Why the love of your life is just a click away

CHRISTMAS and New Year are over. You’re feeling fat, poor, anxious and – if you’re single – panicked. What do you do? You vow to go on a diet, you cut back on the expensive nights out and, in the hopes of sticking to the one resolution you really care about, you sign up to a dating website. Having somebody special by Valentine’s Day would be rather nice, now that you think of it.

Which is why, in the run-up to the fateful V-Day, the folks at the UK’s largest dating website (out of 1,400 sites in total), Match.com, are very busy indeed. “Things are absolutely crazy before V-Day,” apologises Katie Sheppard, the “head of relationships” at Match, for the slightly tired and world-weary look on her face and that of Match’s dishy UK CEO, Karl Gregory. Gregory, though, has a very good excuse for looking exhausted: his newborn baby kept him up all night. (He did not meet his wife on Match, since you ask).

Unlike many businesses, winter austerity and economic downturn hits dating websites positively: it seems that people want to invest in something real when other things are shaky. “The recession highlights people’s priorities. Family becomes more important and so people are willing to make the effort,” says Gregory.

Two and a half million people log onto Match every year and the site boasts the creation of 517,000 relationships (of more than three months) over the past five years. Being big – Match parted ways with its US sister and is owned by Europe’s largest dating company, Meetic – means Match can invest in doing the job properly. It provides a 24/7 customer service feature (I wonder what those 3am calls from disgruntled customers sound like).

It also produces a yearly Lovegeist report in association with the Future Foundation. In some ways, this report is as valuable a social survey as any the government commissions. It looks at how we view marriage (contrary to the figures showing a decline in the institution, people are hugely into the idea of long-term commitment); what people find attractive, and who is most romantic (men, can you believe it?). Is the UK a romantic nation? Despite a Skyscanner survey released this week saying that it’s the least sexy country for lovers in the world, the Lovegeist report implies that we are.

So, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, we sat down with Gregory – the man on the cutting edge of love in the UK – and grilled him.

What are the big trends in online dating?
There’s an enormous surge of “second time rounders” – people who are divorced or widows – logging on. They are very serious and committed to finding someone but need help doing so. Match Affinity – Match’s partner site for such people, generally older – is a huge growth area for us and now accounts for 20 per cent of our revenue. Another trend is mobile – last year mobile was adopted by users. Now we expect revenues to follow.

How is dating in the UK different from dating in the US?
In the UK, daters are more polite. In the US it’s perfectly common to meet someone and decide straight away that they’re not for you – they have no problem excusing themselves after ten minutes. Brits will tend to stick the date out from fear of causing offence. Also, Brits still haven’t embraced the coffee trend – in the States it’s normal to grab a “quick coffee” for a first date. Here it’s still very much alcohol related. And in the US, they have “appointment dating” – sometimes three dates in a day. We’re still very much behind that.

Why should people choose Match over, say, MySingleFriend, Eharmony, Lovestruck and Guardian Soulmates?
Scale. People may join Guardian Soulmates to meet intellectuals and artists but there are far more academics and artists on Match due to our size. Equally, there are examples of every kind of person on the site – there’s just more choice. Finally, people want to pick a brand they can relate to and trust. We’ve taken the time and effort to understand what people want and have made this clear with our advertising.

Are dating websites good business?
Mintel predicts the industry to be worth £150m by 2014. As for Match, revenues of our parent company Meetic were up 22.5 per cent to €137.7m in the first nine months of 2010.

What is the biggest challenge facing online dating?
Lethargy. 60 per cent of people have tried dating online, but that leaves 40 per cent to persuade it’s worth their while.

What would you say to people who feel that they only meet “losers” online?
Keep trying. Use the same approach as you would in a bar or pub – not everyone you meet out is what you want, either. And remember: one person’s David Dimbleby is another’s David Beckham.

Is stigma still an issue with online dating?
Absolutely not. I was having dinner with a bunch single women recently and one of them wasn’t doing online dating. The question was: ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why?’

Any advice for people dreading Valentine’s Day?
Get on and do something! It’s ok to be single but if it’s bothering you, take action.

Love: the facts
1 93 per cent of Match users are looking for a long-term relationship.
2 Love is third on most people’s priority list, after family and health, and before friends and social life.
3 The pub is the most popular place to meet for a first date.
4 Blondes rule: 93 per cent of dating men would like to date a blonde woman, preferably with shoulder-length hair.
5 Half of people surveyed would change their location for a serious relationship.
6 Meeting a partner online is now as popular as meeting through work (source: Isurus 2009).
7 Over half of singles say they can’t dedicate the time to pursuing or maintaining a relationship.
8 The most romantic gesture a person can do for another is a surprise weekend away followed by a candlelit dinner.