Sunday, January 20, 2008

Little Love Among Matchmakers

THE world of Internet dating can be a cold, unforgiving place, particularly when it comes to the fight for customers.

The online dating service plans to unleash a new campaign that seeks to depict its older and larger competitor,, as out of touch with mainstream American values. The ads, which will appear in weekly newspapers and magazines starting Monday, attack eHarmony for refusing to match people of the same gender and for the evangelical Christian beliefs of its founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren.

It is not the first time that has hit on this theme. In April, the service ran a set of ads called “Rejected by eHarmony” featuring people who were turned away from eHarmony for being gay, not happy enough or simply unmatchable by its system. spent $20 million on that campaign, and the company plans to increase the budget for this new effort.

Although has 3.7 million registered users, in contrast to eHarmony’s 17 million, the “Rejected by eHarmony” campaign may be working. Since it was introduced, has experienced an 80 percent growth rate, said Mandy Ginsburg, general manager of She said that enrollments by gays and lesbians have risen 200 percent since the “Rejected” campaign started, and that 10 percent of’s members are seeking a same-sex match., an offshoot of, both of which are owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, follows eHarmony’s practice of putting users through an in-depth personality test to generate potential matches. Other online dating sites, like and Yahoo Personals, allow users to post pictures and profiles of themselves to make connections.

Still, eHarmony says that its approach has little in common with its competitors. “ and eHarmony are fundamentally different companies,” said Jodi Petrie, an eHarmony spokeswoman. “We use our research-driven approach to help people find successful long-term relationships. We don’t consider ourselves a casual dating site.”

EHarmony, which is based in Pasadena, Calif., and was founded in 2000 by Dr. Warren, a clinical psychologist, has long been criticized for its practice of turning away applicants who are gay or lesbian, married or serially divorced. Dr. Warren, a former seminary student who has had several books published by Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group, has publicly voiced his belief that premarital sex can increase the likelihood of one’s marrying the wrong person.

Ms. Petrie said that eHarmony took no position on premarital sex and had no affiliation with any religion. As for its reason for not offering services to gays or lesbians, she said: “EHarmony’s matching system is based on psychological data collected from heterosexual married couples, and we have not offered a service for those seeking same-sex matches. Nothing precludes us from offering a same-sex service in the future, but it’s not a service we offer now.”

Nonetheless, is betting that consumers will prefer to associate with a brand that they feel more closely reflects their own values. The campaign imagines a world in which eHarmony’s values — as interpreted by — were enforced in various ways. For example, one ad shows a sign on a beach that reads “No gays on beach, May-September,” while another features a motel sign declaring, “No premarital sex.” The copy in both ads goes on to assure readers that does not judge or enforce any moral code on its members.

The ads “demonstrate that eHarmony is out of sync with what is happening in America,” said Ms. Ginsburg of The company plans to expand the campaign to include television and more print ads in January.

The ads were developed by Hanft, Raboy & Partners, an independent agency based in New York. “The idea behind the campaign is to globalize eHarmony’s practices, and ask, ‘What would it mean if America had to live by those rules?’” said Adam Hanft, the agency’s founder and chief executive. “What would happen if gays couldn’t go on the beach, or if some paternalistic source says, ‘If you have premarital sex, you can’t get into this hotel’? By amplifying it to that level, it points out the absurdity and discriminatory nature of their practices.”

EHarmony counters that “consumers want to see advertising that is both accurate and positive.” In a statement, the company said: “’s insinuation that eHarmony is discriminatory is 100 percent false, and we believe that would be better served improving their own service rather than attacking its competitors.”’s increasingly aggressive tactics reflect the heightened competition for customers in the online matchmaking business, which generates nearly $650 million a year in sales. After booming growth in the early part of this decade, with industry revenue increasing by more than 70 percent a year-over-year, the category has slowed down. The market grew 10 percent in 2006, to $649 million, and is projected to grow 8 percent annually until 2011, according to Jupiter Research, an Internet consultancy.

“We’re not projecting any significant growth in the number of new subscribers over the next few years,” said Nate Elliot, a Jupiter Research analyst. “That number is going up relatively slowly.”

As consumers who are new to the category grow harder to come by, competition for those who are already using these sites is heating up, said Mr. Elliot. Hence the negative advertising that seeks to siphon members from other sites. He noted, however, that “double dippers” — people who maintain memberships on more than one site — are becoming more common.

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