Why dating apps can't beat the personal touch in the search for long-term relationships

Apps are great if you're looking for a fling, but not for something more permanent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2014, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 9:55am

First came the websites. Then, with the spread of smartphones, came a slew of mobile dating apps, from Blendr a couple of years ago to Tinder and Paktor, which were all the rage this year. But as popular as they've been, the apps operating on rudimentary data such as age, gender and proximity or location, have served primarily as platforms for young singles seeking to kill time and broaden their dating pool.

Despite the proliferation of sites and apps, some singletons find they don't quite measure up to traditional dating services, which act as coach, image consultant and event organiser.

An African graduate student at a local university has mixed feelings about Tinder. The 28-year-old signed up with the service about six weeks ago as he had yet to find his feet socially after arriving in Hong Kong in August.

"I wanted to branch out from the international students circle to build a network of local friends," he says.

He met a Chinese girl on Tinder and they chatted online for about a week before meeting in person. But rather than hang out at a cafe, she insisted on going to his place, he says. "One thing led to another. In the end, she was saying something about liking black guys and stuff.

"Tinder is good when I can meet nice and interesting people. But it's bad when I wind up with gay men and nymphomaniacs asking uncomfortable questions."

The hit-and-miss results from basic apps have prompted consumer research consultant Chow Yu-yan to come up with her own version, TagDates, which she describes as a more refined way to bring people together.

Most apps alert clients to other users of the opposite sex in their vicinity, and if the profile appeals they can send a "like" message. When the attraction is reciprocated, users can progress to online exchanges and then real-life dates. Few work out, Chow says, because decisions on whether to initiate contact are mostly based on the photos posted.

With TagDates, however, users are required to fill in five descriptors. "These can be about anything like their interests, physical attributes and occupation. The system matches people based on the descriptors," Chow says.

Just as Instagram can match people with the same hashtags, TagDates can link people who like the same movies or enjoy similar kinds of food. If users "like" each other, they can initiate conversations just as they would on Tinder and Paktor.

TagDates, which supports Chinese and English, has registered users from the Netherlands to Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Chow positions TagDates as something between Tinder and OkCupid.

"Tinder can deliver quick-fire matches. It's easy and convenient to use. You can check the app in the washroom and be hooked-up in two minutes without knowing much about the other party. With OkCupid, you have to fill in more than 30 questions about your height, weight and lots of other stuff. It takes away the speed, excitement and addictive element that apps such as Tinder provide. My app takes the middle ground."

Like TagDates, regional dating agency eSynchrony adopts a hybrid approach. There is no individual consultation but it tries to get a more comprehensive picture of clients by having them fill a detailed online questionnaire before matching them with suitable candidates.

It's a daunting list of more than 100 questions seeking users' views on marriage, managing finances, the amount of time they want to spend with their partner and so on.

Based on the collected data, a computer algorithm is applied to match the best-suited users, says Violet Lim, eSynchrony's chief relationship officer.

"Each recommended date gets a percentage assigned to them, telling the user how compatible the person is as a date."

Users pay HK$2,400 for a two-month package, during which they can be matched with at least 20 people. And despite competition from free dating apps and websites, business has held steady, says Singapore-based Lim.

"Many [registering for free web services] are not serious about finding a partner. But those who pay are more sincere."

ESynchrony also organises speed-dating events aimed primarily at attracting high-calibre candidates, sending out invitations to organisations such as lawyer associations.

"Our Hong Kong office is in Central, so many participants in our speed-dating events are finance professionals," Lim says.

Dating advice is something you can't get from a computer program
Rachel Chan, founder Rachael and Smith Matchmakers

At Speed Dating Fever, founder Frankie Wong San-faat says agencies like his can serve as impartial adjudicators in helping people to pair up. While they organise large-scale events such as speed-dates involving 600 people, it's the more intimate dinners for two and outings for groups of six or eight that enjoy a higher match rate.

"Once someone signs up, we conduct phone interviews to ask about their study and work experience, interests, weight, height and expectations and so on. They also need to send us a picture of themselves. People often think more highly of themselves and seek partners who may be out of their league. As an independent third party, we can be more objective and put people in similar leagues together, hence delivering higher match rate."

There are exceptions, of course, he says. "Some women making HK$100,000 a month do not mind having a boyfriend who is unemployed. In such cases, we will meet with them to better understand their needs."

Still, with 10,000 users, they must employ technology to help sort candidates.

"You can't screen thousands of people manually. After computer screening, our staff will match the remaining dozens of people."

Dating agencies face stiff competition in Hong Kong with more than 50 operators vying for clients, in addition to websites and apps. Even so, matchmakers reckon they still have a niche given busy lifestyles and the increasing number of singletons in the city. Rachael Chan Ying-lam, founder of Rachael and Smith Matchmakers, dismisses the competition posed by online-based dating, citing a list of advantages they have over their virtual competitors.

"Dating advice is something you can't get from a computer program. It can dismiss a teacher out of hand, assuming the person is a staid character because of his profession. But he can actually be a fun-loving person," Chan says.

"We can also help temper clients' expectations and encourage them to put away their stereotypes when considering potential mates."

Chan set up the company in 2004 to organise speed-dating events. But three years ago, they began offering individual consultations at the behest of a client who was the chairman of a listed company, she says, recalling how speed-dating participants wouldn't believe her client when he told them what he did.

It's not surprising professionals prefer customised services, she says.

"Looking for a potential mate through blind dates organised by online services or at speed-dating events is like looking for a needle in a haystack [despite a few successes]."

Chan's personal packages cost HK$10,000. The process begins with consultations where staff get a comprehensive picture about the client's disposition, goals in life, interests and background before setting them up with up to five potential partners. The fee goes up to HK$20,000 for older clients - men aged over 45 and women over 35.

This age difference is an expression of the gender imbalance in Hong Kong. It's most acute in the 30 to 44 age group where there are just 841 men to every 1,000 women; so statistically, the chances of women finding a partner are slimmer after they hit the 30-year mark.

Census figures from 2013 show that of the 520,000 women in the city aged 30 or above, 168,000 - 32 per cent - were never married. In 2001, the ratio was 22 per cent of the total - 135,000 out of 600,000 women aged 30 or above.

Ryan, a 34-year-old divorced financier, signed up with Rachael and Smith two months ago after getting fed up with online services.

"I am busy at work and don't have time to chat with strangers online to nurture possible relationships," he says.

So he paid HK$3,000 to an online matchmaker, which paired him with 10 young women. He spent a lot of time and money taking each out several times to get to know them, but none were seeking a serious relationship, Ryan says. "They just wanted to meet a new friend or find someone to keep them company on weekends."

With the customised service, Ryan says dating has been smoother because he and the three women he was introduced to knew a lot about each other before meeting.

"When I was younger, I just looked for a beautiful woman who I had feelings for. But my ex-wife turned out to be quite immature and just quit the relationship when she became upset," he says.

"I'm no longer a person who hooks up with the opposite sex once I feel an attraction. I put much more emphasis on personality and whether the woman is a family-oriented person."

Prospects seem promising with one of his new friends: "We have met many times and are interested in developing the relationship," he says. "But we are both cautious."