Why Free Members Become Paying Ones

Alex Henderson

Last year, the BBC World Service released the results of a poll on Internet dating. The poll, which surveyed Internet users in 19 different countries, found that 30 percent of them regarded the Internet as a good place to find romantic companionship. Clearly, the popularity of online dating is showing no signs of decreasing, but while online dating is quite popular, it is also quite competitive for the websites that are bringing daters together.

Numerous online dating websites are competing for paid members, and the companies that have the most business savvy will be the ones that stand the greatest chance of convincing free members to become paid members.

Dating sites really need to show free members why it would be advantageous to become paying members — and that includes making sure they are aware of the premium features that a paid membership can offer.

Anyone who starts a dating website will be entering a marketplace that is full of established players. The long list of well known websites in the adult online dating field includes, among many others,,,, and, of course, (whose array of sites ranges from the BDSM-oriented to gay dating sites like and Dating Gold, which started in the early 2000s and has a diverse portfolio of dating sites, is another major player in online dating; according to Dating Gold CEO Allan Henning, the company has “about 15 million members” worldwide. Henning estimated that out of all those members, about 90 percent will remain free members and “about 10 percent will eventually become paying customers.” There are a variety of things that dating sites can do to encourage free members to upgrade to paid memberships, Henning said — and one of the most important things is to be geographically friendly.

“With a lot of dating sites, what is on the front end is not really representative of what is inside the site,” Henning explained. “That can be a deterrent. For example, someone might be from Stockton, Calif.; they’ll go to sign up and the site will say, ‘We have 4,000 singles in your area.’ Then, when you go to log in, you see that they really have only 50 singles in your area. That is one of the biggest mistakes that I have seen. So if you don’t actually have enough members in Stockton it’s better just to show them more people in nearby areas. People are willing to travel if they want to meet someone.”

Henning added that when it comes to being geographically friendly, larger dating sites have an advantage over smaller ones in that they offer more potential daters to choose from; even people living in a small town, he said, are more likely to find companionship online when a site is as large as Dating Gold. Henning explained: “We have been doing this for a long time, and if customers come from pretty much any area in the U.S. they’re going to see at least a few people in their area who are looking, if not tens of thousands.”

Henning added, however, that smaller websites can still make themselves more geographically friendly. The Dating Gold CEO noted that if, for example, a free member of a dating site lives in Stockton and is specifically interested in dating BBWs (big, beautiful women), it is important to make him aware of datable BBWs not only in Stockton, but also, in nearby areas. Dating sites, Henning pointed out, should not forget that members are willing to travel to meet people that interest them — and those members are more likely to make the transition from free member to paying member if the site is demonstrating its usefulness.

“The larger cities are more likely to have people who are into certain things,” Henning said. “So if they live in a smaller town, they usually have to travel to find that one thing. And we definitely find that a lot of our members travel great distances to meet someone.”

Henning said that making free members aware of “the latest updates that pertain to them” is another way to encourage those free members to become paid members. Dating sites, Henning emphasized, really need to show free members why it would be advantageous to become paying members — and that includes making sure they are aware of the premium features that a paid membership can offer. With Dating Gold, he said, “pretty much any type of user-to-user communication is usually a premium feature — and they need to pay for premium features. That’s where the conversion comes in. If the customer wants to have someone as a buddy or if they want to send them a message or if they want to instant-message them, they need to be a paying member of our site. If someone tries to contact a free member, we usually let them know — and then, they would be more likely to upgrade.”

Some dating sites can be very specific and niche-driven, and Internet users can find everything from BDSM dating sites to gay dating sites to goth dating sites. Cougar dating sites, which bring together younger men and older women, have become increasingly popular. Effective niche marketing, according to Henning, can be another way to turn a free member into a paying member.

“The niches do well,” Henning noted. “For example, we do well with the BBW niche. Those niches can do well because there is more of a community; people are signing up to be part of a community. If they’re really into something, they’re more likely to become a paid customer if they can find whatever it is that they’re into.”

Henning pointed out that typically, people who are into online dating don’t just join one site; they usually join several different sites as free members—and the sites they think offer the best results will be the ones they ultimately decide to obtain paid memberships from. The bottom line for dating sites, Henning said, is that customers want a user-friendly experience and want results. Give free members usability and give them results, Henning said, and they just might come to the conclusion that a paid membership would be money well spent.

“The more usable you make your site,” Henning stressed, “the more likely customers are to upgrade to a paid membership.”