Smartphones make online dating messages too dirty: PlentyofFish CEO

A Q&A with Markus Frind.

Love on the run 665

(Photo: Henrik Sorensen/Getty)

Last month, Markus Frind, CEO of Vancouver-based PlentyofFish, the most popular dating site in the world, sent out a message to the site’s millions of users saying they were going to kill the site’s “Intimate Encounters” section. Frind’s rationale was that this component of POF’s service—meant for users looking for casual sex—just wasn’t popular enough. Or, more accurately, it was decidedly unpopular among the site’s female users. In his words, “Intimate Encounters on POF can be summed up as a bunch of horny men talking to a bunch of horny men pretending to be women.” He’s also banning unsolicited messages with sexual references.

So, why did he act now? In short, because today over 70% of the site’s traffic comes from mobile—and that’s had a big impact on user behavior. Yesterday, I talked to Frind about the decision to axe this part of the business.

Canadian Business: Seventy percent? That’s nuts. Is this mostly driven by younger users?
Frind: Under 30 is the majority, but even at the age of 50, more than half of users are accessing through mobile. … The younger people are signing up in droves now. The average age on the site used to be 39, and it’s come down to about 32.

Why did mobile cause such a huge spike in messaging?
If you’re just using it on the computer, you can use it when you’re at work or when you’re at home sitting in front of a computer. But with a mobile device, you can do it on the train, you can do it walking to work, you can do it on your lunch break. There’s so much more time in which to message people.

You said women were getting bombarded with more sexual messages because of higher cell phone use. But why?
Mobile messaging peaks about three or four hours after web does, so it’s late at night usage, right before you go to bed, and all the messages are in short bursts. Like very short messages, and just a lot of them. So when the majority of our users moved to mobile, our number of messages sent on the site increased by a factor of five over last year.

So, women were getting flooded with five times as many messages, and you wanted to trim the least desirable fat?
Yeah. It’s on first contact. Every day, you contact 10 or 15 people, and we wanted to eliminate all sexual contact in those messages.

Why did you have the “Intimate Encounters” option in the first place?
When I initially built the site over 10 years ago, I just cut and pasted from another site and it happened to be one of the options. It wasn’t this grand vision to add it to the site. And the simple truth is there were 150,000 men a day who were using it and something like 6,000 women, supposedly. It just doesn’t work. The ratio is so wildly off.

And they were scaring off the women?
Yes. It’s like a nightclub. It’s very easy to get men in the door. It’s much harder to get women in the door.

Have you figured out a way to monetize all this mobile growth?
We just added the optional membership on mobile, but we’re not really monetizing mobile. [With paid membership], you can see the date and time someone viewed your profile, you can see if someone read your message, you can add more photos—a whole bunch of things. We’re going to do something eventually. We’ve been growing so quickly, it’s hard to do stuff on mobile. It takes three or four times longer than making something for the web.

What about ads?
Ads on mobile don’t really make any money.

Do you worry you’ll lose ad revenue as a result?
Well, it’s funny. We went from 20% mobile to 70% mobile, but our web use didn’t really shift all that much. So we keep growing, but I think it’s going to stabilize where it’s at.

What’s the next big thing—after mobile, I mean?
We’re seeing an explosion of tablets now, so that’s a form factor that is conducive to advertising and memberships. It’s similar real estate to what you have on a desktop … because on tablet, the number of people who pay—the amount of money you make off of them is four or five times what you would make on a cell phone user. Everyone knows that’s going to be the big cash cow, not just for dating, but any industry online.

Do you have a tablet app?
We have one for the iPad. The Android one is coming along.

Last question: How have users responded to the new sex-messaging rules?
The word of mouth generated from that email was tremendous. I had 150,000 responses to my email in the first 10 hours. We’re starting to see the deletions from the site fall and people view it more positively. … Since the end of May, we’ve seen a 15% increase in signups.