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Online Dating Gets a Little Less Virtual

Match.com, one of the largest online dating services, is acquainting itself with the real world via Stir, a new event service that will host up to 3,000 singles parties a year. They'll be hitting 24 cities come June.

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Online dating, it’s now universally agreed, has its limits. Among the two biggest glitches: dates who look nothing like their profile pictures and dates who are happy to email but decline to ever actually go on a bodily, non-virtual date. In an effort to combat such digital diversionary tactics, one of the biggest online dating services, Match.com, has decided to get people out from behind their computers to come out and play. Ironic, no?

Regular dating has its glitches too, including extreme initial awkwardness when two people first meet and the even extremer awkwardness of the next few hours when a date proves to be a nonstarter. Match.com believes that with its database of single-but-searching folks, its algorithm for finding compatibility and a little bit of alcohol, it can put together a heck of a singles mixer.

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The company has been quietly inviting members to gatherings for the past few years — so far, it has hosted about 60 singles events. After all, it knows where the singles are, and it knows what they say they like. So encouraged has Match been by the results, it’s just launched an event service known as Stir, which will host 2,000 to 3,000 singles parties a year, hitting 24 cities in June and 70 in September.

Since everyone at the events  is looking for a date, the awkwardness is a shared burden and will be easier to shrug off, reasons the company. Also, the dating service is digging deep into its database of 3 million singles, so it can slice and dice the guest list. If it wanted to host a singles event on the south side of Topeka in which everybody was a single parent between the ages of 30 and 40 with an interest in Shar-Pei breeding, it could do that — all while making sure that the ratio of male to female dog lovers is perfectly balanced.

Many companies have already tried to spin their online presence into a singles meetup business, including Howaboutwe, Grouper  and even local public radio stations. Match.com’s advantage here is the size of its singles pool and the depth of information it has about their preferences.

Match’s VP of Strategy and Analytics Amarnath Thombre says the Stir meet-ups are not in response to recent studies that have questioned the effectiveness of compatibility algorithms such as the one Match.com offers but a natural area of development for a company that just wants to get people together. Nevertheless it seems to suggest that online dating might have found its natural limits; it cannot find a mathematical formula for chemistry.

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To say the dating company has high ambitions for Stir is an understatement. Match considers its foray into the offline world the biggest news in its 17 years of existence. “We will be the largest singles event company in the world,” predicts Match.com president Mandy Ginsberg. “We could potentially serve half a million people a year.” She also waxes about spurring local economies and revitalizing downtown areas by bringing customers to the local bars where the gatherings take place.

Stir will offer two kinds of events: mixers that come along with monthly membership and activity-specific mixers — a class in mixology or cooking or wine-tasting that attendees will pay extra for. It’s also developing a series of online getting-to-know you games that users who can’t get away from home — half of Match.com’s members are single parents — can use to playfully find out about their potential dates. The games are Family Feud-ish; both players have to answer an opinion question and then compare answers. “Online dating has been an effective way to meet, but it’s not always the best way to get to know someone,” says Ginsberg.

But even games are not nearly as effective a matchmaking tool as actual meetings, acknowledges Ginsburg. “Getting people in front of each other is so important.” In other words, single people, stop reading now.

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