It’s hardly a secret that online dating giants OKCupid and eHarmony serve very different audiences—eHarmony being an older and more rural crowd, OKCupid a younger and more urban user base. But Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj "Misiek" Piskorski has recently uncovered evidence that confirms these demographics also have totally different ways of communicating—or e-courting, for lack of a better term.
Piskorski, the author of the newly released A Social Strategy: How We Profit From Social Media, is one of a handful of researchers worldwide who have obtained data sets from both OKCupid and eHarmony. In the course of writing his book, which is designed for businesses with social media presences, Piskorski found out about the online dating habits of millions of users. After personal information was anonymized, he got to the meat of the matter: How users send messages to each other, how they flirt online, and how they use the sites.
"Where eHarmony varies dramatically is communication," Piskorski told me in a recent telephone interview. "People reach out to each other more on eHarmony, and get more responses on there. The people you traditionally would think have the hardest time reaching out to people do very well on eHarmony."
In his book, Piskorski explains that older women and a subgroup he categorizes as "men who are shorter, older, or overweight" are more likely to send messages to potential partners on eHarmony than on OKCupid. He attributes that to the different demographics which use eHarmony, but he says most of it is due to the site’s design. Because users are connected with a relatively small pool of partners—rather than letting them pursue the entire site as in OKCupid’s case—he feels that encourages otherwise timid users to go ahead and message.
EHarmony gave him a large data set in exchange for unpaid consulting work, while he purchased site records from OKCupid. Both data sets were scrubbed of personal information that could identify their customers, and then Piskorski went to work to see how they tick.
Piskorski told me that he feels eHarmony’s much-vaunted matchmaking algorithms are less central to the service’s success than most people think. Instead, he feels eHarmony became a popular and profitable online service primarily through user experience.
"Stereotypical norms of courtship dictate that men pursue women, and women wait to be courted—this is not a very efficient solution to dating problems," Piskorski says. "EHarmony instead is a place where women are much more likely to reach out to men than on any other site I’ve seen. EHarmony managed to subvert the norm to quietly empower women to reach out to men, and you see the same with older people and others who might be at disadvantages in dating markets."
"EHarmony markets itself as a place where the algorithm makes all the difference, but it’s really restricted communication (that leads to the service’s success). EHarmony only allows you to communicate with a limited number of people with a limited number of matches, and, of course, the people you message also have limited matches. This leads to better odds than Match or OKCupid."
OKCupid’s "Quiver" feature, which appears to have been removed from service earlier this year, ended up being used disproportionately by women in Piskorski’s analysis. In his book, he writes that the service, which used algorithms to recommend several potential contacts for site users, allowed some women to message potential male contacts without feeling any social stigma from stereotypes that men should make the first move.
Meanwhile, OKCupid’s "Quickmatch" feature is disproportionately used by male site members. According to Piskorski, it is used in statistically significant amounts by "young, tall, and athletic men" who normally do the least number of user searches on the platform.
Piskorski says that OKCupid’s visitors feature, which (optionally) shows the identities of users who view a user’s profile, makes men who are shorter, older, or overweight "particularly likely to write to women" who show up in their visitors list. He tells of speaking with one OKCupid user during his research who said "If I see a woman visited my profile, I am thinking, she saw my picture, and the little blurb about me, and something must have attracted her to me. So chances are, if I write to her, she might write me back." His subsequent investigation found that this was the case for many users.
The data sets used for this story can be found here.
[Image: Flickr user Intel Free Press]