OPW INTERVIEW - Sep 29 - Michael Norton is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. In 2008, he co-published the report entitled “People Are Experience Goods: Improving Online Dating with Virtual Dates.” – Jenn Rubin
Mike, the first sentence of your report declares “online dating frequently fails to meet user expectations.” How did you and your team come to this conclusion?
We were trying to figure out what was right and what was wrong with online dating. So, we created our own online dating site called TheMatchUp.Net. Our online daters were probably in their 20s and 30s and mainly from Massachusetts and New York.
We found that people have these really high expectations for online dating – maybe unrealistically high. They thought they would look through these people, find their soul mate, get married and live happily ever after. Then, when they went on dates and those expectations weren’t quite met, they ended up getting disappointed.
Why else were online daters frustrated?
We asked people how happy they were with their online dating experience, as well as if they were looking for a long-term relationship or a short-term hook up. What we found is women who are looking for a short-term hook up and men who are looking for a long-term relationship end up happy with their experiences. Yet those two groups of users are about 5 percent of the population.
It is the huge groups of people that are looking for the opposite that don’t seem to be having as much fun or success on these sites.
Tell me about some of the other interesting findings from the study.
One of the things we found, which was a bit sad, was that online daters thought when they met someone, they would grow to like them more and more as the dating process advanced. In fact, what we show in our data is on average the more you get to know someone, the less you like them. We called another one of our papers “Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt.”
What specific features do you recommend online dating sites implement?
We found that when we sent people on virtual dates before they met in person, they tended to click better when we actually had them meet in person.
We designed virtual dates ourselves. You would have an avatar and wander around a virtual space. Our virtual dates were designed in general to be cheesy first dates, like going to a museum. The two of you could wander around in this space and chat with each other about the artwork or the other people who were also on dates.
The notion was let’s insert a virtual date, where people can learn a little about each other but not have crazy expectations that this person will be the greatest person in the world.
Yet in the report, it states, “Search time invested fails to pay off in a commensurate number of face-to-face encounters.” How is virtual dating a solution to this issue?
One of the tricks with having to meet somebody face to face is how much time it takes. You have to go somewhere. So, you have travel time, and you also have to get ready to go. With virtual dates, we designed ours to be brief, five-minute interactions. The notion was we can give people a lot of flexibility as to when they go on these dates and save them time in case they end up not liking their partner.
In this in-between space, are we really interacting? It’s certainly more so than just exchanging e-mails but clearly much less so than meeting face to face.
Participants in your study reported though spending an average of 5.2 hours per week searching through profiles, along with another 6.7 hours writing and responding to e-mails. Clearly, online dating can be time-consuming process. Does this benefit online dating sites from a business and revenue standpoint?
That speaks to a very tricky aspect of running an online dating company. If you have an online dating service where you find people instantly on Day 1 that are your soul mate, you might not have a sustainable business model. At the same time, if you have people who are on your site for five years and never find somebody that they like, they’re probably going to switch away from your service.
So, there is an interesting middle point at which you want users to be on your site long enough to be able to experience enough people and also ideally to charge enough membership fees that the business is sustainable. Yet you also at some point need to figure out how to meet their needs, so they find someone that they really do click with and then will spread positive word of mouth about your service.
Free sites, paid sites, niche sites – Is there a format that you find to be a notch above the rest?
It’s difficult to say across the board which site is the best as opposed to thinking that there are different people with different relationship needs. These different services can map onto different customer groups in terms of matching what it is they’re looking for.
Do you have future online dating studies planned?
We are not doing any right now. There are people who are looking at funny things like, for example, how honest people are in their dating profiles. There is a finding where the average height of men on online dating sites is above the population, so male online daters slightly lie about their height. However, their weight is exactly what the U.S. population would be. Whereas for female online daters, the height is exactly what the population is, but the weight is thinner than the average person.