“I can remember talking to twentysomethings and they would just laugh at me and say, ‘I hope that I never have to use online dating. I have a lot of friends and a social life,’” Langston said.
If only it were that simple today, especially for Langston, the new CEO of eHarmony. Founded in 1997 by psychologist Neil Clark Warren, the Los Angeles company was a pioneer in using the Internet to match potential couples. Over time, eHarmony was primarily known for older people willing to endure long surveys and an arduous process of “guided communications” to find love.
But online dating has exploded in recent years, especially among younger people. About 15 percent of U.S. adults reported using an online dating service this year, compared with 11 percent three years ago, according to a report by the Pew Center. Among those 18 to 24 years old, 22 percent said they used free mobile apps like Tinder, a fourfold jump from 2013.
“I don’t think we have any interest in the person who just wants to pick up someone,” Langston said during a recent visit to The Chronicle. “We like the DNA of the company. We’ve been a premium offering from the day we started. We have done a lot of work to build expertise that has value. We’re here for a reason.”
Since most people get married in their late 20s or early 30s, Langston wants to at least get eHarmony into the minds of Tinder uses so they are willing to try it once they are ready to settle down, he said
“But there are people using Tinder today who are not looking for a hookup, that want a serious relationship,” he said. “That person belongs at eHarmony. It’s our failure that caused them to be on Tinder. They exchanged (our) expertise for (Tinder’s) ease of use.”
Desktop sites like Match (which owns Tinder) and eHarmony pair people through complex algorithms derived from data their users put into the system, including age, income, education and hobbies.
Tinder, however, relies on a smartphone’s GPS to allow users to see photos of people in the same area. They swipe right if they like the person, left for the opposite. Tinder, which is free, has become so popular that “swipe left” and “swipe right” have made their way into the vernacular.
“Tinder has allowed people to think of dating as a more casual activity,” said Laura Chau, an associate who specializes in technology deals for Canaan Partners venture capital firm in San Francisco. With the mobile device, “it allows dating into all parts of your life: You’re on a bus swiping left and right.”
For Langston, the challenge is making eHarmony relevant to the hook-up generation without compromising the hand-holding, yenta-like approach to dating that made the company so prominent
Yet Tinder has become synonymous with finding a one-night stand rather than a meaningful relationship. That’s where eHarmony sees an opening.
“One of lovoo the things we’ve learned is that people in their 20s and 30s who have income are very happy to spend more in the search for a more enduring relationship,” Langston said. “When you’re in the 40s and 50s that changes. You can see the impact of relationships that don’t work out. You see bitterness. They believe less in compatibility. They are interested in companionship but not marriage.”
To reach people in that limited window, eHarmony must make itself easier to use, Langston said. Even he acknowledges that the company’s process is a bit clunky, especially the feature that requires both partners in a potential match to jointly answer a series of questions before meeting, a feature that has grown stale, he said.
“Obviously, people that were using eHarmony in the past who want a simpler interface have gone to these sites,” Langston said. “That’s really my first order of business, to rebuild our apps and desktop experience so there’s some comparability to the experience you get with those guys.”
In early December, eHarmony will release features that will make communications feel less like email and more like instant messaging services like Slack. Langston said he also wants to explore video.
“I have a world-class video camera that shoots great video on this phone,” Langston said. “Why isn’t that part of the experience? Why am I not using that to communicate or show my profile, who I am? So we’re looking at that.”