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Facing slumping growth and heavy competition, online-dating sites are adopting a new strategy in their quest for the lovelorn: They're becoming user-friendly. Want to banish forever the face of that guy who's totally wrong for you? For the first time, Match.

Seeking someone who's a "giver," a "rebel" or an "observer"? Yahoo Personals now lets you search for them. Dying to know if Ms. Right is a philanderer or a felon? True will run a background check. As some sites go tech-happy, others are wooing specialized audiences -- including the fat, the devout and the right-here-right-now crowd -- in an effort to swipe a chunk of the market from the big boys.

There's plenty at stake in the matchmaker world. That would be enough to make many companies happy, but not in the internet personals business, where double- or triple-digit growth has been the norm. To make matters worse, Hitwise reported last week that online-dating sites ed for fewer than 1 in internet visits, a drop of 15 percent since this time last year.

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At the same time, it's becoming more expensive for dating sites to advertise online and woo enough new customers to create a viable site, said Mark Brooks, an industry consultant who blogs about the business. Indeed, the old approach to online personal -- slap a bunch of photos online, throw in a crude search engine -- is rapidly becoming as retro as SWMs seeking love in the newspaper classifieds.

Many sites offer "compatibility matching," promising that complicated algorithms will find someone whose personality complements yours. Curious about who's intrigued by you? On the communications front, sites like Yahoo Personals now allow users to send canned responses to wannabe Romeos, including polite ways of saying "get lost," like, "Thanks, but I'm taking a break from dating for a while.

And there are more tools than ever for users with a common online-dating complaint: They're tired of seeing or hearing from the same old losers. True, for one, allows so-called "bidirectional blocking": Users can block other members forever and decide who can peruse their own.

Big deal, sniffs Nate Elliott, an analyst with JupiterResearch. The bells and whistles "don't really matter to customers," he said. Beyond that, it's all incremental. Not every also-ran dating site has the money to offer fancy technology gimmicks.

But they still need to make themselves stand out.

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That's where niche marketing comes in, giving birth to sites like BlackPeopleMeet. The quickie-oriented sites are growing rapidly, but "they've flown under the radar," said Brooks. Other, smaller sites are trying to find the perfect gimmick through technology such as cell phones or non-tech strategies like holding singles parties.

Flame dating site

Video has been slow to catch on, perhaps because it's harder to manipulate a video clip -- adding a more attractive hairline, perhaps -- than a Photoshop-vulnerable head shot. Some observers like JupiterResearch's Elliott are skeptical that video will ever go anywhere. After all, he said, researchers and authors like Malcolm Gladwell are discovering the power of instant first impressions. Thompson is also calling for more honesty in the online-dating business.

According to his company's research, the chances that you'll marry a person suggested by one site -- eHarmony. And there's perhaps a 10 percent chance that you'll find a relationship on Match. Dating sites, of course, set up higher expectations.

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