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The battle for hearts in Europe: US, French Internet dating sites do battle

Posted by inet - 2005-11-03

Is Cupid showing signs of cupidity? In Europe battle has been joined for the continent's lonely hearts looking for love online -- but it's multi-million-euro revenues that are at stake, not the delicate blossoming of "Amour."
Out of a crowded field of Internet dating sites, two have emerged as international giants: Match.com of the United States and Meetic of France.

Each claims the number one spot in Europe, and each has recently made moves to cement its position and grow beyond simple notoriety into corporate profitability.

Last month Meetic was floated on the Paris stock exchange to an enthusiastic reception by investors, raising nearly 90 million euros (108 million dollars) which its founder and chief executive, Marc Simoncini, plans to use to fund acquisitions.

Match.com, a Texas-based outfit that already dominates the saturated US market, last week hit back on Meetic's home turf by launching a Singles Observatory in France that it intends to use as an "independent" body to publish data about singles, their lifestyle and the hunt for the perfect partner.

Alexis de Belloy, the head of Match.com France, told AFP that if "each site can claim they're number one, it's because they're pretty close to each other."

Meetic claims that 18,000 new users fill out their profiles on the site each day, while Match.com says it receives 40,000 registrations.

Companies such as the survey firm Nielsen give Meetic the edge in subscriptions and market share, but Match.com claims it overtakes those figures when its affiliate operations on MSN, Tsicali and T-Online are included.

Belloy added that the figure that counts, anyway, is revenue, not people signing on. "I know our revenue figures are bigger than theirs. Unfortunately, I can't give them," he said.

Simoncini, flush with the success of his company's stock market debut, told a French online investor site, Boursier.com, that Meetic was one of the few dating companies "to reconcile growing market share and profitability."

The firm Jupiter Research believes the sector's revenue in Europe will double over the next five years to 375 million euros, easily outstripping the growth in the United States, where online dating is old-hat.

With all the focus on numbers, however, it seems the idea of romance has become little more than a footnote on balance sheets.

And yet, according to Pascal Lardellier, a French university sociology professor working for Match.com's Singles Observatory, while "love marketing" has become the norm for the dating sites, romance remains a priority for those clicking through the pages.

"There has been a big return of romanticism," he said.

Citing a study by a British trends and brand-building company called The Future Laboratory, he said eight out of 10 European singles going online believe in love at first sight and the same proportion want romance in their relationships.

The danger, though, is that, as online dating has become an established way to meet potential partners, "the cycle of searching is becoming a lot shorter, there is a sort of acceleration happening," he said. Individuals are more ready to drop an unsuitable date and go looking for another -- almost as if they were shopping for products in a supermarket.

"You really have to beware of relationship-surfing," Lardellier said.

With dating sites now becoming the norm and growing to mainstream proportions, the bigger online companies are now turning their attention to competing in niche markets, particularly the young (late teens to mid-20s) and the middle-aged.

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