The issue of forming proper connections is something dating executives are sharply aware of. “People are nervous around connections,” Bumble’s director of marketing Naomi Walkland admits. It is not just a question of whether those logging in are actually interested in relationships – but also, whether real relationships can form without any physical contact.
“We’ve found that a lot of people are getting comfortable with being online,” Walkland counters. “More people are realising that being intimate doesn’t have to be limited to being physically intimate.”
Dating apps are trying to help this trend along. More are promoting the idea of “virtual dates” with potential partners – letting users dial in over video links for dates rather than meeting face to face.
On Bumble, the first of the major dating apps to have introduced an in-built video chat feature, there has been significant demand for such an option. After lockdown hit in the UK, there was a 42pc spike in the number of video calls through the app. Surveys suggest, more broadly, that more than two thirds of people are open to video-chatting with potential partners, a huge increase from less than 10pc who would consider it last year.
This has sparked a race to integrate the feature. Tinder last month became the latest to launch its own video chat service, having received what it said was positive feedback during trials. Facebook, on the launch of its dating service earlier in October, said the same feature would be available to its users, allowing them to go “virtual dates” if there were restrictions in place over meet-ups.
Even apps which have not yet embedded their own video chat feature have been scrambling to take advantage of the demand, with Hinge launching a “date from home” button, where users indicate to each other that they’re ready to have a video call without having to bring it up in their chat. They can then meet over outside apps such as Zoom.
“It has definitely accelerated all the use of video dating,” says the Online Dating Association’s Kidd.
It is not just getting users face to face that has been a key focus. In a time when it is trickier than ever to pick up physical cues from potential partners, apps have been working to make it easier for matches to be on the same page.
During the pandemic, those using Bumble, for example, have been able to set a “badge” on their profile on how they want to date, with options such as virtually, socially distanced or socially distanced with masks. Rival app OK Cupid asks users questions on what they would feel comfortable doing virtually, such as whether they would say they loved someone without having ever met them.
There is a large – and growing – group of people who are opening themselves up to such connections. By the end of June, more than 6.2 million people were on Tinder, with 200,000 people having joined in the three months to the end of March alone.
During the period, Hinge, which is also owned by the Match Group, became profitable, with the company now on track to have increased revenue by three-fold on last year. Meanwhile Bumble is said to be preparing for an IPO worth up to $8bn (£6.3bn).
This boost for the sector could not have come at a better time. In the years leading up to 2020, user growth had begun to wane. Estimates from eMarketer last year suggested that the number of people who owned a smartphone and used dating apps would grow by just 5.3pc in 2020. In 2016, user growth had been at 32.5pc year on year.
Now, Covid-19 has meant a growing number of people have been willing to try their luck online. “I wouldn’t say there’s a particular age group where they haven’t tried it in the past, but quite clearly, these things have become mainstream,” says George Kidd, chief executive of industry body the Online Dating Association. Among younger people especially who “haven’t been able to get out so much and meet people in person”, dating apps have become an increasingly important lifeline, Kidd says.
Tinder says those over 25 have also been flocking to the app in force. “More than half of our members are aged between 18 and 25, and we often joke saying that they were born with a smartphone in their hand so it’s unsurprising that they were leading the way of blurring the lines between IRL and digital,” says Laura Wilkinson-Rea, head of communications for Northern and Eastern Europe at Tinder. “The pandemic saw the rest of us to catch up.”
Those people signing up to the apps have been engaging with those they are talking to online more than they had ever before.
Over half of those signed up to names such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge said they were having “longer conversations more now during lockdown than pre-lockdown”, a survey by the Online Dating Association found.