October 14, 2013

Making A Date With Data


Samir El-Alami, Online Marketing Director at Lovestruck.com, will be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conferenceon 28 November 2013. In an in-depth interview, he tells us about Lovestruck’s relationship with data

Since few things in life are less logical than love, you’d be forgiven for thinking that data has a limited role to play in matchmaking. In fact, says Samir El-Alami, Online Marketing Director at Lovestruck.com, successful online dating is all about having a firm grasp of users’ vital statistics. The challenge, familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a blind date, lies in understanding users’ intentions and responding sensitively. So how does Lovestruck, which has a membership of over 100,000 digitally-savvy singletons in London and the south east, approach the vast amount of data at its disposal?

“It starts with hard data,” says El-Alami. “From there it goes to contextual and then behavioural.” Hard data, he explains, is the personal information supplied by users when they sign up to Lovestruck. “Since we’re a dating site, people naturally want to tell us where they live, where they work and what their interests are. They’ll also indicate the sort of person they’re looking for. They may specify what sort of career they want that person to have, what age range they’re looking for. All of that is hard data which people are very happy to provide.”

So, unlike plenty of ecommerce sites, Lovestruck users have a vested interest in providing as much detailed, accurate information about themselves as possible since that increases their chances of a successful match.

“That’s right,” says El-Alami. “If you’re asking people for data, you have to make it worth their while. The quicker and easier it is to fill in the form, the better. But you can’t ask for too much data, and you have to incentivise people. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, in our experience here at Lovestruck, people may tell you what they think they’re looking for, but that’s not necessarily what they actually want.”

So, hard data provides a useful sketch of users’ interests. “It’s a great place to start,” says El-Alami. “But just because two people both like ‘Twilight’ and work near each other, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re a great match. You need more than that. And that’s where behavioural data comes in.”

You get out what you put in

This, for El-Alami, is the most important element in Lovestruck’s data equation. “I might tell you I’m looking for X, Y or Z, but in reality I could be looking at completely different profiles. We need to look at who members are ‘winking’ at, who they’re sending messages to. These are simple bits of data which really tell me what kind of person you’re looking for. As well as our own in-house algorithm, we have a second one which looks at hard data and behavioural data together. In a perfect world, what people do and what they say they do would be the same thing, but as we all know life isn’t quite like that. But by taking these strands together, the site is able to start making really good suggestions based on actual user behaviour.”

The next step in refining user data is contextual. “This is where something even more interesting happens,” says El-Alami. “So, you’ve said you like this person – or this type of person – but in reality, you’re more interested in speaking to these types of people. What we can do is find users who are similar to those, and make sure you see more of them. That enables us to provide a list of potential candidates based on what you’ve actually done.”

So, just like recommendation services on sites such as Amazon and last.fm, the more deeply users engage with Lovestruck, the better the service becomes. But, notes El-Alami, while data is the key to a successful user experience, it can’t always provide the key to a user’s heart.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘does online dating work? What’s your success rate?’ And I always have one thing to say to that: you get out what you put in. Any dating site that says it’ll find you the love of your life is lying. We don’t have that kind of power. The heart wants what the heart wants. All we do is provide the opportunity to meet more people who might be right for you. You know what you’re looking for in life; you give us that data and we try to show you more people who are similar to yourself. Online dating doesn’t replace real life – it doesn’t replace going out to bars or getting set up on dates by your mates. It should be an easy, advantageous addition to those things.”

Getting real

Raw data, of course, is only as valuable as the actionable insight it provides. Beyond providing users with the best matches, what role does data play in Lovestruck’s daily operations?

“The relationship with data runs through the entire company. As Online Marketing Director I spend most of my time looking to recruit new users and honing the ones we already have. But I also get involved in our product. Having more information about our users allows me to change how I actually do our marketing. That includes the imagery we use, the branding, the wording, the positioning, the different marketing channels. All those decisions are based on the information we take from users on the site.”

As an example, El-Alami cites Lovestruck’s posters on the London Underground. The Tube has been a consistently successful channel for Lovestruck’s marketing due, in part, to Londoners’ reluctance to look attractive fellow passengers in the eye. “Everyone just stares up,” he says. “It’s the safest place to look on the Tube!”

As a result of feedback from Lovestruck users, those Tube ads now feature real-life Lovestruck couples. “Before, those ads just showed locations, but people wanted to feel there was some real emotion there. That prompted us to make that change. On the website we’ve also made it easier to send messages. We’ve improved the browsing experience. And once we’ve made changes like that we can just look at whether the number of messages people are sending has increased.”

Social too, has a role to play. Lovestruck’s Facebook and Twitter users are a vocal community, says El-Alami. “They tell us what they like and whether Lovestruck is working for them. We collate all that information alongside the info we get from the site. There’s also real-life feedback in emails from users. All of this is actionable data. Every single bit of it. Every single one of our products has been influenced by the way people use the site.”

Why people leave

For many users, the relationship with a site like Lovestruck is uniquely intimate; in how many other contexts are we inclined to disclose details about our most personal values and aspirations? What, then, can marketers in other industries learn from the way Lovestruck handles its data?

“The first thing,” says El-Alami, “is to have a very good CRM system. So many companies don’t. They have data, but they have no real way of aggregating it, and therefore it becomes impossible to really act on it. Having a system in place makes it so much easier to action data.

“Secondly, you should be sharing the data among yourselves – with your marketing team and your product team. You want everyone to be on the same page. That’s particularly important with retention. It costs between five and eight times more to bring in new customers to your website than it does to keep an existing one. For a dating website, because the overheads are so high and it costs so much to bring new users in, we’ve been forced to focus on retention: how do we offer a better service to our users in a very busy market? And of course, you also want to know why people might leave your site. Whether you’re Amazon or eBay, you really want to know that. If people aren’t coming back, you’ve done something wrong and it’s usually actionable.”

But in the case of a site like Lovestruck, isn’t the final definition of success when a user vanishes into the sunset with their new partner and leaves the site for good?

“Well, there are three reasons why people leave a dating site. They’ve either meet someone, which is obviously a good reason. Or they don’t meet someone and they blame themselves or the website. Or their priorities in life change; they’re just not looking for a partner anymore. The point for anyone though, is to understand why people leave your business and how you can get them back.”

So, in the field of online dating the heart may rule the head, but quality user data trumps them both. “Data is an amazing thing,” says El-Alami. “If you get a good grasp of it, it allows you to do better acquisition, to improve your product and to retain your users. And that applies to any company.”

Register for your place at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 28 November 2013 here.

Article by Jon Fortgang