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Get set for a post-Covid relationship boom, says Hinge boss

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Hinge chief executive Justin McLeod standing in the dating app's office
Hinge chief executive Justin McLeod standing in the dating app's office

"I think this fall will be a cuffing season for the ages," says Justin McLeod, the 37-year-old chief executive of Hinge.

He is referring to a modern romantic ritual in which single people couple up through the winter and decide in spring whether to stay. It is just one face of the "relationship renaissance" that his company forecasts in 2021.

"Some people are saying this is going to be the summer of hedonism," McLeod continues. "Actually, what we're seeing from our data is that people are thinking more intensely about who they want to be and who they want to be with, wanting real intimacy and partnership. They're thinking, 'well, we don't live forever' – so they want to find that person, sooner rather than later."

Perhaps, he suggests, this relationship boom will in time become a baby boom, reversing the plummeting birth rates that have accompanied the pandemic in both the US and UK.

All of that is good news for Hinge, a dating app expressly built to spark serious relationships. Founded by McLeod in 2012 and most popular among millennials and Generation Z, it bills itself as an anti-Tinder that is "designed to be deleted".

Despite that, it tripled its global revenue in 2020 and increased its new downloads faster than any other UK dating app for two years running, according to analytics firm App Annie. In 2018 it was acquired by dating giant Match Group, joining a 45-strong stable that includes OKCupid, Match.com, PlentyOfFish and, yes, Tinder.

Speaking from his home in Rhinebeck, New York, two hours up the Hudson River from Hinge's Manhattan headquarters, McLeod is interested in a different set of figures.

How Covid made us give up 'ghosting'

According to surveys, focus groups and interviews by its in-house research arm, Hinge Labs, 53pc of US and UK users say the pandemic has made them more ready for a long-term relationship, while over two thirds say they are thinking more about their goals and 51pc are more honest with their feelings.

"A lot of people's dating clocks started ticking at the same time," says Logan Ury, a behavioural scientist and dating coach who runs Hinge Lab. Her research is guided by the Jewish theological concept of kavanah, or genuine intention, which she contrasts against the unthinking pseudo-decisions we make when we are too busy or stressed to act mindfully. Coronavirus, she says, broke those habits, forcing people to stop and interrogate their real desires.

About 40pc of Hinge users say they have found better dating habits, while others broke old ones such as contacting exes and chasing people who aren't interested. Ghosting – silently cutting off contact – is also down, perhaps because people are more careful about who they start messaging to begin with, and perhaps because the experience of global tragedy has made them more empathetic.

Another lasting change is video dating, which has gone from taboo to ritual, and which 61pc of Hinge users intend to continue. "It's just a vibe check," says McLeod – "a job interview" that efficiently lets people know whether they click before meeting in person.

Guided by Ury's findings that many feel awkward because they don't know what to say, Hinge recently launched video prompt questions, loosely based on psychologist Arthur Aron's famous "36 questions to fall in love" and designed to jump past small talk into mutual vulnerability.

'A lot of people burn out on dating apps'

Hinge's ethos began with a similar transformation in McLeod's life. The app was a late bloomer, originally closer to standard dating services in facilitating, and even incentivising, fleeting hook-ups. But after reuniting with his estranged college sweetheart and upending both their lives – a miraculous story retold by Amazon's Modern Love TV series, with Dev Patel as McLeod – he banished competitor apps from his employees' phones and redesigned Hinge from scratch.

Love was hard work, so Hinge would be too, deterring lazy daters by demanding detailed profiles. Instead of swiping easily through matches and blasting out hundreds of speculative likes, they must address a specific photo, statement or prompt.

Consequently, 20pc of users never get through sign-up, but the average number of likes sent before getting a date has dropped from a thousand to 50 or fewer. While free to use, the app reserves key features for subscribers, who pay £19.99 per month (with discounts for buying ahead).

"We really believe in serving our users' deepest need," McLeod says. "They came to us for a relationship; they didn't come to us to stay stuck in our app." Having struggled with alcohol addiction at college, he has no time for rivals and social networks that get "distracted by the scoreboard of engagement" and make money by "packaging up people's attention".

He is not worried about Facebook's new push into dating. Where other companies measure success by the time they consume, he says Hinge now judges every feature on whether it causes more positive dates.

Seeking his own app's obsolescence seems a risky business plan, and for years Hinge struggled to grow. Today, counter-intuitively, it is gaining users faster than Bumble or Tinder, according to data from Sensor Tower. McLeod's answer is that positive testimony from departing users provides slower yet steadier growth.

"A lot of people leave dating apps not because they found their person, [but] because they're frustrated or fed up or burned out. We want good churn, not bad churn… you'd lose them anyway, so it behooves us to make the app more effective."

Or, as Ury puts it: "Saying to someone 'I found my person on Hinge' is the best marketing we could possibly have."

Sleeping with the enemy

How does this philosophy fit with life inside Match Group? The $38.6bn (£28bn) company, fully spun out from advertising behemoth IAC last June, accounts for over 54pc of revenue made by the top 25 US dating apps, with Tinder the jewel in its crown, according to Sensor Tower.

When Hinge's redesign deterred other investors, it was Match that swooped to the rescue. Having once regarded Tinder as "the enemy", McLeod was now in bed with them.

Despite implicitly criticising key features of Match's other apps, McLeod demurs direct affront saying Match's other apps are simply designed for different stages of life. He says Match's backing has "created massive growth for Hinge", allowing him to spread its gospel of intentional courtship. Match also provides a shared system for ejecting abusive users, who can be banned across every app at once.

Kate McLeod and Justin McLeod attend the Physicians for Human Rights 2018 Gala on May 2, 2018 in New York City - Dave Kotinsky/Getty
Kate McLeod and Justin McLeod attend the Physicians for Human Rights 2018 Gala on May 2, 2018 in New York City - Dave Kotinsky/Getty

Still, he is candid about his initial doubts. "It was a huge trade-off," he says. "You start a company because you want autonomy, right? And then the specifics of the relationship: is Hinge really going to get the funding it needs? Are we really going to be able to continue to operate in the way that we want?"

Asked whether Match gave any concrete reassurances, he pauses. "Um, not really! It was a little bit of a leap of faith." He describes it much like a healthy marriage, requiring mutual work.

Does McLeod have any principles for founders and acquirers hoping to fall in love – a corporate version of Aron's 36 questions? After thinking about it, he names three: shared fundamental values, "sparks" of exciting opportunity and healthy boundaries.

"It’s so important to thoughtfully establish which domains are shared, and which aren’t," he says. By that metric, Hinge's well-wishers can rest easy – unless one day it suddenly adds swiping.