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Internet Dating’s Dirty Little Secret

All the chatter that has been going on here on my blog the last couple of days (see postings and comments on “Who DOES eHarmony Work For Anyway?” and “Your 1% Towards Making the Internet Safe”) the last couple of days has really had me thinking again about the issue of paid/not paid memberships on dating sites. And my correspondents bdb777 and Jennifer have spurred me on to clarify my thoughts. Here they are:

Background for the uninformed—Most Internet dating sites allow people to post a profile without paying. This is to the dating site’s advantage, because they want to get lots of profiles up for people to look at. Big membership numbers are a big incentive to for singles to join a site.

The sites get non-paying members to convert to paying members, which the sites needs to stay in business, by restricting certain privileges. The most common restriction is that those people who do not pay cannot email anyone. On some sites, you can send out a “wink” or icebreaker, but nothing more.

Most sites give no indication on the profile of who has paid and who hasn’t. How this plays out is that if a non-paying member is emailed by a paying member (who doesn’t know if the other is paying or not), then the non-paying member has to decide if the contact looks good enough for them to pay a fee to make the first contact.

Having to pay a fee (around $20) to email is a powerful incentive not to do so, whether or not the person contacting is a possible match. Even though it seems rude, it’s all too easy online to simply not answer emails at all, especially on dating sites, because of the anonymity. So non-paying members account for a good percentage of the very high non-response rate to first email contacts. For instance, Match.com claims around 1 million paying members. While you never see the numbers paired, they also claim 8 - 10 million members. Only 1 in 8 or 1 in 10 members then (those registered and posting profiles) are paid members. So when a hopeful single sends an email to an attractive other, the odds of an email response may only be 10%.

As my correspondents have pointed out, this policy of free memberships with restrictions also works out well for lots of singles, who can post their profiles, wait to be contacted, and look at who is posting, all without paying. It’s like trolling for fish and throwing back all but the biggest guys. (I’ve always thought that “catch and release” made no sense and was cruel. Who says the fish don’t feel the huge hook in their mouth anyway? It could kill the darned fish, probably hurt like the dickens, and all for the fun of the fisherman.)

Additionally, if the poster is clever or the site allows or misses the action, the poster may also imbed an off-site email address, by-passing the need to join all together.

Who this does not work well for are the folks who are new or who haven’t figured out the system. Here’s why:

  • First, their fees are supporting the site for everyone who has posted and not paid up. Conceivably, those fees could be cheaper for all if more members paid their fair share
  • Second, newbies (or even seasoned daters) may not understand the difference in privileges between paid and unpaid, and most assume that because everyone is presented equally, that they are members at equal levels.
  • Third, new Internet daters are new—they are inexperienced, at least with online dating, and maybe to dating in general. They don’t know “the rules,” they are scared, and they are vulnerable.
  • Fourth, fear of rejection looms big with these folks, and even an unanswered “wink” can pack a wallop.
  • Fifth, they are jumping right on an already fast-moving speed boat with a “sink or swim” mentality. Who knows how many folks can quickly figure out a dog-paddle, or how many just sink and drop out?

I call this paid, full privileges and unpaid/restricted privileges memberships that dating sites routinely offer as “Internet dating’s dirty little secret.” Dating sites really don’t want you to know the differences. That’s why they never pair the paid and unpaid membership figures. Unless you are an experienced, savvy cyber dater and have figured this out on your own, or unless you have read my many writings on the subject or had me explain the phenomenon, you don’t know why you have such a high non-response rate to your emails. Every single time I have explained this phenomenon to singles, new daters or not, they are surprised. Usually, they assumed that everyone listing was a full member and able to email back. And all had no idea of the disproportionate numbers of paid versus unpaid members (80 or 90% unpaid on Match.com, for example).

Also, I don’t know what the figures are for first-time Internet daters versus the old timers, but I know that new folks are coming online all the time. And as Internet dating has moved into the mainstream, the users who have been on for awhile become more sophisticated and more able to manipulate the systems to their advantage. There is no T-Ball or Little League that I know of for new online daters. Every newbie jumps right into the major leagues, right along with veteran World Series players.

These new players are most often recently out of a long-term relationship and/or have not dated for a long time. They are tender, vulnerable, naive, and easily frightened or discouraged. They have not developed the thick skins that experienced daters, online or off, may have. However, they are excellent mate material, maybe even better than the experienced daters, who maybe jaded, calloused, or just plain not good mate material in the first place.

When my clients ask me why their emails or overtures are not being answered, I tell them about non-paying members, how many of them there are on sites, and how they would have to pay a membership fee to answer back. Then I suggest that they think about what they can infer from this. Here are my theories:

  • Most likely, either the non-responding poster is too cheap to join the site and play fair, or he/she is rude, because whether paid or unpaid, not to respond to an overture from another is rude. Or both - cheap AND rude.
  • Or the poster may be lazy and not attending to his/her profile as he/she should: If the poster has met someone and is dating, so not available, or perhaps taking a break, planned or unplanned, the poster should hide their profile or resign from the site. Continuing to post when not really available is false advertising.
  • The other, more excusable but least likely, reasons for non-response might be broken computer at the other end, sick or dead, or possibly the site has kept up the profile even though the poster has dropped his/her membership (some dating sites reportedly do this routinely to keep the numbers of profiles up).

Spelling out these possible reasons for non-answered emails softens the sting somewhat. Over and over, I tell clients: “People tell you who they are from the very first contact. Are you really interested in someone who doesn’t care enough to be polite? Or is cheap and trying to manipulate the system?” Be aware, those of you who do not answer polite indications of interest: That’s how you may be being seen. Is that the image you want to convey?

It is to everyone’s advantage to take good care of these new daters. Dating sites ought to make clear the differences between paid and unpaid members with some kind of designation, like Yahoo! Premier is now doing. That designation could be seen as a premium and thereby encourage members to pay up. (Yahoo! Premier members have to pay and get a purple P seal on their profiles. While these profiles are mixed right in with all the other Yahoo! Personals, it’s easy to tell who is a Premier member. Yahoo! is also marketing the Premier designation as a membership level for singles who are serious about finding a committed relationship.)

Experienced daters should pay their fair share and kindly and politely email everyone who contacts them. Just because you can do something does not necessarily mean that you should. It’s all too easy on the Internet to be rude and callous in ways that you might never be in face-to-face dealings. Dating sites and experienced daters should take on the obligation of welcoming new folks and helping them get up to speed. Wouldn’t that add to the general ambiance? Isn’t finding a life partner hard enough as it is?

Just think: Your perfect match could be nervously writing their first profile right now, getting ready to post. Don’t you hope that other singles treat Mr. or Ms. Right well until you find him/her, or your Sweetheart finds you? Wouldn’t it be awful if your heart’s desire got treated rudely, got discouraged, and dropped offline? Before you ever met?

From Your Romance Coach, Kathryn Lord



Isn’t it possible that many of a site’s non-paying “members” are actually people who never intended to use the service at all? 

For example, I notice that some sites make you sign up in order to browse profiles.  If someone signs up just to be able to look at a friend or relative’s profile, does the site then claim them as one of their 8 million members?  I also note that some sites don’t disclose how much the service costs or how it works until you sign up.  Thus, responsible consumers signing up merely to investigate the service (perhaps with a disposable email account) would be added to the membership roster.  Finally, some sites offer free personality tests (allegedly worth $40).  Anyone who fills out a personality test, out of curiosity or desire for self-knowledge, unwittingly becomes a member.

I guess that my point is that some non-paying “members” shouldn’t be considered members, and assuming that they are cheap, rude, or lazy may not be correct.

Yes, that’s a are point that I hadn’t thought of.  I filled out the eHarmony questionnaire (for free) to see what it was all about and immediately started getting sent matches.  I withdrew right away, not wanting to create the exact situation you are describing.  But not everyone would do so.  It does still feel like part of the “Dirty little secret” business, that dating sites lure in people for free and then use those folks to boost their stats and fool the unaware.  I’ll add your point to my possible reasons.  Thanks, Ben!

Quite frankly this is just plain internet fraud. I dont know where you get these numbers? The services dont want them published. I think dating services should either CLEARLY post that the person is NOT a member and cannot reply to you or just not let unpaid members post profiles at all. Again its plain fraud and in CA is an unfair business practice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Consumer_Legal_Remedies_Act

The only reason they have not been called on this is I guess there are not good monetary damages (by the class action lawyers) and the state attorneys generals cant find “victims” to come forward due to embarrassment issues. (who wants to admit no one replies to them)

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