When Match.com launched back in 1995, it was met with suspicion. The website, which encouraged users to create a personal profile and connect with other singles in their area, pioneered the concept of online dating without ever truly normalizing it. The stigma around meeting a partner online was both strong and resilient, lingering until at least the mid-2000s, when it began entering the mainstream.
The prevailing sense that using online dating was socially abnormal of even simply ‘uncool’ had a lot to do with the inability for the likes of Match to capture a younger audience. Match had (and still has) a relatively old audience. Today, the site has more users over the age of 50 than it does under the age of 30, a weighting one would expect would have been even heavier before the industry was normalized among young people.
Enter Tinder. Today, internet dating is a fact of life, particularly in urban centers. A recent study found that of Millennials aged 18-22, 72% have used or are actively using Tinder. At the Brand Strategy Innovation Summit earlier this month in San Francisco, Tinder’s head of Brand Marketing, Kyle Miller, explained how the company took on an industry with an older demographic and a slightly uncomfortable image and turned it into a mainstream part of daily life. ‘When Match.com came out, he explained, ‘you would be ashamed of saying you were on Match.com. It was weird to say ‘oh we met on Match’ - now it’s obviously become a lot more normal - but this is a category that had a stigma before we even got there.’
There is something to be said for Tinder’s integrated, mobile-only set up. To many, the idea of sitting down at a desktop and creating a personal dating profile is both embarrassing and intimidating. By definition, every Match.com user in the 90s had to actively input extensive information about themselves and what they were looking for. Tinder, with its link to both Facebook and Instagram (and, less importantly, Spotify), makes signing up to the app effortless. The dedication necessary to download an app and allow it access to your Facebook photos is far less than that of setting up an online profile on a dialup connection, and no one wants to feel like they’re trying too hard to find a match.
‘Tinder has been the biggest [disruption] in the online dating industry for over a decade,’ online dating expert Damona Hoffman said. ‘They have created a lot of competition for traditional dating sites but at the same time they have generated a great deal of new business by normalizing online dating and bringing it into the mainstream. Tinder has also forced traditional dating platforms to step up their mobile game and make their apps more user-friendly.’
On top of this, though, Tinder has been exceptional at brand marketing over product marketing. In Kyle’s presentation, he explains that Tinder’s marketing efforts always began with the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’. An example he gives is Tinder’s new feature that allows users to select from a wide list of genders, as opposed to the original, rigid male or female options. The ‘what’ in this case is the extended list of genders, the ‘why’ is to ensure that everyone felt welcome on the app. So they ran with the latter, beginning their press release and their update with ‘Everyone is welcome on Tinder.’ Too many marketers, Kyle explains, begin by announcing their new feature and detailing how to use it, without connecting the user with the mentality behind the change.
Similarly, during the 2016 presidential election in the US, Tinder realized it could play a role in encouraging younger people to vote - Millennials make up 85% of its audience. The ‘why’ in this case was ‘Tinder users are Millennials who should be informed, and we should mobilize them through the election.’ So, rather than simply sending out an email to users urging them to vote, Kyle and his team decided to place the brand at the center of the message, and developed the Swipe to Vote campaign. Users could swipe left or right to different policies (rejecting or embracing them) and would be matched with candidates who best represented their views.
Because of the placement of Tinder’s core mechanic in a space in which it ‘had no right being in’, the story blew up. Tinder was featured on major news channels, invited to the White House correspondents’ dinner, introduced to the cast of House of Cards, etc. This boldness is, in part, the reason the app has been so successful. The team are constantly devising ways to appear in spaces that it would be ‘unexpected’ to find Tinder, which in turn opens them up to new audiences.
Tinder has successfully transformed the online dating industry from one with deep perception issues to one that almost all young people have used. Its placement as a smartphone app helped it attract younger users, which in turn tackles issues of ‘coolness’, and it has been bold in its marketing and rapid brand expansion. Tinder specifically targeted Millennials because, as the soon-to-be dominant group, they drive the cultural conversation. ‘Swipe left’ and ‘swipe right’ as terms have become cemented in the vernacular of an entire generation, and brands would do well to learn from both Tinder’s clever transformation of an industry, as well as its aggressive yet thoughtful expansion.