Million pound cupid: We meet Match.com's Karl Gregory

How is he so good at this crazy little thing called love?

The Match.com London office is bursting with balloons.

Staff battle with inflatable hearts as they go about the busiest week of the year, the rooms awash with flashes of red and pink.

It’s that time of year again. Love is in the air (collective groan). Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day.

For loved-up singles all over the country not much has changed through the years. Tonight many couples will be looking forward to a candle-light dinner, heart-splattered cards will be exchanged and the florists will run out of bouquets.

But for the country’s singles things are different. My, how things change.

Instead of sitting at home nursing a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates (that they bought for themselves), with only the TV as company, the singles are fighting back – online.

According to Match.com, around 37 million dates take place each year, adding a whopping £3.4bn to the economy. Post-Christmas and the run up to 14 February sparks off a flurry of activity for online dating sites.

“January and the start of February is incredibly busy,” Karl Gregory, MD of Match.com UK tells me.

“At Christmas people start reflecting on their lives. Spending time with family often gets people in the mind-set for finding a partner. Every newspaper and magazine features something about Valentine’s Day and so singles decide to register.”

Last February, coming up to the 14th, an impressive six million people visited Match.com - and the team expect no fewer this time around.

“King of love”

The stats surrounding Match.com are testament to the changing face of dating. The site has somewhere in the region of 2.5 million people signed up in the UK with an excess of 10 million joining since 2005.

Gregory won’t be drawn on profit or turnover figures for the company, except to say that revenues from the online dating industry are expected to hit the £150m mark by 2014. With Match.com positioned as the country’s biggest site, the figure goes some way to suggesting the success of the company.

Gregory tells me there are an estimated 10 to 12 million singles in the UK at any given time, and research shows that a third of those are using online services to look for love.

 “We often get invited to weddings, couples send us their photos, and when I go out for dinner, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone at the table will know someone who met someone on Match.com.”

At Match.com’s Leicester Square HQ, Gregory is known as “The King of Love”, he tells me with an embarrassed sigh.

So pervasive is the march of online dating in the UK, dating websites are now the third most common way to meet a partner, after meeting through friends or in a bar.

“One in five relationships start online nowadays,” says Gregory. “And we [Match.com] account for 32 per cent of marriages that spring from online dating.”

King of Love indeed.

The company

Match.com was founded in the US back in in 1993, and was first profiled by Wired magazine in 1995. But it didn’t head over to this side of the pond until just over 10 years ago in 2001, and the UK site’s relationship with the US one has been complicated.

Gregory joined Match.com in 2009. That same year, Match.com’s parent company, IAC, exchanged the European operation - including the UK business - to European dating site Meetic for a 27 per cent stake in Meetic in return.

“Throughout my career I have tended to be a catalyst for mergers and acquisitions,” says Gregory, recalling the change. “Meetic also acquired Dating Direct – one of our competitors. Meetic is huge in places like France so the merger helped us to lock down all of Europe.”

In September 2011 the balance shifted again when Match.com US bought a share of 81 per cent equity in Meetic bringing Match.com UK well and truly “back into the Match US fold”.

A mirror to the nation

With the business going strong both here and in the US, I ask Gregory how different the two markets are.

Match.com is veritable a social barometer. The subtle differences between the habits of Match’s various global audiences make for interesting reading.

“The way people use the product is very much the same, but there are subtle differences in the way people act and use preferences. In Germany, education levels are above most other factors, which isn’t the case in the UK.

“In the US the culture leans much more towards multi-dating, but in the UK we date a lot less, we tend to be more reserved,” he explains.

“Also politics is huge in the US. Especially when it comes to republican verses democrat; 17 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women say they must date someone of the same political party.”

The stats: British daters

44 per cent of British women said they wouldn’t be upset if their partner didn’t celebrate Valentine’s (53 per cent of women in the US would dump their boyfriends if they did not receive a Valentine’s gift).

92 per cent of British women and 82 per cent of British men prefer to date one person at a time, rather than the ‘multi-dating’ favoured in the US

39 per cent of British daters are now keen to do something ‘cultural’ on a date, such as going to a museum or art gallery

68 per cent of British women surveyed said that they would expect to split the bill on a first date

I wonder if Gregory has noticed any changes due to the recession. Online dating seems to have exploded over the past number of years with the onslaught of niche and frankly bizarre dating sites (Cougardating.co.uk and Uniformdating.com are two that spring to mind).

As more and more sites appear, is the online dating industry recession proof?

“Generally I would say it is,” agrees Gregory. “But the hyper growth is affected by the large number of competition – we have seen evidence that the recession hasn’t hurt our business but it isn’t something I could put my hand on my heart and say…”

According to Match.com’s data, the recession might just be a driving force for people to register and dig around for dates. A mere 20 per cent of respondents to a recent survey prioritise income in their search but 80 per cent said they were seeking emotional security.

Austerity battered Brits seem to be searching for someone to share the hardship with. Well, a problem shared and all that…

Match.com "Love story" advert

Match.com and market growth

So what does the MD of the country’s most powerful dating site think of the niche sites that seem to multiply like rabbits? Countrysidelove.co.uk, muddymatches.co.uk, the list goes on.

“Niche dating sites are a quite romantic notion (pardon the pun) but the number and the logic doesn’t add up,” he says.

“Daters want to access a pool of individuals that are looking for the same thing, but as soon as you start narrowing it down the pool gets smaller. We find most people don’t want to travel further than 23 miles, narrowing your choice makes it harder to find someone.

“Another issue is of scale. If you go to a niche site, search for someone the right age, living in the right place, there might not be anyone there. Will you go back to that site again? You’re more likely to find someone with your specific requirements on our site.”

Forward thinking

So with Match.com already offering the product and many singles signed up – how does it hope to grow?

According to Gregory, the pool of singles will continue to grow despite their matching efforts.

“More and more people are using the internet. Society is moving towards the service we offer. Fifty years ago people just married their neighbours. Now we travel more and work a lot harder, people are time poor.”

The area of mobile dating is one area Gregory believes will grow as Match.com develops its apps. Dating on-the-go sounds like it may well appeal to time squeezed nation.

And as more of society becomes comfortable communicating online, the older generation will move towards seeking love online, joining the younger crowds.

As well as beckoning a larger batch of singles, match.com is also imporoving its offering. In September 2011, the site relaunched with extra features. “There was a facelift from a usability point of you,” Gregory tells me. “We added what we call cultural modules where you can add your favourite films, music, books etc - anything which helps spark a conversation is a benefit.”

Match.com has also upped the ante when it comes to intelligent matching. The site now offers users “the daily six”, this being “six people we think might appeal to you that you might not have necessarily searched for.”

I’ve had a play around with the Match.com interface and one thing that struck me was how familiar it all was. It feels like Facebook and other social media in the way that you communicate, build a profile etc. But is there still work to be done to eradicate the traces of stigma wrapped around meeting someone online?

“We do monitor the stigma year on year,” Gregory says. “The barriers have been crumbling especially in cities were the stigma has all but disappeared. Outside of the cities there are still pockets of resentment - I don’t think it will ever fully go away.”

So how does the brand hope to reach all of those naysayers? I refer back to the all-important yet largely elusive match.com profits. How much of the budget gets poured into the marketing of the site?

“Across the group around 50 per cent of revenue goes back into marketing in Europe,” comes the answer.

“It boils down to why people sign up to one brand and not another. We are by far the biggest and we invest heavily in both the products and the customer care. Every profile is eyeballed by a human, but we also have to invest in the brand. People sign up because of trust so we need to instil confidence.”

I mention that I really like the latest TV campaign (see above). It makes me smile every time I see one of the ads.

“It represents the start of a love story,” he chuckles (god I’m so predictable). “The way we market the brand has changed. Ten years ago, because of the stigma, we had to use humour in our ads to address the barriers that existed but things are different now.”

They certainly are…

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