In 2013, as the market for fast-action dating apps like Tinder was heating up, a different kind of app started getting some attention: Lulu, which allowed women to rate men on everything from their grooming habits to their sexual prowess. Lulu was lumped in with dating apps, but it wasn’t a vehicle for finding a date—it was more like a dating-services app, a tool to use in conjunction with other dating apps.
For obvious reasons, Lulu’s ratings system was controversial. But that doesn’t matter now: in February, the app sold to Badoo, the largest online-dating company in the world, for an undisclosed amount, and the rating system was swiftly dismantled. In its place, the app has pivoted. It now looks like any other Tinder imitation, where users flip through photos of potential matches. Alexandra Chong, the former Lulu CEO, has promptly relocated to London and become president of Badoo. Lulu will remain active for now, Badoo says, but Chong will be focusing on Badoo’s separate mobile app. In other words, the Lulu acquisition looks more like an acqui-hire.
Did Lulu abandon the ratings system because of bad optics? Chong says no. “The experience of Lulu was, it was becoming less taboo and more normal to meet people online. And with that, we wanted to empower women with a tool that helped them do their research," she says. "It was very successful… but subsequently we’ve learned that beyond having the tool, there was also a very keen desire, rather than just browsing guys, to match with them and meet them.”
Many would say Lulu went well beyond just “browsing guys,” which is a benign way of putting it. On the app, women could write a public review of a guy (no approval needed), beginning with whether they know him as a friend, a past girlfriend, or just “a hookup.” Then they’d choose from more than 100 pre-populated hashtags in two categories: Best and Worst qualities. (A guy could be a #SelfMadeMan with #ThreeDayStubble who #MakesYouLaugh and has #PerfectGrammar, for example, but also #Cheap and #ADD; ouch.) There were hashtags to convey endowment, even. Many saw the app as proudly shallow, even more so than Tinder. The New Yorker called Lulu a “Yelp for men.” Chong defends the app’s original incarnation, even though it has now completely changed. “We liked to say that women don’t have to feel bad about being picky,” she says.
Chong’s first order of business at Badoo is to make online dating safer for women. To that end, Badoo announced this week a photo-verification feature to ensure users don’t have to worry about those pesky fake photos. The app will ask users to do a specific pose or gesture, at that moment, to prove it’s them. That will get them verified on the app, and although verification is optional, women on Badoo now have the option to only chat with verified users. “No more catfishing,” Chong says, “which is a legitimate problem. We want to make it even safer to meet someone online than in a bar.”
London-headquartered Badoo was founded in 2006 by Andrey Andreev, and it is the industry's biggest player, but many U.S. singles haven’t heard of it. Americans are far better acquainted with the portfolio of Match Inc. (MTCH), which went public this year and includes Match.com, OkCupid, Tinder, HowAboutWe, PlentyofFish, and 45 other sites. When it was still owned by IAC (IACI), Match was the leading acquirer of smaller dating apps and is largely responsible for major consolidation in the industry.
Badoo hadn’t made many acquisitions before it bought Lulu, which would not share how many users it has. Badoo has 300 million users across 190 countries, and one of Chong’s new tasks is to grow its app in the U.S., where it faces stiff competition from Tinder and other mobile-first players like Bumble, which also has the purpose of giving women a safer option. (On Bumble, women must initiate messaging; men cannot message a match until she makes the first move.)
Use of a dating site or app by 18- to 24-year-olds has tripled since 2013, according to a Pew Research report. And more than 15% of all Americans have used a dating site or app. Chong is right about the stigma around online-dating: there isn’t one anymore. And that means singles are not shocked by much these days—even an app where women can dish publicly on a man’s sexual performance... or the cleanliness of his bathroom. New entrants will continue to push the envelope, and so, while Badoo sure looks like it may eventually euthanize Lulu, don’t be surprised if it returns, ratings and all.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.