Coffee Meets Bagel: Internet Dating Revamped

There are what seems a myriad of dating sites and apps currently on the market for singles. Having been around the proverbial dating block, I can tell you that each is definitely different than the next. However like many I never really delved full force into the mechanics of the mechanism. I simply participated in an already established system never questioning the why or the how. I was always part of the what, a cog in the wheel. All of that changed recently when I joined a site called Coffee Meets Bagel. An incident that initially had me taken aback allowed me to ultimately understand that it’s entirely possible in order to create a better online environment for women, to have forward and backward momentum go hand in hand.

Untitled by Sandra CornejoCoffee Meets Bagel was founded in 2012 by Arum Kahn and her two sisters, Soo and Dawoon. It is a phone app that utilizes your Facebook network to send out one match or bagel per day, that you can “like” or “pass” on, utilizing the friend network as part of a system ultimately designed to provide more meaningful connections. Should you and your bagel like one another, both of you are able to get a temporary phone line, which allows you a set period of time before it expires to exchange real phone numbers. To get the ball rolling with you and your bagel, the site issues various texts, posed in the form of a question. “What’s your favorite vacation spot?” for example.

And it’s doing quite well. According to Andrew Cross for National Edition, “The average CMB user is 28 years old, with more than 90-percent of users under the age of 35.” The site is currently seeking 70-percent user retention and has branched out into new cities. More recently in 2014, it was approved in for additional funding.

I was asked by my friends to join this site, and thought why not? It seemed like a nice break from all of the other sites I’d been on that were one foul message after another. Then something happened I hadn’t counted on. As someone fairly used to being involved in exchanged messages, I was slightly perplexed at a text prompt I received from the company when I hadn’t spoken to a matched bagel within 24 hours. The text message said:

“It’s the 21st century. Don’t be afraid to be the first one to text.”

I didn’t understand initially how I should feel about the text. Was I being prompted based off of an insinuation that I was conforming by not being the first to initiate conversation? The plot thickened when I consulted a friend who had received the same message only to find her bagel had received one saying “She may just be waiting for you to take the lead.”

I was understandably thrown off base, and proceeded to contact the company regarding the phrasing of these texts. Because it wasn’t their wording that was concerning me, ultimately. It was the necessity of that wording. What I found was intriguing.

The CMB app is different from others in that rather than having control over the matches you speak to, you are assigned matches. One every day. The thinking behind this is if a person only gets one match per day, he/she would take that match more seriously. And the company strives to be an app apart, the end goal rather than being merely a hookup, is to find a meaningful relationship. As Arum wrote to me:

Because we curate 100% of our matches (there’s no searching or browsing), and we limit curation to ONE person a day, people naturally take each match more seriously. By product design, our members pay more attention to what match they receive, and are more conscious about who they LIKE. This is important to us because ultimately we care about our members forming meaningful connections through our platform.

That is one piece of the puzzle. What I also found quite fascinating is that the site is also designed to be a better dating resource for women through its limitation of images as well as addition of required user info and the utilization of the network of Facebook friends. After extensive research on different dating sites and apps, CMB established that certain traits of other phone apps encouraged a less serious approach and a more male-centered audience. Arum continues,

Most apps out there really optimize to serve as many photos as possible–this works very well for men. However, this is NOT the case for women. In addition, with proliferation of mobile apps–which is designed to encourage real-time nearby meet ups, a lot of apps are really ideally positioned for extremely casual meet ups/hookups. This is why most dating apps are heavily skewed towards men (average gender breakdown is 65% to 35% men to women. Women also receive 17X more messages than men).

And so the sisters set out to establish a site that served two key functions: Create a more friendly and accessible platform not just for women but for men, and in addition establish as an end goal the concept of reaching a genuine relationship with someone rather than simply a casual hookup. And so with this in mind I had to ask why texts were involved that seem to have to remind women that they were possibly conforming to stereotypical gender roles should they not jump in, as well as remind men that sometimes women do conform to those roles and therefore they should initiate conversation. And I found that at the end of the day as a business they were doing everything right. It was the behavior of its users that was influencing the construction of the product after all.

As the texts are designed to elicit response, to figure out what text to send the company had to and did do its research. The results found two very important things. One that the timing of the message sent out be within 24 hours and posed as a question, and two that the prompt — should that not work — should initiate action. The best way found to initiate action was through comments on gender roles.

We quickly found that even after users liked each other, they needed more help to start talking. We also found that women tend to wait for men to initiate the conversation and the timing of the first initiator had a significant impact on the ultimate total number of messages the couple exchanged. We analyzed over a million text messages exchanged and found that those who exchanged text within the first 24 hours of connecting via SMS were 1.4X more likely to exchange their real phone numbers before our line expired.

I find the end goal of the company wonderful, as well as their efforts and research put into understanding the best modes to increase your odds of finding as meaningful a relationship from a dating app as possible. What I am hoping for is that as the company builds and continues its success, the behaviors of women and men that create the algorithms and texts messages necessary for the site to accomplish what it sets out to do will not need to remind women that they do not need to be afraid to buck what has become a gender norm. They won’t be afraid. And in the ideal, there won’t need to be a difference between theirs and the texts sent to their male counterparts. There are many devices catered to women that women use and enjoy that are not outwardly feminist. But it is the behavior of women purchasing and utilizing these products that creates the need for them in the first place. And it is society that creates these behaviors. I think CMB marks the beginning of a shift in the online dating scene, where women’s user behavior genuinely has the potential to create a difference in the performance of the dating medium they utilize. But to play that game, CMB must first wade patiently into the current still marred with gender stereotypes and expectations.