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Why Tinder (and online dating) is at an innovation crossroads

Stream | March 31, 2022

Tinder revolutionized the online dating scene when it launched its new app and swipe technology in the early 2010s. It turned online dating from a last resort option to a fun, trendy activity for twenty-somethings around the world. Its median user age is nearly a full decade younger — 29 vs. 38 — than its dating website counterparts.

Today online dating is a societal norm. Countless dating apps followed Tinder’s launch and became more prevalent than ever during the pandemic as other avenues for meeting people — bars, parties, and the like — were not an option.

But despite this upswing of momentum, innovation in this space could be flatlining. A crowded marketplace along with an oversaturation of new features and subscription models have made it difficult as of late for brands to find new, exciting ways to engage users.

This interview with a former Tinder senior product manager gives an insider view into the landscape of online dating’s product innovation, why it’s getting harder and harder to innovate, and what might be next for Tinder and its competitors.

Quick Takeaways

  • Product feature gamification and value-based revenue models have played major roles in Tinder’s (and other online dating apps’) success.
  • While video seems like an obvious feature-add for online dating, it doesn’t align with user preferences around convenience and self-presentation.
  • Tinder’s high turnover in the CEO role has hindered the company’s ability to innovate.

Online dating’s gaming-inspired revenue model

Perhaps the biggest and most impactful innovation that Tinder has made is the “swipe” feature. Inspired by the gaming industry, the swipe has now been duplicated on all kinds of mobile apps and misguided attempts to replace it (even by Tinder themselves, with map or grid features specifically) have proven wildly unsuccessful.

The swipe is also the foundation of Tinder’s value-based revenue model, which aims to steer clear of the sponsored content and ads you see on YouTube and TV streaming platforms like Netflix. Instead, it capitalizes on gamified features that users already enjoy, offering them more or a better version of them for an additional cost.

Tinder pioneered this approach when they launched Tinder Plus in 2015.

“Tinder really came into the space and was able to [create] a new model. I would say most directly inspired by gaming in terms of direct revenue value-add and building a subscription business that was actually offering something valuable to the users that they wanted to pay for, that wasn’t just licensed content or ads. We did that by looking at the value chain and value proposition for the app and saying, ‘What are users doing?’ If they’ve been spending a lot of time swiping, we’re going to limit the amount of swipes and have them pay to unlock more . . . I think that was really innovative and it’s a model that is now being copied all over the place in a variety of businesses that are moving to subscription models.”

Finding balance with new product features

But it doesn’t mean premium features can be a free-for-all. In fact, this expert explains how overdoing it with added features can both harm the ecosystem and turn users off to the app.

“There’s a balance between [pricing] these shortcuts accordingly to be valuable to the user, profitable for the business, and not so bad for the ecosystem that they potentially kill it . . . Tinder Platinum had the ability for you to send a message along with a swipe. You can imagine the universe where every guy is doing that. Women are going to just get inundated with all these messages pre-swipe.”

Paywalls, too, can easily become at risk of negatively impacting user experience. Most obviously because users could get annoyed when they encounter a paywall with every click. But another important factor this expert pointed out is that unlike ads, value-add features typically require a level of user onboarding to explain how in fact they’re valuable.

“. . . there’s not much user onboarding you do for advertising. If we show you an ad, if you click on it, we’d make money. The same goes for licensed content. You don’t have to explain to someone what unlimited streaming on Spotify means or the fact that you get access to Netflix’s TV shows. People just know that intuitively. There’s a challenge when it comes to online dating. It has its own lingo. When a new user signs up and sees, ‘Five Super Likes a day and one Boost per month,’ they go, ‘What does this even mean? I don’t know what this means.’ We have to have a more educational onboarding experience for them, especially for users that have been on the app a long time.”

Adding to the complexity is what this expert referred to as the “Swiss watch” of features on online dating apps, meaning one small feature change can have ripple effects that cause a huge dip in revenue as users adjust.

“I worked on features where we had a really great feature idea and we wanted to put it in the app, but we didn’t know where to put it because, if we moved this button on the home screen, revenue drops by $X million because people were used to tapping on that button and we’d make money off of that. Expert: That’s a real consideration when you’ve got this delicately built Swiss watch that we’ve created. Move any one part and the rest break.”

Why video hasn’t made an inroad

The pandemic saw an explosion of video communication, from Zoom meetings to Facetime with family and friends to “going live” on social media — video, it seemed, was becoming king. An obvious product evolution for online dating apps, then, would seem to be video dating.

But it hasn’t happened, and this expert thinks it’s never going to — at least not any time soon.

“Now I left Tinder in February 2020. Immediately after that, the pandemic happened. If video dating was going to happen, it was going to happen in the last year, and it didn’t.”

At first thought, it seems like video makes sense for online dating. But when you consider what makes Tinder and other apps like it so convenient — namely, that you can use it anywhere, any time — you can see why users might resist it.

“There’s a common trope that people use Tinder sitting on the toilet because they can, because we’ve unlocked dating. If you now have a video call, suddenly you’ve got to get dressed. You’ve got to get the right lighting. You’ve got to maybe put on makeup. It’s a much, much bigger effort.”

Not only this, but video doesn’t exactly align with the edit and filter trends users take advantage of when they’re sharing photos.

“Video is much more realistic. It’s much easier to touch up a photo and put that on your profile than it is to control how an entire video looks. I think there are a lot of significant barriers to making these experiences make sense that shouldn’t be underestimated . . . Again, if it was going to happen with video, it would have happened.”

Tinder’s leadership struggles have hindered innovation

One reason Tinder has struggled to innovate is its lack of consistent leadership. The company has had seven different CEOs in nine years, and according to this expert, it’s resulted in challenges within the company to find a real vision. Innovation takes time, and with so much turnover, that time has simply not been available.

“If you know you’re going to have the same CEO for a long time, you can take bigger risks and you can take multi-quarter risks from a product perspective and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to try this initiative. We’re going to try this big redesign. Yes, revenue will take a short-term hit. That’s not a maybe, that’s a definitely. We know that will happen but we believe that by building this, we are building a platform for the future’ . . . I think the best example I can give is Facebook and News Feed. People hated News Feed when it came out and everybody said that was the death of Facebook. The News Feed changed the game for Facebook’s business. It changed the game for Facebook’s product. It enabled so many other experiences that weren’t possible on the profile.”

Yet Tinder’s competitors haven’t been innovating any better. After five or six years of continual evolution and growth — could innovation in online dating be growing stagnant?

According to this expert, that’s exactly what’s happening.

“I’m not super bullish on the prospect of expansion in terms of innovative new features that bring on new markets . . . I think for Match and Tinder specifically, that innovation is very difficult to come by. At the same time, it’s not like Hinge and Bumble have been eating Tinder’s lunch when it comes to innovation. I do think we maybe have reached saturation. We’re at a point that social networks hit a while ago of, ‘Oh, we’ve figured out the paradigms.’”

Access the full transcript for even more insights

Want to dive deeper into the nuances of online dating innovation? Access the full transcript for this interview to learn more about:

  • Why new online dating innovations will come from outside the industry
  • The complicated art of monitoring user behavior and controlling churn on dating apps
  • How chivalrous behavior translates to online dating

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