When it comes to marriage, Indian families have traditionally relied on the referrals route. The family's elders would fan out into their social network - the 'real' version, not digital - and, if required, enlist the services of a matchmaker to hit upon the right match based on the references of others who were considered reliable. This, of course, was considered a private and safe method but had its downsides as well - in terms of limited choice and control being in the hands of others. The online matchmaking revolution changed that to a large extent, so much so that India today is considered one of the fastest growing markets for online dating and matchmaking applications worldwide. It is, therefore, probably apt that in online, too, we are coming back to referrals as a preferred route for matchmaking as well as dating.
The online matchmaking industry in India is now almost two decades old, and one big benefit it has brought is exponentially increasing the choices available to those seeking partners. Plus, the prospective groom or bride has much greater control over the final choice and outcome. The doors for online matchmaking opened in the country in 2001, with the launch of bharatmatrimony.com. Today, the platform boasts several regional language-based domains and an app, which is more of a private messenger for people listed on the website. Soon, portals like shaadi.com, jeevansathi.com, simplymarry.com, among others, followed suit and took online matchmaking to a different level. According to a Ken Research Report of 2016, India's online matchmaking industry revenues are set to touch $318 million by 2020.
Jeevansathi.com, one of the biggest players in the segment, believes that growing internet penetration in Tier II and Tier III cities is good news for the sector, among other factors. "Education and financial independence of women is playing a big role in driving them to find a partner on their own," says a Jeevansathi spokesperson. "Finding a partner via the web route gives them an easier setting to objectively evaluate matches."
The next stage of this evolution was brought in by the mobile phone, especially the smartphone, which not only made marriage-matching searches handier but also transformed the practice of dating. Dating apps such as Tinder and others boosted dating by making it more convenient and private. Tinder, the world's leading social app to meet new people, launched in India in 2016, and youngsters, particularly in the age group of 18-21, lapped it up. Soon, the space was flooded with names such as TrulyMadly, Woo, Okcupid, Azar, Badoo, Floh and very recently Bumble. And the spurt in the smartphone user base - estimated to touch 450 million users by 2020 - only fuelled the segment's growth.
However, the biggest pitfalls of online dating - whether through a PC or a mobile app - were security and safety, with many women being harassed on online dating sites/apps. Not surprisingly, the gender ratio is highly skewed in favour of males when it comes to online dating. A survey by Woo puts the ratio of male: female users of dating apps at 74:26. It is a crucial issue and companies servicing this segment are working toward solutions.
Woo, for instance, says it keeps users' personal details confidential, analyses users' digital footprint to verify relationship status and professional information, uses algorithms to identify and cull out suspicious profiles, and enables women to call matched profiles without revealing their own phone numbers. "We take pride in putting women first and help like-minded people meet," says Sumesh Menon, Co-Founder & CEO of Woo.
TrulyMadly, another player in the space uses a trust score for authenticity and gets the user Facebook-verified. Bumble, the latest entrant in the dating app space in India, will introduce a feature that will allow women to set their profiles to only show their first initial - no first or last name - and also report bad behavior.
However, possibly the safest method of matchmaking or dating still remains the referrals route. So, dating apps looking to bring in the referrals mechanism in a scientific way is the new trend. For instance, Ponder, a dating app uses referrals from family members and close friends to help its users find the special one. "Ponder takes the intimacy of the traditional family introductions route, but opens it up for the 21st century to give singles greater choice and better control," says Manshu Agarwal, CEO, Ponder. "The internet and social media have given everyone a megaphone, creating even more noise. For people and companies seeking quality connections, referrals from trusted sources can help them cut through that noise to find the right partners."
The underlying foundation of any relationship is trust, especially in potentially lifelong relationships. As we go into the future, online matchmaking looks certain to continue to grow at high speed but bringing in systems like referrals that leverage human trust are crucial for sustainable and safe growth.