Global Observer

Asia's heavy mobile usage helps dating sites thrive

Asia's heavy mobile usage helps dating sites thrive

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HONG KONG -- Online dating platforms are taking advantage of Asians' attachments to their phones -- and even their shyness around dating.

HONG KONG -- Flicking through a long list of potential matches on her phone’s OkCupid app and chuckling at a few messages, Cassandra, 32, who wished her full name not be used, said this platform had been the source of her latest dating adventures.

In the past few years, she has tried speed-dating events and has gone to see a matchmaker, to little avail. Since she started using OkCupid.com a few months ago, she has gone on a few dates and sees the appeal of online dating services.

“People use them because they are good tools to expand their social circle, like if they just moved to a new city or don’t really meet new people easily — or if they are more comfortable interacting with people electronically,” she said.

Online dating is catching on in Hong Kong, and the dating sites say the city's heavy mobile usage works to their advantage. But the more conservative dating culture in Asia is a challenge that may also help spur business, because even though many singles seeking a long-term relationship here are reluctant to date numerous people, users and service providers say, some of that inhibition may go away by having the dates set up over keyboards.

“A dating site forcibly brings two parties together, so it can almost replace that nervousness of talking to each other. That’s why it works so well out in Asia,” said Brett Harding, a co-founder of Lovestruck.com, a London-based online dating site with a growing presence in Hong Kong.

Harding said Lovestruck first expanded outside of Britain to Singapore and Hong Kong after finding the cities so receptive to the mobile component of online dating.

“I think Asians, dating and mobile go hand in hand. They’re like the perfect triumvirate. Everything’s heading toward mobile, it’s exploding. So we’re actually seeing it grow even more in our Hong Kong, Singapore sites than possibly in Europe,” he said.

Hong Kong's mobile penetration is said to be 230 percent, since the average person uses more than one cell phone.

Despite its modernity, Hong Kong’s cultural urgency for people to get married in a timely manner holds strong, even recently spawning a popular reality show that followed a few women, mostly in their 30s, on their quest to find a mate. In Singapore, it isn’t just parents who hope their children would get married before 30, which is something of a target age throughout developed Asian countries; the low birth rate there is considered a crisis, which has the government pushing for more dating and sponsoring homegrown online dating companies.

While there are no comprehensive figures about the users of online dating sites here, anecdotal evidence suggests it has become markedly more popular in the past few years.

"I never thought I would do online dating, because I felt embarrassed about putting myself out there on such a platform," said one 30-year-old user in Hong Kong, who requested anonymity because she is still slightly embarrassed. "But one day, a friend who moved to Singapore for work came back with a rather mature, nice boyfriend and told us she met him through the Internet."

"So a few months ago, I created a profile," she said.

Lovestruck's Hong Kong member base has grown 40 percent each year since it began marketing efforts in the city around 2009, and the company says it hopes to double or triple its number of users in about a year. The site has stuck with an English-language platform, but other services that originate in Western countries, including Match.com and HongKongCupid.com (run by Australian-based Cupid Media), have launched Chinese versions.

Asia seems to be just getting over the stigma of online dating that once surrounded the industry even in the West, and sites are trying to meet this change, says Samir El-Alami, the director of online marketing at Lovestruck. But he says deep-seated cultural norms about relationships are proving a greater hurdle for dating sites.

Whereas in Britain it is considered normal to go on lots of dates until finding the right person, in Asia “it’s slightly more of a Disney love story that people are looking for, where you want to find that one person and fall in love. You don’t want to be going out on loads of dates with loads of different people,” El-Alami said.

But Lovestruck, which organizes offline social gatherings too, has taken measures to adapt to the shyness here by hiring people tasked with breaking the ice and introducing singles to each other at the events.

“We’re embracing the culture there. We’re understanding that they’re not potentially as outgoing as our London member base,” Harding said.

Photo: Flickr/philcampbell

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure