Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why do all the couples in eHarmony's TV ads look like brothers and sisters?

The synopsis:  eHarmony's "patented scientific process", since it only matches you with personalities that are supposed to be ideal and there's little room for injecting what makes you unique into your profile, leads people to do nothing but react to headshots, so much so that they end up selecting photos of people who look like they do...


Yeah, I’ve got an opinion about everything – here’s my long-winded take (Hey! Finding true love matters to a lot of us!) on Internet dating.

What are the biggest money-makers on the Internet?  eBay?  Amazon?  Sure they make money, but sex and romance are actually where the big margins are! 

Porn not only accounts for a huge amount of revenue, it is also the largest driver behind online video technology developments and broadband data-transfer demands (no, YouTube is not the biggest source of global video bandwidth demand!).  Another largely ignored (not something most marketing folks think about) source of non-stop online traffic are the dating services.  Sure, Facebook sucks a lot of time from teens and adults who are new to it, but a REALLY addictive service area that pulls in singles (and quite a few married guys, apparently) several times per workday and all evening long are those that promise love/relationships.  (LavaLife is owned by Vertrue, an enormous CRM, customer relationship management, holding company.)

Think first about the business model: these are services with virtually no overhead (outside of keeping the site working, all they have to do is marketing!) that make money when you do NOT get hooked-up.  If they fulfill their promise, you stop paying them.  Hm…  “Oh, but surely they work off of volume!”  Putting on your ‘business advisor’ hat, think about that – to really make the big bucks, you really don’t want your customers quickly canceling their payments and never coming back.

Being recently ‘re-singled’ and very curious about how they work, I’ve checked many of these services out, from eHarmony at one extreme, through to SugarDaddie (“Where the Classy, Attractive and Affluent Meet” and actually is no longer just what it started out as), and EstablishedMen (2.5 times more expensive than the former without the member base to back it up) at the other.  Interestingly, the one that is the absolute WORST at delivering on what all the sites, more or less, are promising is the one that sounds, theoretically, like the best: eHarmony – We match you on “29 dimensions of compatibility”.  Why?  Well before we get to that, let’s take a look at human nature in all its splendor.

From an early age, whether it was fairytale books 40 years ago (or even 100), or Disney’s grind house production line of Cinderella-like animated movies ever since, young girls are fed a non-stop diet of irresistible stories of ‘love-at-first-sight’ that remain firmly rooted in their psyches for decades – for some (often the never-married) right into their 40’s (Disney's latest product: Cinderella/Snow White styled Disney-licensed, adult wedding dresses).  On all the dating sites you can find a preponderance of women well into their late 30’s who state: “I’m waiting to meet Him, the One, Mr. Right, and I’ll know you from across the room, the moment you walk into the coffee shop to meet me the first time.” 

Wow!  These are women who have been dating for almost two decades, who have been through several long-term relationships (generally the previously-married girls don’t cling to the fantasy anymore) and you’d think would have passed out of what I call their “Princess-Phat-Phantasy-Phase”.  Not!  And here they are online in a totally unnatural situation, convinced it will help bring them to that ‘magic moment’.   Why do I call it an “unnatural situation”?  Ah, well, therein lies the rub!  

In real life humans meet strangers in a variety of ways, sometimes ‘in-your-face’ through walking into a meeting and suddenly being confronted with new people you’re introduced to face-to-face, or across a room, at a wedding or in a bar, or even peripherally, through phone contact or email that eventually leads to a face-to-face meeting across a retail store counter or what have you.  What is true of most meetings is that when they are between people who are not open to romance (or casual sex) there are no expectations, hence the contact is open and largely devoid of any sexual/flirtation nuance – like two businesswomen meeting to discuss a project, or two men discussing a golf club's merits in a pro-shop.  There’s no real pressure of any kind in these situations as they're asexual. 

Even in a singles bar where expectations are somewhat raised, strangers have a chance to ‘size each other up’ at a distance, noting (oftentimes subconsciously) demeanor, the way the other person carries themselves, their assertiveness or apparent confidence, their ‘flirtatiousness’, body shape, voice pitch, nuances of appearance (a dimple, double chin, firm tone).  Online you can usually read none of those things.  Online you might get nothing but a fuzzy headshot and a single line of self-description, yet the expectations are EXTREMELY high!  There’s an underlying hope, irrational but firmly planted, that this magical medium is going to lead me to ‘The One’.  A feeling that it is not as random as walking down the street or being in the right bar at the right time, but that, as it is open to everyone – a ‘window onto the world’ – it will reveal the perfect match miraculously. 

Then in swoops eHarmony, promising to do what no other online service can!  They cleverly play to all of our hopes and dreams showing us couples whose stories are miraculous!  These people speak like Snow White/Cinderella and their princes!  They ‘found’ each other!  The perfect, ideal match, through the Internet, via eHarmony!  Through a scientific system and ordered, predetermined ‘process’, no less!  Fantastic! 

There’s only one hitch, as they’ll tell you, it takes a loooooong time to find Mr./Ms. Right.  Months and months and months of regular payments.  Which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?  When you’ve spent years searching already, and are talking about the rest of your life with your ideal life partner, a few months seems like a small price to pay! 

There are an inordinately high number of women on eHarmony.  No surprise, given the Disney-like promise, but it makes for a tough slog for the girls.  In just a couple of weeks on the site I was up to something like 140 women, all matched with me based upon their psychological profiles, so after reading a couple of these profiles, all identical, I didn’t have to read them any more.  In fact, versus sites like LavaLife or PlentyOfFish, there are virtually no spaces in eHarmony’s profile for you to write in anything personal.  You answer pat questions, put up one single, tiny headshot, then sit back and wait, and wait.  

Their ‘patented process’ doesn’t stop there!  You also are advised to stick to their ‘expert guidance’, a procedure through which you don’t take any risks of screwing things up with a misunderstood comment through email (a sadly too-common reason for women, and men, shutting down a potential contact), eHarmony ‘guides’ you through a process in which you indicate interest, then answer some pre-selected questions to warm things up between you gradually, like “If you walk into a party where you don’t know anyone, are you more likely to A) turn around and walk out, B) introduce yourself to the first person who makes eye-contact, C) etc.”  This process is meant to take the ‘awkwardness’ out of your first contact with the man/woman of your dreams. 

The problem is that the women who have bought into the service’s promise, and are now paying fees, and have filled out an hour-long questionnaire, and want to believe in ‘the experts’, aren’t going to risk doing anything BUT following the process to the letter.  In reality, any guy who really has those masculine, mature traits women most want: confidence, an outgoing nature, successful in business; isn’t going to get much past the third girl who insists on ‘following the patented process’.  [Many women will actively refuse the ‘Fast Track’ (direct email) contacts to stick with The Process, sending busy guys who hate wasting hours online answering patently stupid pat questions, off-site after a week or two.]  I’ve heard a lot of complaints from female eHarmony members that the guys don’t act like they’re ‘supposed’ to.  That’s because the sites’ premise is targeting you, ladies, not the guys.  (Try ‘Fast Tracking’!)

There’s something fundamentally counterproductive in the Disney version of love, however.  It works, in the evolutionary sense, to ensure that young humans, moving into their most fertile and inexperienced sexual phase, in their teens, will be predisposed to having ill-advised sex with strangers and produce children immediately.  This ensured, millenia ago, that these females were tied to the tribe and forced to move quickly into adulthood, reliably providing more tribe members at a time when the female’s body was most resilient while, practically-speaking, she had little experience in providing skills the tribe needed for survival (also giving the young guys a shot at spreading their DNA before the older, more powerful males locked the young females into a multiple-wife situation). 

In the modern world, wherein most people will attest to the fact that the strongest, most stable relationships begin first as friendships, the idea that, without first really getting to know a great deal about a potential mates’ habits, interests, inclinations, friends, family and failings, you are going to fall deeply and permanently in love is simply a recipe for way too many ill-conceived relationships and marriages (North Americans marry quicker, and more often, than any other society in the world).  Placing faith in this ‘magic’ belief leads people to select not on good judgment, but hormones (even pheromones!).  It’s a recipe for disaster, as our divorce rates attests to.

“Love” should be what eHarmony speaks to, but it isn’t really set up to deliver.  The real key to finding deep love and compatibility is meeting lots and lots of people face to face, and getting to know each and every one of the people you feel you have some mutual chemistry with at both a deep and broad level (i.e through multiple meetings and in varying situations, like what happens when you meet someone through work).  

eHarmony’s biggest bugaboo, however, isn’t its ‘patented processes’ for promising to hook people up.  It is much more subtle and inherent to human nature.  Versus other sites where you can post 10+ photos of yourself doing different activities, showing off your trim figure or generous booty, offering a far more realistic picture of what you look like at the moment, eHarmony profiles usually have just a single grainy little head shot, like looking through a low res webcam at the other person’s face.  One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found in assessing a woman’s appearance on any website is photos cropped at the shoulder – I’ve met women who were 50 pounds heavier than their profile shot suggested, and in one case, 30 pounds less (I felt I should drop her off at the emergency ward, not her home). 

So consider this, all the eHarmony profiles you see are virtually identical.  You get matched with only one or two ‘compatible’ personality types.  There are no personal comments to gauge personality or smarts or communication style.  All you’ve got to go on is a little headshot.  What is going to happen when you have dozens of little headshots to judge from?  You are sitting alone at home in front of your computer with your finger hovering over the ‘delete’ button, feeling a bit cranky from a tough day, waiting for Mr. Right to leap off the eHarmony site into your arms…  What ends up playing out in your head is: "Loser!  Another loser!  Hair's too long.  Nose is too wide.  Etc."

Take a look at the TV spots on eHarmony’s site and you’ll find one undeniably creepy truth – all the couples, even the ‘interracial’ pairs, look like they could be brother and sister (they seem to have removed the 27 examples and now have only 3 accessible...  Hm.)  Having removed all the usual judgment and intense assessment we all have to go through to evaluate potential mates in real life, eHarmony conveniently does all that tough work for you, simplifying it down to little headshots.  What do we do, being human with all the failings that entails?  We choose headshots on eHarmony that are similar to what we see in our mirror, our own reflection. 

Once we ‘warm up’ to the other person through some inane and largely innocuous ‘guided correspondence process’, we meet at a coffee shop and see our mirror image across the room and ‘magic’ suddenly happens!  This person is already quite compatible with us personality-wise (due to the ‘scientific process’), we feel like we ‘know them’ from a bit of correspondence and a phone call or two, their face looks like their photo (and our mirror), our expectations are VERY high and voila!  It’s like every Disney story (or eHarmony ad) we’ve ever seen! 

In reality, you’ll go through quite a few failed ‘coffee dates’ (the best way to avoid expending a lot of money and time on a person who you knew you had zero interest in from the moment you saw them in real life!) via eHarmony before this magic happens.  Why?  Because ‘chemistry’ is intangible.  Don't get me wrong, it might happen (it did for the 27 TV couples out of eHarmony’s millions and millions and millions of paying members).  In the meantime, eHarmony is more than happy to continue taking your money and feeding your dreams. 

If you liked this post, you might enjoy: "Some Online Dating Tips from a Marketing Strategist" (link to post)

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