LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WEB PLACES WANT A BUSINESS THAT MIGHT ACTUALLY WORK ON THE WEB? TRY PERSONAL ADS.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – SWDF, 41, seeks SM, 35-50, for friendship, maybe romance. Professional woman, Tom Clancy fan, enjoys hiking, biking, walks on beach. Kids okay.
If Sydnie Smith had posted a personal ad in her local Santa Cruz paper last January, it might have looked something like this. Instead, the divorced human resources consultant did what more and more computer-savvy singles are now doing--she turned to a personal ads service on the World Wide Web.
Smith logged on to Match.Com, one of over 200 sites on the Web offering online personals. Websites provide the lovelorn with a couple of things they can't get in print. Says Evan Neufeld, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York City: "There's a level of anonymity that people feel very comfortable with." On the Web you can hide behind a handle and an E-mail address, giving out your phone number only when you choose to. Second, you can be as prolix as you'd like; while a print personal is often restricted to a few lines, a Web ad can run the length of several sonnets.
Going online worked for Smith: Match.Com (www.match.com) forwarded dozens of E-mail messages from men attracted by her ad. One stood out. After three months of daily E-mail, she and David Schwartz met, and by last August they were married.
Whether the Web works as well for matchmakers remains to be seen. The demographics of the Internet--most Websurfers are college-educated men with healthy incomes--have attracted all kinds of entrepreneurial Cupids, including mainstream publishers like Conde Nast. Match.Com, probably the largest site on the Web, with 75,000 active members, is owned by Electric Classifieds, a small San Francisco company that also makes software that allows CompuServe and AOL to run interactive classified ads. On the other end of the spectrum is LoveSearch.com (www.lovesearch.com), a popular site that Internet consultant Rosalind Resnick runs out of her Brooklyn brownstone.
Whether big or small, the matchmakers have the same goal: taking a healthy chunk of the estimated $300 million that people spend annually on traditional print and voice mail personals. So far, earning a profit is tough, since these outfits have to spend on promotions and additional computers. But personal sites are already doing something most of the Web only dreams of--they actually charge for their services.
At Match.Com you can look at all the personals you want for free. But after a ten-day trial period, you pay if you want to respond, or if you want to post your own plea. Membership fees range from $7.95 for one month to $59.95 for a year. There's no membership fee at Resnick's LoveSearch.com, but you pay to play. Singles must use a 50-cent "lovebead" anytime they want to reply to an ad. Lovebeads are sold in blocks of $10, $20, or $50, charged to your credit card or phone bill.
Newspapers and magazines aren't sitting idly by, letting the online newcomers eat a hole in their business. Many have created their own personals Websites. Advance Publications has Swoon (www.swoon.com), a site with the bouncy swagger that matches the tone of magazines published by its Conde Nast subsidiary--Glamour, Mademoiselle, GQ, and Details. Free for now, Swoon will start charging later this year. Tele-Publishing Inc. (TPI) in Boston, whose parent publishes the alternative weekly Phoenix in Providence, Worcester, and Boston, is also the biggest supplier of voice personals. TPI has moved quickly to secure a big presence on the Net. More than 50 newspapers already use TPI software to offer online versions of their print personals on their Websites.
Other publications known for their personal ads, like the Village Voice and New York magazine, are building their own databases. New York (look for the Website this spring) plans to put personal ads online more or less as they appear in print. The Voice (www.villagevoice.com) already offers personals online. And sometime soon, says the Voice, it will offer the type of feature that you can already find on Match.Com--the ability to search through the ads for your perfect match--say, find me someone tall, successful, and green-eyed.
That kind of technology may give personals Websites a leg up on their print counterparts. With success stories like Sydnie Smith, Web personals have at least a shot at becoming one of those niche businesses that succeed online. Like sports, stock quotes, and pornography, personal ads satisfy an itch. People are willing to pay for matchmaking that works.