Saturday, May 05, 2007

In Defense of EHarmony.com

I’ve noticed that a lot of people have gripes about the highly successful matchmaking service eHarmony.com, and that a lot of other matchmaking, dating, personals, and hook-up services like to compare or contrast themselves to eHarmony.com, which is inevitable given eHarmony.com’s success. Likewise, some people hate the success of others in general, and so bash the service.

I want to respond. Full disclosure: I’m happily married to a woman I met via eHarmony.com.

EHarmony.com isn’t for everyone. First of all, the guy who started it has made no secret that he’s trying to lower the divorce rate. Just read the book he wrote around the time he launched the service. How do lower the divorce rate with your customers? 1. Only take on individuals who stand a good chance of staying married. 2) Only match people to someone to whom they’d have a chance of staying married (do not match incompatible people, even if they are sexually attracted to each other). 3) Offer tools to help them stay married. 4) Encourage people who are not currently marriage material but want to be to get some help.

It is not really meant as a place for find a casual lay or a hook-up. It’s there for matchmaking for marriage.

The Huffington Post, promoting a sister business, offers criticism of eHarmony.com below.
Did you know that behind those eHarmony commercials that are hosted by their avuncular, relentlessly upbeat founder -- and that promise a lifetime of soul mate bliss -- is a company run by someone with an unabashed religious and social
mission?

Oh no! Someone who takes their religion seriously? Dr. Neil Clark Warren has made no secret of wanting to reduce the rate of divorce and increase marital happiness. What a horrible man, right?
A company that by its own admission has rejected over a million people for reasons that range from not being "happy enough" (on a happy-meter they handily provide) to being divorced too many times, to being gay.
Who wants to marry a depressed person? Being divorced multiple times before makes you a bad candidate for continuing to be married. I don’t know if eHarmony.com actually bans someone for being gay, but if you are looking to be matched with someone of the same sex, then no, eHarmony.com is not for you. Warren has offered advice to people seeking to set up same-sex matchmaking services, but his own professional practice involved marital counseling involving husbands and wives. In case you haven’t noticed, men and women are different. (If they weren’t, I guess there would be no such thing as “straight” and “gay”, now would there?) The dynamics between a husband and wife are different than the dynamics of any other relationship.

Dr. Neil Clark Warren, the evangelical-Christian-turned-entrepreneur who started eHarmony by leveraging the distribution power of Reverent Dobson's media network and his "Focus on the Family" organization, has been very clear about what he wants to accomplish, despite the recent and expedient secularization of his brand.
Whatever you think of Dobson or Focus on the Family, one of their main goals has been strengthening marriages and making them more enjoyable, so I guess that’s a natural fit for Warren, no? Evangelical Christians officially promote marriage over unmarried cohabitation and sexually-active bachelorhood/bachelorettehood, while much of society today encourages cohabitation and sex before marriage. So again, it was natural for Warren to start with that subset of society and expand to the larger society from there. It is a smart business model.

Actually, eHarmony isn't just a brand; it's an ideological vessel, a brandologue. As the first line of its Wikipedia entry states, "eHarmony is a Christian-founded, marriage-oriented matchmaking website." There's nothing wrong with that, it's absolutely legitimate for eHarmony to seek to accomplish its goals of encouraging faith and marriage via marketing. And I would defend their right to say it in a Voltaire-lite fashion, meaning I'm not so sure about the "to the death" part.

That’s very kind and tolerant of you.

But it's also equally legitimate for a competitor to call eHarmony out on its agenda, to shine a light onto who they are and what they believe so consumers can make informed choices, and to trigger a healthy debate over what
constitutes a productive and healthy relationship, straight or gay.

Sure, why not?

And that's just what's happening. This week, our agency launched an advertising campaign for our client Chemistry.com that takes on eHarmony boldly and
directly.
I’m sure this has nothing to do with how successful eHarmony.com has been.

There are TV commercials and print ads that challenge eHarmony's agenda and restrictiveness, and that invite women and men who are seeking a relationship on their own terms to join Chemistry.com.
Sometimes, restrictiveness is good. Sometimes, restrictions are part of what makes something work. For instance, what if a Jewish Community Center was run primarily by gentile Christians? How effective would it be as a JCC?

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have joined eHarmony, and paid them dutifully each month, without knowing where eHarmony stands and what it believes. That's simply wrong.

It’s up to people to inform themselves and then make decisions based on that. How many people get jobs that require them to be members of unions that spend their dues money on causes they don’t support? Most people buy services and products from companies that support things they don’t, or whose shareholders do, or whose executives do. If eHarmony.com works for you, do you really care what Warren thinks? I have no idea or the politics or social views or even the lifestyle of my doctor. I know he has kids. That’s about it. He’s a good doctor. Now, he if he told me the best way for me to lose weight would be for me to eat Double-Doubles every meal, I’d look for another doctor. But I wouldn’t if I found out he supports a political candidate I oppose.

Not surprisingly, eHarmony has been clever enough to recognize that increasingly, consumers are putting their choices under a microscope. So as the company grew into a mass consumer brand, they began keep their agenda quiet and cut any ties that could restrict their growth. In fact, Warren ditched his close association with Reverend Dobson and "Focus on Family." In his own words, Warren admitted that the link would be a "killer." I'd actually have more respect for them if they didn't go through this convoluted distancing process, and had the courage to stand behind Dobson. But it seems to me that Warren, seduced by Mammon in the archetypal faith vs. greed struggle, decided to grow his business at the expense of his values. (I'm sure the venture capitalists that plowed more than $100 million into his business -- the fourth largest investment of 2004 according to Wikipedia -- had something to say about it, too.)
Huh? There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a strong, honest, legitimate business model. Making money isn’t a bad thing, and the Bible certainly doesn’t teach that making money is bad. Staying with Focus on the Family would mean reaching a segment of Christendom. Expanding beyond that means reaching out to Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and anyone else looking to get married. It’s a legitimate thing for a Christian to provide a helpful service – for profit or otherwise – to everyone, not just someone of the same exact religion. Isn't that a sign of inclusiveness? Warren need not repudiate Dobson, either, even though it sounds like something you'd like to see.
It's also clear that eHarmony's agenda pervades every aspect of its product.

You mean their agenda to match people for the long term? How evil.

Their emphasis on "compatibility" and their "compatibility" profile that leads to people getting matched on what's called homogamy (or sameness) are all part of their philosophical approach: people who share the same values --
preferably conservative -- belong together.

Preferably conservative? Only if you mean that getting married and staying married are “conservative”, but it would be absurd to say that conservatives have a monopoly, or even a handle, on that. It’s a good thing to match up compatible people. For example, if you’re going to be married, then unless you have a very extensive prenuptial agreement, you’re going to be sharing finances. If one spouse wants to donate to the NRA and the other wants to donate the same money to PETA, how exactly is that going to work?
I believe that what Chemistry.com has pioneered is the beginning of the next wave of marketing, as companies and brands define themselves in the competitive marketplace by not just how they perform, but their values and belief systems.
Wait, didn’t you just poke eHarmony.com or doing that? Your marketing is nothing new. This has been going on ever since Burger King bashed market leader McDonald’s by name in a commercial back in the 1980s with little Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Okay, well, here are some of the other general complaints I’ve come across:

I was sent too many matches! While this doesn’t sound like a bad thing, some people do feel overwhelmed. I tended to have a lot of matches. Some of them “closed” on me immediately or early on, or were just checking out the service temporarily and so never responded to me. But the trick when you have a lot of matches is to be ruthless in closing them. The site has told you a lot about yourself and what you should look for. I came to the site with a narrow profile of what I was looking for already. The moment I realized I would be less than thrilled with someone, I closed that match. You only need to find ONE person you can spend the rest of your life with. Unless you’re a polygamist. There’s probably a different service for that. I ended up dating three matches, one of them twice. One declined further dates with me, another I declined to date again, and the third match I dated was the charm.

I was sent too few matches! The service can’t match you up with people who don’t use it. This is why the service has expanded its outreach. The more people using it, the better for the customers. If eHarmony.com had only stuck with the Focus on the Family crowd, then only people in that crowd would be finding matches.

The sign-up process is too long. It’s a long process, but it is worth it if it pays off. Think of how many hours you spend doing taxes, or filling out loan applications, or employment applications. Shouldn’t you be willing to put some time into finding a person you plan to spend the rest of your life with?

I want to look for people on my own, not be restricted to the people I’m matched up with. You're not compatible with the people you're not matched up with. You are probably not compatible with all of your matches, but at least there's not an immediate glaring incompatibility. Anyway, if you were so good at finding "matches" on your own, wouldn’t you have already found someone to spend the rest of your life with? I used eHarmony.com because I was working a full-time job, a part-time job, and freelancing, so for me it was a matter of time. Actually, I was trying to prove that the right woman for me to marry didn’t exist, and it backfired. But I digress. My point is that you don’t have to be totally bad at picking people… online services are also good for finding people who don’t live in your neighborhood or who keep odd hours. The problem is, some people are horrible at picking people out of a crowd who are compatible with them and good for them. How many women do you know who keep picking abusive jerks? Or guys that keep picking women who drive them to insanity? EHarmony.com matches people based on things that make them compatible for a lifetime together – and those sorts of things are very hard to tell from a picture and what someone says about themselves. So, eHarmony.com matches you based on who you are and the limits you have set, and doesn’t allow you to search on your own. There are plenty of other services for doing that. The bottom line is, this complaint is like going to McDonald’s and complaining about how they prepare their burgers. There are dozens of other places to get a burger.

Some of my matches were liars. That’s one reason the application process is so long. They are trying to catch and exclude liars. However, a service of this size can’t investigate each user in person and make sure they are being honest. There are very expensive services that attempt to do just that. This complaint is really about the match – the individual, a complaint that has existed since the beginning of time, long before the Internet. It’s not eHarmony.com’s fault. In fact, you can report dishonest matches to the service.

Some of my matches were losers. You’re not obligated to keep dating these people. If every single person you’re matched up with a “loser”, then perhaps it is time for some therapy to figure out why you are compatible with losers. As a guy, though, I can tell you this... If you are a middle-aged overweight woman with three kids living with you and a mountain of debt, you’re probably not going to land a wealthy, gorgeous, romantic lawyer (unless he's a pedophile).

I was rejected for still being married. EHarmony.com doesn’t match married people. There are other services for that.

The site reveals height, but not weight. Okay, this is one complaint (mostly by men) that I can see as legit. Warren has said before that women have been angry being matched up to shorter men. Most women marry a man taller than themselves. So, eHarmony.com lists your height. Men are often chided as being “shallow” for wanting to know a woman’s weight, but the truth is, men are visual creatures, and if a man isn’t stimulated by what he sees, it is going to be awfully unlikely that he is going to pursue a woman and marry her - at least for the right reasons. What I suggest to a guy who is concerned about this is to make sure his matches send him some current full-body shots. Such shots should be easy for a woman to get, so there should be no excuse. Simply do not bother to spend time on a match if she hesitates. If she refuses, close the match. She's not confident about herself.

EHarmony.com’s matchmaking business isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t do everything for you. I liken it to being a better place to meet someone than in a bar or on a street corner, where you know very little about them and by the time you find out you couldn’t possibly end up with them, you’ve already spent time, money, and energy on them. Using the service well help you to find a needle in a haystack by not matching you up with someone you are fundamentally incompatible with, no matter how cute.

It is up to you, once you get to open communication with that match, to figure out if the person is truly right for you. Keep talking, keep doing things together, and if there are any red flags or any other signs that this person wouldn’t be the right person for you, move on. It’s really not that complicated.

The service worked well for me, and has worked well for many others. It helps to already have a good idea of what you want out of a relationship, and what you need, and what you could not live with. The service does help with some of that, too.

Thankfully, if eHarmony.com isn’t right for you, there are many other options.

1 comment:

Vasken said...

Ken,

I have to agree with you on this one. I myself am very non-religious, yet eHarmony had no problem accepting me (I was honest when asked in the survey). I live in a rather remote area, but was shown a match immediately that seemed like a nice person. I shut down my account at that point, since I'm not actually looking for anyone, but I wanted to see if all of the complaining about a religious agenda on eHarmony was true. Doesn't seem to be.