make themselves into targets. A stalker could, for instance, use it to harass the victim online or actually track them down in the real world, as was the case for Gandhi.

“The user must always remember that everything shared on the internet could become public,” Shiskova warns.

Most dating apps do try to counter these risks by providing safety tips and enouraging users to be careful about the information they provide, to never give up financial information online and to be vigilant against scammers.

Noting the irony of keeping secrets when trying to get to know someone, Gandhi summarises: “You can’t give away anything.”

Gandhi and her friends that have been harassed are hardly alone: there are many horror stories women and men have lived through just because they went looking for love.

Harassment isn’t the only risk of the dating platforms. Another report from consumer watchdog Which? warned there had been a 40% increase in dating app fraud in the UK during the pandemic to the tune of £73.9m.

Bad actors can use these platforms to wreak havoc in other ways. They use chat logs to either blackmail users or to launch doxing attacks, which is when bad actors first gather and then publicly disseminate private information about victims to their friends, family, colleagues and others.

This was seen en masse in the aftermath of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, the dating platform for coupled people looking for an affair, back in 2015 when 32 million users’ details were published on the dark web. Following the publication, extortionists targeted users, threatening to expose their affairs. Exposing the private information didn’t just end up ruining marriages, but could also have even more severe consequences for the 1,200 Saudi Arabian accounts in a country where adultery is punishable by death.

Ashley Madison isn’t the only dating app to have been hacked. Coffee Meets Bagel suffered a breach that compromised six million users’ data in 2019. The Japanese dating app Omiai was breached in May 2021, compromising almost two million accounts.

To be fair though, the Kaspersky research notes that the nine platforms investigated have become better at protecting users’ data since the firm looked into the sector in 2017. For one thing, the four apps that used unencrypted HTTP protocol for their apps had stopped doing so.

When asked about these risks, dating apps are quick to talk about the safety features they have implemented, such as how easy it is to report inappropriate behaviour or the hoops users have to jump through in order to verify their identities in order to set up an account. That could be by forcing users to link their accounts to their Facebook profiles, phone numbers or – as in the case of Thursday – passports.

“We take the safety of our users extremely seriously,” Kaye says. “We do not want anyone to be harassed or unsafe on our app.”

Nevertheless, despite these rigorous efforts, they admit that some bad actors do fall between the cracks.

“I think it’s very hard to prevent this on any app, the best way we can avoid this is to monitor the quality of users on the platform by restricting access and to take any complaints and concerns seriously,” Vihan Patel, co-founder of Power Of Music, tells Verdict.

Ensuring the safety of their users isn’t the only challenge facing dating apps: they also have to compete in an increasingly crowded market.

Love boom

Online dating is a massive industry. It has only grown larger during Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, the last 18 months have also seen new startups launch to get in on the action. Admittedly, many of them were in the works before the first rumours about the coronavirus slipped out of Wuhan, but they all have one thing in common: they are bullish about their ability to add new magic to the mix.

The startups that have raised funding during the pandemic include Power of Music matches people who enjoy the same music, Qemistry enables singles to attract others with TikTok-like videos and Thursday is only available on Thursdays.

These startups are not alone in trying to get the better of love behemoths like Match Group and Bumble. Niche apps have joined the fray for years. They include celebrity dating app Raya, kink-oriented Feeld, Christian matchmaking app Upward, Muslim-focused Muzmatch and Hater, which matches people who hate the same things. Niche datings apps could have a chance to grab a healthy piece of the online matchmaking pie.

“They definitely have their place,” Read says, arguing that the bigger apps have in some ways become too big for their own good, meaning it’s harder to make genuine connections on them.

According to Read, the smaller dating apps could have the potential to create more genuine connections than the bigger ones. And that won’t necessarily be a big problem for the incumbents.

“I’d think some of them will possibly be acquired later on by Match Group or someone else,” Read says.

Maybe that is why Match Group-owned OKCupid seems to take the challenge from these startups in its stride.

“We don’t see it as a threat,” Kaye says. “We actually see it as proof of how big and significant  this industry is and how well it’s performing. If this was an underperforming industry, people wouldn’t want to be making new dating apps.”

Incumbents and startups will certainly have their chance to duke it out as singles who’ve been locked in for months get out into the reopening world.

Brave new world

It took just about a year for the coronavirus vaccines to be rollout ready, a remarkable achievement by any standard. As the vaccination programmes are inoculating more people, nations across the globe are slowly easing their social distancing rules. The jabs have also had an impact on online dating.

“Earlier this year we saw that the phrase ‘I’m vaccinated’ on OKCupid profiles increased by over 1,400%,” Kaye says. “The vaccine is really helping people find love.”

In response to the growing interest of it, OKCupid rolled out a badge vaccinated users could stick to profiles. Interestingly, singles flaunting their vaccination status could, on average, expect a 14% boost in matches.

“Getting the coronavirus vaccine is very beneficial for your health, but it’s really about the hottest thing you can do right now for your love life as well,” Kaye muses.

Of course, dating apps have their own reasons for wanting societies to reopen. Given the apps enjoyed a boon to their figures during lockdown, one could assume that the online matchmakers would fear a drop once restrictions ease. That, however, isn’t the case.

“What we’re seeing is that activity and engagement are increasing because people are trying to line up matches on their platforms so that they’re able to have dates now that they can meet in person,” Kaye says.

In other words: the online dating industry is betting on love-craving singles to come out in droves after 18 months of social distancing restrictions, using the platforms to find other singles. Or, as Match Group’s CEO Shar Dubey put it, they are “looking forward to a summer of love.”

Market indicators support this notion. For instance, Durex saw sales of condoms surge in the first quarter as lockdown restrictions began to ease in China. Reckitt, Durex’s owner, said it expected to see similar growth as “some of the adverse effects of Covid begin to reverse”. Undoubtedly, dating apps are making the same bet.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why they have been played their part in the reopening of society. For instance, Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, BLK, Chispa, Plenty of Fish and Badoo announced a team-up with the White House in May. Similar partnerships have been rolled out in the UK, the EU, North America, Israel and Asia. The dating apps/White House hookup would see the dating apps promote jabs by adding the previously mentioned stickers and offer boosts to vaccinated people’s profiles, noting how it helped people find would-be paramours.

“We have finally found the one thing that makes us all more attractive: a vaccination,” White House acting administrator Andy Slavitt quipped at the time.

The “summer of love” will certainly put that theory to test.