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Beset by a flooded market targeting niche goals, fewer people seeking out romantic relationships, and a business model that aims to limit repeat clientele, online dating apps faced a challenging environment long before the pandemic took hold in 2020. What’s a dating app to do when fewer people seek out romantic relationships, and those that do will remove your service once paired up?

Bumble’s answer is that rather than try to sell one type of relationship, it will offer connections across all forms of relationships – romantic, platonic, professional.

On the eve of its imminent IPO, Bumble expanded its omnichannel messaging to emphasize more than just dating. Social media creative touts Bumble’s popular value prop – that women message first. However, the call to action has now expanded to “Good people are all around you”, encompassing the other ways to connect where Bumble is anticipating future growth – friendships, business networking, and community.

IPO paperwork filed with the SEC highlights exactly these goals – acknowledging the app’s history and popular growth as an online dating app, while looking to the future with personal and professional relationships.

The COVID-19 elephant in the ad

For other apps firmly rooted in romantic connections, quality comes at a premium.

According to Mintel Senior Lifestyles and Leisure Analyst Kristen Boesel, Americans – especially Gen Z young adults – become accustomed to life in a digital, on-demand world where interest in dating apps will continue to grow. “Brands will be challenged to differentiate themselves in a competitive market and draw enough users to offer a good selection of potential matches.”

Source: Match.com targeted ad

Match.com has been promoting online dates since the early days of the pandemic in the U.S. The company has spent more than $4M since May 2020 on a TV commercial that shows people video chatting over glasses of wine and ends with the company’s tagline, start something great. By implying the constraints imposed by COVID-19 without actually naming them, the company acknowledged the COVID-commercial fatigue people were likely feeling. It also normalized virtual dates, framing them in the commercial as it would in-person dates: as a simple way to enjoy someone else’s company.

OkCupid also ran a pandemic-driven TV commercial, in which it explained that “dating has changed” and virtual dates are now “ok.” The message, which debuted in June, with the brand’s long-running image of being a place for everywhere, regardless of preferences or style. So far, the brand has spent about $1M on the spot.

Besides showing virtual dates in their creatives, most dating apps didn’t speak to the pandemic much in their marketing. Hinge, for one, continued with its pre-pandemic strategy of framing itself as an app that’s meant to be deleted. And outside of TV, Match.com was fairly business-as-usual, with search copy thirsty as ever.

Expected innovations in 2021

The dearth of exciting new approaches during the pandemic reveals an opportunity for dating apps. They don’t necessarily have to be more like Bumble, but they can innovate in other ways, especially through partnerships. Hinge already partners with Instagram influencers and meme accounts; the app could take it up a notch by featuring these influencers in its paid media. Just as Bumble partnered with Airbnb in May 2020, other apps could partner with entertainment companies to enable full-blown experiences: Think something like a Netflix watch-at-home date, facilitated by the streaming service and Tinder, bringing “Netflix and chill” to life.

Amidst this virtual marketing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see apps start promoting immunization status. Already, apps have seen vaccine mentions skyrocket, with Tinder reporting that mentions of vaccines in user bios were up 258% between September and December, according to the New York Times. And on OkCupid, daters who say they’ve gotten the vaccine pull twice as many likes as those who say they don’t want the vaccine.

Even with a return to in-person, virtual is here to stay

When vaccines become more mainstream and virtual dates are no longer a necessity, app partnerships with the likes of Netflix and Airbnb need not end. There will always be a desire for in-person dating, of course. But apps could shorten the awkward-texting time from weeks to mere hours by giving people a virtual in-between step, complete with streaming entertainment, food & drink delivery, or online games.

Laura Ziemer is Mintel’s Associate Vice President of Marketing Intelligence. Laura uses Mintel’s marketing intelligence data to explore custom questions for clients, and provide concrete recommendations that steer them toward highly incremental growth.

Rachel Arndt is a Senior Research Analyst, interpreting cross-channel marketing and consumer trends with a focus in telecom.

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