The pandemic may have ruled out long walks on the beach or impromptu coffee dates, but Bumble’s recent IPO success story shows online dating is still going strong; an industry reportedly racing its way to a $3.5 billion valuation by 2025.

In times of social isolation, online dating has endured as a means for internet users to interact on more than just a romantic level. But the next few months will throw up particular challenges and opportunities alike. Using data from a Zeitgeist survey fielded in January, we look to answer the following questions:

  • What does the global online dating landscape look like today?
  • Has the pandemic affected enthusiasm for online dating?
  • What matters most to would-be daters when using these services?

Online dating is going steady

Global figures for using online dating services have remained pretty consistent since 2017. Even in Europe and North America, where significant lifestyle changes forced countless industries to reshuffle and adapt, online dating has endured.

As of Q4 2020, 39% of single, divorced or widowed users say they used an online dating service in the last month.

chart showing global online dating landscape

A break from traditional dating amid the pandemic has emphasized the practicality of online services. But niche services have played their part too, catering to audiences outside the usual user base.

Among older users, a digital leap is changing the dating landscape quicker than ever before.

Like social media, dating apps have never strictly been reserved for younger audiences, but the evolution we recently saw on social is happening in this space too. Older users have been adopting digital services at unprecedented speeds, and dating is no exception. 

The pandemic is set to make a further impact on who joins the dating scene. In the U.S., for example, 37% of Gen Z and millennials, who are single, expect to start dating in the next six months. This is an 11% decrease since Q2 2020, with closed campuses and workplaces the likely culprit here. On the flipside, the number of single baby boomers expecting to start dating has increased 18%. 

There’s a considerable opportunity here for dating platforms, even with the dating intentions of their typical user base having been delayed. Older users have taken priority in most vaccination rollouts across the globe, so they will be able to go on in-person dates sooner as well. 

Platforms will need to consider how these older audiences shape their strategies as normality begins to pick up again. While it’s never too late to get into dating, some concerns about taking this activity online will endure.

New users, old hurdles

Concerns about privacy and online safety are a mainstay of all internet users, but among Gen X and boomer singles, 41% worry about the use of their personal data by companies – a nine-percentage point lead over their Gen Z and millennial counterparts. 

This translates clearly into their online dating motivations. Knowing other users are vetted thoroughly, for example, outranks any other reason to use dating services – on par with younger audiences at 22%. 

Much of the discussion about dating during the pandemic has been around how to recreate activities virtually. But platforms can’t overlook the privacy and security fundamentals when doing this.

It’s also worth noting that online dating has always been more popular among LGBTQ+ audiences since we began tracking this datapoint.

As of Q4 2020, 37% of single, LGBTQ+ internet users used an online dating app in the last month. 

Again, while younger users dominate the activity, LGBTQ+ Gen X and boomers make for keen online daters, with 34% having used such platforms in the last month – a 16-percentage-point lead over their heterosexual counterparts. 

The same standards of online safety need to be maintained, particularly when they have such importance to vulnerable or minority audiences.

Internet users are socially distanced, but still have love on their minds.

Despite consistent use of online dating throughout the pandemic, enthusiasm for it has taken a hit. 

chart showing the role of the pandemic in online dating

In the U.S. and UK, 46% of singles are uninterested in online dating at this time, leading against those who are interested by 16-percentage-points. 

While this might seem disheartening, these figures shouldn’t be taken as an indication that online dating is in decline, but that people have other priorities right now – nor is dating immune from Zoom fatigue.

When we look ahead to a reduction in social distancing rules, and a reopening of public spaces/hospitality venues, this low interest in online dating could quickly translate into renewed enthusiasm. Travel companies have already seen a surge in bookings, and it won’t be long before the hospitality sector begins taking names too.

In fact, 25% of UK and U.S. singletons, who haven’t used an online dating service say they are interested in trying online dating (rising to 50% for those who have). As normality resumes, and more viable dating spots return, a venture into online dating shouldn’t be ruled out – particularly with our data signalling interest in dating six months down the line.

For some, it’s about more than romance.

There’s potential in virtual companionship through dating platforms.

Shar Dubey, CEO of Match Group, commented in a recent earnings call on the opportunities of online dating for combating loneliness in general;

“Real life connections are decreasing and loneliness is on the rise around the world…there are benefits to having deeper connections and conversations with people online”

Match’s recent $1.7 billion acquisition of Hyperconnect brings the friendship apps Hakuna and Azar under the Match umbrella, confirming an intent to double down on relationships outside of romantic pairings.

After a long period of social isolation, services that accomodate friendly interaction offer a platform for these newcomers to dip their toe in the dating scene once again – or, indeed, for the first time. 

Online daters think safety-first

During the pandemic, virtual interactions have become the mainstay of events, socializing, working and schooling. For online dating, this was already a cornerstone – daters met, vetted and interacted online, before embarking on a date in the real world.

While brands have been working with virtual tools to entice online dating for some time, our data suggests the key hurdles to the activity still concern personal privacy and safety online. Bumble, for example, grants female users the ability to make first contact – a USP that effectively made the platform a safer space for this group.

Given also the impact of a surge in interest among older audiences, these matters of safety will become more of a concern. Brands need to think twice before they develop strategies aimed solely at younger internet users.

chart showing how saftey, privacy and personal preference are still key

Among all UK and U.S. singletons, just 13% say online games or activities would motivate them to use online dating more. 

This doesn’t rule out online activities entirely – Gen Z and millennial singles are 44% more likely to cite them as an important factor for a dating service. As the core users of online dating, brands considering these strategies can score an easy win here. Down the line, when public spaces become more widely available, suggesting places for dates can then become more commonplace.

Of course, matching users based on preference should be a priority for all online dating platforms; it’s the most popular motivation for online dating across all age groups, genders, and sexual orientations. 

UK respondents differ in this respect, with just 16% citing more personalized matches compared to 21% who say users should be vetted more thoroughly. It’s a possibility that, at this time, a lack of physical confirmation means users want to know the person they’re interacting with is genuine. 

This is by no means less important in the U.S. – 22% still say vetting is important – but it falls behind the requirements of personalized matchups, more choice in the area, and attitudes to COVID-19 and social distancing.

It’s not just online safety that brands need to take into account – over 3 in 4 U.S. internet users are concerned about the current coronavirus situation in their country. Residents may be able to meet their matches face-to-face – which explains why vetting is less of a priority – but they want to know their physical health isn’t at risk when they do.

This also may explain a higher expectation for dating apps to give users more choice in their local area. Convenience aside, the bigger wish for this in the UK can likely be put down to lockdown measures restricting the number of potential matches, while U.S. users are similarly motivated by their attitudes towards COVID in general.

It’s important to remember that these concerns for safety have been around before the pandemic and will continue long after.

Bringing it all together

Online dating and social media have been lifelines for many at this time. As the two merge closer together, and social distancing becomes a distant memory, brands plotting the future digital companionship landscape will need to remember the following:

  • Online dating is growing more diverse In line with their increasingly digital behaviors, older users are growing more active on, and interested in, online dating. Having adopted digital-first mindsets throughout the pandemic, these users are eager to find love in new ways.
  • Interest, post-COVID, will rebound Use of online dating has endured, but the real growth is yet to come. As dating hotspots open their doors once more, meetups will be the first priority, giving opportunity for brands to promote businesses and activities for couples.
  • Companionship, of any kind, is important now For some, finding love is secondary to finding friendship. For others, online dating is new territory they need to ease into. 
  • Safety concerns aren’t budging Dating platforms will be held to the same safety standards  as regular social media services. There’s no room for tradeoff here, particularly as newcomers will want assurance their romantic lives are safeguarded.
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