The behavioural economics of online dating

St Valentine’s Day is looming so it’s a good time to have a peak at how online dating sites use behavioural techniques to their advantage.

Valued in excess of $120 million in Australia, and $2.5 billion in the US, online dating is big business, with more than one out of every five 18-40-year-olds having used a site or app. So how do a couple of Australia’s leading sites, eHarmony and RSVP, get customers to pay?

Customer acquisition strategy

For both eHarmony and RSVP, getting people to join is the first task. However, they approach customer acquisition in slightly different ways.

With over 2 million people on their books, RSVP offers low barriers to entry to acquire users. People can search, view profiles and express interest (by sending a “kiss”) for free. Only when they wish to augment their profile or interact with someone do they need to pay.

At an estimated 1 million, eHarmony has fewer customers than RSVP. In part this can be explained by its pricing model, which provides a much more limited experience for non-paying customers. While people can set up a free profile and receive potential “matches”, customers have to pay before they can view pictures.

The lesson? Make it easy for people to join, and that means low/no cost, obvious benefits, and limited hoops to jump through.

Converting free to paid customers

Once people have joined, the online dating sites work hard to convert users to paying customers. 

1. Using tension to drive conversion

Both eHarmony and RSVP use tension to drive conversion from free to paid. How? By withholding something of value.

EHarmony withholds access to photos and RSVP withholds the ability to correspond.

The lesson? Offering a level of service for free can be a great way to get customers psychologically invested in your product. The key is to hold something back that customers value so you can entice them to upgrade. Too many businesses give themselves nowhere to go because the free service is more than satisfactory (news sites, Evernote and LinkedIn are examples of being caught in this bind).

2. Contextualising price

Both eHarmony and RSVP have been careful about how they present pricing options to their customers. Rather than spelling out the total price, customers are presented with the cost per month (eHarmony) and cost per bundle of “stamps” (RSVP).

In images A and C below, you will notice that both sites diminish the perceived cost by using a unit measure. In mock-ups B and D, you can see how the full price would likely impact customer selection.

bri williams

Unit vs. full pricing can change perceptions of value

The lesson? Your customers make snap decisions about value, which means you have a decision to make about how your pricing is communicated. While ethically and legally you need to ensure your customers understand how much they actually have to pay, consider how you get them to select an option in the first place. Use sequencing and cost per unit to advantage where possible.

3. Using design to attract attention

You’ll note in example C above, RSVP deploys the “Best Value” icon to attract attention. They also use the social norming tag “Most Popular” (see below) to help the customer choose, and even default to this selection.

bri williams

The “most popular” tag          

Elsewhere on the site, RSVP also uses a more vividly coloured and boxed design to drag customer attention toward the Premium membership option on the right.

bri williams

Designed to attract attention

The lesson? Experiment with the look and feel of how you communicate options, making sure the option you prefer customers to choose is the most engaging. 

4. Using guarantees to nullify anxiety

A great way to overcome customer anxiety about a purchase is to offer a guarantee. In fact, having a guarantee policy has been found to increase purchases. RSVP has recognised that one of the points of anxiety for their customers is sending a stamp to a prospect who doesn’t respond, which is why they offer to refund a customer’s stamp if it is not read within 30 days.

bri williams

The lesson? Look for points of anxiety that might be putting your customers off. Can you offer a guarantee so they feel they have nothing to lose?


Bri Williams deletes all buying hesitation and maximises every dollar of your marketing spend by applying behavioural economics to the patterns of buying behaviour. More at


Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

The 3 milestone discoveries of the 2001 – 2010 decade for Theories of Romantic Relationships Development are:
I) Several studies showing contraceptive pills users make different mate choices, on average, compared to non-users. “Only short-term but not long-term partner preferences tend to vary with the menstrual cycle”
II) People often report partner preferences that are not compatible with their choices in real life. (Behavioural recommender systems or other system that learns your preferences are useless)
III) What is important in attracting people to one another may not be important in making couples happy. Compatibility is all about a high level on personality similarity between prospective mates for long term mating with commitment.

The key to long-lasting romance: COMPATIBILITY is exactly STRICT PERSONALITY SIMILARITY and not “meet other people with similar interests”.

WorldWide, there are over 5,000 -five thousand- online dating sites
but no one is using the 16PF5 (or similar) to assess personality of its members!
but no one calculates similarity with a quantized pattern comparison method!
but no one can show Compatibility Distribution Curves to each and every of its members!
but no one is scientifically proven! No actual online dating site is “scientifically proven” because no one can prove its matching algorithm can match prospective partners who will have more stable and satisfying relationships -and very low divorce rates- than couples matched by chance, astrological destiny, personal preferences, searching on one’s own, or other technique as the control group in a peer reviewed Scientific Paper for the majority (over 90%) of its members.
but no one can show you a list of compatible persons like this:
( for a prospective male customer / sample but calculated with real values)
“Over 1,000,000 million women database, here is the list of the 12 more compatible with you. Notice that woman#1 is the most compatible with you but she could be more compatible with other men right now.
woman#01 is 95.58476277% compatible
woman#02 is 95.56224356% compatible
woman#03 is 95.52998273% compatible
woman#04 is 94.18354278% compatible
woman#05 is 93.00453871% compatible
woman#06 is 93.00007524% compatible
woman#07 is 92.99738452% compatible
woman#08 is 92.37945551% compatible
woman#09 is 92.29779173% compatible
woman#10 is 92.27114287% compatible
woman#11 is 92.19515551% compatible
woman#12 is 92.12249558% compatible”

The Online Dating Industry does not need a 10% improvement, a 50% improvement or a 100% improvement. It does need “a 100 times better improvement”
The only way to revolutionize the Online Dating Industry is using the 16PF5 normative personality test, available in different languages to assess personality of members, or a proprietary test with exactly the same traits of the 16PF5 and expressing compatibility with eight decimals (needs a quantized pattern comparison method, part of pattern recognition by cross-correlation, to calculate similarity between prospective mates.)
High precision in matching algorithms is precisely the key to open the door and leave the infancy of compatibility testing.

Without offering the NORMATIVE 16PF5 (or similar test measuring exactly the 16 personality factors) for serious dating, it will be impossible to innovate and revolutionize the Online Dating Industry

All other proposals are NOISE, of course, and perform as placebo.

Fernando Ardenghi.
Buenos Aires, Argentina.
ardenghifer AT gmail DOT com

SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.