Online Dating Trends: Growth is Rapid

Matthew Pitt

The U.K. and U.S. markets, often seen to mirror one another in media coverage of trend analysis, can still be worlds apart; the adult industry is no exception. Online dating is a billion dollar industry, and yet the casual dating industry remains largely understudied. Despite a strong financial performance, it could be argued that the U.S. dating market is less mature than its U.K. sister in its limited diversity, dominated largely by a handful of large established brands. Niche dating is a much more dominant and developed industry in the U.K., which is still opposed to the same scene in the U.S., largely in its infancy. In both territories, however, growth is rapid.

Let’s start by taking a snapshot of the U.S. dating market. Worth a mammoth $1.2 billion, the U.S. online dating industry accrues almost five times the financial worth of the U.K. market. Although, this can be largely attributed to the fact that the US population is also five times bigger than that of the U.K. And yet, while the U.S online dating market is unarguably mature, the casual dating scene sees much less mainstream popularity, with niche dating largely undervalued.

The U.K. casual dating market continues to see rapid and expansive growth with site content becoming increasingly explicit, and the boundaries between casual and adult dating becoming blurred.

This is a market where the big guns have dominated for a long time; the likes of and are well established in the U.S. and any major niche dating entrants are typically a subdivision of more established dating businesses. With Plenty of Fish recently announcing that they’re dropping the casual dating site of their business, going as far as to state that they will actively remove casual activity from the sites, it begs the question; is there a demand for casual dating in the U.S.?

The short answer is yes. As scrutiny on the online dating industry continues to rise, steps to purify the image of long-serving, profitable brands are unsurprising. In fact, clearer lines between the casual dating and general dating businesses are not a bad thing.

A distinction between the two actually means that the door to breaking the U.S. casual dating is there for both smaller and established brands. What’s more, our own research demonstrates that the demand is there, with a clear call from the American consumer for more niche, fetishized sites too.

Of the millions of U.K. and USA members on the platform, 44 percent are looking for casual hook-ups on the platform’s adult network: 59 percent of US sites are niched in some shape or form: and appear within the top five most popular sites on the U.S. adult network: a Google ad preview for “date hookup” reveals a large proportion of casual dating ads, including ads for a number of cougar sites. An analysis of keyword competition identifies that “casual dating” returns almost 50,000 global searches. Impressively, “sex dating” returns 673,000; 60,500 of which are in the U.S. whilst 40,500 are in the U.K., demonstrating that there is absolutely a demand for casual dating in the U.S.; proportionally, however, the U.K. demand is still greater.

Perhaps most interestingly, a U.K. sample search shows that the term “online dating” is paired with two paid search ads, both from media brands, with no casual dating ads appearing at all. The same search in the U.S. generates five ads from a combination of casual dating sites, Christian dating sites and 40-plus sites. Thus, the volume of ad traffic next to generic terms is essential for letting consumers know what they want before they’re looking for it.

So why is niche dating seeing such a high demand in popularity? Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of what it is that they want from online dating: Four years ago, the average search query was an average of two keywords long; in 2012, the average query was five words. Back in 2009, generic keywords like “online dating” were accompanied by a barrage of advertising from niche brands trying to lure in the consumer to a more targeted service that they probably weren’t aware existed. Now, acquisition costs for generic terms are high.

In addition, we need to consider the size of the U.S. landmass. In the U.K., niching by location is popular; in the U.S., it’s essential. You could travel the length of the U.K. in the time it would take you to travel across one U.S. state, and not even come out the other side, making in-state targeting even more important.

An ever-growing smartphone penetration rate coincides with the rise of mobile dating, seeing popularity in both U.S. and U.K. markets. Consumers now expect to be able to find hookups on their mobile anytime, anywhere. Casual dating users have long been seen to have a greater lifetime value due to their continued need for instant gratification; mobile apps, whether they’re native or otherwise, provide them with exactly that. Being able to automatically filter their ability to locate other users available for hook-ups from within a location niched site can only be another bonus. Interestingly, U.S. mobile users on the platform have a greater propensity to register to pay; the ratio of mobile traffic to conversions is almost 2:1. With U.S. mobile dating market revenues forecast to hit $251 million in 2013, this trend isn’t going anywhere.

The heightened U.S. popularity of the likes of the aptly branded “sex app,” Tinder, demonstrates the power potential that mobile dating has to transform the dating industry. No contact details are shared until after users have approved an initial introduction, with just five seconds to make a decision about potential matches based on just one photo following a “hot or not” format; another form of instant gratification. It’s discreet, offering enhanced privacy options — one of the much talked about benefits of mobile dating.

We’ve seen similar results from the “Encounters” feature on the platform, which works in a similar way and is used by over twice as many U.S. users than U.K. members. So is there a more adult-centric content trend coming from the U.S.? One of the most surprising results that we’ve seen from the entry into the U.S. market is the popularity of casual dating sites across typically republican states like Texas and Arizona; not perhaps the results we were anticipating.

With the greater privacy options from mobile dating, the boundaries continue to blur between casual and adult dating. The U.S. adult industry has, on the whole, been placed under far greater regulations than the U.K. up until this point. Can casual dating industry growth in unexpected places be attributed to the fact that the U.S. consumer feels safer or that these regulations have been in place for longer, allowing them to adapt the way that they consume adult content?

The U.K. casual dating market continues to see rapid and expansive growth with site content becoming increasingly explicit, and the boundaries between casual and adult dating becoming blurred. The U.K. dating industry is a minefield of niche dating; in June alone, over 680,000 dating related search queries took place. A snapshot look at the platform shows that the most popular U.K. niches include affairs and cougars; a similar to trend to what we’ve seen overseas in the U.S. where this niche is already dominated by major industry players.

The U.K. casual dating scene also hosts a number of adult media brands using dating as an additional brand extension tool, allowing them the opportunity for additional monetization. Interestingly, while cams and online dating brands are beginning to build a lasting partnership, there are also opportunities to be had for porn brands. A massive 134,000 list “adult movies at home” as an interest, in addition to an increasingly diverse array of fetishes.

Concerns over proposed U.K. censorship laws are a hot topic for the entire adult industry. David Cameron’s censorship initiative follows in the wake of long campaigns against so-called “lads mags” to be banned from supermarkets due to the explicit nature of their content. It could be argued that these steps see the U.K. moving closer to the U.S. in adapting to restrictions on adult content. As larger U.S. players move away from the casual dating businesses, can we expect U.K. businesses to follow suit? Edinburgh-based Cupid PLC recently sold their casual dating division but the U.K. casual dating industry continues to see rapid growth, with an increasing number of sites flooding the market.

Google and adult are never going to get on, but webmasters have and will continue to find ways to adapt acquisition techniques to attract more customers. Until Cameron’s proposals are passed, and clearer guidelines about the sophistication of the algorithm are in place, panic and scaremongering are not going to be conducive to any business. For the moment, the best we can do is wait and see.

Matthew Pitt is operations director at, one of the world’s most successful privately owned casual dating platforms with annual revenue in excess of $74 million. Pitt leads international growth and new business development. With more than 15 years’ experience in the digital media industry, he has extensive knowledge of the online dating industry as well as other ecommerce sectors.


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