Matching problem in the Indian Dating Market

And no, this has nothing to do with Hall’s Marriage Problem.

As the more perceptive of you might have noticed, about a year and a bit back the wife started this initiative called “Marriage Broker Auntie”. Basically she thinks she is a good judge of people and a good judge of “matches” between people. As a consequence of this, there were many friends and relatives who would approach her to “set them up”. Having (successfully or unsuccessfully) made a few matches among such applicants, she decided to institutionalise it, and thus Marriage Broker Auntie was born.

The explicit objective of the initiative was to broker marriages (as the name clearly suggests. The wife was the “auntie”. The plural in the title was because briefly there was one more (mad) auntie involved but she’s since moved on). The methodology was to “know the customers” and then use an intelligent human process in order to find pairs who might be interested in each other and then set them up for a date. As simple and basic as it gets. The quant in me had already started dreaming up of an expanded business where I could use “big data” and “analytics” and whatnot to “understand” large sets of people and match them up.

But there was a small problem – ok the fundamental problem was that the number of people who had signed up was not very large, but let’s assume that can be solved through marketing – the problem was that the sex ratio on the website was skewed. Heavily. At one point in time I remember there being 20 girls and 5 boys being registered on the website (all heterosexual, perhaps a consequence of “marriage” in the title)! The ratio remained thus as long as the initiative was in existence.

Now this contrasts heavily with other “dating” sites that are operational in India, primarily global sites such as OkCupid and Tinder. The gender ratio on these sites is heavily skewed, too, except that it is heavily skewed in the opposite direction (too many boys, hardly any girls). For example, check out this piece in Man’s World on Tinder, which talks about users who think there is a “permanent bug” in the site that doesn’t allow matches, and of “all girls on the site being bots”.

The problem with most dating sites in India is that there are way too many boys and way too few girls (I should add Orkut also to this list, and should mention that I met my wife through a combination of Orkut and LiveJournal). This leads to girls on the site feeling like they’re “being stalked”, and getting freaked out and getting out of the site. A girl I know signed up on OkCupid India, just on a whim, only to find a hundred “interests” from boys within a few minutes of logging on.

Reading stories like this, you might be bound to imagine that there are no girls in India interested in dating, or getting married. But if you were to look at sites like Marriage Broker Auntie (small sample, I know, but significant gender bias) you know that this is simply untrue. There are girls out there who are looking for flings and relationships, to date and to get married. And they are short of ideas on how to meet such men. “Traditional” dating sites such as OkCupid or Tinder intimidate them, and and are in a completely different business altogether – they make matches on a different set of variables such as caste and gotra and stars and so forth.

So what we have here is classic market failure – of the Indian dating market (this, however, is NOT a call for government regulation! 😛 ). The market is surely fertile (no pun intended), and there is plenty of opportunity to make fat profits if someone can get the matching right. There are a number of players looking to enter the market as I write this (I’ve spoken to some of them), but none look particularly promising.

Oh, and you might want to know why Marriage Broker Aunties gets all the chicks – it’s because of a complicated sign up process (a five page google docs form if i remember right) which puts off any non-serious players. Also there is the promise that until matched, potential counterparties cannot see your profile, and there is a “trusted third party” (in the MBA case, my wife, but an algorithm should do reasonably well to scale) who does the matchings.

The most important bit here is the anonymity – the ground reality in India is that online dating is still seen as a “last resort” – to be resorted to only if you can’t find a match through your network. With Tinder and OkCupid being exclusively dating sites (unlike Orkut which was fundamentally a social network), signing up on one of these two sites is an admission of a degree of desperation (in the eyes of most people), and there is a chance people might see you differently after they know that you’re a member on such sites.

While this explains reasonably well why chicks flock to Marriage Broker Auntie, why is there a shortage of guys on the site? It can’t be that there are no serious guys around for whom the 5-page form is a massive transaction cost. The wife’s (and my) perception is that fundamentally guys want to “check out a girl” (i.e. know well what she looks like, etc.) before agreeing to meet her on a date (I remember scouring Orkut and Facebook for all possible pictures of my then-future-wife and “checking her out” before meeting for the first time). And in an anonymised matching site, this experience is not there. So men don’t like this!

It’s a hard problem but not intractable. There are many companies that are coming into this space now. Hopefully someone will get it right!

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