Digital Dating During a Pandemic

Digital Dating

Popular apps such as Bumble and Tinder have shared reports of a double-digit increase in messages sent through their platforms since stay-at-home orders were put in place across America.

While brands fill our screens with new COVID-19 messaging around increased family time and visuals depicting happy couples, these companies are missing an opportunity to reach millions of young people who live alone and are not sharing this experience with a significant other. A little more than half of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 do not have a steady partner, according to a 2019 study by General Social Survey.[1] Many of these singles were already looking for love across a variety of dating apps, whose use only increased as our world became even more digital since the novel coronavirus arrived in March.

Digital Dating

Popular apps such as Bumble and Tinder have shared reports of a double-digit increase in messages sent through their platforms since stay-at-home orders were put in place across America.[2] According to a Bumble spokesperson, the second half of March saw a 21% increase in messages sent as well as the use of voice call and video chat features. This upward trend continued through the month of April.[3] On Tinder, daily conversations between users have risen by 20% and there were more than 3 billion swipes recorded on March 29; the highest in the history of the app.[4] This increase in activity can be linked to not only the boredom felt by many as they remain sheltered in their homes, but also as a replacement for the human connection that can normally be found in-person at bars, work, or social events. While many of today’s dating crowd may have hoped for a potential physical run-in with their future partner, they are now forced to shift their search for love online.

Dating isn’t the only thing that has been forced to go virtual. Almost every industry has had to adapt to this new reality. However, those that thrived most on in-person experiences have had to completely reinvent how they operate. For instance, gyms across the US have hosted Instagram Live workouts, expanded their app’s capabilities with pre-recorded workouts, and led Zoom based workouts. All of which you can hear instructors repeating, “If you don’t have weights, that’s okay, grab some cans of beans or empty wine bottles.” While these adjustments have certainly been helpful to clients, the driving force behind these changes are to remain financially stable. As people cancelled memberships and on-site purchases could no longer happen, gyms were forced into alternative revenue streams, including digital classes and for some, equipment rentals.[5] Much like dating, going to the gym is a community experience. It’s a place where people can go and encourage each other to be their best. So, as gyms went online, it didn’t take long for people to yearn for live streamed classes where they could interact with the instructor and each other. Interactions with other people, even if it is digital, helps people stay accountable and helps foster a sense of community.[6]

To understand this shift, we reached out to a spokesperson from Bumble. In response to our question regarding virtual dating and how that affects the level of connectivity between users, the Bumble spokesperson stated,

“Online dating has been widely normalized for some time, but this change in our lives has really put a spotlight on the tools and platforms that can help you feel connected to others digitally.”[7]

This basic human need for interaction is only magnified as many singles are currently experiencing extreme feelings of anxiety, loneliness and essentially, boredom. With the rising number of online profiles and these emotions at play, it’s natural for app users to question the motive of those that they meet on dating platforms. We wanted to find out more, so we conducted an online survey of people currently using dating apps during COVID-19. One respondent said, “People are bored so you don’t know what their intentions are quite as well.” Another made clear the pressures of the current dating scene, “The risks of COVID ‘up the ante’ and kind of forces the question of how serious that person is about the potential of you and dating in general.”

In fact, COVID-19 has been a notable topic of conversation between online daters as Tinder shared the recent popularity of hand-washing emojis and toilet paper references in bios.[8] The constant reminder of our new reality can be depressing and has forced many new relationships to confront the topic head on. A woman in New York took the plunge by sheltering in place with someone she had met on Hinge. “We were at the point, about 6 weeks into dating, where it was like we either had to commit to not seeing each other indefinitely or to just go for it. So he basically moved in with me. And now we’re dating exclusively.”[9]

Experts have advised against singles meeting up and New York even shared guidelines encouraging “video dates, sexting or chat rooms.”[10] While getting within six feet of someone you’ve only met online seems risky nowadays, it appears social distancing is not a priority for many as dating app bios feature lines hinting at the possibility of quarantining together and others message requests for in-person hangouts. In our agency survey, the majority of respondents stated that their worst online dating experience during the pandemic has been related to individuals pushing the social distancing boundaries and “trying to meet up to hookup even though we are in a quarantine.”

This concern for safety is just one of several challenges faced by digital daters during COVID-19. It’s easy to make the comparison with the popular Netflix reality show Love Is Blind where contestants are not allowed to see each other and are expected to end up engaged all by talking to each other from separate rooms. The truth is that those young adults seeking a real relationship are missing out on important moments in their life when they should be building serious connections with a romantic partner.

One of the toughest obstacles has been maintaining interest and engagement while dating virtually and dealing with the mental trauma of a worldwide pandemic.

When asked what has made dating during coronavirus different, one of our survey respondents said “having to date during a heightened emotional state, doing zoom dates or getting more creative with conversation.”

One reply even stated, “it feels like there’s really nothing to talk about because I am not my normal self during this pandemic.” This lingering acknowledgement that online relationships formed during these times of uncertainty may lack intention can be discouraging and draining.

Even with a heightened awareness that these conversations may in fact lead to nothing, singles are still chatting with each other now more than ever. It turns out, these recent digital exchanges are not only longer, but also more sincere. Without the daily happenings that make up a majority of small talk or situational moments that come from meeting up for a dinner date, people are able to reach a deeper level of conversation and connection much quicker. A Bumble representative shared feedback from one user who “feels that going through this experience has made her open up more to her Bumble matches and she’s been more vulnerable when meeting new people online. We’re also hearing from other users that they’re feeling more relaxed and more comfortable having deeper conversations online since the pressure is off to immediately meet up IRL.”

Digital Dating

Bumble also mentioned that they have seen nearly one in four chats turn into something more meaningful. OkCupid recently reported a 5% increase in their users looking for long-term relationships and a 20% decrease in those looking for hookups.[11] There seems to be a re-emergence of courtship before intimacy or even meeting someone in-person, admired Helen Fisher, anthropologist, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and longtime adviser at[12] This virtual screening process and genuine openness are elements that many digital daters hope last beyond COVID-19.

As with all brands refocusing their messaging and priorities around coronavirus, the online dating industry has also taken a moment to shift their concentration and prove that they are “here to help.” As app usage continues to increase, these companies are pushing new features such as free Tinder Passport, Coffee Meets Bagel’s virtual speed dating, and Bumble’s “Virtual Dating” badge. Surprisingly, Bumble was the only app to successfully launch a video chat feature back in 2019, with Hinge introducing their Date From Home video calling just a month ago in April and Tinder hoping to offer video capability within the next few months.[13]

Despite announcing their video feature in 2019, Bumble partnered with Common and Tiffany Hadish to showcase how to virtually date during COVID-19. The campaign encouraged virtual connections to combat loneliness while also giving back to medical workers, hospitality workers, and small businesses that have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus. The pair helped to raise money for local efforts and sent meals from local restaurants to front line workers.[14] While the initial campaign helped to encourage more Bumble users to utilize the video feature, it also had long lasting effects. Weeks later there are still numerous media sources discussing a rumored relationship between the two. Every time they are mentioned together, Bumble also receives free PR, which ultimately has led to increased time on the app. This speaks to the power of symbiotic brand and celebrity partnerships. Creating buzzworthy content with dating app partners is likely to build a long term consumer affinity for the brands involved.

Video dating hasn’t always been a popular option, but as it becomes the only option for those looking to connect, brands have noticed the change in consumer behavior. Bumble has already recorded an 84% increase in use of their voice call and video chat tools.[15] Since the spread of coronavirus in the US, nearly three in ten singles have gone on virtual dates according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of LELO.[16] This new normal may be satisfactory for some, but others struggle to adapt with the missing element of physical chemistry. When asked about the biggest obstacles they’ve faced while digital dating during COVID-19 in our survey, one single commented, “people wearing sad pajamas on video dates or seeing the dirty disaster that is their apartment. It’s hard not to meet people only because that’s the best way to feel our chemistry.”

Digital Dating

Virtual dates have proven to be tolerable for some while others have welcomed these online interactions. OkCupid found that most of its users favor a game or activity during their video dates (31%), while others prefer digital dinner and drinks (29%), want a simple video chat (25%) or opt for remotely watching a TV show or movie together (15%).[17] They recently polled more than 1 million consumers to gather additional creative date ideas and received responses such as, “building a playlist together; tackling a crossword together; watching an old concert on YouTube together; drawing pictures of each other; doing your taxes together; and ‘watching TikToks and trying to understand the youths.’”[18]

As new couples continue to set up virtual wine tastings and order each other delivery dinners, there’s a huge opportunity for brands to step in and provide helpful products and services for digital daters.

This trend in video dates may seem like exactly that, a trend, but it’s clear that this pandemic will forever alter the way humans interact with one another. Anthony Fauci, a prominent member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, even said, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” when asked about life after COVID-19.[19]

Companies from all industries will need to remain innovative and look for ways to adapt along with their consumers. Bumble has been leading the charge for dating apps with their promotion of new features and brand partnerships. “In a time when we’re urging our users to meet virtually for the time being, we’ve also worked with a number of businesses to help make facilitating virtual connections even easier for our users. For example, we recently announced a partnership with Airbnb where we’re sponsoring a contest where 100 of our users will be selected to go on unique virtual first dates through Airbnb’s Online Experiences,” said their spokesperson. So what else can we expect for the future of digital dating?

Many brands are missing a remarkable opportunity to ease this pain felt by singles as they attempt to navigate video dating. Meal delivery services, such as Uber Eats, GrubHub, and Doordash, were up 70% year-over-year during the last week in March, with basket prices increasing by 24%.[20] Similarly, online alcohol sales increased drastically. At the onset of the pandemic, sales increased by 243% largely due to apps like Instacart and Drizly.[21] Even date-night subscription boxes are seeing increases in sales. Mystery, a Seattle startup, traditionally involved food, drinks, dessert and a random activity curated by their employees. However, when COVID began they shifted their efforts towards creating a ‘night in’ box. Where couples could experience a similar adventure from their home.[22] Although Mystery is a more high-end experience, couples living together can order date night boxes from anywhere within the US, to keep their quarantine life fresh.

Food and alcohol delivery, along with curated activity packages, make for a great date night, with one caveat, these only benefit couples who live together. For those embarking on a digital dating experience, it can be a hassle to coordinate multiple orders or come up with activities for the pair to do simultaneously. This is where the opportunity for brands comes in. It goes without saying that the future of dating will be forever changed by COVID. People have accepted that video dating can help with the screening process and with long distance relationships. Brands who realize this shift have an opportunity to help these couples create unforgettable dates. Whether that’s offering and advertising shipping to two different locations within the same order or creating date night kits where each person receives a corresponding package, the attention to these couples’ unique needs will not go overlooked and will help to establish long term brand loyalty.