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How Brands Can Hack Swipe Behavior on Dating Apps

  • Text Carolyn Cutrone
  • Illustration Aodan Reddy

Apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have become the gold standard for people looking for a date. According to a 2021 survey from BedBible, 40% of Americans are currently using online dating apps or services. If these more popular apps are too broad in their offerings, look no further than a new set of niche options that tout helping people find love through a shared passion for pets, eating vegan or simply being Jewish. But is more than a third of the country really searching for love, or are they using dating apps primarily to socialize, network and broadcast their lives to strangers? With every channel battling for our eyeballs in an oversaturated attention economy, dating apps are racing to copy and paste functions from other popular apps like BeReal, TikTok and Day One client Instagram to increase time spent on their platforms.

As more niche dating apps gain a foothold, the dating landscape is diversifying with the purpose behind these apps ranging widely. Users can now choose a partner based on proximity (Happn), mindfulness (MeetMindful), shared interests without images (S'More) or through sharing five to 30-second videos of yourself (Snack). However, many employ similar base functions: the ability to match based on mutual interest, message and share personal information, with a promise to help users meet in person to start or further a connection.

However, a lot of apps are moving past their core functions to incorporate trendy functionalities that have become popular on other social media platforms, all in service of showcasing what their users are like IRL. Raya, an elite, members-only dating app, gives users the ability to create their own “Scene”—a photo montage of something they recently did or a place they frequent—similar to Instagram’s Stories. Tinder offers verified accounts just like Twitter and Instagram to improve trustworthiness. And on Hinge, users can pay money to show increased interest by giving a virtual rose, which is not unlike ‘hearting’ a stranger’s story on Instagram. (They have also captured hearts and minds by employing voice prompts, designed to attract a potential mate by revealing how you sound.)

Then there’s BeReal, the disruptive social platform which prompts users to snap a photo from their back and front-facing cameras within a limited timeframe—a proposed antidote to a more curated version of what is posted on other platforms. Dating apps like Thursday have cribbed this user behavior. Thursday, as the name suggests, is only available to use on that day of the week, with the goal of pushing users to message immediately and meet up directly after their first chat. If they connect outside of that window, their matches, and ability to message them, disappear for good. (Bumble has a similar feature; women only have 24 hours to message a match after its made. But unlike Thursday, women can use the app any day of the week to keep swiping.)

The uncertainty of when you will make a match or receive a like drives impulsive use of dating apps, despite only 12 percent of people reporting having found a committed relationship using them. While reported data from users who impulsively use apps is mostly anecdotal, dating app creators deliberately design them to feel like a video game, which makes the dopamine hit associated with getting a new “match” or receiving a message from a crush feel exhilarating—even though it isn’t even required to keep people swiping. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, who has discussed the neuroscience behind dating apps, all they need is the promise of potential. “If the brain anticipates a reward coming in the future, it also releases dopamine.”

So how can brands use rewards psychology and trendy social media functions to keep consumers coming back to their product, while simultaneously offering something more worthwhile? Combine rewards with other tools that are working on dating apps and social media, like opportunities to meet people with similar interests and sharing videos or photos about your experiences. Users will likely feel rewarded and actually get something concrete out of participation.

This relationship between behavior and rewards was recognized early on and integrated into dating apps like Bumble. In 2015, Bumble introduced VIBee status, a way for men to be recognized for “good behavior” such as engaging in longer conversations on the app or not getting reported for harassment or poor behavior. Yes, that’s an extremely low bar, but it helped the app stay close to its “feminist” mission by helping women decipher who the “good” men were. It also gamified the app for men, rewarding them with a positive label after they had longer, more meaningful conversations and behaved respectfully in the app.

Bumble also recently expanded its non-dating social features with further investment into Bumble BFFS, a friend-finding function. Bumble BFFs now includes social networking groups for users to swipe on and connect with based on topics of interests, not just “matches.” The platform describes it as a new way for “people to discover and get to know each other around shared joys and interests,” similar to Day One client's Facebook groups and communities.

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So why aren’t more brand apps tapping into these findings and playing the copycat game? Brands could be paying more attention to gamifying personal moments à la dating apps, infiltrating our personal interactions in a more authentic and dynamic way, rather than simply showing ads in our feeds.

The key might be to personalize a core function of a brand’s app and make it mandatory. For example, Volo Sports, an adult sports recreation company, requires players to download its app and display a QR code in order to enter each game they play. Once in the app, teammates are put into a group chat with each other and can see the bars that partner with Volo and get discounted drinks there. They’re also required to use the app weekly to enter their games and view schedules, so someone who simply signed up for a recreational sports league is now using an app for another experience: socializing and planning outings at local restaurants and bars.

This can get even more creative through brand collaboration. For example, a food delivery app with a foodie-centric dating app and matches users who have similar orders or taste in restaurants. Or shopping apps connect you to a community of other customers who love the same item and share video styling tutorials before they head out on a date. Imagine a video styling function and shopping feature that partners with a retailer and harnesses the popularity of Reels, but all within Bumble communities.

In the end, every brand is looking for customer love. But how they show their customers love is crucial to the future of community-building. And like any good flirt knows, keeping it organic, fun and engaging will keep them coming back for more.