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OKCupid is changing how people use dating apps amid an international expansion

Tuğçe Yılmaz’s most recent long-term relationship started on OKCupid.

Yılmaz, a 34-year-old nonprofit worker in Istanbul, Turkey, opened up the app and sent a “like” to the man she’d then date for the next two and a half years, she told Yahoo Finance in an interview. They moved in together a week after they started dating — or more accurately, she said laughing, he came over one day and didn’t leave. 

Yılmaz and her then-boyfriend are no longer together, but her experience is one OKCupid is trying to replicate – and optimize even further – for others throughout the Middle East and Asia. 

OKCupid, owned by the Dallas, Texas-based company Match Group, has recently been pushing into international markets by offering a more tailored type of online matchmaking, based on each country’s cultural norms and predilections. In shirking the universal snap “swipe right, swipe left” approach familiar to other products within the Match brand portfolio, OKCupid is attempting to satisfy a niche Match’s other brands have yet to fill. 

More specifically, OKCupid has been building out a detailed roster of questions for users to fill out that touch on the moral, ethical, political and social issues that speak to each specific culture. Users need not answer every single question for their profiles, but the possible queries number in the hundreds.

That strategy has paid off in countries like India, a testing ground for OKCupid’s more country-specific approach. Since localizing the product last year, OKCupid’s downloads in India increased 15-fold, or by 1.4 million, in the three months ended September 2019, outpacing competitor Bumble and local Indian dating app Shaadi, a spokesperson for Match Group told Yahoo Finance. Those efforts in India included both the launch of new country-specific questions on the app – like asking users whether women should work after marriage, how they felt about paneer on pizza, and how many days a wedding should span – along with a brand campaign aimed at celebrating young Indians’ autonomy in choosing their own partner. 

Recently, OKCupid set its sights on Israel and Turkey, and will soon be publicly announcing its plans to take a similar strategic route in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the UK, the company told Yahoo Finance.

While Match’s dating apps and their ilk have been around for the past several years in both regions, that early growth had been unintended and undirected by the company itself. Users were just downloading the apps through word of mouth. 

“What was so interesting to us in an Israel or a Turkey or other parts of Asia is that people were looking to use OKCupid in spite of the fact that it was fundamentally at that time architected for an American audience,” OKCupid CEO Ariel Charytan told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview. “So if you can imagine someone in Turkey, you ask someone in Turkey, you know, did you vote for Trump or Clinton? Obviously they didn’t vote for either of them.”

“But the point was they were signifying a desire to find vectors of compatibility that would apply to them in their culture, which made us rapidly say, ‘Okay, what if we changed all the questions and all the onboarding, all the compatibility parameters and things that are inherently Turkish?’ Charytan added. “Like attitude toward Ramadan, praying five times a day, hookah bars, Turkish traditional foods ... things that are fundamental to a relationship, having the potential for success, versus things that just make the conversation easier to start.” 

In OKCupid’s parlance, that means striking a balance between “ice-breaker” and “deal-breaker” questions. In Turkey, for instance, a user might answer how he or she feels about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Israel, a user would answer whether or not there should be public transportation on Shabbat, a weekly observed day of rest in Judaism, or whether women should be rabbis. But pop culture references factor in, too – a user might answer whether he or she likes Israeli actress Gal Gadot or the hit series “Fauda,” a Netflix show about the Israeli Defense Force. 

FAANG-like 

To generate the messaging for these regions, OKCupid has been building out a local network of business partners and journalists on the ground to tease out cultural nuances. On the corporate side, that’s involved more marketing, hiring and business partnerships in each country, OKCupid said. 

The international expansion strategy parallels that of other tech giants like Netflix (NFLX) and speaks to the burgeoning opportunity for these companies in new overseas markets as smartphone penetration rises. The streaming giant, for instance, grew subscribers in Europe and the Middle East (EMEA) 37% year on year in its most recent quarter, while U.S. and Canada growth was sub-5%.

Match Group, which declined to break out OKCupid results individually, saw direct international revenue rise 32% in the most recent quarter, or more than double its growth rate in North America. 

And like Match with its newer localized operations, Netflix just opened a new EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam, along with a headquarters in Paris last month, and has been taking up showrunners from all over the world to produce localized content. 

“I would replace showrunners with perhaps, you know, local cultural journalists” in OKCupid’s case, Charytan said. What OKCupid has sought is a means of tapping into “a relevant cultural sensibility,” he said. “And we rely on the people who are in markets to help us navigate that, and then the feedback from the user.” 

POLAND - 2020/01/06: In this photo illustration an OkCupid logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Charytan’s own strategy stems from his experience at another big-tech “FAANG” company. A former senior vice president at Amazon’s (AMZN) Audible group, Charytan said working at the e-commerce company ingrained into him an obsession with putting customers’ – or in OKCupid’s case, the users’ – experiences first. 

“If you start with your customers, the market and the competitors will figure their way out,” Charytan said. “You start with your competitors or the market, you might get there and find out that the customers aren’t there.”

“We don’t have a product where we’re selling paper towels or video downloads,” he added. “We have a two-sided marketplace where, if we don’t have people for everyone else to meet, the whole thing collapses on itself.” 

History repeating itself

But building out a robust and efficient matchmaking marketplace entails more than just crafting clever questions and memorable campaigns, especially in countries where finding partners “in real life” is still the dominant starting point for dating and marrying.

The competition steepens further when considering that many of these countries are already filled with other dating apps, like Shlish Gan Eden and JSwipe in Israel and Happn in Turkey. That international competitive landscape also includes other Match properties like Tinder, by far the largest app in Match’s consortium, comprising some 60% of total subscribers.

And in Turkey – a Muslim-majority country – most individuals at least outwardly express a negative attitude toward online dating, according to Selenga Gürmen, associate professor of psychology at the Özyeğin University in Turkey. Recent studies with Gürmen and Dilsah Ece Eren discussed that 60% of surveyed Turkish participants aged 18 to 50 used online dating platforms, but less than a third considered apps a better platform than in-person for meeting someone new. In contrast, in the U.S., a separate recent study by Axios and SurveyMonkey found 62% of surveyed dating site users said the relationships they started online were just as likely to be successful as those started in-person. 

Those surveyed in Turkey “think the people who use these apps are suffering from emotional and sexual deprivation, they’re desperate,” Gürmen told Yahoo Finance. 

But Gürmen, who spent about five years in the U.S. at the University of Connecticut getting her Masters and PhD before returning to Turkey, said the relative maturity of the U.S. market may have something to do with the discrepancy in perception. The U.S. also went through an early period of negative views toward online dating app-users before acceptability became more mainstream, she said. 

“It’s like the history is repeating itself in a different context,” Gürmen said. 

In Israel, even OKCupid’s push toward more localized questions might not be enough to address all of the cultural nuances for a country with two official languages and three major religions, said Micki Lavin-Pell, a marriage therapist and relationship coach in Jerusalem. 

“Religious Jews really want to know the nuts and bolts about how you practice Judaism,” Lavin-Pell told Yahoo Finance. “What type of kosher do you eat, do you drive on the Sabbath or do you just walk to the beach – people observe various things and people want to know that, because they don’t want to have too many surprises.” 

There’s also the matter of algorithmic accuracy, with false positives happening even after having users answer dozens of questions to determine compatibility. Daniel Samuel, a 23-year-old hotel worker in Jerusalem, told Yahoo Finance one of his most disappointing experiences on OKCupid was with a girl the app had assigned as a 90% compatibility match. 

“When we texted, we could actually keep a conversation for more than, ‘Hi, bye, what’s the weather,’” he said. “When we met each other there was nothing. No chemistry whatsoever.” 

But none of these concerns have deterred OKCupid’s Charytan from the broader goal he holds for OKCupid internationally. 

“One of the things that I think we are most excited about is being a positive force in the world. It's easy for many in the West to kind of take for granted where things have evolved in terms of people having choice in their future, in their mate, in their partner,” Charytan said. “We can be ... a force for the individual to help them find the right person that they can have a positive life with.”

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck

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