: The future of Match could hinge on an app not named Tinder

MarketWatch illustration/iStockphoto After turning Tinder into its main financial engine, Match Gro

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MarketWatch illustration/iStockphoto

After turning Tinder into its main financial engine, Match Group Inc. is looking to repeat that success with Hinge.

Since Match MTCH, -1.43% made its first investment in Hinge back in 2017, the dating app has seen its user base grow 20 times, the company shared exclusively with MarketWatch. Now Match fully owns Hinge, and its goal is a more serious revenue push that draws from some of Tinder’s lessons without losing sight of what gives Hinge its core appeal with an audience of mostly urban millennials.

Hinge was launched in 2012 as an app seeking to move beyond the “hookup culture” that Tinder is known for and into more serious relationship building, with a main selling point of leveraging existing connections to meet people. When Match initially got involved with Hinge, the app had a fairly limited set of revenue-generating features, namely the ability to pay for more search features or unlimited likes.

Match left that strategy in place at first as it worked on growing Hinge’s user base and building its relationship-focused brand, but now it’s “finally focusing on monetization,” according to Amarnath Thombre, chief executive of the company’s Americas business, who oversees its non-Tinder properties.

The recent push has Hinge on track to triple its revenue this year, a Match Group spokeswoman told MarketWatch.

One successful feature lets users pay to have their profiles shown to many more daters, similar to an option offered on Tinder. Hinge also added the ability for suitors to purchase virtual roses for special matches. This bears resemblance to the “super like” feature on Tinder but adds a more romantic twist to play off Hinge’s more relationship-oriented identity.

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Traction with some of these newer efforts has Thombre confident about Hinge’s ability to pursue a monetization strategy while deviating from Tinder in one important way: One of the biggest draws of Hinge is that it lets users see who’s already liked them for free. Users have to pay for that ability on Tinder, and it’s one of the main selling points of the company’s “gold” subscription tier.

“The core appeal of Hinge is seeing who liked you,” Thombre said. “I don’t see any reason to touch that feature of Hinge.” 

Hinge is also working on sharpening its branding, he told MarketWatch. Early on, the app was billed as a way for people to get matched up with friends of friends. Now Hinge has a broader aim to be “the relationship app for millennials” and the company is marketing it as a dating app for people who want to be done with dating apps.

These campaigns have helped the company increase its appeal beyond New York and Los Angeles, Thombre said, with eyes on other U.S. cities and markets like the U.K., Australia, and some Scandinavian countries. The user base remains mostly millennials.

Analysts seem upbeat about Hinge’s potential as well. “We believe Hinge is Match’s next major revenue and earnings growth driver,” Morgan Stanley’s Lauren Cassel said in a note to clients last week, while reiterating an overweight rating on the stock and boosting her price target to $151 from $141. She sees room for Hinge to add more a la carte paid features beyond Boost and believes the company can raise subscription prices further. 

Cassel estimates that the brand currently has 6 million monthly active users and about 400,000 subscribers. “[W]e estimate Hinge will likely reach ~63% the number of Tinder subscribers at scale, but should be able to monetize those users at a much higher rate” due to a more premium, mature customer base, she wrote.  

Match Group is also trying to appeal to millennial daters by revitalizing its “affinity” brands, aimed at connecting daters with people from similar demographic or cultural groups. Match’s affinity business previously skewed toward older daters with web-based options, but Thombre said the company has seen “tremendous growth” for newer mobile apps BLK, Chispa, and Upward, which focus on the Black, Latino, and Christian communities, respectively. 

“The interface is like Tinder with swiping through profiles, but at the same time we’ve added flavors that resonate culturally,” he told MarketWatch. These include the ability for users to share a deeper breakdown of their cultural roots. 

Investors could be paying more attention to the online-dating landscape going forward as Match rival Bumble, which operates a dating app as well as apps for business networking and friendships, is reportedly considering an initial public offering. (A Bumble spokeswoman declined to comment on potential IPO plans.)

Thombre argues that Match’s success stems in part from its vast library of dating apps, including older properties like Match.com and OkCupid as well as up-and-coming brands like Hinge, BLK, and Chispa. The company’s view is that the apps don’t cannibalize each other but rather help teach each other lessons.

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The Match strategy is to “have each app run its own experiment,” according to Thombre. “As those experiments work, that’s where the power of the portfolio and playbook comes in” as the company tries to transfer winning ideas across its other apps in a way that’s mindful of their different audiences. 

The brightest spot within Match Group is Tinder, which raked in $1.2 billion in revenue last year to account for just over half the company’s total revenue. When Match spun out of IAC/InterActiveCorp. IAC, +0.23% and became a stand-alone public company in 2015, there was doubt that the company would be able to convince Tinder’s millennial audience to pay for enhanced dating app features, but Tinder has amassed more than 6 million paying subscribers as of the June quarter. 

Tinder’s successes are of some help as Match looks to revamp some of its older dating platforms with modern features. Web-centered apps like Match.com have been getting a mobile-first spin and the interface is “almost unrecognizable” when compared with what it looked like two years ago, Thombre said.

Match.com also now has a video feature and, for the first time, a “proper” free tier that lets daters “truly experience the product” even if they don’t want to pay. The free version has helped Match.com improve user retention, Thombre said, and it also helps create a better experience for paid users because it widens the pool of available suitors.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Match Group’s older brands that are doing the most with video so far, though Thombre sees plenty of room for the category to grow. 

“No one has yet gotten one-on-one video in dating right,” he argued. The challenge is to use video to “eliminate the half date or coffee date” so that “by the time you step out to meet the person, you’re pretty sure there’s chemistry.” 

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The company is trying out live streaming on its Plenty of Fish dating service, allowing users to broadcast themselves to a wide dating pool as they talk about their lives, play an instrument, or engage in other forms of entertainment. Viewers can converse with streamers or seek to match with them, as well as pay for virtual gifts as a way to thank the streamer or gain attention.

Live streaming represents a “lucrative monetization business” for Plenty of Fish, in Thombre’s view. The company said it’s led to more than 2 million matches, with more than 5.5 members trying out the feature. Half of those involved in live streaming are either millennials or members of Gen Z.

Match’s efforts to grow the non-Tinder properties are beginning to show up in the company’s financials. These businesses in aggregate posted 2% year-over-year growth in the first quarter, their first period of positive growth since 2016, and then increased revenue 9% in the second quarter. 

“The goal is to accelerate that growth,” Thombre said. “If you step back as a company, there’s a new growth vector outside Tinder now.”  

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