Op-ed: China's dating site market suffers from some chronic trust issues

If you aren't the one

Op-ed: China's dating site market suffers from some chronic trust issues

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Researchers Lin Shi and Florian Kohlbacher from the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) explain popular perceptions among China's single men and women toward online match-making services—and the accompanying business opportunities and challenges presented by China’s social norms.

For those keeping an eye on China's economy, it's clear the country is suffering from oversupply it doesn't know how to deal with—but not just in steel and coal. While demographics indicate that China's current gender imbalance will only get worse in the coming decades, there are actually a large number of women and men who can't seem to find their other half.

Some are unfairly branded ‘leftover women’ or ‘bare branches’ by state media and the commercial press. These labels arose in part from the general expectation in much of China that the proper age for marriage falls between 25 and 27-years-old, though this may be moderating somewhat in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Even so, officialdom has tacitly approved the term ‘leftover women,’ officially defined in 2007 as one of 171 new words that year by the education ministry as those who are single and over the age of 27.

Such women are stereotyped as highly educated high-earners whose standards for potential spouses are relatively high. In contrast, ‘bare branches’ refers to older Chinese men without spouses, though the term lacks the government-decreed definition of its female counterpart. In response to the real and imagined pressures that brought about such terms, there has been a boom in online match-making platforms in the last ten years, with top sites including Jiayuan.com and Baihe.com claiming they can turn a profit by doing cupid one better.

It all sounds very nice. But recent refinancing announcements call such claims into question: In 2014, Baihe.com reportedly generated RMB298 million (US$45.93 million) in revenue, a loss of RMB36.68 million. In May the platform announced it was refinancing to the tune of RMB1.5 billion and planned to list on the mainland's stock market. And based on the only partial disclosure of such sites' performance statistics, it is also reasonable to be skeptical about whether mainland match-making sites are really meeting Chinese customers' needs.

In fact, while ads plastered along subway platforms and across websites portend to offer exactly what China's singles are looking for, little consumer research has been done about the real concerns of unmarried people and their reasons for using – or avoiding – online match-making services. To remedy this deficiency we conducted research entailing a series of in-depth interviews with single women and men aged 27-40 to learn more about what makes them tick—and what ticks them off.

I don’ts

The clearest and most important reason many have never used online dating services is because they have no desire to do so.

"I don't have any such need," one Ms. Ye (27) told us. "The men in my life now are enough." A Mr. Yang (28) likewise said he met plenty of women in his day-to-day life. But beyond the perception that such services were unnecessary we found other reasons behind the popular aversion.

Matters of trust came up frequently, particularly when it came to the information in user profiles. One Ms. Wang (28) said she avoided dating sites because she really didn’t believe personal information on such sites, and a male interviewee, Mr. Yang (28), said he agreed it could be completely made up: "People can artificially build up fantastic images of themselves and develop virtual relationships online, but these aren't helpful in reality," he said. Protecting personal data that was accurate was another major concern among female interviewees, with some suspecting their information wouldn't be safe in dating sites' hands.

Older women were also skeptical that dating sites would be of much use based on their perceptions of aged-based prejudice among men, even those of the same age. Ms. Chen (40) told us that "men are very pragmatic. They care about a woman's age—even old men prefer young women."

Meanwhile, among men we found the suspicion that the women who do use dating sites "are either not attractive… or too picky to feel satisfied with any men in their vicinity," to quote one Mr. Yang (29).

Other major concerns among male users included a bias against dating sites as an appropriate starting point for a meaningful long-term relationship. Mr. Li (31) suggested that just "aiming to get married would involve ignoring many aspects of the other person that can be important in day-to-day life." But that is precisely why many do sign up.

A need for speed

Among both the women and men we interviewed, the primary incentive to use dating sites in China was often an urgent desire to get married. Miss Pan (36) said that “after all, I'm not young anymore, and I do want to get married. Using online dating sites could be one way to find the right person, so I'll keep using them—but it's not the only way."

We also noticed a strong desire not to "marry down" among some respondents who viewed themselves in a rather positive light, as well as awareness of the technological necessities of the sector. "Maybe I'll use one to get married," said another man surnamed Yang, "but the one I use has to target high-end customers, at least on a level like mine. That requires [the sites] to have access to good 'human resources' and to provide reliable information-filtering services."

Much of the pressure to get married came, not unexpectedly, from family members. A Ms. Duan (29) noted that due to pressure from her parents and other relatives, "my older sister helped me register an account with a dating site. I'm going to keep it because they ask about it from time to time." Other women said they used such sites because they simply didn't have time thanks to a heavy workload.

But no male interviewees' responses cited family needling as a reason for registering, although one Mr. Yang (29) reported “some pressure from grandparents and parents to get married”. Instead, literally all of our male respondents said they'd come across advertisements for dating sites while watching reality dating shows, such as "If You Are the One". Overall, though, it seems that parental pressures are more strongly pronounced for Chinese women than men.

But they also said the advertisements had little impact on whether they trusted the information in those sites' profiles, indicating little correlation between brand awareness and perceptions of trustworthiness

Willing partners

Regardless of whether they used dating sites or not, everyone had strong opinions about the prospect of paying to use them—often negative.

"I registered and planned to give it a go, but I found that every service requires you to pay," said Ms. Wang (28). "So I don't plan on using them again—it's like paying to try and reserve a husband.

One Mr. Yang said he'd consent to paying several hundred yuan to go on a date with someone from his area, but said it was unreasonable for dating sites to ask for the same—again, he noted, "the information provided online is usually fake".

Others, though, were happy to pay a fee. A Ms. Yang said she treated the whole endeavor as entertainment, and by that standard "it doesn't cost a lot of money." Views like this hit at a key difference between those who enjoy their use of dating sites and those who come away disappointed—and it's unfortunately tied intimately to the reason they use them in the first place.

Among women who approach these sites as something fun – as entertainment – there was a positive correlation between using them and resulting individual happiness. But for those who were using the services chiefly to find a fiancée – likely under pressure from family – these platforms were perceived as disappointing and a waste of money.

In short, the wide variety of feedback and frequent concerns about the veracity of personal info indicate that China's online dating sites are far from the heaven-sent matchmakers they claim to be.

As the above user comments demonstrate, dating sites in China have to prove their trustworthiness before they can explore growth opportunities and begin to target certain niches, like those of high-end consumers who are busy and willing to pay for precise information filtering in order to find “the one”—or at least a few potential "the ones".

The companies running these sites need to come up with valid solutions to prevent users from using fake information to dupe other users into a date, particularly if they want to charge for their services. Platforms first have to win users' trust and establish a reputation for successful matches before the cohorts most likely to use them will start turning to them first thing when looking for a match, instead of as a last resort. 

Lin Shi is a Research Associate at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.

Florian Kohlbacher is an Associate Professor of marketing and innovation at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou. He is an internationally renowned expert on business and consumer trends in Asia. He also supervised the final-year projects of Haoyue Bai and Zhuchen Huang, recent IBSS graduatewho conducted the interviews with the female participants mentioned in this article as part of their projects.


Editor: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)