Dating Apps Take a Swipe at In-Person Meetups

While dating apps and websites have been around for quite a while, some singles have been offput by swiping and liking. But as Hans Klis reports, the digital dating industry is trying to create some new buzz by getting physical—that is, actually meeting people in person.

The walls have been painted bright yellow and are covered in hexagonal shaped mirrors. A group of about forty women and ten men are seated on eggshell white futons and are sipping on ‘Bee-Mosas.’ They’re listening to a panel discussion on women’s rights in the Trump era. Behind them a piece of art says: ‘Bee Yourself Honey.’

This is The Hive. It’s the first step for dating app Bumble into the physical realm. For most of June the building at 158 Mercer Street in the heart of New York City’s trendy SoHo neighborhood brought swiping left or right into a brick and mortar setting. Users could meet face to face here, have a drink or engage in network events and panels with female business leaders from Forbes, TheSkimm and Cosmopolitan.

The events fit the carefully curated brand of Bumble as the female-friendly dating app. Launched in 2014 by former Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, the emphasis in The Hive is on empowerment of women, not just getting a date.

“We wanted to extend our user experience beyond digital connections and by providing a place for them to meet and mingle and show more of what Bumble is about through programming, events and partners,” Wolfe said, explaining the reason for launching the pop-up event. “Our goal was to create the same safe, engaging atmosphere that Bumble represents into physical form.”

Unlike Tinder, only women can initiate contact with men who’ve swiped right on their profiles. It prevents a lot of the harassment some women say they experience with online dating.

The Hive event is also a way of easing users into the next step in the evolution of the Bumble brand. Launching later this year, Bumble Bizz will make networking easier than sending an InMail on LinkedIn.  A business connection will only be a swipe away.

Although the visitors of The Hive seem a little subdued during the panel discussion on women’s rights, the party gets going after music is turned on and alcoholic beverages are served. The pop-up meeting place for Bumble starts to feel more like a relaxed high-end nightclub. And there’s none of the pressure finding that perfect match you find at speed date events organized by competitors like eHarmony.

According to Bumble CEO Wolfe, the responses to the brick-and-mortar event have been “amazing.” On the company website people are already being persuaded to download the app to get notifications of where the next Hive will pop up: “Our users are always first priority, and any activations would be to support them.”

Dating apps entering the physical space may not seem to be a logical step for this particular market. Aren’t they supposed to make finding a partner easier by not having to spend time in bars and clubs? But these dating services are seemingly following in the footsteps of other online players – predominantly in retail - like Warby Parker, Bonobos and Amazon. All of them are moving to incorporate physical locations to engage with customers.  

For UK online furniture retailer Made.com the recent opening of a showroom in the heart of Amsterdam made a lot of sense. “There are people who’re comfortable buying a couch online,” country manager Damien Poelhekke explains. “Some are not. And they start with purchasing a little thing like a lamp before moving onto bigger products.” But most people want to experience a service or good in real life. “They want to touch that new couch. Hell, they even want to jump on it.” That’s where a physical location like a showroom comes in.

“Essentially it’s about the story you can tell your customers. You give them a sense of awe. Here’s where you really can’t differentiate between off and online any more,” notes Poelhekke.

For Amazon, which bought Whole Foods in June and was already experimenting with physical book stores in the US, it’s all about distribution. Physical locations help set up a network of distribution and consumer pick-up centers to make deliveries faster and easier, for all its products, not just Amazon Fresh. The retail giant will also be able to leverage huge amounts of data to streamline consumer experiences in Whole Foods grocery stores. 

Bumble branching out into the brick-and-mortar realm is a great way to build its brand, analysts at JWT Intelligence write in their ‘Dating apps IRL’ report: “As Bumble’s mission is to connect people and create a sense of community, a physical presence is a smart way forward for the brand. It brings Bumble to life and gives it some tangibility.”

That’s why not only Bumble is getting physical. Competitor Tinder, together with ad agency Wieden + Kennedy New York and Delta Airlines, launched their own event on the other side of the East River: Delta Dating Wall. Giant paintings of nine different exotic vacation destinations – like Paris, Los Angeles, Pisa, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Moscow – on the corner of Wythe Avenue and N10th in trendy Williamsburg provide the background for a new profile picture; because people who travel are more attractive, according to Wieden + Kennedy.

Thus Tinder and Delta working together is not so strange. It underscores how major brands can leverage digital brands or services like dating apps to reach a new or targeted consumer markets.

In 2016 Grindr showcased another way online dating apps can branch out. The dating service launched its own fashion line.

Dating apps trying on new services - like networking - and building a physical presence is strategic, explains Sameer Singh, industry analysis director at App Annie. He says the key to success of any app is user acquisition, followed by engagement: “Any successful dating app relies on these two steps as the cornerstone of their strategy. Once an app has amassed an impressive user base, it’s an intelligent next step to harness that community - whether that’s for advertising or for building in new features to the app.”

Pokémon Go is a good example of this, Singh illustrates. Its sponsored PokeStops (places where you collect in-game items that are located in stores or restaurants) drive footfall to advertising partners, “which is a brilliant way to further monetize an already successful and innovative gaming app. Developer Niantic has done well to harness the game’s popularity to further its success.” The analyst stresses that the key to its success though was the mass appeal and relevance to the audience demographic.”

Surviving the physical realm means that dating apps have to be as relevant offline as they are online. That makes Tinder’s Dating Wall in Williamsburg, while entertaining, still more of a marketing play for Delta Airlines, involving little community or brand building.

Bumble though, shows a space can make it more than just a passing swipe at tactile connections. It takes a New York minute to meet one of the million potential partners at any rooftop bar or café in the city; but only in The Hive can you sip a Bee-Mosa with female leaders of industry and at the same time ‘Bee Yourself.’