- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tracy Saks, a mother of three, didn’t know whether she would ever date again after her divorce in 1998. It had been 16 years since she was single, and she had an extra hurdle to overcome: multiple sclerosis.

“If you’re disabled, it’s difficult to meet somebody because you don’t know if they’re going to accept the disability or if they’re prepared to be able to deal with the disability,” Ms. Saks said.

Then she had an idea. After attending a support group for people with joint diseases, Ms. Saks thought of an efficient way for single people with disabilities to meet one another.

“I went online and I looked under ‘disabled dating’ and there was nothing,” said Ms. Saks, who debuted Special Singles Online (www.specialsinglesonline.com) in July 2004. “People were writing to me immediately.”

Ms. Saks is one of an increasing number of operators of niche dating sites in an industry that ballooned from $50 million in 2000 to an estimated $490 million this year, said David Card, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research in New York.

“It wasn’t a respectable business a few years ago,” said Mr. Card, whose company doesn’t have statistics on the industry before 2000. “All of a sudden, there was a real cultural shift. People were far less embarrassed about it and a lot more willing to participate.”

The pace of expansion has slowed: The market is projected to grow 10 percent this year, compared with 19 percent in 2004 and 77 percent in 2003, according to Jupiter Research.

“They tapped out the people that are willing to use it,” Mr. Card said. “How do you appeal to the next group of people?”

For online dating giant Match.com, the answer is to broaden offerings. After conducting a six-month market study, InterActive Corp. started Chemistry.com in early October as a rival to EHarmony.com, which tends to attract more “serious” daters, said Chris Terrill, Match.com vice president for new brands.

“We tried to look at the space and really understand how people were using it,” Mr. Terrill said. The site, which is being tested in Washington, San Diego, Denver and Seattle, touts a questionnaire designed by cultural anthropologist Helen Fisher. “With Chemistry, we believe much more that science can be a testing point.”

Though lacking the resources of the bigger players, smaller online dating sites are niching themselves in the hopes of swallowing up a specialized market. Smoking, sexually transmitted diseases and Ivy League educations are just a few of the characteristics daters might have in common.

“You could think of any concept or any group and there’s going to be some kind of niche online dating service for it,” said Joe Tracy, editor and publisher of the Online Dating Magazine. “Everyone wants a piece of the pie.”

Online dating sites typically charge subscribers $20 to $50 a month, Mr. Tracy added.

San Francisco resident Robert Yau said he was inspired to start Datemypet.com in July 2004 after a stroll in a dog park. The site invites users to specify what kind of pet lovers they will date and even includes a “pet dating” option.

“It acts like an icebreaker,” said Mr. Yau, a former software company employee who now operates Date My Pet full time. “If I’m a cat person and you only like dogs, then there’s no way we’ll get along.”

Even traditional matchmakers are finding their way to the Web.

The Right One and Together Dating, an offline matchmaking service with offices in the Washington area, is offering a “hybrid” online dating option, ELove.com.

The service’s chief executive officer, Paul Falzone, said the existence of online dating sites has only boosted business for offline services, which cost $2,000 to $5,000 for a lifetime membership.

Offline services charge more because they do more of the work, Mr. Falzone said. Unlike most online services, where users might peruse profiles for hours at a time, employees from the Right One and Together Dating find potential matches for you, he said.

“All of these online services are dying on the vine. They are hitting critical mass, but they can’t figure out how to keep members in the system,” said Mr. Falzone, whose company targets dissatisfied online daters by purchasing names from dating sites.

Repeated encounters with “professional online daters” have caused many users to quit, Mr. Tracy said.

“Many people are getting sucked into this world where, because it’s so easy to fall back into online dating, they don’t take the dates and relationships as seriously as they should,” he said.

Still, even dissatisfied online daters will give it another try, he added.

“They’ll come back to it because there’s no single better way to find a match.”

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